Stephenson: Power to the people

Two more things forgotten in disaster preparation and response: You and me

The Hurricane Katrina experience showed that officials must treat citizens as partners in disaster prevention and response, not as victims to be ordered around in emergencies.

A poll by ABC News shows that people are ready for that role. Since Katrina, only 26 percent of the people

surveyed said they believe the government is ready to respond to a terrorist attack, and 40 percent now have disaster communication plans for their families, compared with 26 percent who had such plans before Katrina hit.

The seeds of this partnership are sprouting. Some people cobbled together temporary solutions using any communication device that still functioned to connect with friends and relatives in the aftermath of Katrina.

The spontaneous creation of the Web site early in the crisis was particularly noteworthy. The wiki uses collaborative software so anyone can add content. By contrast to the rarely updated federal, state and local government Web sites, volunteers constantly revised it. It's still the most comprehensive information source for those affected by Katrina.

Isn't it risky letting anyone contribute? Yes, but people can monitor the wiki for accuracy and remove erroneous or malicious content. After comparing to its woeful government counterparts, I think people would agree the risk is worth it.

What if a disaster wipes out an area's communications infrastructure, as was the case with cellular towers along the Gulf Coast? A solution was in the Homeland Security Department's backyard, though most officials did not know about it. The DC Emergency Radio Network (DCERN) is an all-volunteer, self-organized communications network that uses cheap, battery-powered walkie-talkies.

With DCERN as a model, authorities could have delivered walkie-talkies and basic instructions to people on New Orleans rooftops, creating a simple, effective, instant communications system.

Empowering people is the logical convergence of three important trends.

  • As military guru John Arquilla said of terrorists, networked enemies require networked responses.

  • Most of us carry increasingly powerful personal communications devices, and agencies can't control how we use them. The newest technology can create self-organizing, self-healing networks, even if a disaster destroys fixed infrastructures.

  • The science of "emergent" behavior is producing a higher level of effective collaboration than any individual effort can achieve, especially in unpredictable situations such as disasters. is a perfect example

Centralized government emergency communication systems risk obsolescence and are vulnerable to failure in emergencies, which are the worst times for people to learn how to use them. Instead, government should create and promote "cookbooks" with a range of citizen-controlled communications options that preferably capitalize on familiar commercial applications for the growing range of personal communication devices, such as camera phones and cars with OnStar. With minimal guidance, people can collaborate to create solutions based on the situation.

If the government doesn't create such a framework, Katrina proved that we'll take matters into our own hands.

Stephenson is principal of Stephenson Strategies, a homeland security firm in Medfield, Mass. His blog on the subject can be found at

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group