As we continue to settle into our new norm brought on by COVID-19, it’s become hard to imagine what the world will look like on the other side. If ever there were a clearer definition of a paradigm shift in the making, it’s this time. Yet, it’s not the only paradigm that has shifted in the last few years. 

As the climate has continued to change, helping to create more fuel for wildfires, we’re experiencing compounding changes at a global scale. And, the light at the end of the tunnel for COVID-19 might just be another big fire season. Yet, this fire season will be different. 

New ways to respond

Although we’ll almost certainly continue to act as communities, helping each other through the next calamities, what’s clear is that we’re going to require new ways to respond. Knowing what we know now about natural disasters, like fires, floods, and hurricanes, as well as our current experience with a global pandemic, if we’ve learned nothing else it’s that we must begin to design for disaster. 

Designing for disaster is about planning for the paradigm to shift once again

This is not about designing for panic and fear. Rather, designing for disaster is about planning for the paradigm to shift once again. For instance, with the 2020 fire season right around the corner, now is a good time to start taking stock and creating plans for how to deal with it. Unlike the last few fire seasons, this one will be different. 

According to the “Chief's Letter of Intent for Wildland Fire – 2020”, the US Fire Service will be changing its “fire management options during the COVID-19 pandemic across the board to adjust to this unprecedented challenge.” The objectives laid out in this letter are a reflection of the compounding change we’re seeing, which include “Minimize to the extent feasible COVID-19 exposure and transmission and smoke exposure to firefighters and communities”; “Commit resources only when there is a reasonable expectation of success in protecting life and critical property and infrastructure”; “Encourage innovation and the use of doctrine for local adaptations”; and “Develop methods for broad information sharing given changed conditions”, among others.

Planning for uncertainty

We must seek to protect lives by developing new ways to work together

So, what can we do to plan for this uncertain future? In many ways, the answer is spelled out in this above-mentioned letter. We must seek to protect lives by developing new ways to work together, share information, and plan using innovative tools and methods. Just as we all collectively found Zoom as a great way to connect with our friends, family, and colleagues, during the COVID-19 shelter in place, we’ll begin to use other digital tools to get updates and communicate with emergency responders and the community at large. In fact, there are myriad tools in place, like Nextdoor, Neighbor, and even Facebook, that enable most of us to do this on a regular basis.

Likewise, when it comes to planning and communication between first responders, whether they be firefighters, police, paramedics, or emergency management officials, new technologies abound, like Tablet Command, that enable first responders to connect and understand the common operational picture like never before. What’s more, as these technologies continue to scale, they will no doubt connect communities and emergency management personnel (as well as new data sources, like up-to-the-minute satellite imagery) in new ways that enable engagement and planning to occur way before an incident even occurs.

In fact, as the world continues to rally around communicating in new ways, new entrants like Zonehaven, a startup based on San Francisco, are doing just this. Using a familiar Google Maps-style interface and data-driven approach to engage communities and first responders around evacuation planning, defensible space, right-of-way issues and neighborhood exercises, Zonehaven is focused on helping entire communities communicate and respond to disasters, like wildfires, even before the initial spark.

Drive for change

And it’s not just technology companies that are driving this change. In wildfire-prone communities, like San Mateo County, officials are bringing in new technologies, like Zonehaven and others, to “provide access to cutting-edge technology that allows emergency planners and local officials to better understand a community’s risk and help residents plan safe evacuation routes.” In essence, by supporting hyperlocal pre-planning, early detection, community collaboration and real-time detection/alerting, San Mateo County is actively redesigning how the county and all of its constituent services, from firefighters to police to emergency management and even parking control, are planning for a future where wildfires and other emergencies are more abundant and communities more engaged and informed. 

As change continues to compound on itself, creating entirely new norms, it’s imperative that we don’t lose sight of what makes us human. We have the capacity to plan, communicate, innovate, and build tools meant to help us stay one step ahead of change. After all, the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same.

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