Getting to Yes When a Pandemic Says No
From the heart of the coronavirus come lessons learned on pivoting a disaster relief organization, mid-crisis.
When you’re a disaster relief organization known for responding domestically to things like tornadoes and flooding as well as to international humanitarian crises like Dengue Fever, pivoting to serve those in need during a pandemic can be a challenge, to say the least. Not only does the organization have to determine what it will prioritize—domestic or international missions; personal protection equipment (PPE) for volunteers moving storm debris or for volunteers conducting medical work; keeping PPE for our ops or donating it to first responders in need, for example—it has to learn how to say ‘no’ to some requests, in order to get to ‘yes’ for many more.
On March 14, Team Rubicon did just that as it transitioned from a respond–to–disasters posture, to a respond–to–disasters–during–a–pandemic posture. In doing so, it rebuilt an organization known for responding quickly to the most vulnerable after a natural disaster, to one that could serve the most vulnerable after a disaster even in contagion zones, and could serve people directly affected by the pandemic, such as more than 700 people in the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
For me, this sudden crisis has been familiar—in a distant way. As we prepared to shutter our Los Angeles headquarters in early March, I told my colleagues, “I haven’t felt this way since the jets hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.” I was on the USS Enterprise that day as a member of VF-14, an F-14 squadron with responsibilities of enforcing the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq. We had just finished our commitments as part of Operation Southern Watch in the Persian Gulf and were transiting off the coast of Oman as we watched the news footage of the attacks real-time. The carrier slowed to a full-stop as we absorbed what was happening and the ship’s captain announced, “We are awaiting orders from the President.”
Nineteen years later, helming a desk at the disaster relief organization founded by veterans, Team Rubicon, I found myself knowing that awaiting orders wouldn’t be an option. Action would be required. And yet, why did I equate a pandemic with a terrorist attack? It came down to two things. First, in both situations, I sensed incredible uncertainty, the feeling of being attacked by something unidentifiable and unknown. Second, I knew there would be a human toll. Lives would be lost and I had no idea of how many.
Onboard the Enterprise and from my work-from–home office in California, there was no hesitation in accepting the tasking of the President or answering the needs of communities impacted by COVID and finding a way through it. In both situations, I accepted that there was a lot I didn’t know, but that there were also a lot of things that I did know about like the people who surrounded me and the training we received. In both cases, “Let’s figure this one out, because we have to” became an informal battle cry.
The Way It Used to Be
Team Rubicon is a disaster response organization that serves communities by mobilizing veterans to continue their service, leveraging their skills and experience to help prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters and humanitarian crises. Team Rubicon assesses potential missions and plans to meet them through two broad categories: capability and capacity. Capability describes what our volunteers can do. We know we can provide medical relief during an outbreak of the measles, clear a route for ambulances after a tornado, or advise a small-town emergency manager how to set up an emergency operations center, for example. Each capability is backed by well-developed doctrines, processes, and skills assessments that ensure our volunteers perform the tasks efficiently, safely, and in accordance with best practices or required certifications. At the beginning of 2020, the following services and capabilities were the core of our operations.
- Incident Management
- Damage Assessments
- Disaster Mapping & Work Order Mitigation
- Debris Management
- Hazard Mitigation
- Expedient Home Repair
- Spontaneous Volunteer Management
- Emergency Medicine (international)
- Primary Medical Care (international)
The other dimension in which we discuss the ability to meet mission is capacity, which describes the density of volunteers with the desired attributes available to ensure we can meet a mission. These attribute filters can range from knowing locations of volunteers that are closest to a disaster, identifying volunteers who are certified sawyers who can take down trees after a tornado, or ensuring we have enough trained volunteer leaders to command the operation for example. We must also know the availability of those volunteers, and their special skills. Through these, our teams answer two questions: Do we have enough volunteers to launch an effective response? For what duration will volunteers be able to support operations?
Team Rubicon has become effective at understanding our volunteer capabilities and capacity and that has allowed the organization to scale rapidly. In 2016 we executed 64 operations; in 2019, our volunteers found a way to get to an operation “yes” 101 times. Operations with tremendous impact happened because a combination of capability and capacity allowed TR to anticipate the damage and needs post-disaster, to identify the skills needed and match them with volunteer availability, and to get those Greyshirts into the field to help the survivors in need. Yes—101 times in one year.
That is how we have always done business, how we’ve always been able to say “yes” we’ll help muck out houses after Hurricane Dorian; yes we’ll build roofs in Puerto Rico, and yes we’ll help move debris after a tornado. It’s how we’ve always gotten to yes—up until the coronavirus, at least.
COVID-19: Learning to Say No to Get to Yes
“I’m worried that it might become a pandemic; a worldwide spread of the disease,” said one of my colleagues in January. On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 11th, Team Rubicon had volunteers serving in Putnam County, TN where tornadoes had struck early on the morning of March 3rd. Team Rubicon had said “yes” to helping survivors impacted by tornadoes, largely through debris removal and chainsaw operations to clear downed trees. It was our first operation in the new-normal; disaster response in a COVID world.
Team Rubicon had said “yes,” but in a new turn, our most important operational decisions started by having to say “no”. It started with saying “no” to many willing volunteers due to COVID. In an organization where “Get Shit Done” is a battle cry, it is difficult to tell the heartbeat of your organization that we have to say “no” to their willingness to deploy and to have to do it via email:
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, we’re making proactive decisions about when, where, and how TR operates in all phases of the disaster cycle to protect the communities we serve, the communities we live in, and our fellow Greyshirts. A new and unexpected mission that each of us can execute at an individual and community level is to take proactive actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and minimize potential exposure to at-risk populations.
As of March 9, 2020, Team Rubicon is taking the following actions out of an abundance of caution:
- The National Operations Center is assessing the risk of deploying Greyshirts to and from communities on a case-by-case basis. Depending upon the level of risk a specific community could possess, Greyshirts from a higher risk community (community spread locations) may not be able to deploy. Conversely, we will also minimize the deployment of Greyshirts into operations in higher risk locations.
- Mobilization is temporarily restricting the deployment of Greyshirts considered at higher risk by the CDC. This is to ensure that our Greyshirts at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 are not introduced to environments that could lead to exposure.”
Selecting the volunteers who would, and wouldn’t, be activated for service was only one of the difficult decisions and adjustments that had to be made. Leadership also had to put guidelines in place to keep our volunteers safe in the field. Our Capabilities team, the team that has responsibility for creating, documenting, and standardizing our practices, went straight to work creating the COVID Operations Manual. It provides directions on everything from how to stage sleeping quarters to meet social distancing guidelines to how to decontaminate a vehicle, to the process for isolating a volunteer who is symptomatic. We update it regularly and are up to version 36 of this “how to get to yes” manual. It’s how we’re working to ensure that our volunteers will be able to say “yes” as the flood, tornado, hurricane, and fire seasons approach.
Perhaps one of the best examples of saying “no, to get to yes,” was in our decision to donate our mission critical PPE—specifically N95 masks, Tyvek suits, and nitrile gloves. While pleas for these critical supplies from medical professionals across the U.S. dominated the headlines, our own Operations team was considering our own potential shortage of supplies. That’s because we had our own cache of PPE in storage, which we use to protect our volunteers against mold, airborne contaminants, and silica while helping homeowners post-disaster or while rebuilding homes in Houston and Florida. We also send them in bulk on our international medical missions. In 2019, we projected we’d use 1.6 million N95 masks in our missions that year. In March 2020, we had just over 30,000 masks in our supplies. At the same time, Team Rubicon was in discussions to deploy our medical teams on an international mission, and we were talking with hospitals and medical systems across the U.S. about how our Greyshirts could help conduct mobile COVID testing, serve in field medical stations with COVID positive patients, and augment ambulance services in communities with high rates of the coronavirus. What existing inventory we did have would be enough for either two deployments of our international medical teams or to support a few days of disaster operations that mandated PPE.
Our leadership gathered and, after much discussion, chose neither: Instead, we said “no” to keeping it on hand, and “yes” to donating it to meet the needs of medical providers and first responders. Soon, our teams were dismantling our strike deployment kits and taking PPE to hospitals, fire stations, and clinics across the country. The team had effectively decided we would have to say “no” to answering international medical operation requests and to many of the domestic core operations that we’d trained for years to execute. That “no” is temporary, as our team is hard at work procuring PPE or finding alternatives that will enable Greyshirts to perform safely in the field.
Don’t Say “No”, Figure Out How to Get to “Yes”
March 14 was the last day that Team Rubicon employees were in our offices. We briefed our staff on how to prepare for what was coming and watched as computers and monitors were carried out of the offices. On March 16, those same people logged in via cameras across the country and we continued our work. In that first meeting, Jake Wood, Team Rubicon’s co-founder and CEO let us all know that we had a mission to do and it was going to be different. “We don’t have a playbook, but we have the right players.” Getting to “yes” where we were able would become the norm.
Team Rubicon has figured out a lot of different things and our new services and capabilities are listed below along with a summary of our impacts.
As of today, here’s how Team Rubicon has gotten to “yes” in our COVID-19 response:
- 3,026 patients seen (Kayenta and Santa Clara)
- 1.73 million meals served and 6.06 million meals packaged
- 55 currently active COVID-19 operations
- 256 total COVID-19 operations (active, planned, demobilized)
- Over 659 homeowners assisted in disaster response operations
- 21 total disaster response operations under COVID-19 precautions
- Over 40,000 COVID-19 tests administered with partner organizations
- Over 4,718 screenings conducted at 43 test sites
COVID-19 has thrust us into an era of uncertainty in our personal lives and for the nation as a whole. Team Rubicon’s commitment to having impact has not waned and we hope that you remain resolute in our commitment to serving those in need. This is a nationwide response and our hope is that you’ll consider doing what you can while complying with the guidance of authorities and agencies. Team Rubicon has an ongoing program called Neighbors Helping Neighbors where you can have impact at a local level. The following site will give you guidance on how to safely check-in and aid those who could use your help. We’d also ask that you consider donating to Team Rubicon at www.teamrubiconusa.org.
Art delaCruz is the COO of Team Rubicon. He served honorably for over 22 years in the United States Navy and enjoyed a career that included a broad range of assignments. Art commanded a Navy strike-fighter squadron, spent one year with McKinsey & Co. as a Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow, served as a Topgun instructor, and made six combat deployments. After retiring, he spent two and a half years in the aerospace and defense sector in the roles of business development and strategy and planning.