Desi Matel-Anderson on Fighting Chaos with Preparedness and Innovation

February 10, 2020

What do you do when chaos hits? 

When natural disasters devastate communities, when a fire rips through a state, or when flooding threatens the livelihood of thousands . . . what do you do?

These are heavy questions. They are questions that a lot of us don’t think about actively, let alone on a daily basis. For Desi Matel-Anderson however, answering these questions and preparing for the worst are a part of her everyday life. 

Innovation and Disaster Preparedness as a Career

Desi Matel-Anderson is an expert in disaster preparedness and thinking innovatively. The first and former Chief Innovation Advisor for FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), Desi has been playing a role in helping communities work through their disasters for almost a decade.

Working now at the Field Innovation Team as their Chief Wrangler, her innovation and preparedness have gone international.

This March at ConExpo/CON-AGG, Desi will be hosting a workshop to talk about what innovation and preparedness are and how contractors can implement it into their own daily lives.

DOZR sat down with Desi to learn all about what preparedness and innovation mean, how it can be applied to the construction industry, and how small businesses and independent contractors can apply innovation to their own operations.

From A Federal Agency To An International Team: Innovation Never Stops

For Desi, the transition from a government body to an international team has been an adventure. Starting out in a traditional emergency management role in a large government agency kept her mainly in the states. Moving to the Field Innovation Team has opened up an international side of her work.  

Assisting in an international crisis can include floods, hurricanes or typhoons, earthquakes and fires.

“There’s been so much that I’ve learned from communities around the world.  It’s humbling and incredible to see the world from different perspectives. It has broadened my ability to see the different kinds of innovations that are happening around the world and how it applies to our day-to-day lives. What I’ve learned from that, which is probably the coolest lesson of my life, is that there is so much left to learn. We’re so lucky on this globe to have one another to lean on in our lives and in times of crisis. We need to realize how lucky we are to have that opportunity.”

What Does Innovation and Emergency Preparedness mean?

The actual definition of innovation is “a new method or idea or product.”

For Desi, however, it is a bit more practical than that. Innovation is about looking at the challenges you face and creating solutions from different, out of the box ideas. For Desi, there’s no idea too crazy, too intense, or too “out there” to consider leading to an actual solution. 

Especially as the emergencies we face grow more intense and unpredictable – like the fires that have happened in Australia – being able to think ahead, think differently, and embrace innovation can be a huge part of preparing yourself for what could come. 

“When our team deploys in disasters, we use a framework and design process called the ‘Three-Step Prep’ in order to unlock innovative ideas. It’s very much a method of thinking that leads to great ideas and methods of handling a crisis. 

It’s all a cycle. Preparing turns into response, which turns into recovery which turns into mitigation, and leads us back into preparing. 

We really need to think about getting ready before the next “one”. If we can think of innovative solutions before our next disaster – whether it be wind storm, or tornado or flood – we’re able to save lives. We can also help people bounce back faster with resilience.”

How did Desi Get Involved in Emergency Preparedness?

It was Valentine’s Day in 2008 when Desi Matel-Anderson was sitting in the library at her university, studying law, when she heard the sounds of popping. What she first thought was fireworks, she soon realized it was the sound of gunfire.

“Looking back on it now, I did not respond well. A lot of people think that, right out of the gate, you’re heroic and you know what to do. They think it’s innately in us as humans. I did not have that. 


I didn’t help myself, I didn’t help others, I didn’t run, I didn’t hide… I just sat down in the library, carved a valentines day card [from construction paper] and put my expiration date on it. All I could think about was my own mortality and that it was the end.


I realized afterwards that there are probably a lot of people like me who don’t know how to respond to emergencies. We need to have a way to do that and that’s what really propelled me into the field.”

A parking lot near Cole Hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University became a staging area for emergency personnel who responded to a shooting at the DeKalb campus, Feb. 14, 2008. Image borrowed from Chicago Tribune.

Moving from Darkness to Light

After the active shooting incident, Desi has moved forward to study at the National Preparedness Leadership Institute at Harvard. Aside from now working as the Chief Wrangler at the Field Innovation Team, Desi also lectures at multiple universities including Harvard and Yale while consulting for the European emergency management Consortium in UNESCO’s I-REACT Team among other innovation agencies both in the US and internationally. 

Rising to a place where she is able to help others in a time of crisis did not come easily. After experiencing an active shooter, the transition was not done lightly.

“It was very dark for a couple of years, but what happens sometimes is when you hit rock bottom, you start to think about things differently. You need to find your own out of the box solution that can help you and help others and, hopefully, not just empower yourself but create an empowering movement for others.“

Innovation for Companies both Small and Large

This move towards helping others is what had driven Desi forward in her mission. In the construction industry, she believes that there is no company too small to work innovation and preparedness into their daily operations.

In fact, the small, independent, family-owned businesses could be the best ones in the industry to help have an impact and drive change in the face of a crisis.

“Small companies and general contractors may not have all the resources, all the personnel or time . . . but that’s where the most innovative solutions can come from that can save lives. We [the Field Innovation Team] strongly believe that small teams win.”

The Construction Industry Is Far More Innovative Than People Think

The most often associated with innovation is often technology. The construction industry, in particular, is often seen as slow to adopt new technology. Some may argue then, that this means the construction industry is not very innovative. Desi, however, thinks otherwise. 

In her experience with disaster management and thinking innovatively, Desi has witnessed the way construction and agriculture companies are working to use technology to make their people safer.

In fact, it’s the key focus of how the industry views technology: as a way to support the men and women, who are working every day to build and feed our world.

“The construction industry has an intimate relationship between man and machine. They want technology to respect that connection they have with their machines and industry as a person. Technology is more of a way to help them expedite and support their people on the ground because it’s a very people, human and workforce-centric industry. It’s an incredibly cool thing to see. Definitely a good thing.”

The Best Way For Contractors To Care about Being Innovative

You may be thinking that contractors and the construction industry don’t face disasters on a daily basis. Why should you care? 

As Desi has experienced first hand, no one knows what kind of situation they will find themselves in. Being prepared is not about using it on a daily basis, but rather being ready for when something does happen.

“One day, it could be any one of us, our families, our spouse or someone they love who finds themselves dealing with unexpected challenges. We need people to stand up and be heroic and to empower others. Preparing ahead of time allows them to be a hero who can stand up in the face of the next disaster. They can then become someone who can help humanity on a larger scale.”

The Field Innovation Team has developed a process they call the “Three-Step Prep” to help people organize their thoughts and respond in the event of an emergency. These three steps take you through the what, who  + why, and how of a disaster, crisis or problem.

“When a disaster is happening, chaos often follows. You need a simple framework that’s easy to remember and quick to think through to help guide you through a problem. With this in your backpocket, any problem – big or small – can be addressed in a methodical, structured way. 


Our Three-Step Prep asks three questions. First, ‘What is the disaster? What are we solving for?’ Once that is answered, the second question is, ‘Who are we solving for?’ and ‘Why are we solving for them?”. The third step is, ‘How are we going to solve it?’. This is where crazy ideas and innovation come out. 


These three simple questions can help guide action in the middle of a crisis and offer a sort of calm and structure within a storm”

For Disasters Small and Large

These frameworks that Desi describes are not only for large scale hurricanes or typhoons, floods, fires, or tornados. It is a framework to guide planning and innovative thinking for all different safety protocols on a construction site – from safety plans and fire evacuations to injury responses or equipment breakdowns on site.

“You can use this framework to help get a plan in place ahead of a disaster. You’re almost having mini-preparation sessions so when something does happen on site, you use these three steps almost automatically. As things become bigger or a disaster becomes larger, the same steps can still be used. It’s a day-to-day tool that can come in handy to anyone.”

Crisis Workshop: How To Keep Your Company Innovative

Hearing stories about these major environmental crises that Desi has worked on in her career may make you question how these can apply to the construction industry. Her workshop at Con Expo/CON-AGG on March 11 aims to show people in the construction industry just that.

“With this workshop that we’ll be hosting in Las Vegas for the disaster simulation lab is to take all this incredible knowledge from communities across the globe . . . and apply it to the workshop to think about how we can be more resilient in the future.”


DirtStories dig up the hidden gems in the industry to share untold stories with the world. From large companies and independent contractors to individual interviews and event coverage, DirtStories is challenging the way the world views construction by sharing the stories of the people who build and feed our world.


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