Interview with Steven Eberlein
Steven Eberlein is a workplace and community resilience consultant with his firm, Tipping Point Resilience, as well as an expert on earthquake preparedness.
CBD: Camilla Barker-DeStefano
SE: Steven Eberlein
CBD: Thank you so much for being with us today. How are you doing?
SE: Good. How are you, Camilla?
CBD: Yeah, I’m very, very well, thank you. Very, very well. Thank you for sparing the time to speak with us. We appreciate it.
SE: Very happy to.
CBD: Great. So let’s get straight into it. Can you tell us about your background? How did you get into emergency management? What’s brought you from where you were to where you are today?
SE: Yeah, complete accident really. So I never had any designs to go into emergency management. My wife and I were living in Sri Lanka in 2004. We had gone over because my wife was working as an aid worker in rebel-held territory during the civil war ceasefire. Did that work for two years while I taught Spanish in Sri Lanka, which is a bizarre, bizarre thing to be doing in Sri Lanka, teaching Spanish. And then two years into that stint is when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, December 26, 2004. And so at that point, I left my Spanish teaching job and joined my wife and we worked in the relief and recovery effort, starting from the day that the tsunami hit through the first year. And that is where things started. I never would’ve gone into this work had it not been for that experience. I’d be doing something completely different, but definitely not preparedness related.
CBD: Wow, that’s fascinating. To be something completely different and then be dropped into that situation is remarkable. So, okay, so you were in the tsunami and you dealt with that and you were there for a year, did you say?
SE: During the tsunami? We had one tsunami year and two non-tsunami years. That’s how I’d put it.
CBD: Okay. That’s a good way of putting it. I like that. Okay, so you were there for one to two years depending on what you’re measuring it in, and then did you come back to the U.S. straight after that?
SE: So fascinatingly, at that point, we moved back to the U.S., we moved back to a small community in Oregon, our hometown of Klamath Falls. And the interesting thing about moving back to Klamath Falls after that tsunami is that when we left Oregon in 1996, there was really no understanding of the huge risk that the Pacific Northwest faces of a subduction zone earthquake and tsunami event. My wife and I went and experienced a tsunami event and then came back to Oregon just about the moment that we were coming to terms with ours in the Pacific Northwest. So it’s kind of like I’ve already lived our future, and that’s where it kind of really compelled me to get into preparedness advocacy is having insights as a native Oregonian into the type of event that we should be expecting.
CBD: Right, right. So tell us a bit more about the work that you are doing now. So you are the founder and the CEO of Tipping Point Resilience, is that right?
SE: That’s correct.
CBD: Doing that research has done me well.
SE: You’ve done your homework. You’ve read my LinkedIn profile, it’s all there.
CBD: It’s all there.
SE: So the focus of Tipping Point Resilience is on workplace preparedness culture. And that third word is really important. Workplace preparedness is easy to find. There are lots of resources out there. So what we really focus on is creating a culture within workplaces that can reverberate where people are actually teaching each other preparedness by their own visible actions as opposed to going to outside resources. We feel that culture… preparedness is just like any other element of your culture. Shaking hands with your right hand or do you take off your feet at the door? Do you eat with chopsticks? Do you shake hands or do you do pounds? It’s like all these little cultural elements are things that you see and that you’ve learned from other people, and preparedness is actually very much the same as that, except we don’t actually see preparedness traits and preparedness practices in each other.
I think one of the real big challenges that we have with preparedness is that even amongst people who do practice preparedness, it’s an invisible practice. People aren’t doing it out loud, per se, they’re doing it in the privacy of their own homes. They’re not talking to their friends about it, they’re not showing their colleagues what they actually do. So it gives you the perception that either no one is actually doing anything or that the only people who do prepare are complete whack jobs who are like, you know, stalking up on canned peaches and ammo in their basements, and it’s not a normal person thing to do, to prepare.
So at least within workplaces what you have is an echo chamber. You have one ecosystem where if you can change the temperature in that ecosystem and normalize preparedness just enough so that you’re seeing preparedness in your HR manager and your boss and your best friend at work, that at least normalizes it for you. And then we start teaching each other just by the traits of that ecosystem. This is how we do things there. So I focus on workplaces right now specifically in California, in Oregon, and Washington, and British Columbia.
CBD: Right, okay. So you’re along that fault line, yeah. So you kind of orienting most of what you do around preparedness for a Cascadia event, or are you thinking earthquakes a bit more broadly than that?
SE: Thinking earthquakes a bit more broadly, yes. The thing… And the reason I focus on earthquakes is for two basic reasons. For one, it’s the disaster event that people are very, very curious about. I can meet people at earthquakes. We don’t have a lot of curiosity about floods, we don’t have a lot of curiosity about hurricanes, but earthquakes are kind of an enigma to the general population. They scare the hell out of us, they happen really infrequently, they have a huge impact when they do, so much so that they can go down in history. And we can remember 1989 is when Loma Prieta hit, 1906 is when San Francisco hit. We remember those. And so, one, I’m reaching people where their attention span is. And two, it’s arguably the event in the United States that is likely to impact the most people and for which we’re most poorly prepared for.
So let me give you some examples. I mean, the problem is the low recurrence interval of earthquakes. We’ve… The state of Oregon was established in 1851 and we had our last major earthquake in 1700. You’ve got the Wasatch fault going right through Salt Lake City that is overdue for a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, and they haven’t seen anything since Salt Lake City was born. You’ve got Reno, Nevada, that’s overdue for a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and it hasn’t occurred since Reno became a major city. You’ve got the Bay Area, not just the San Andres fault, but also the Hayward fault. The last earthquake there, 1856, had about 10,000 people living there in 1856, now they’ve got 2.5 million people who basically step on that fault line every single day. And the list goes on and on and on throughout the United States, but because we’re just such a young country, and because the recurrence interval of earthquakes is so long, you’ve got tens of millions of people who are waiting for events that are bigger than they’ve ever experienced and that they’re just not ready for.
CBD: Sure. Yeah, I mean, it’s scary in a way that we, I think, as a collective us, are so ready to put those either once in a lifetime or once in several lifetimes kind of events, we just put them on the back burner and it feels kind of relatively easy to put them on the back burner because who knows if it’s going to happen in the next 10 years or 20 years. But I feel like we actually know a lot more now with the predictions we’re able to make. We know a lot more about this potential Cascadia. So are you able to talk a little bit about that?
SE: Well, yeah. And let me… I want to take one step back and touch upon something you just said. What if it’s 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? That’s one of the frustrations is we don’t know when, but that’s part of the reason that Tipping Point Resilience focuses on culture. It doesn’t matter when, and it doesn’t matter if you get prepared to the hilt and nothing happens for 50 years, it’s still a worthwhile activity, because where do you learn most of your cultural practices? I’m asking you, where?
CBD: Where do I learn mine? Either from the communities I’m in, I suppose. Yeah. Either from family or friends or, yeah, workplace, if it weren’t my office.
SE: Family, friends, office, and the people that you grow up with. So as a father of three, if I prepare to the hilt and I’m making my children party to my own preparedness, they are learning a cultural practice that they will not struggle to continue with. See, I’m having to change my behavior completely from where I was as a child, a completely unprepared household, to creating something new, a prepared household. My children won’t have the same struggle. They grew up in a prepared household, and preparedness will be common sense for them when they become CEO of a company, when they become a city counselor, when they become an elected official, when they become just a regular community citizen, they will carry on the practices that we brought into our household into a wider community.
So that’s where I push back on people when they get all uptight about, “Well, we don’t know when it’s going to happen so it seems like a waste of effort.” No, you change the culture because you’re going to care about your grandkids just as much as you care about your kids. So get ready for future generations and show them what they should be doing when you’re living in a subduction zone.
CBD: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I actually read something yesterday that made me think of this. So I’ll quote it to you now and see what you think about this. So if anybody’s interested, this is from How to Win Friends & Influence People, which I’ve talked about separately before. I won’t bore everybody with it again now. So one of the ideas in this book is this: “The only way on earth to influence people is to talk about what they want and to show them how to get it.” So just taking that in mind, the only way to… the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it. So if you think that is the most fundamental kind of human instinct, in a way, so how do we get people to to want to prepare?
SE: Okay, so I’m going to push back on that because I don’t think that that’s true. I think he’s touching on something that’s fundamentally true, but that is not the only way to change behavior. Because here’s the thing, I think there are three reasons we do the things that we do, okay? For one, yes we do the things we want to do. I want to drink beer, I want to lay on the beach. People tend to do the things that they want to do.
Two, people do the things that they have to do. Do I want to pay taxes? No, but I do because I have to. We have to drive on the right side of the road in the United States, we have to pay taxes, we have to wear our seat belts.
But then there’s a third one. We do the things that we feel we are expected to do. That’s a third one. So things just like those regular cultural behaviors of how do I eat my pizza? If I’m in New York City and I’m eating my pizza with a fork and a knife, have I broken a law, have I done a social taboo? No, I haven’t. You kind of smile, but-
CBD: As someone who worked in Manhattan, I’m kind of, ugh, yeah.
SE: Mayor De Blasio tried… He was caught by the New York Times eating a freaking pizza with a knife and fork. You know what they did? They made fun of him badly because, as New Yorkers, you are expected to eat your pizza in a certain way. So socially, we steer each other in the direction that we all are supposed to be in, right? Even down to things like eating pizza.
So what does that have to do with preparedness? The problem with preparedness is when you look around, if you don’t see people preparing, then you have the idea that, well, they don’t really expect me to either, right? When we don’t see people doing something that we should do, then we basically understand that we’re not really expected to do that. Sure, FEMA is going to say, “Get a kit, make a plan, stay informed.” But if I don’t see that in my workplace, then I can see that I’m not really expected to, right?
So again, back to the point. We do the things that we want to do, the things we have to do. You don’t want to prepare, you really don’t. You don’t have to prepare because it’s not law. So we’re down to the last thing. What are you expected to do in your culture is what leads you toward that expectation. And culture is very visible practice, which is why I’m trying to make preparedness visible starting in at least workplaces.
CBD: Okay. All right. Yeah, I certainly see your point. I think we could probably get into a very long conversation about if we’re ultimately doing what we want, because I think we have to do things like wear seat belts because we want to do that, over say getting a fine or being stopped by the police or whatever. So I think ultimately it may well distill to that, but like I said, that’s a completely separate situation.
SE: You’re right.
CBD: I think all of it comes back to preparedness in that way. So one thing that I do want to talk about, and I’m hoping you’re not sick of talking about this yet, is your TEDx talk. I have ranted and raved about it. I think it’s brilliant. It’s very, very funny. So if anybody’s watching this hasn’t seen it yet, they definitely need to see it.
But one of the things that you mentioned in… And that talk was about why we don’t prepare for earthquakes. And one of the things that you mentioned in that was that basically like the aftermath of a disaster is like forced camping, right? I’m bastardizing your words a little bit here, but it’s basically like, you know, we go camping, we go and we have very few supplies, we go and we have little in the way of services, facilities, whatever else. That’s essentially what we’re going to be forced into doing. But it’s like you wouldn’t just go off and camp in the woods, you know, that’s the message that I got from it. I wouldn’t go out without taking things with me, for example. And so, that’s the kind of message that I got from that, and that really resonated with me.
So, I mean, as part of your work, are you finding that distilling these sort of preparedness messages down into the everyday language of just what we do, is that helping, do you think, to talk about preparedness that way?
SE: Oh, I think that the way we talk about preparedness is… You got to meet people where they’re at, right? And the way that we talk about preparedness is going to shape people’s ideas and perceptions about preparedness and ultimately whether they will choose to prepare or not. So I think that preparedness has been kind of an alienating topic. I don’t think anyone meant to make it an alienating topic, but when you look at the last 10, 20 years of Red Cross or FEMA preparedness, it’s just loaded with “should.” The things you “should” do. This is the risk, and this is what you should do about it, and here are the resources. And it’s kind of operated on this myth that if we understand a risk and we understand what to do, then we’ll do it. And it doesn’t really work that way, right? Because again, preparedness is ultimately a cultural element.
So this profound disconnect has been cooked up over the last 20 years between the people who are talking about preparedness and propagating and preaching preparedness, and the actual practice of it, that we have learned to not listen, right? We have learned to not listen, because the messengers of preparedness don’t feel like our next door neighbor, they don’t feel like our best friend, they don’t feel like someone we know. So what I’ve tried to do with the TEDx talk is I’m trying to be everybody’s next door neighbor, right? Not what you should do. I’m trying to tap into our collective common sense.
I don’t really expect people to get ready for a big scary thing that they don’t understand, so let’s start by actually understanding the risk. Let me show you the risk. Let me show you the science. Make it understandable so you can do the math of what this is going to do to a bridge after six minutes of shaking. Let’s help you understand what it’s like to go without utilities, because you’ve done the math. Once you’ve imagined the shaking event and understand what causes that, you understand there’s not going to be utilities for an extended period of time. And you’ll understand on your own that the same utilities and services you rely on are the same ones that first responders rely on. So you’ll do the math and say, “Oh, crap man, I understand preparedness. I have independently invented preparedness in my own mind based on my common sense. Now I’m asking myself, ‘How can I do this?'” Right?
But that’s a long way of saying that that TEDx talk, what I’m trying to do really is create demand for preparedness. If you’re offering something, preparedness information, when there is not demand for it, you’ve created a disconnect. So I’m trying to create some demand for preparedness so that all those great resources that are out there being unused, that people can actually go out there and find them because they want them, because they understand based on their own common sense that this is going to be in their best interest and that of their families.
CBD: That certainly makes a lot of sense that that just very fundamental idea of supply and demand and how it affects everything that we’re doing is, you know, I think it’s pervasive in a lot of ways. And then, yeah, but you’re right, it applies to preparedness just like it applies to anything else.
So you mentioned resources. Let’s talk about that for a moment. So I think most people, generally speaking, are aware that they can go online and they can Google preparedness and be bombarded with a series of kind of resources. I think fewer people know that there are resources specific to their, say, towns or their cities or whatever, and perhaps even fewer people know that there are resources available for their very specific situation. So say for example, if you have a family member with a disability, there are resources specifically for helping a family member or whoever with a disability. So my view of these resources is that they’re almost cast out there like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a box, right? You can kind of tip it upside down and say, “Here are all the resources that we have.” And I find even myself just looking through it all, this is quite difficult to kind of organize it. So what’s your view on the adequacy of the resources that we have available for the United States?
SE: So, that’s a great question. And I think with resources, it’s… We’re in the same… We’ve got the same problem that I was speaking about before. There’s a lot of correct and good trustworthy information out there about preparedness. What should I do with my pets? What should I do for a handicapped family member, etc.?
But what the resources haven’t done yet is really meet people where they’re at. I think that where people are at, the average person, is impatient. They want to move really quick, they want to find exactly what they’re looking for in a moment’s notice, and have their questions answered really quickly in a common sense way. I haven’t seen a resource to do that yet. I haven’t seen a place that gives someone like a lightning fast Amazon experience, where I’m a person who’s going online and curious about whether I can drink hot tub water after an earthquake and whether it’s safe, and what I need to do in that case. And have one place, one clearinghouse of information, that you can quickly fire through and get what you need and know that you’re going to be safe with that information. It doesn’t exist yet.
CBD: I think that’s a really good way of putting it. It’s almost like so many of us, and I can speak for myself in part, don’t prepare adequately because the effort of preparedness, when there is so much information, and some of it is conflicting, that is really difficult. And so if there were a kind of Amazon-preparedness thing, and if we keep saying this, it will emerge next, it’ll be the next Amazon Prime Preparedness. But I do think if there were something like that, then people would maybe, you know, engage with it a bit more.
The problem, of course, is that we, to use your words, if we’re meeting people where they’re at, they’re all… We’re all at different places and the sheer scope of that project to be able to present to people, you know, this is how you should prepare and this is how you should prepare, it just doesn’t exist. And I think that… the scope of it, sorry, kind of prohibits that sort of exercise.
So my question to you would be, if I’m an emergency manager and I have a diverse community that I need to serve, where people are at different levels, how do I meet them where they’re at when everybody is so different?
SE: No, that’s a good point. So barring the next Amazon genius, creating a perfect clearinghouse of preparedness resources we can all trust, what I do is I curate. I mean, if I were an emergency manager, I would be, for one, I would be looking for specific trustworthy sources for all different cross-sectors of my own community and making sure that they have access to those. I mean, that’s what I do right now, after my presentations, making sure that there are resources for people with disabilities, people who have gluten intolerance, people with kids, people who speak Russian, because that’s the best I know how to do to meet people where they’re at, is to go to the diversity of materials that are available online and try to make them… put them into one simple place. It’s imperfect, but that’s the only suggestion I would have at this point.
CBD: Okay. I think it makes sense in a lot of ways. I mean, emergency managers are, of course, well aware of the types of people that they are serving within their communities, and even if you can reach 50% of the different kind of groups that we all live among, I think that’s better than not making any attempt to kind of curate that content and to direct it towards people in a way that they find useful.
SE: Right. Well, I hope someone is going to watch this video and see that there’s a business opportunity out there for having an all-encompassing resource online, but also really engaging. Okay? I mean, because we expect really good online experiences, really good app experiences. So it can’t just be about having all the information in one place, it has to be a really beautiful, net-savvy experience. So I hope that person’s out there. There’s work to be had.
CBD: Yeah. I’m sure they are out there somewhere. Okay. So final question that I have for you. If there is… Maybe we’ve already just answered it, but there might be something else in there. So my last question is, if there was one thing that emergency managers can do differently around this idea of citizen preparedness, what do you think it should be?
SE: Yeah, so I think the goal and the challenge is for an emergency manager to find a way for other people to be the messenger of preparedness. Like I said before, we’ve turned off our listening buttons when it comes to emergency managers and Red Cross and FEMA messaging this stuff out. The person that you’re willing to listen to is your next door neighbor, it’s the receptionist at the place that you work, it’s your best friend. It’s someone that you actually know, like, and trust. Those are the most influential people. So my first question to an emergency manager would be, how can you find the people who are already secretly preparing and convince them to prepare more publicly? Because when you have someone who is actually preparing a bit more publicly, either through social media or just any kind of visibility, maybe in the office, of preparedness practice, you are creating a new messenger that is normalizing preparedness practices.
An emergency manager can’t normalize a cultural practice. The visibility of normal people practicing preparedness is what allows it to be more influential, it’s what allows it to transmit socially, and it’s what really encourages more people to prepare. It’s the visibility of it.
CBD: Brilliant. Brilliant. I think that that wraps this conversation up in a really, really succinct and clear way. So thank you very much. And again, thank you. Thank you for sparing the time to speak to us. It’s definitely… When I was looking at your Ted talk, and I was like, “Okay, I need to find a way to get this guy on the phone,” because, yeah, I think you have a gift in translating something that is, in a lot of ways, very, very complex and very sort of out there for a lot of people, and distilling it down to something that really makes sense in everyday life. So thank you very much.
SE: Thank you, Camilla.
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