DISASTER: FEMA Enlists Designers to Rethink Disaster Relief

Source: wired.com

A scene from Frog's post-Sandy workshop.

A scene from Frog’s post-Sandy workshop. Image: Frog

In late October of 2012, as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the eastern seaboard, some important members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were toying with an idea that was a little bit unusual, at least for members of a government agency in the midst of a huge disaster. They were wondering if designers could help.

That’s how the design consultancy Frog was tapped to become part of FEMA’s Field Innovation Team, a group that brought an unlikely mix of minds into the Sandy recovery process, including experts in fields ranging from art and science to mathematics, technology, and design. According to Desi Matel-Anderson, who served as FEMA’s Chief Innovation Adviser during the period, convening this sort of team and putting them to work during a crisis was not the usual way of doing business. “I don’t know of any time in history where a federal agency like FEMA has tasked a team to innovate in a disaster and to solve in real time like this on the scale that we did,” she told me after her stint at FEMA had wrapped up late last year. “This fundamentally shifted the ideological underpinnings of an entire field.”

By the time FEMA reached out to Frog, a number of employees from the company’s New York office were already on the ground, volunteering their time at Disaster Recovery Centers, or DRCs, throughout the area. Through that exposure and official visits to other recovery centers in subsequent weeks, Frog’s designers got a first-hand look at how disaster recovery worked–and, sometimes, how it didn’t.

As part of the "Field Innovation Team," Frog and others brought a new perspective to disaster relief

Over the several months that followed, Frog and the other members of the Field Innovation Team looked at those Disaster Recovery Centers through the lens of design, drawing up a series of proposals for improving the experience. In January of last year, the team travelled to the White House to present its vision to FEMA representatives and the Secretary of Homeland Security. It was well received. The agency has already put a number of the easiest fixes, like color coded signage, in place, and it’s continuing to refine its operation in light of Frog’s findings.

Government agencies are like large ships in that changing course can be a slow, gradual process. But according to Rich Serino, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator, the agency is indeed looking at things differently in light of the Innovation Team’s work. “They saw things that perhaps we hadn’t seen before,” he told me. “They’ve literally changed the way we do business.”

It’s an ongoing process, but it all started with FEMA going against conventional wisdom. Instead of trying to drum up some new thinking through workshops or simulations, it brought a fresh set of eyes to a disaster as it was happening. That bold decision gave designers a chance to see how FEMA works in the real world, in real time.

“It was somewhat transformational to have the Innovation Team looking at things during a crisis,” Serino said of the collaboration when I talked with him last fall. “People say you cannot innovate during a crisis. I take exception to that.”

Empathy for the survivor

Frog ultimately proposed a number of solutions related to DRCs in their meeting at the White House that January. In terms of actual implementation, some have proven more feasible than others. More important than any single fix, however, was Frog’s exhortation that FEMA look at recovery centers from the perspective of the survivor.

In the wake of a disaster, survivors are often faced with was a daunting mix of chaos and bureaucracy. The recovery centers themselves can be hectic and disorganized, and simply finding a person who can answer a question can be frustratingly difficult. Once pointed in the right direction, survivors are faced with a gauntlet of paperwork to start the process of actually getting relief from FEMA or other organizations.

Frog's workshop.

In visiting the DRCs, Frog’s designers saw firsthand just how overwhelming this experience could be. “People were in these desperate situations,” Cobie Everdell, a Frog Creative Director who helped with the project, recalled. “Their basement had been flooded. All their stuff had been destroyed. And they didn’t know what to do. They had no idea what to do.”

That confusion can be seen in something as simple as the way survivors were often handled at the DRCs themselves. Serino painted hte all too common picture: After initially being passed from one station to another–asked to fill out a form here and pick up some paper work there–survivors were often made to wait in line in a row of chairs. When the first person in line was called up for processing, everyone else would shift over a seat, scooting one spot closer to the front. That might seem like a small inconvenience, but for a battered disaster survivor who just went through the ordeal of a lifetime, it can be crushing. When Frog brought this idea of “flow” within the DRC to FEMA’s attention, Serino couldn’t help but ask the obvious question: “Why are we making them move around so many times?”

Read the rest of this article and find other worthy stories at wired.com

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Updated: February 24, 2014 — 9:55 am

The Author

Rich Fleetwood

Rich is the founder of SurvivalRing, now in it's 24th year, author of multimedia CDs and DVDs, loves the outdoors, his family, his geeky skill-set, and lives in rural southern Wyoming, just below the continental divide (long story, that...). Always ready to help others, he shares what he learns on multiple blogs, many social sites, and more. With a background in preparedness and survival skills, training with county, state, and national organizations, and skills in all areas of media and on air experience in live radio and television, Rich is always thinking about the "big picture", when it comes to helping individuals and families prepare for life's little surprises.

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