“In case of emergency call …”
It is a phrase that anyone who has ever filled out a form is familiar with - the obligatory line that tells your co-workers, teachers, and various concerned medical professionals who to call in the unlikely event you are hit by a falling space rock. Or, OK, perhaps a more likely medical emergency for those of you out there lacking in adequate imagination.
But who do the people we call in the event of emergency call? When things go wrong for citizens, they more or less call the cops or the fire department; when things are beyond what the police and the fire department can do, it’s time to call in the big guns over at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the National Guard.
Thankfully for all of us, really true disaster movie scaled problems are relatively rare, which is why they are so memorable. If we think about FEMA’s greatest hits (and misses) over the last decade or so — Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the Joplin tornadoes — FEMA shows up usually when the best description or explanation of an event is “the wrath of God.”
But the question still remains — in the event of crisis, after FEMA has gotten the call, who do they call?
The temptation might be to say no one — the buck stops with them, and so once the call comes in there is nothing left to do but determine which type of Hazmat suit is needed and hit the ground running. But that temptation would be wrong, because there is an all-important phone call FEMA officials make before deploying, if a surprising one.
In the event of an emergency, FEMA calls The Waffle House to get an idea of just how bad things are.
Wait What? And What’s A Waffle House?
While our readers in the Southeastern and Mid Atlantic states are probably confused as to why their favorite breakfast joint is a key part of emergency management, readers in all other regions of the country have confusion that runs deeper, since it is possible they have never eaten in, or seen, a Waffle House.
Waffle House is a chain of restaurants in that are always open — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“We only have locks on the doors because we are legally required to," a spokesperson we spoke to joked. "They are the most underused locks in business today.”
The food is notable for being extremely inexpensive and extraordinarily tasty. All in, there are 1,764 Waffle Houses spread across 25 states, though the vast, vast majority are located along the highways and interstates of the South.
Described by a writer for Bon Appetit as “the 1950s Main Street diner you never had growing up. The layout is always the same — open kitchen, booths, counter seats, jukebox — and the double-sided laminated menu always includes breakfast, burgers, pork chops, T-bones, waffles, and, most famously, hash browns.”
The hash browns are deservedly famous. At any given moment the most satisfying meal in America is always being eaten at a Waffle House, mostly on the strength of those hash browns.
Now that all might sound delicious, but what does it have to do with emergency management?
Well, the delicious food doesn’t have a lot to do with emergency management, but the fact that Waffle House is always open does, because it made FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate realize something. Waffle House could tell emergency workers a lot about how badly wrong things had gone on the ground.
The Waffle House Index
Back when Fugate was the head for Florida’s emergency management agency, something occurred to him. The problem with natural disasters is that they immediately and almost irrevocably cut off access to information because the lines are down. Waffle Houses — because they are always open unless they physically can’t be — are thus a good indicator of conditions on the ground, as its status as open or not tells emergency workers if there is electricity, phone service and if roads are passable.
Thus the Waffle House Index — a three-tiered system to quickly assess conditions on the ground — was born. Green means the restaurant is fully open for business, yellow means a limited menu is being served (indicating the WaHo is running on back-up generators) and red means the doors have closed. When Fugate moved to the top spot at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he took his Waffle House based system with him.
“If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work,” Fugate famously said in 2011 in the aftermath of the Joplin tornados.
And it may sound like a joke — or something just waiting to be debunked by Snopes — but in fact it is quite, quite real.
“It just doesn’t happen where Waffle House is normally shut down,” said Philip Strouse, FEMA’s private sector liaison for the Southeast.
Strouse noted that because the Waffle House is focused on always being open, they are much better prepared than the average business or person, and in general the fastest turnaround in an emergency.
“They’re the canary in the coalmine, if you will,” Strouse said.
They are also, notably, the shelter from the storm in many cases, as a Waffle House employee explained to NPR.
“A lot of people were stranded on the highway with cars and they couldn’t get to their cars,” Palmer said. “But since we’re a staple in the community, they always knew they can come here and get great service and great food,” manager Greg Palmer noted of an ice storm last year that kept the local WaHo open and hopping for 30 straight hours.
While the city thawed, corporate HQ put Palmer and his team up in walking-distance hotels to make sure that the hash browns and coffee kept coming.
It may seem like a silly metric on first glance, but FEMA has found time and time again that the right local business can tell you a lot about a community, such that the only really sensible response was to actually build an index to measure it.
And we at PYMNTS share their view on that, though we are tracking community health and safety somewhat less literally than they are with our Storefront Business Index. We are benchmarking the health of all the main and side street business that are the heartbeat of local economies.