A few quick notes on Hurricane Florence disaster response – Forward Observer Shop

A few quick notes on Hurricane Florence disaster response

The worst of the wind and rain from Hurricane Florence, now a tropical depression, is over. The catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas will remain in many places through the week, and probably longer. Just like Hurricane Harvey, communities here will be recovering and rebuilding for months and in some cases years.

Since early last week, Forward Observer’s Fox Company (our team of disaster intelligence volunteers) provided intelligence support to Cajun Navy Relief search and rescue teams.

For 12-18 hours a day last week and over the weekend, we vetted and delivered rescue requests from social media, along with answering ad hoc requests for information and assisting with operations planning.

The value of intelligence support teams is that decision-makers don’t have time to do their own research. A search and rescue team can’t pull over and spend 15 minutes trying to answer one of their intelligence gaps. They need a constant flow of real-time intelligence on what’s happening in the area of operations right now and what can be expected in the future. Only an intelligence support team can provide that. Decision-makers with good intelligence make better decisions. Sound tactical decisions enable operational success. Operational success leads to overall mission success.

This is the first hurricane response and search and rescue operation we’ve supported. Our volunteers did excellent work (and it’s not over yet). I learned a few things over the past week, and had a few more lessons reinforced.

I’ll be working on some hurricane- and flood-specific intelligence training for students, but the lessons are applicable to all natural disasters.

Due to a positive outcome on this mission, we’re also starting a new program for Fox Teams to deploy and work alongside non-profit organizations involved in disaster relief projects.

If you’d like to learn how to set up local intelligence operations to provide intelligence support for natural and man-made disasters, you can sign up for our online training here. For future missions, we’ll be asking for Fox Team volunteers who have already been through the basic intelligence training.

(You can sign up to receive updates from Fox Company here. Also sign up for our free Intelligence + Training Newsletter for best practices on intelligence, defense, and community security. That form is on the bottom of this page.)

Here are some of my very preliminary lessons learned or reinforced.

1. Use collaborative mapping. One of the problems any team is going to have, regardless if you’re on the intelligence or the operations side, is achieving a ‘common operating picture’. Leaders who have access to the same information understand the common picture and can act with a unity of effort. When leaders have access to different information, poor decisions are made, there’s a lack of coordination, and ultimately they waste time and resources. In a situation like disaster relief, poor decisions could risk lives. While we’ve utilized Google Earth and the sharing of .KML files, ultimately an online collaborative mapping platform is better suited. What we want is for multiple trusted users to be able to post to a group map that can be updated with different layers. Those layers (threats, weather, flooding, road conditions, etc.) ensure maximum usability as consumers of intelligence can switch on and off the layers they need or don’t need. I’ll have my best recommendations in a video for students later this month.

2. Build an intelligence ocean. One problem I’ve encountered when supporting established organizations is that there’s sometimes a sense of ‘ownership’ over intelligence. Case in point: during an intelligence support mission last year, a member from the organization were supporting continued to collect his own information and pass it to decision-makers without us being made aware. The problem is that ‘stovepipes’ develop. That person was not aware of our current intelligence and we weren’t aware of that person’s intelligence reporting. When leaders get conflicting intelligence, their decision-making gets disrupted. That sort of intelligence deconfliction needs to be solved in Phase 3 of the Intelligence Cycle (Processing and Analysis), which comes well before Dissemination (Phase 5). Sorting out conflicting reporting is one of the most important things an intelligence support team can do. That’s not something leadership needs to do. In this previous mission, the leadership allowed for there to be two lakes of intelligence, instead of one ocean. By combining intelligence reporting streams, we can better confirm or deny existing reporting (including rumors, of which there are always many during a disaster) and get a better picture of the security situation. That needs to happen before information is passed up as intelligence. ACE Chiefs and intelligence team leads can solve this problem through education: we need to educate all the team players in what the Intelligence Cycle is and how it’s used, and then also ensure that leadership understands how Intelligence and Operations interact. This is something we did successfully during this CNR mission. Ultimately, there should be one ACE Chief — one person in charge of the intelligence team who can then organize and delegate to ensure that individual efforts and the quality of intelligence are maximized.

3. Don’t depend on someone else’s infrastructure. Taking a lesson reinforced from our friend Sparks31, we can’t depend on someone else’s infrastructure, especially on communications. Doing remote support is easy when the power grid is up and there’s no other interference. But when the power and/or internet goes out, cell towers go down, and weather causes other communications challenges, our available reporting begins to dry up. Case in point: we used Broadcastify to listen to our AO’s fire and EMS dispatch communications. From this monitoring, we were able to provide our search and rescue teams with information on downed trees and power lines, road closures, flooding, and other local conditions. Broadcastify allows users to transmit the audio from their police scanners (here’s the one I recommend) through the internet so that others outside the area can listen. At that point, Broadcastify was our only option, but when the power goes down locally, so does that local scanner feed. Luckily, we were in touch with our good friend Forrest who runs Carolina Preppers Network. He was already on our Fox Company mission and was able to get one of his guys in the area to monitor the police scanner and then use a cell phone and ham radio to transmit information. That was a life saver. These online police scanners and smartphone apps are great in normal conditions. They work in a pinch. But when the grid gets pinched, be aware that those sources of information dry up fast. When the local 4G or LTE cell tower goes down, there goes your local social media feeds. And when those streams of reporting begin to dry up, so does our ability to provide early warning intelligence to teams operating in the area. That increases their risk because we can’t keep them informed of changing and potentially life-threatening conditions. Be resourceful during the disaster, but expand your stable of sources before an emergency and ensure that you can maintain communication with those sources regardless of the conditions. (Addendum: That may mean we need to educate them on grid-down communications or provide them with, temporarily or permanently, forms of communication.)

4. Training. Training. Training. You provide disaster support with the training and knowledge you have, not necessarily with the training and knowledge you need. Every volunteer I’ve asked has stressed the importance of training. Understand the Intelligence Cycle. Understand Intelligence Requirements. Understand our primary intelligence gathering methods. Understand how to task collection based on our requirements. Understand the mission and what the operations side is trying to accomplish, and then develop a way forward for delivering them the intelligence they need to make better decisions. We always say, “Intelligence Drives the Fight.” That’s our maxim as Intelligence Collectors and Analysts. In the case of disaster response, Intelligence Drives Operations. The better we understand how to be Intelligence Collectors and Intelligence Analysts, the more we can do to help the people risking their lives to save others. When an organization’s leader is asking you for your opinion on what his organization should do, in a perfect world we can state with confidence the intelligence that makes his decision an obvious one. There’s no such thing as a perfect world, but through training we can produce the intelligence that will help real people make better decisions that make better impacts. But Intelligence doesn’t produce itself. There is no genie that will clear up confusion about what’s going on, or provide insight on what will happen in the future. It takes skills, training, and experience to produce good intelligence. These are all things that we can offer to you, if you can put in the effort.

Our mission at Forward Observer is not only to provide intelligence to our readers and reduce their uncertainty about the future, it’s also to build up an intelligence network and train concerned citizens who want to assist in future disaster situations.

In a disaster scenario, volunteers are great. But a volunteer who can step in and run an intelligence team to provide ongoing situational awareness to search and rescue operations is invaluable. You can make an immediate, positive impact because most of these organizations don’t have established intelligence sections. Most of them aren’t trained or equipped to do this.

We provide intelligence training each month that will equip you with the knowledge and skills to step in and help out. Volunteer on your own or join one of our Fox Teams deploying to the next disaster.

I’ll have a much longer AAR available for students after current operations wind down, along with my best practices and lessons learned from this operation (which will continue through the week).

I want to leave you with some words from our good friend Charley Hogwood, who runs Personal Readiness Education Programs. He, along with Forrest, made a significant impact on the success of this mission. Here’s what he has to say:

“As I have worked to assist in the real world missions [Forward Observer] has requested, I have seen an incredible level of professionalism, patriotism and volunteerism that rivals any professional agency I have ever worked with… The experience has been informative and eye opening…

If you want to see behind the curtain of what it takes to make a real difference in what can be a pressure cooker of chaos and opportunity, and effect change with organizations such as Cajun Navy Relief, public agencies, and concerned citizens in the path of disaster and mayhem, this is the place. Be in the know and come onboard. Put what you learn to real-world use and learn from true professionals what it takes to survive natural disaster, technical disaster, complex human events, gang and political warfare, cyber disruptions and more. There is something for everyone regardless of your level of experience.

Thanks for all you do Forward Observer. The mission continues, and I am proud to stand with you!” – Charley Hogwood


There’s still plenty of time to volunteer for this ongoing Hurricane Florence relief mission, and we’re always looking for other non-profit organizations who need our support and who are deserving of our incredible volunteers. If you know of one, please get in touch with us. If you want to volunteer for this or future missions, use the contact form and introduce yourself.

If you’re ready to take the plunge into our training area, you can sign up here. There are still a few months left in hurricane season, and we’ll also be battle tracking riots and political turmoil, should that happen during the election season. If it’s a natural or man-made disaster and there are people to help, we’ll be looking for ways to contribute.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper




Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

1 Comment

  1. Hey Sam, something else that would be handy once this all starts getting broken down in the AAR with the takeaways. I’d love to see two parts or divisions of “grid up” and “grid down” work. Successes, failures, workarounds, solutions change in strategies and tactics or hardware and software.

    Loosing broadcastify and having to rely on someone on the ground creating that workaround is what has me thinking about this. I think it could make solutions when going from grid up to grid down faster transitions from our lessons learned on these things. I suspect there will always be some new technological improvements that will likely have the biggest impacts, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it might be using an old technology that saves the day too.

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