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Sheltering in Place with Sean Griffin, CEO of Disaster Tech

Daniel Raskin (CMO, Kinetica): We have with us, Sean Griffin from Disaster Tech. Hey Sean.

Sean Griffin (CEO, Disaster Tech): How are you doing Daniel?

Good. How are things in DC? Are you sheltering in place okay?

SG: I am sheltering in place, working from home looking out my window at trees so it’s not overly depressing, I’m here and enjoying the view of the wonderful vegetation outside. So, on earth day I can’t complain.

Yeah, no, I’m with you, man. It’s actually nice to see on Twitter and in the news. Some positive stuff and some good, good kind of coverage around a lot of the things going on with earth day and the celebration and the earth day challenge and all that kind of stuff. So, I thought maybe we’d start Sean by just learning a little bit more about you. Like where, where are you from? Where’d you grow up? I’m guessing it’s not Brooklyn.

SG: No, I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn, although it was a wonderful place to be. I’m from the Boston area. I grew up in a city, Everett, Massachusetts, which is just North of Boston. They just built this massive casino, which, speaking of Earth Day. One of the benefits of putting that casino there is they had to excavate on top of an old Monsanto plant. So, part of the deal that they broke was to excavate all of that agent orange and chemicals from the Monsanto plant that had just been there for years. And essentially this big plot of land on the mystic river just outside of Boston. He totally had not used. Now they have this beautiful walking area and waterfront area and they got boats moving about and it’s just a much more a much more vibrant and beautiful place where it was basically a toxic wasteland.

Wow. Yeah. That’s an intense shift from agent orange to a beautiful area that you can now enjoy.

SG: Well, part of the view is still the power plant not too far. So, there’s still a little more improvement they need to do to clean up the view. However, it’s still a tremendous improvement and it’s only gonna get better. And on Earth Day, right. Speaking of disasters, the reason why earth day was started was a Santa Barbara oil spill. The third largest oil spill in United States history is how Earth Day started, right? Whether by ill or by ignorance we have contaminated the planet, since then and the industrial revolution before. And it’s of course now the biggest issue on the planet outside of coronavirus is climate change. We know that based on the science, this is driven by human activity in it.

It’s going to take human activity as well to not only mitigate the risk, but to adapt and to deal with it because it’s not going anywhere. Unfortunately, the damage that’s done is done. We need to be better stewards of the environment and we need to all do our part, everything just from basic recycling and our own sustainability practices. But as a tech community, leveraging technology and data to better the environment, to be more purposeful, with our employment of this technology to benefit not just humanity. But everything that lives and breathes on Earth.

That’s well said. And it’s interesting because you actually have a very interesting kind of career path in terms of how you got to where you are today. And so first off, what did you major in in college?

SG: So my undergrad, I first started college in communications with a minor in sports media. I did some internships with Nesson, which is the New England sports network. Folks are familiar with that. I did Red Sox games, Revolution games, but then I quickly shifted after joining the Navy into nuclear engineering. It was part of the Navy nuclear power program. And so my undergrad is in nuclear engineering technology and the nuclear part is submarine reactors. So, I was a qualified reactor operator and I made steam with the hot rock and made the turbines go round.

Wow. What’s the longest you traveled around in a submarine for?

SG: Before deployment I was involved in a car accident, unfortunately, and on base in a cab hit by a Navy truck. Wasn’t the best day, but I’m alive. And unfortunately, I was submarine disqualified because of the incident and either a bit of irony, I’m not sure, but they a detailed me to the base safety office at the submarine base in Connecticut. I had to shift my career from nuclear power to safety and occupational health.

Well I was going to say, who knew that that incident would have such an impact on not just your shift away from the Navy, but your whole career path in terms of where you were then to where you are now.

SG: It was a pivotal moment because it changed my career. I thought I was going to do 20 years in the Navy as a submarine officer. That changed in a single incident. But that’s true of life, right? Things happen. Blink of an eye, and look at what happened with coronavirus. People were still thinking that this was a nonissue in February. Many people were wrong and now we’re under lockdown. Things happen fast. Yes, they certainly do. And if you’re not prepared for them, they become overwhelmed.

Yup. And so you made this shift into kind of safety. How did you get connected to FEMA?

SG: So, at the time post-9/11, the US Navy and the Department of Defense in general was going through a shift from base to base installation to installation on rethinking its emergency management posture. And the Navy had just instituted the Navy emergency management program, which we as safety professionals if you look at the incident command system, there are three officers. One of them is a liaison officer and the other’s a public information officer, someone like yourself, Daniel, focusing on media. But there’s also the safety officer, right? You have operators in the field dealing with hazardous environments. And so, I was training then as the liaison or really the advisor to the commander. In this case to have safe practices, right? If you’re going to run into the fire, we’re using respirators and everybody’s fit, tested and so forth.

And so, I started taking FEMA courses and one of the things that impressed upon me and in summary in life was when you’re sitting in front of a reactor, it’s pretty much steady state or the reactors critical when you’re doing logs, it’s very boring. But what was fun and sort of fascinating was running drills, stuck rod and reactor or a fast leak in the in the cooling system and you’re running around with your hair on fire and the mask OBA, the, the breathing apparatus drops down and , it’s hot inside the engine room. And I really loved the intensity of running exercises, right? They started running exercises, chemical, biological, radiological response exercises amongst that, with the FEMA stuff, it just really resonated with me. And when I was ready to leave active duty, I joined the Federal civilian service first with the National Institutes of Health in 2009, which happened to coincide with H1N1

So, coming into the national institutes of health as a safety officer in the middle of H1N1, it became more clear that, I think I want to take a shift and pivot from safety into emergency management. And the director of emergency management for the national institutes of health in Bethesda, Maryland called me up one day serendipitously and asked if I wanted a job and I took it. So that’s how my career started.

Wow. And so once you got involved in that, what were your experiences kind of navigating emergency management and what did you learn there?

SG: Well, the first was the 2010 Snowmageddon. One of the outcomes of that was the telework enhancement act of 2010 and governments have been slow. Government agencies have been slow to adopt a really broad based telework policies.

And even five years ago when I was working at the department of energy, I wasn’t allowed to telework, which was crazy as a policy maker, program manager, and the federal government, what did slow rollout of telework has really impacted our ability to maintain continuity of operations in events like this where we have to be socially distance. We can’t all be in big government buildings down in DC, right? So the first thing that became evident is we really don’t understand who is a critical employee and who isn’t critical. Right? And then of those critical employees from a supply chain perspective, right? We got close to euthanizing animals because snow blocking roads and not having access to trucks coming in. And Oh, by the way, we’re not the only organization or agency on the planet who needs food and all these other basic commodities.

Well, we were getting to the point where we were running out of food at the national institutes of health, which interestingly, Dr. Fauci was there. We have animals. We had the largest clinical center on the earth research clinical center in the earth. And, the supply chain fragility just became very, very, very amplified. So things like standby contracts most States still don’t have advanced standby contracts for things like fuel. Most of it’s on spot purchase, just in time purchases. Right. So what became evident to me is not only from a continuity of operations perspective, we just really don’t have our arms around it. But I think we lack the appreciation and we certainly lack visibility into how fragile our supply chains are. Especially given the fact that a lot of it is now just in time.

Right. That’s interesting. And so you started to experience that with snowman and then you saw that in other types of disasters as well. Kind of this issue of like the logistics or kind of the management of how you keep operations going when these things are happening?

SG: Yeah, absolutely. One of the localized incidents was we had a really, really hot day in August at the campus. And because of that, we just couldn’t maintain chiller capacity. So the chillers start falling offline, which means we can’t deliver chilled water to the buildings. Well, what are we going to triage? Are we going to triage administrative buildings or health care? Well, that answer’s obvious, right? So, we then had to send people home and start to figure out how to orchestrate all the facilities to turn off literally buildings to stop running chilled water for air conditioning and rationing all of that for animal facilities and healthcare facilities.

So it made me appreciate contingency planning. It made me appreciate modeling and simulation to understand ahead of an event what your risks are and also to understand the cascades of effect, when you have one system go down, how does that affect another, how does that affect another and so forth. And really where the interest or my interest in technology and data started to become in my mind, self-evident. We started using geospatial tools like, like ArcGIS back then, this was 2010, 2011 and at that time that was like innovative in the future. We were using auto CAD and CAD drawings to outlay what was inside the buildings or in many cases, in some cases we were just physically rolling out sheets of paper and saying, okay, I need to isolate this valve over here and isolate this valve for this building to shut down the water supply.

So, one of the taglines of our company Disaster Tech, it’s accelerating time to decision, right? Why should we be hunting down in the middle of this crisis where we have water supply? If you can’t supply water, water to a facility or canteen, you can’t maintain water pressure. You can’t occupy it because of sprinkler regulations and fire code and so forth. There’s always cascading effects. But a lot of these things can be done ahead of time. Knowing where the data is, having a central repository to figure out where your schematics are for your facilities. This isn’t rocket science. This is just basic due diligence, right? And that basic due diligence can save you time in the planning phase and certainly in response. And then the more critical hard problems you can actually focus on versus hunting down what seems as sort of mundane basic data collection.

And I think that’s really where to be honest with you, agencies just need to start doing in companies as well. It’s just getting its basic data management policies under control, having proper disaster cover recovery policies in place. We went through this in Puerto Rico after hurricanes, Irma, Maria, where many of those critical servers with asset management and inventory management just weren’t on backup generator and they weren’t in the cloud. And so they lost access to things like, where are my assets? It becomes a CYA DRO cover your assets, knowing that’s just, it’s basic stuff for continuity of operations. But we were so, overtaken by the tyranny of the calendar, right. From meeting to meeting to meeting that would just, we failed to do basic due diligence and basic quality assurance and quality management that I think companies are now recognizing or maybe recognizing if they had done a lot of that due diligence ahead of time. They wouldn’t be as in a difficult position with a totally new work environment where folks are distributed. You don’t have any ability to just pop in some tapping somebody’s shoulder to ask a very trivial question. Having the data and all of the information at your fingertips instantly in a distributed way is a game changer for just doing the, so that you can focus on those critical tasks in the middle of crisis.

Right. When we get back to doing things like trade shows and events, you need to create a tee shirt that says Disaster Tech cover your assets. And that’s like the ultimate marketing handout. People will love that. So, so at what point did you decide to shift from kind of being in the midst of emergency management saying, I see this problem across all these different types of disasters? There’s an opportunity, not an opportunity, but there’s a need to, to build kind of something different that can help these organizations start to track all of their assets and, and use data to help?

SG: Well, the first thing is I went from national institutes of health to defense logistics agency, the procurement behemoths for the department of defense. So they’re a working capital fund. If they were a private company, they would be fortune 500. One of the biggest aspects of the defense logistics agency is energy. They purchase all the fuel jet fuel, diesel, what have you for the military. And I was there during hurricane Sandy and the joint logistics operation center, right? What happened in 2012. Okay. Sandy happened October, weeks later is what the election. So of course, President Obama is pulling out all the stops working with a Republican governor in New Jersey in Governor Christie to get everything and anything from point a to B or from point C to B, wherever, point X to C.

Just getting all those things that were needed to help have stability in the community and of course, to accelerate recovery and get folks back on their feet because what was underwater, not just the New York city subway. And the other thing that was underwater was the stock market. Right. And I don’t mean in a figurative way, like in 2008, but, in a very literal way. And the seawalls, they just weren’t built to account for that type of storm surge and the water being pushed, from the Atlantic Ocean into downtown Manhattan. So, what we found there is that number one, FEMA and the defense logistics agency who had this interagency agreement to provide fuel to FEMA when they need it under a mission assignment. Well, FEMA did not have access or their databases were not integrated with DLA.

So is the defense department. So FEMA had no visibility into DLA’s procurement processes or their supply chain operations, right? So unless you’re shoulder surfing at the national response coordination center or a FEMA gallery guy is looking over the shoulder of a DLA person sitting there physically at the computer, those systems aren’t integrated. So look at today’s environment. Under coronavirus you have this massive supply chain operation project Airbridge. And if those folks aren’t sitting in the emergency operation centers side by side and they can’t do that shoulder surfing, I guess they could share a screen possibly. But why have those systems integrated? Isn’t it one US government? Right. Why doesn’t the US government allow data to be shared across agencies? Where FEMA doesn’t have to guess what’s in the department of defense supply chain and what they have to order in the inventory, it all should be one central pane of glass.

Right? But back then, that was a problem. And secondly, we had no visibility and in certain cases, nor should we enter into some private supply chain operations. Most people think because it’s a shell at the gas station that that’s owned by shell. Well, no, that’s a franchisee, right? That’s some local dude that owns that gas station. But what happens at a refinery or an upstream and midstream operations of the oil and gas supply chain, it’s, there’s no necessarily end to end visibility. And there’s also thing called antitrust, right? Companies can’t just share, Oh, I got 50 gallons of this over here and a hundred barrels of that over there. There are siloed, information is siloed or compartmentalized on purpose to avoid creating another Standard Oil situation. That’s why we have antitrust laws in place.

So I had worked with the national petroleum council. Interestingly the incoming chair at the time was Rex Tillerson. This is before Trump got elected and everything. Rex Tillerson was the chair and we had presented this report because Secretary Moonies, the secretary of energy at the time had asked the oil and gas industry, how can we prevent the same problem that we had back in Sandy? Because we were literally just handing out fuel, right? You had an army dudes on the street in New York, New Jersey with Jerry cans of fuel. And these folks, these military, sergeants and soldiers, they’re not trained to do fuel distribution operations in an urban center. They’re not trained for that. Let the private industry take care of what they do day to day.

Exxon Mobile and BP and Tesoro and Chevron, they run an end to end oil and gas supply chain on a day to day basis. Why is the federal government coming in the middle of that intervening, disrupting the marketplace and causing confusion at the same time, especially we don’t have visibility into our integrated respective supply chains. So the lesson learned was number one, the federal government needs to integrate their procurement and logistics operations from a data perspective, right? From a software perspective. So we can have a unified common operating picture of who’s doing what, where, why, and when and when it’s going to be delivered and who is going to be in receipt of it and so forth. And then also the federal government and governments in general need to stay in their lane and figure out how to partner with the private sector to ease the ability of the supply chain to operate on its own.

And that’s why you’re seeing in this administration, there’s a very forward willingness and, they’ve been criticized, and I don’t really understand this point because we were doing this in the Obama administration trying to figure out how to best work with private industry. You had President Obama was flying bucket trucks on military aircraft from the West coast to the East coast in hurricane Sandy. Well that’s, that’s private industry being flown on military government aircraft. Why are we criticizing it now? If we weren’t criticizing it, then we have to focus on the mission and focus on how do we, how do we achieve mission effectiveness and take the politics out of it. I know that’s like totally irrational of me or unreasonable of me to say, but what we need to do is figure out what is, what is the, what is the goal of the mission?

What are our specific objectives? How do we achieve that and what pieces of the puzzle need to be put in place to, to get from A to B and literally get out of the way and move fast and move smart.

Right. It sounds like with Disaster Tech, you’re trying to, you’re basically founded a company to build, put that puzzle together to some degree.

SG: Yes. Well, what we are doing and what we will do is have the most authoritative and, and database where you don’t have to go hunt for the information. You don’t have to go hunt for the data. It’s all there, right? If I ever get the privilege and the honor to serve on the White House staff again on the national security council or in some other executive office of the president post, I don’t want to have to be able or I don’t want to, nor do I want my colleagues or my friends to have to call six, seven, eight, nine different agencies to get access to the data.

We’re all on the same team. We’re all on the same team. So one of the things that we need to achieve in disasters is unity of effort and a simple way that we can do that. It’s just having access to all the data, especially when it’s open data, right? It’s talking about census, we’re talking about energy, information administration. We’re talking about us geological survey the national weather service. This is open data, right? But the government hasn’t gone and done the work to take all of that data, put it in one central web service, or I can make an API call to it and get access to it and bring it into my platform. So that’s number one, having all the data in one central place. And of course we’re in the disaster management space, so we’re only focused on data that’s relevant to disaster managers and resilient and resilience.

But if other companies were doing this or other government agencies could be doing this in adjacent markets or in other market segments that have nothing to do with disaster management. So, so that’s number one. Second thing is we want to be able to democratize all of the models that have been built and where taxpayer funded money has spent billions of dollars in building these models where they’re behind some closed door in a university or in a national lab. Those models, as far as I’m concerned, our public domain D us taxpayer paid the money to build those models. Whether it’s a predictive outage model for power outages, one is to understand community risk and how climate change may affect a local community’s ability to do urban planning, right? Why aren’t we leveraging all these models on top of this authoritative data to be able to extrapolate in the insights of all of that data using these models in one central platform. And then the third thing is the data and the models are only as good as their ability to be understood cognitively. So having that in one central pane of glass with rich data visualizations where you can interactively explore the data in the models in real time to be able to get the answer that you need based on your mission requirements,

Right? So, you’re in the midst of a disaster scenario. Questions come up, you can go straight to this platform and start querying it or analyzing it or visualizing data over time and space, applying models to it as to where it might go. Really being armed with a lot of answers, insight that you can leverage very quickly.

SG: That’s correct. And this is precisely why we partnered with Kinetica and it’s because in order for us to, to take of this treasure trove of data and all of these highly computational heavy computational models, we have to have the compute and the capabilities to be able to unlock all of that. And that’s really what Kinetica is sort of like the Ferrari engine under the hood. Because, the Ferrari kit the outside is sort of like the data visualization, right? And the Ferrari engine is Connecticut and then the fuel is all the data, right? So, so we’re taking the fuel, the best fuel, we’re putting it into the, into the best engine, and then we’re exposing this in, in a high performance car kit, if you will, to be able to get you from A to B.

Right. And I guess the, in terms of next steps for you guys, we have kind of the stuff going on with the Covidien 19 pandemic, but we’re coming into fire season in California. There’s hurricane season. I was reading about tornadoes down in the South. It sounds like there’s a lot of things that are going to hit us while we’re in the midst of this current environment that we live in that people are going to need to respond to and manage.

SG: That’s correct. We, we can’t be ignorant of other disasters that that can happen not only in the midst of Corona virus, but as we’re coming out and dealing with the recovery once we flattened the curve, right? Because look at the, look at the jobs that have been lost. People now underemployed or unemployed, we have a disaster and those folks who are displaced, you may have a larger shelter population that you didn’t have to deal with a larger homeless population that you weren’t planning for. So the complexity of the disaster is only going to amplify either in the middle of this pandemic or after this pandemic. Hurricane season is June 1st that’s only what we’re April 22nd to less than two months away. that that should be sending off alarm bells for people and Oh, by the way, a classical problem. Emergency management is underfunded.

It is underfunded in many cases, especially in rural environments, emergency manager, it might be the mayor, it might be the fire chief in a well-funded emergency management program at a local municipality. It might be one single person and they might be making, I don’t know, 30 40 $50,000. These people are underpaid and underappreciated, which is a common theme in public service. But , we’re, we’re not prepared for the next disaster because we didn’t adjust our models for this enough to plan for a hurricane and sort of a steady state sky dealing with the hurricane in the, in the case of a brink of a recession, dealing with the hurricane on the, on the brink of, or during a pen, a global pandemic, which was still wrapping our arms around. We have to be able to, to anticipate and start to understand and position ourselves to be ready for these complexities and the cascading risk that’s going to occur when you have the first hurricane make landfall.

Hopefully it doesn’t happen. But right now the national weather service, the national hurricane center is predicting above normal season. Same thing with fires. The fire season is expected to be above average, right? So you could have a really big, this is why the world economic, when they listed out their number one concerns or their talk concerns and risks to the world I believe their report , they come out once a year, I think it’s released in January, but the world economic forum listed out the top hazards and risks. It was climate, it was hazards, natural hazards, disasters. Because this wasn’t inevitability. It, it, or excuse me, it wasn’t like this was never going to happen. In some cases it was inevitable, but it was, our failure to plan is, as the saying goes, you, you plan, you fail to plan, you plan to fail, right? So, so we, we have to, we have to really wrap our arms around this and start to understand if the hurricane is going to hit w how are we going to adjust our shelter operations? How are we going to address their feeding operations? How are we going to adjust potentially for a larger than normal our shelter capacity feeding capacity sanitation capacity that we haven’t had to deal with in the past,

Right? Yeah, that’s very well said and it’s super powerful what you guys are doing. Just watching from the sidelines and seeing how you guys are growing as a company and kind of the impact that you’re making and the vision statement around it is, it’s super motivating to see people using data the way you guys are using it. So I just want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today to learn a little bit about Disaster Tech and yourself and yeah, we’re rooting for you and excited to see how you guys are going to play a part in this global effort to protect our planet.

SG: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure and I hope folks go to a Disaster Tech dot com and check out all the great things that we’re doing and we’re very open to partnerships. We love collaborating with the community. Because this is a community challenge and not one company is going to solve everything. We have to work together.

Very cool. So you heard it. Disaster Tech, go check it out. This concludes another episode of Telekinesis and stay tuned for another episode coming soon. Take care. Thanks again, Sean.

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