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“The biggest surprise of Katrina was how poorly coordinated the whole thing was.”

Karl Schultz spent 13 years as a military helicopter pilot in the United States Navy. During his last tour, Schultz served as a search and rescue pilot in Norfolk, VA. On August 23, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the U.S, followed by the collapse of the levees around New Orleans. Karl’s team was assigned to emergency response, and his experience over the months that followed inspired him to positively impact the future of emergency response through Axon Aid.

THE HISTORY OF EMERGENCY RESPONSE

“Emergency response, prior to the age of flight, was really a sea and ground game” explains Karl. Over sea routes and roads, response is difficult enough in normal conditions, with long response times driven by limited routes and sea or road traffic. Add the devastation of a natural disaster and compromised infrastructure, and response can be severely impacted. The invention of winged aviation, followed by helicopters changed the game. Fixed wing aircraft are a great way to quickly respond to an incident, but they need infrastructure, specifically, long, straight, flat runways. Helicopters, and their ability to stop, hover and land quickly, enable operations without significant infrastructure, and thus became integral to emergency response efforts, including during Hurricane Katrina.

KATRINA

“It was all hands on deck” remembers Karl. “We ended up sending down a detachment of about 10 helicopters and a few hundred people to support them. We operated almost constantly to try and meet the demand.” Karl’s team spent about 2 weeks responding to the hurricane. “Some of it was direct (response)...pulling people off rooftops, pulling people out of harm’s way directly into the helicopter via the hoist. Others was more indirect---moving ice, medicine, food to where it was needed.”

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THE CHALLENGE OF EFFICIENCY

“As an operator, nobody likes to waste time.” Regardless of the type of work Karl’s team was doing, he noticed inefficiencies. “The biggest surprise of Katrina was how poorly coordinated the whole thing was.” There was no established chain of command for communications, which meant that responding units and volunteer groups, who all were working earnestly to help, were not making as large of an impact as they could. 

Karl also noticed that in some cases, the scramble to provide a large response to the affected area actually ended up inadvertently draining the area’s already limited resources. “A lot of volunteers showed up to help in New Orleans without food, without water, without power, without housing. Super well-intended, but ultimately, you just added to the problem.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF INNOVATION

“The coolest thing about Katrina was some of the organic response that happened.” The lack of clear directives opened the door for individuals to step up and implement creative solutions. The Cajun Navy was a group of civilian fishermen from Louisiana who organized a fleet of fishing boats to rescue survivors from the flooded streets of Louisiana. Karl remembers one of his teammates commandeering a row boat and using a 2 by 4 to paddle through water to search for survivors. 

Karl also remembers more coordinated efforts among the responders. The I-10 is an elevated super-highway in Louisiana, which kept the highway from flooding. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, boats would take survivors to the highway onramps. They would walk up to the highway where ground teams had painted large ‘H’ lettering on the elevated strip, allowing helicopters to use the area as a makeshift landing pad where they could load survivors to transport them to hospitals and nearby rally points.

“Someone had even taken the initiative to cut down the light poles on the highway” which Karl notes made it easier for the helicopters to maneuver and land. “In a helicopter you appreciate the fact that anything tall had been removed.” 

LEARNINGS

Of course, good natured ingenuity, no matter how successful, can only go so far. “There was a lot of resentment from the citizens of New Orleans that (the response) wasn’t well planned, it was late to the game, and it wasn’t particularly effective, particularly for disenfranchised demographics.”

“People across the board were super frustrated with the lack of effectiveness of a government response...an organization, that they had trusted to help in times like this... and it didn’t. I was part of that team and it really sucked to feel like we’d failed these people.”

EMERGENCY RESPONSE TODAY

The learnings Karl took from his time in the military and specifically responding to Hurricane Katrina have impacted his view of emergency response and motivated him to take a leading role in emergency response efforts at Axon. 

In 2018, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, Axon Aid was created to provide public safety agencies with no cost disaster relief support. Karl partnered with current Axon COO Josh Isner to found the program. Karl then pulled in Isabella Giannini, Director of Customer Loyalty, to scale the team, keeping in mind Karl’s learnings from nearly a decade and a half before.

“The last thing you want to do is become a burden on the agencies that are already stretched beyond limits.” In scaling Axon Aid, Karl and co-worker Isabella Giannini instituted a strict self-sufficiency rule. If the job is to provide support, that is all you will do. The team’s mission was clear: provide organized, coordinated help to responders in the aftermath of a disaster.

THE FUTURE OF EMERGENCY RESPONSE

“Anytime there’s any problem, technology can serve a purpose...You can do things better, faster, cheaper.”

As Karl looks to the future of both Axon Aid and emergency response more broadly, he is confident that technology will play a large role. We’ve made some great strides in emergency response; our prediction capabilities have improved; our planning and coordination is better across the board. Drones and cell phones have had a profound impact in reducing response times and improving effectiveness. “Looking ahead, I think the real revolution in emergency response is gonna be around data.” The ability to share one source of ground truth will immeasurably help response effectiveness.

“If I could wave a magic wand and we achieve Nirvana tomorrow...it would involve multiple agencies using compatible gear...body cameras, in-car systems, airborne systems, that all feed into a central repository that could be viewed in real time, but also scanned asynchronously. Communication would be seamless.” At the end of the day, Karl says, “it’s really about giving the right information to the right team at the right time.”

Karl believes the Axon Ecosystem, including its partners, is making that system a reality. Together, he is ready to step into the future of emergency response, and finish the job he began 17 years ago in Louisiana.

For more information on Emergency Response and Axon Aid, visit axon.com/aid/emergency-response.

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