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Number 652 • November 20, 2015 | Past Issues













Are You Safe? Social Media Safety Checks Are Useful—Maybe

In the hours after Paris experienced a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, a number of social-based technologies reached out to help survivors and those who cared about them.

AirBnB and Twitter helped find shelter for those dislocated, communication services such as Skype, Sprint, and Verizon provided free calls, and Uber relaxed its pricing. Among the most discussed of these efforts, though, was Facebook’s Safety Check feature.

The company activated its year-old feature, which prompts those physically in a disaster area to answer the question, “Are you safe?”  While the activation was likely altruistic and useful to users (within 24 hours of the attacks 4.1 million had checked in as safe, while another 360 million users received notices their friends were okay) it also spawned a rash of speculation about the ethics and application of the service.

Chief among reasons for that is the fact that it was the first time it had been activated for a manmade hazard.

Before the Paris attacks, Safety Check had only been activated five times—three times for large-scale earthquakes such as the one in Nepal, once for Cyclone Pam, and once for Typhoon Ruby. The Paris attack activation immediately drew criticism from detractors who asked why Paris, when a day earlier 80 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Beirut. The insinuation was Facebook cared more about European lives than those in the Middle East.

“Many people have rightfully asked why we turned on Safety Check for Paris but not for bombings in Beirut and other places,” Reuters quoted Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg as stating on his official account. “Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward as well.”

True to their word, the social network turned the alert on just days later when a bombing in the Nigerian city of Yola killed 32 and injured 80. But that in turn brought up more questions—namely, in a world plagued by daily terrorism, what is deemed worthy of alert activation?

Many pundits and tech experts have asked Facebook this directly, and no answers have been forthcoming. That has led to even more speculation about the feature’s usefulness if applied inconsistently.

User inconsistency already poses some issues. While a safe check-in can provide reassurance to friends and families, a lack of check-in is less meaningful. Users who choose to ignore the prompt or have access issues will leave friends guessing about their status. Those with location services turned off won’t even get the prompt.

While tech experts have pointed out that this lack of information is unlikely to cause panic, others wonder about the deeper implication of the messages, especially when used for terrorist attacks.

“On the one hand, maybe it’s the sole piece of information you need to know after a major attack: ‘The people you love are safe. You may pay attention to other horrors than these,’” wrote Meyer Robinson in the Atlantic. “Or maybe it reinforces terror’s message, forcing you to look at the faces of friends who were never endangered in the first place, reminding you ceaselessly of the dozens of people who could have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time—but were not. It recreates the fearful shockwave that terrorism seeks to create.”

Unwittingly reinforcing terrorism is another concern experts have about the Facebook service (and social technology in general). There’s worry that that terrorist could use the information to monitor and increase the chaos they seek to generate.

Still, even normal uses of these media can be appropriated and we know that crowdsourcing, social media monitoring, and crisis mapping benefits emergency agencies and relief organizations, as well.

In the end, there’s still a lot to learn about what effect services such as Facebook’s Safety Check will have on how people communicate in disaster—and what it means to put such important communication in the hands of what many view as an entertainment outlet. Perhaps, as technologist Lily Hay Newman argues, it’s time for us to begin to take social media more seriously.

“The question of how these services will evolve shouldn’t imply that they’re not worthwhile,” she wrote in Slate’s Future Tense Blog. “In fact, it is their value that makes exploring their implications so important. Our status updates may feel like tiny, ephemeral acts, but when it comes to these particular notifications, we should be aware of their gravity: They're literally updates on life and death.”

Jolie Breeden

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Climate Summit Demonstrations: The March Must Go On–Just Not in Paris

France has cancelled two citizen demonstrations and several other events set to coincide with the United Nations Climate Summit (COP21) in Paris due to security concerns following recent terrorist attacks across the city that left 129 dead.

The UN climate conference, scheduled for November 30, is slated to go forward with heightened security, even though the country has declared an official state of emergency. Other climate gatherings in spaces that are “enclosed and easily secured” will also continue as planned, according to a statement by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius quoted by The Guardian.

During talks with climate campaigners, Fabius expressed fears there could be another terrorist attack. He also cited the possibility of mass panic, such as the incident in the Place de Republique on November 15 when firecrackers caused hundreds to flee from a solidarity vigil.

"In order to avoid additional risks, the government has decided not to authorize climate marches planned in public places in Paris and other French cities on Nov. 29 and Dec. 12," said Fabius, who will preside over the summit, in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Environmental leaders expected about 200,000 people would turn out for the two climate marches. Organizers—including Greenpeace,, Coalition Climat 21, and Avaaz—had hoped to recreate the turnout of the People’s Climate March in New York City last year, which drew 300,000 people.

Organizers, though disappointed, were overall understanding of the decision.

“The French authorities say they cannot guarantee safety at the march, and so it will not happen,” Jean François Julliard, executive director of Greenpeace France, said in a statement. “This is a source of huge regret, but we must respect the decision. Huge numbers were expected in Paris, but those people will not be silenced.”

The other co-organizers of the events, Avaaz,, and Coalition Climat 21, issued similar statements urging people to join the thousands of other events worldwide that have been planned as part of a Global Climate March.

The acceptance of the government’s ban is an about-face from organizers’ previous stance, in which they stated would go ahead with the protests in the name of civil liberty.

Although it has banned large outdoor public gatherings for the next three months, the French government has said it will not give in to terrorism and insists the long-anticipated climate summit will go ahead. Other world leaders have said the same.

“Let me appeal to all world leaders that we meet in Paris for the COP21 Climate Conference,” European Union President Donald Tusk said in a statement. “We must demonstrate that the world is united in our fight against climate change but also show solidarity against terrorism. Our presence should be a sign that the world is not intimidated. Here I call on all world leaders with no exception.”

Delegates from more than 190 countries are expected to attend the summit where they will work on an agreement to set a global framework to combat climate change, including limits on fossil fuel emissions. Heads of state and government from all over the world have accepted invitations to attend the conference.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that no world leader had requested postponement of the summit, an event he called “crucial to the planet’s future.”

In fact, the response was quite the opposite, according to Fabius, who quoted some leaders as saying, “We not only planned to come, but now we have to come, because we have to show to the terrorists that we are not afraid of them.”

That sort of oppositional response to the terrorist attacks might bode well for COP21. Already, the 137 heads of state that have committed to coming overwhelms the number who attended the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. There’s also an indication that the attacks might highlight the role of climate change in national security, a focus that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said is needed.

There is a chance that the solidarity and large-scale commitment by world leaders inspired by the attacks will provide some balance for climate activists’ inability to demonstrate in the way they had planned. If so, it might well be the silver lining to a black cloud of terror.

Elke Weesjes

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Disaster News Redux: Corporate Responsibility and Climate Change

Call for Change: In October, a special report by the Los Angeles Times, as well as reporting by PBS Frontline and InsideClimate, found internal memos that indicated Exxon Mobil had duped the public about the contributions of greenhouse gases to global warming since at least 1989.

The reports led two congressmen to request that the company be prosecuted under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act for propagating misinformation, much in the same way that cigarette manufacturers were charged in the 1990s for downplaying the risks of smoking.

Held to Account: Since then, the State of New York has taken similar action, but a different tack—investigating the company under the state’s Martin Act, which gives the attorney general broad powers to ferret out financial fraud, according to The New York Times.

That investigation, launched in early November will focus on determining if the oil giant lied to investors about the risks climate change might have on business prospects, but also look at whether Exxon misled the public. While not as far reaching as a federal RICO investigation, legal experts have speculated that other states might join the fray to create just as much damage.

“This could open up years of litigation and settlements in the same way that tobacco litigation did, also spearheaded by attorneys general,” Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law, told the Times. “In some ways, the theory is similar—that the public was misled about something dangerous to health. Whether the same smoking guns will emerge, we don’t know yet.”

On the flip side of the docket, Exxon has inserted itself in a case filed by 21 kids against the U.S. Government. The complaint—filed by Our Children’s Trust and supported by climate scientist James Hansen—claims that federal government’s failure to address climate change “has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

Industry groups representing Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell, and Koch Industries, have filed to be considered as intervenors on the side of the government, citing that the “lawsuit is ‘extraordinary’ and ‘a direct threat to [their] businesses’ and that, if the kids win, ‘massive societal changes’ and an ‘unprecedented restructuring of the economy’ could result,” according to Slate.

Picking Up the Tab: It will be a while before the true impacts of such litigation are known, but the trend definitely seems to point toward those in positions of power taking more responsibility for actions that negatively impact the environment—and that’s not limited to gas and oil companies.

Legal experts have speculated that New York’s pursuit of Exxon puts all corporations on notice, and indeed a similar case against coal company Peabody Energy supports that. But they’re not the only ones who should take heed, according the Edward Thomas of the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association.

Governments and decision makers on all levels are increasingly being held accountable by the courts for their actions and inactions, Thomas writes with Laurie Mazur of the Island Press Resilience Projects. It’s the beginning of what he calls “an important shift in the prevailing legal winds.”

“More courts are holding people to account for failure to prevent harm,” they write in Governing. “Increasingly, corporate and civic leaders face stiff civil—and potentially…criminal—penalties when they endanger others. It's a shift that has important implications for local decision makers... As our largely ill-prepared cities and towns confront an uncertain and changing climate, those decision-makers may be held accountable for development that puts people in harm's way.”

Jolie Breeden

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Call for Proposals: Weigh In at the Natural Hazards Workshop

While Thanksgiving might mark the beginning of the holiday season for many of you, for us at the Natural Hazards Center it’s the kickoff to Workshop season—and we want your help!

The foundation of every great Natural Hazards Workshop is built from the knowledge and expertise of our colleagues in the hazards and disaster community, and we’re hoping you’ll share yours. We’re looking for proposals from people who’d like to serve as panelists at the 41st Annual Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, from July 10-13, 2016.

The Workshop isn’t your typical event. We bring a wide range of professionals, academics, and other disaster experts from multiple disciplines together on interactive panels that result in lively discussions that help bridge the gap between research and practice. We hope you’ll lend your voice to the conversation.

To submit a successful proposal, read a little more about our program structure and panelist responsibilities. You’ll also find lots of tips on our Proposal Submission Form when you’re ready to submit. We can’t wait to hear from you!

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Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Submissions
National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Think and Do Challenge
Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate
Deadline: November 30, 2015
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate is accepting submissions for a $100,000 prize competition for ideas and approaches that can be used by the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to enhance food safety and public health. For more information on the prize and how to craft an effective submission, visit the Challenge Web site.


Call for Papers

Climate Change and Health Security Special Issue
Health Security
Deadline: December 1, 2015
The journal Health Security (formerly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism) is seeking papers that address a wide range of policy, practice, and research issues at the intersection of climate change and health. Articles that address public health policies or strategies to mitigate the health impacts of climate change are especially welcome. Manuscripts of up to 5,000 words will be accepted for the special issue, to publish in March/April 2016. For more information on the issue and manuscript submission, visit the journal Web site.

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Some New Web Resources

When Nature Strikes: The Science of Natural Hazards
Whether you’ve been charged with explaining volcanoes to sixth-graders or want to get up to speed on the ins-and-outs of space weather, these short, informative videos are just the thing. Produced by NBC Learn, with the help of the National Science Foundation and the Weather Channel, the When Nature Strikes collections gives an easy-to-understand glimpse of the science behind hazards that range from wildfire and flash floods to earthquakes and hurricanes.


Youth-Led Advocacy for Disaster Risk Reduction: A Guide

When it comes to working to reduce disaster risks, it’s hard to beat the energy and enthusiasm of a community’s youth. Now Y Care International has published a guide to help those working in DRR create and manage advocacy activities for children and youths. The guide offers coded, easy-to-use ideas for key points to consider when planning activities, tips for creating groups and action plans, and series of tasks to take kids from planning to full-scale involvement.


Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy

Anyone wondering how disaster donations are spent will appreciate this interactive Web site that allows users to look at donation data in a number of ways. Visitors can use the site, which was created by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, to see where donations are spent, what types of disasters are funded (including by who and to what degree), and even learn what strategies are best supported. And if that’s not enough great info for you, a companion site allows users to take a similar look from a mapped perspective.


States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card

If you’re wondering where your state stands on preparedness for the ravages of climate change, wonder no more. This new report from Climate Central and ICF International will tell you who’s making the grade—and who’s not—on issues such as drought, extreme heat, wildfires, and floods. A nifty map feature, summary report, and the ability to view findings by threat or state make sure you can get the info you need quickly.


Association of Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Professionals

This newly minted professional organization promises to provide networking, education, and leadership opportunities to professionals in the healthcare emergency preparedness field. Check out their Web site for resources, job postings, and upcoming events.

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Conferences and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at]

December 2-3, 2015
Advancing and Redefining Communities for Emergency Management
Emergency Management Community Collaborative
San Diego, California
Cost and Registration: $650, open until filled
This conference will highlight the latest evidence-based tools and practices in emergency management to further community resilience. Topics include building healthcare coalitions, developing a resilient workforce, measuring disaster readiness, and behavioral health for disasters.


December 8-10, 2015

AHIMTA Educational Symposium
All Hazards Incident Management Teams Association
Denver, Colorado
Cost and Registration: $340 before November 1, open until filled
This conference will address challenges faced by incident command professionals and focus on building leadership skills. Topics include all-hazards search and rescue, situational awareness and social media, rural departments in large-scale incidents, National Guard roles in all-hazards response, and traffic incident management.


January 26-28, 2016
CBRN First Response
The Development Network UK
Bristol, England
Cost and Registration: $3,000, open until filled
This conference will explore increasing preparedness for and responding to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats in ways that reduce risk for responders, infrastructure, and the environment. Topics include global politics and CBRN defense strategies, the wider ramifications of the Syrian Conflict, use of chemical agents by Boko Haram, safeguarding the public from chemical suicides, CBRB decontamination solutions for first responders, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to distribute chemical payloads.


January 27-29, 2016
Annual FLASH Conference
Federal Alliance for Safe Homes
Orlando, Florida
Cost and Registration: $450, open until filled
This conference will examine issues of disaster safety and resilience from an all-hazards perspective. Topics include the unveiling of a new national hurricane initiative, a look back at historic disasters, best practices in earthquake resiliency, leveraging traditional and digital risk communication tools, and the latest in resilient construction techniques.


March 2-3, 2016
Critical Infrastructure Protection and Resilience Europe
The Hague Security Delta, International Association of CIP Professionals, and others
The Hague, Netherlands
Cost and Registration: $480 before February 4, open until filled
This conference will focus on physical and cyberthreats to critical infrastructure, infrastructure system preparedness, and Europe’s ability to withstand and collaborate during critical infrastructure attacks. Topics include infrastructure resilience in the transport industry, threat detection and management, using modeling to enhance preparedness and response, and cybersecurity standards, laws, and analysis.

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Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Firefighter/Paramedic, GS-9
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Round Hill, Virginia
Salary: $52,668 to $68,465
Deadline: November 27, 2015

This position will provide first response for fire, rescue, confined space, hazardous materials, decontamination, and emergency medical services. Duties include conducting fire rescues, extinguishing fires, applying first aid, and providing detailed patient assessment. One year of experience at the GS-8 level, paramedic certification, and specialized experience using firefighting and hazardous material response equipment are required.


Public Health Attorney

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Salary: $62,600 to $73,620
Deadline: November 30, 2015
This position will assist in strengthening the use of the law to efficiently and effectively protect and promote public health. Duties include working with state and local public health practitioners to identify legal issues in public health law, conducting legal research and analysis, providing technical assistance, training, and legal information to stakeholders, and building the field of health law through outreach to academia and public health organizations. A master’s in law or public health and three to five years of experience in public health law are required.


Executive Director

National Information Sharing Consortium
Washington, D.C.
Salary: $80,000
Deadline: December 11, 2015
This position will lead the consortium in its mission to improve public safety and emergency management information sharing and communication. Duties include cultivating major donors, developing an outreach campaign, updating the strategic plan to reflect sustainable business development, and overseeing staff. A master’s in business administration or a related field, at least five years of senior-level management experience, and fundraising ability are required.

Scientist I

National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: December 15, 2015
This position will work in the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory to advance the understanding of these aspects of weather and climate. Duties include developing an independent research program that expands the frontiers of mesoscale and mircroscale meteorology, develops community models applied to fundamental research problems, and conducts interdisciplinary research on extreme weather. A PhD in atmospheric science is required.


Research Fellow
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Washington, D.C.
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: Open until filled
This position will assist in establishing the Relational Adaptive Processing of Information and Display (RAPID) Apex Program, which will enhance resilience by creating a decision support system for community risk assessment and resilience planning. Duties include pursuing early development opportunities, collecting data, and supporting program management. A PhD in engineering, planning, economics, environmental science, or decision science is required. Coursework in natural hazards or systems thinking are preferred.

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Webinars, Training, and Education

Hazard Mitigation Implementation
December 10, 2015, 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. CST
American Planning Association
Cost and Registration: Free, register online before event

This webinar will feature professional experiences in implementing mitigation goals from the perspective of two different communities—one in North Carolina and one in Colorado. Participants will learn how to individualize mitigation efforts for their communities for a range of natural hazards. Continuing Education Credits are available.

Demonstrating your Fire Prevention Program’s Worth
November 29 to December 4, 2015 or May 1-6, 2016
National Fire Academy
Emmitsburg, Maryland
Cost and Registration: Free, open until filled

This course will allow fire professionals to evaluate their organization’s fire and injury prevention programs. Topics include misconceptions about evaluation techniques, essential elements of effective evaluation, and involving stakeholders in evaluation strategies.

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Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.

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