Disaster intelligence for emergency preparedness

Actionable intelligence (intel) in the midst of disaster can be the difference between making the better or the worse choice in a difficult situation. Think about this scenario:

A traffic accident on the interstate near your home includes a tractor-trailer rig that is carrying hazardous materials and is now leaking chlorine gas. The wind suddenly shifts toward your neighborhood and local authorities mandate the evacuation of the neighborhood immediately. You are likely familiar with how to get in and out of your neighborhood, but do you know how you will get out if the two major paths are completely blocked?

Through the use of disaster intelligence, you have likely been able to ascertain that both main roads are completely bogged down and you will not reasonably be able to leave the neighborhood either of those ways. With other information that you have gathered in your intelligence collection efforts, there is probably at least one other route that you have identified as a way out, even if it is through someone’s yard.

This is just one example of how a collection of actionable intelligence allows a person to make the better choice of getting out of danger instead of the worse option, which is to be stuck at a choke point trying to get out of the neighborhood. In this previous scenario, the disaster could have started to get even worse if that cloud of chlorine gas started to roll across those stuck in traffic, leading to several cases of chlorine gas poisoning.

What is intelligence and how does it apply to emergency preparedness?

The term intelligence in the military context relates to the collection of information that has military or political value. When it comes to disaster intelligence, this is the collection of information that possesses value in emergency preparedness and navigating a crisis. Obviously, the more information that one has at their disposal, the greater the likelihood of survival in a given scenario.

The primary focus of disaster intelligence should be to gather information pre-disaster about options and courses of potential action before disaster hits. Secondarily, the focus is to improve awareness of the situation as a disaster is forecast or comes to fruition. On a tertiary level, this information is then gathered to form and/or modify a response to the situation.

One of the hallmarks of intelligence is that it must be timely, constant and reliable. This is true regardless of whether the intel is geared for military, political, preparedness or some other use. If these three elements are not present, the value of the information is decreased.

A good thing to remember is that information can be complex and overwhelming. It is better to collect a manageable amount of information that can be comprehended and be able to use that information effectively rather than gathering an overwhelming amount of information that ultimately cannot be put to use in a beneficial manner.

As you saw in the scenario at the beginning, emergency preparedness and your reaction to a disaster can be greatly influenced by having the right information to make the most knowledgeable decision in the face of disaster.

Where can this intelligence information be gathered?

The collection of intelligence information does not often come in the form of a complete picture right out of the box. More often than not, collecting intel happens a little bit at a time or as small pieces from each source until these bits and pieces can be put together to form a large picture of what is happening. These bits and pieces can come from many sources. Some of these sources to consider include:

News media

Whether it is online, through the television or on the radio, local news outlets often provide information about events as it becomes available to them. This is a good outlet for developing general awareness of what is happening and things change as a situation develops.

Social networks

Online social media can be one of the best ways to get information on what is happening on the ground, right now. Because of the ability for anyone to provide information on a situation, there is no longer a need to rely only on “official” sources. The person that is watching the tornado or other event happen can post immediate information about what the situation is and where it is headed.

I am not an advocate of one particular social network over another, but one of the most hailed social networks during recent disasters is Twitter. If you choose to develop disaster intelligence from social media, connect with reliable sources of information ahead of any emergency.

A word of warning — just as these sources can be valuable, they can also be an additional threat. A time of disaster may inspire those looking to hurt others or cause chaos to report false information.

Google Alerts

Through the Google website, personal alerts can be set up based on key words or phrases. Anything from the city you live in to your state and the keyword “tornado” can be set so that any time news on that word or phrase is posted online, you will be notified.

RSS feeds

By setting up an RSS (Rich Site Summary,  a.k.a. Really Simple Syndication) feed, you can be notified when new information is posted to blogs, websites are updated or news, audio and video from certain sources are posted. As the person who sets up your RSS feed, you are able to control the sources of information that you receive.


Your local library has a ton of information on threats in your area, historic events, maps of the area, etc. This information can often be copied and kept on hand for future reference while developing intelligence and reacting to situations.

Real-time communications

These can come from first-responder radio traffic (scanner), CB or HAM radio or text messages. Look at means of communication that can be operated independently from the “grid” and offer the best chances of getting actionable intelligence.

Possessing the capability to gather real-time communications is not only a way to gather intelligence, but will also give you the ability to pass this information along to others.

Maintain perspective on any information that is collected and do not place too much faith in any one source unless the information is verifiable and perhaps literally worth putting your life on the line for. Information verification through multiple sources will give you the best picture of what is actually happening.

What kinds of intelligence should I be looking for?

This is a subjective area, but when looking at intelligence consider the type of disaster, was it an accident or intentional act, what is the damage, how severe is it, etc.

Useful intel can come in a variety of forms but can include:

  • Weather events, patterns and trends in a specific area.
  • Information about local resources, i.e., what sources of supplies may or may not be available, where health care can be located, what gas stations are open, availability of food and water, etc. (Hopefully you have some of these things on hand already as part of your emergency preparedness but long term disasters can make this information pertinent. It can also be used to forecast upcoming conditions.)
  • Immediate and potential threats that might include events like rioting, protests that could lead to rioting, fires, damage done to roads and infrastructure and the list goes on. Direct threats and potential threats should be your primary and secondary focus with the most emphasis being placed on those that are closest to you.
  • Traffic patterns including what options are available and those that are not.
  • Operational status of critical resources like wastewater treatment or electricity.
  • If there is a sudden run on gas, banks, etc. Where is it happening and what is driving it?

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list but the type of intelligence that is important varies on the individual, where they are located and so on. Complete a threat analysis for you and your local area and develop disaster intelligence based off of those threats/concerns.

How far away should I look?

When looking at information for intelligence value, it is a good idea to not only consider what is happening in your immediate area but also in zones working from the immediate and going all the way out to at least the state level. Having general awareness of major national and international events is also a good idea because these types of events tend to have trickle down effects on events at the state and closer levels.

I look at this overall information collection process like looking down at a pistol target sitting on the table in front of me. In the center of the target is the bull’s eye that is worth 10 points and might represent your immediate neighborhood. The overall points breakdown on your geographical target might look like this:

10 – Neighborhood

9 – Section of Town

8 – City

7 – County

6 – State

5 – Region

4 – Country

3 – Continent

2 – Hemisphere

1 – International

Just like there are points assigned to the pistol target, consider assigning values on information that is collected from the various areas around you, or as I prefer, look at the point values as numbers that should line up with the number of pieces of information that should be collected from each area. As an example, for every one international piece of intelligence, ten pieces of intelligence information should be collected for your immediate neighborhood. This does not have to be an exact science but having guidelines will keep your collection of intelligence proportionate and focused.

What else should I be concerned with?

Having the right mindset when evaluating gathered intelligence goes a long way in making that information work for you in a beneficial manner.  Look at these areas and consider if you can make improvements in your mindset:

  • Know your limits. You won’t get out of a situation you were never equipped to be involved in to begin with.
  • Have the mindset that not everything is always as it seems. Develop your instinct for discerning between what can be taken at face value and what cannot. Find what doesn’t fit in a given situation. Become a human lie detector.
  • Study how historic events that have gone bad evolved into a situation with a point of no return. Events to look at might be Hurricane Katrina, the standoff in Waco, Texas, the L.A. riots after the Rodney King attack, the volatile situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown shooting, Superstorm Sandy, etc.
  • Learn something from every situation. See how one event can have lasting effects and even cause additional events in its wake.
  • Constantly evaluate intelligence sources. Track what is accurate and what is not, discarding invaluable sources of information.
  • Develop the habit of having a “PACE” plan for key actions in your preparedness strategy. PACE is an acronym for Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency and is commonly used by the military for communications strategies. Having a plan in place ahead of time eliminates the need to panic or make decisions off of emotion. A PACE plan for the person trying to leave their neighborhood in the scenario would involve having four ways to get out of their neighborhood. The primary and alternate routes were blocked but if they knew a back way out through a school and identified that neighbor’s yard that offers a way out, they would not be stuck in their neighborhood.

There is never a completely black and white solution to everything. This makes emergency preparedness difficult and despite any one person’s best efforts, conditions change. As the picture on the ground evolves, having the latest and best intelligence will truly drive the ability to adapt and survive. Learn to identify what is pertinent and dismiss insignificant information so that you don’t get bogged down. Regardless of your individual situation, the development and use of disaster intelligence will equip you with the capability to make the best decision for the circumstances that you find yourself in.

— Thomas Miller

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