PPD-8 Revisions and National Engagement Period

A NIMS Alert has just been released announcing the opening of the national engagement (comment) period on revisions to PPD-8 (National Preparedness Goal).  Most notably, these revisions include updated definitions for 10 Core Capabilities and the creation of one new Core Capability – Fire Management and Suppression.

These last few years I have found that FEMA has been more responsive than ever to stakeholder feedback and this is another great opportunity to ensure that their guidance and doctrine continues to be relevant and meaningful to those of us who use it.

A link to the PPD-8 revision site and national engagement period is here: http://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/103912.


The Human Aspect of ICS and Overcoming Transitional Incidents

Most often when we consider the Incident Command System (ICS), we think of boxes in an organization chart, forms to be completed, and specific processes to be followed.  True, these are, in essence, aspects of ICS, but they alone will not pave the way to success.  What we must remember is that ICS is conducted by people.

Typically the most difficult aspect of a complex incident is the transition from what we normally do and how we normally respond to elevating our response to a more appropriate level given the scope of the incident.  The groundwork for this transition lies in our initial response, which many experienced responders know can set the tone for the entire operation.  This initial response is based largely on the decisions we make with the information we have.  While there are policies, plans, procedures, play books, checklists, and myriad training that help to inform us, it all comes down to the human factor.  People make decisions based upon the stimuli they are presented with and their own experiences.

Chief Cynthia Renaud in her paper The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in the Edge of Chaos discusses approaches to initial response as an oft forgotten aspect of how we teach ICS.  While we know that responders conduct initial responses all the time, there is a significant difference in scope between a routine incident and a complex incident.  This difference in scope requires a different and more open mindset.  While our size up actions may generally be the same, we need to think bigger and this kind of thinking is difficult to train.

The implementation of the ‘bigger’ (i.e. beyond what is routinely used) aspects of ICS is also a challenging mindset for responders.  These aspects of ICS, such as the initial delegation of other organizational aspects and the need for a written Incident Action Plan, do not come easily when they are not practiced.  The fact of the matter is that the implementation of ICS requires a conscious, deliberate decision accompanied by people with knowledge and skilled intent to guide its expansion suitable to the incident at hand.  It also requires a bigger picture mindset recognizing the need to expand the management of the response proportionate to the complexity of the incident and the resources required to address it.  When is it needed?  How do we do it?

One problem is that most of the people we count on to manage these initial responses are trained to manage tactics, not large incidents.  They excel at managing a handful of resources in a rapid deployment and resolving an incident quickly.  This is exactly what they are needed for and they do it well.  Chief Renaud indicates a need to train these first level supervisors to recognize complex incidents for what they are and give them the tools (and authority) to implement broader measures, including an expanded implementation of ICS.

I’m a firm believer in ICS, but I know that people have to drive it.  It’s not something we can put on autopilot and expect it to bring us to our destination.  It has to be consciously and deliberately implemented.  When people criticize ICS, I often find that their criticism is due to false expectations and inappropriate implementation.  With that, I firmly believe we need to do a better job at training to address these issues and help responders better understand the system and demystify its use.

How do we make our training better for the average (non Incident Management Team) responder?  How do we help bridge this gap between the routine and the complex?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


Emergency Managers Need to be More Like Engineers and Less Like Shopkeepers

I was inspired by this short (~1 minute) video from TrainingJournal.com.  In the presenter’s brief but pointed message, he describes many trainers as being akin to shopkeepers, providing organizations often times with rote solutions just as a shopkeeper will pull a product off their shelves. He goes on to say that this these solutions are usually effective, but only for a limited duration.  He offers, instead, that trainers need to be more like engineers, examining every facet of a problem and constructing lasting solutions.  As an experienced trainer and proponent of a detailed root cause analysis, I couldn’t agree more, but as I readied myself to write a post about the implications of this on training, my mind carried this metaphor to many of our practices in emergency management.

Consider how often we quickly dismiss identified gaps with an assumed solution.  Write a plan, conduct a training, install a bigger culvert.  Those are usually our solutions to an identified problem.  Are they wrong?  No – we’re correct more often than not.  Are these lasting solutions?  Rarely!  How often does the problem rear its head again within a relatively short span of time?  How do we address the re-occurrence?  As shop keepers we simply pull another solution off the shelf.  Can we do better?

The things we do in emergency management are often based upon best and current practices.  We address problems through the prevalent way of dealing with such things industry-wide.  Emergency management has a great community of practice.  I’ve mentioned in several previous blog posts the spirit of sharing we have and the benefits we see come of that.  It doesn’t seem often, though, that we engage in an industry-wide groupthink to solve various problems.  We use and adapt ideas of individuals and small groups, we see a steady and determined progression of the practices within our progression, but we rarely see ‘game changing’ ideas that revolutionize how prevent, prepare for, respond to, or recover from disasters.  Why is this?

Perhaps we need a greater collective voice locally, where practitioners are dealing with the problems directly?  Our methods of practice in emergency management are generally driven by the federal government (THIRA, NIMS, HSEEP, etc.).  I’m not saying any of these are bad – in fact they are excellent standards that we need to continue to refine and apply, but it’s generally not the federal government that is dealing directly with the constant flow of issues being dealt with at a state, and even more so, a local level.  We need to follow that metaphor of being engineers to apply more permanent solutions to these problems.  We need to create, innovate, and problem solve. Or do we?

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.  We often miss the necessity of improving because we have current, functional solutions – we have things that work.  So why fix it if it’s not broken?  I say we can do better.  The realization of the need for lasting solutions is the necessity we need.  If the solutions we have on the shelf don’t work for us 100%, let’s figure out a better way.

I don’t know what or how, but I’m sure that as a community we can identify needs and prioritize what must be addressed.  Given the right people, time, and maybe a bit of money, we can be innovative and effect some lasting change.

I’d love to hear what others think on this topic.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


UW Emergency Management: Importance of Coordinating Volunteers In A Disaster: By Scott Preston

Volunteers in disaster – some food for thought.

University of Washington Emergency Management Blog

VolunteerDisasters and significant incidents are defined by the instantaneous excess of community need to available resources (i.e. we momentarily have more problems than we have solutions). This can be particularly true of the University Community, where we have a city within a city. Universities have all of the same problems as a city as well as some challenges a city doesn’t have, often without all of the resources a city enjoys in terms of personnel and capabilities.

Well-trained and coordinated emergency volunteers can be a significant benefit to a University as a resource multiplier, assisting the career first responders by performing simple, common duties that do not require specialized training or authority.  This allows the University emergency officials to evaluate the incident needs and allocate the specialized career first responders to those areas where only their unique skills and authorities will do.

volunteers2 Some examples of the use of well-trained volunteers…

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The Need for Practical Incident Command Training

I’ve written a couple of articles in past few months (See: Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough; and Training EOC Personnel – ICS is Not Enough) where I’ve been a little rough on the Incident Command System (ICS), or rather the trust that people put in it as a magic pill to cure all their incident management ills.  As it turns out, there is no apologia; rather I’m going to continue challenging the status quo, this time as it relates to how ICS training is conducted.

The driving force behind this is the realization of a gap that exists in ICS training and the ability of learners to apply what they have learned to a reasonable degree within an emergency response environment.  The foundational ICS courses (ICS 100 – 400) provide learners with a progressive understanding of the concepts, terms, organizational elements, and primary processes within ICS, but provide little opportunity to practically apply what they have learned.  Progressive instructional design methods through course revisions have added more hands-on activities within these courses to enhance learning, but these courses still fall short of providing the kind of practical exercising needed for learners to have any degree of confidence or proficiency.  That said, these courses accomplish exactly what they are intended to.  They are not designed to provide much practical application.

To the other side of the ICS training spectrum is training for Incident Management Teams (IMTs), which provides intensive and in depth training, mostly focused on the individual positions within an incident command organization, and the key activities and responsibilities of those positions.  IMT training also includes capstone courses in which IMTs complete a combination of didactic and hands-on instruction in a team environment.  Much of this training is coordinated by FEMA and the US Fire Administration through the NIMS ICS All-Hazards Position Specific Training Program with their focus primarily on building capability at the Type III (extended operations) level, with training at the higher (Type II and I) levels available through appropriately intensive efforts.  While some training is available for Type IV and V IMTs, this is often not taken advantage of because rural areas may not be able to assemble enough personnel for a functional team.  The training is also still fairly intensive, even at this level, and requires a number of courses, each with a team of instructors.  This comes at a high cost of time and dollars.  The need for local personnel to function within an incident command structure at the local level still exists, but goes largely unaddressed with performance level training being focused on IMTs.

Certainly exercises can provide an opportunity for individuals to work together as an ad-hoc team to resolve an incident.  While exercises provide for great practice, instructive feedback usually doesn’t occur at all, with usually only a few out of context comments coming until well after the experience by way of an After Action Report.  Structured learning environments which provide a series of simulations where individuals can practice what they have learned are ideal, particularly when immediate hotwashes are provided after each scenario, allowing learners to grow and apply what they have learned in the next scenario.

Of the learning opportunities that current exist, the Enhanced All-Hazards Incident Management/Unified Command course (MGT 314) from TEEX comes closest to this type of experience.  I have direct experience taking this course at the TEEX location several years ago and found it to be a great experience.  Because of the technology used to facilitate the course it is only offered as a resident program at TEEX and seats fill quickly.  While this is a great program, we need more like it and an ability to reach down to small local governments where there is an urgent need for this type of practical training.

Several years ago colleagues and I developed a course called the ‘IAP Workshop’, which is a daylong scenario-driven training where students practice working the ICS planning process and ultimately developing an IAP.  Through the day of training, participants go through this process several times in a crawl-walk-run progression with feedback provided by facilitators.  Participants are required to have completed the ICS 300 course as a prerequisite.  This course has proven successful, despite naysayers and traditionalists who default to the ICS curriculum fulfilling all ICS training needs.  That said, there is more to ICS and ICS application than the planning process.

Practical training in any subject, particularly the Incident Command System, builds confidence and improved application of knowledge and skills.  Since most incidents are best managed locally, we need to invest in better training to enhance local capabilities.  The foundational ICS courses are just that – foundational.  IMT training may simply not be the best solution to meet this need.  Let’s talk about the ICS training gap and find some solutions.

What ICS training gaps have you identified?  Have you discovered or designed any solutions?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


Ebola Reflection Measures our Preparedness

NBC News recently posted an article citing a report published by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.  The link provided to the report in the NBC News article doesn’t seem to work, but I’ve found what I believe to be the report here.  The focus of the report is on the ethical challenges faced by the US in responding to this issue.  The report summarizes a variety of ethics related concerns and considerations in this ongoing response and paints a fairly accurate picture of our failures and what needs to be addressed – at least within the topics it discusses.

Photo credit: Forbes.com

Photo credit: Forbes.com

As you might expect from a report on bioethics, it is very public health focused.  While they do make mention of very public health centered topics such as clinical drug trials, they do cover topics which are much more broadly rooted in emergency management and homeland security, such as community and responder education, and ethics associated with quarantine.  This report, while fairly focused, opens a virtual Pandora’s box of issues related to our domestic response to Ebola.

Needless to say, our collective response to this matter was horrible.  Public health policy and guidance was a moving target for weeks; responders were ill prepared to handle potentially infected persons; and the collective of society, politicians, and public safety were largely reluctant to deal with matters of quarantine much less prepared for it.  Was this our first consideration of something like Ebola?  Of course not.  Didn’t we have preparations in place?  Kind of.

Back in the late 90s, pushed mostly by the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici act of 1996, preparedness efforts for state and local responders were funded to enhance our capabilities in dealing with WMD incidents.  Several years later, after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, another surge of funding was pushed down to state and local governments from HHS/CDC for the purpose of bolstering public health preparedness including preparedness for WMD/weaponized biologicals and naturally occurring pandemic incidents.  These two programs alone, not including other related funding, fostered the creation of plans and organizations to support them, purchased entire stockpiles of equipment and supplies, trained tens of thousands of responders and public health workers, and encouraged exercises across the nation to test capabilities (it was actually these exercises which largely influenced the creation of what we now know as HSEEP).  A lot of good came from these programs, but when suddenly tested with the reality of implementation we seemed to fall apart.  Why?

First of all, many of these preparedness efforts occurred between 10 and nearly 20 years ago.  Many of the people initially trained in these programs have since retired from public service with their organizations losing a great deal of institutional knowledge.  While training programs have continued and still exist, there have been systemic gaps in tying this type of training to other preparedness efforts (planning, policy, equipment, etc.).  Some equipment purchased near the beginning of these programs has likely been retired as well.  Much of it still exists, but has been brought into the fold of other applications, such as HazMat – which is certainly appropriate, but yet again we see gaps, this time our ability to readily utilize equipment specifically for public health threats.

In my opinion many of the planning efforts we saw after 9/11 were misguided.  This started with the people who were doing the planning.  Many health organizations emphasized health care experience for these positions instead of EM or planning experience – which was their main function.  Certainly health care knowledge had some importance, but that could be supplemented through a good advisory committee (EM after all is a team effort).  Exacerbating poor hiring decisions was a lack of investing in the people that were hired.  Many organizations expected them to churn out pandemic influenza plans in short order, with little/no training on the planning process or integral systems that must be considered.  Further, much of the planning had been done in a vacuum – that is, it had been performed with little/no input from other stakeholders.  I had reviewed many of these plans, finding things such as inappropriate applications of ICS and wild assumptions of resource availability.  In no way were these plans realistic or applicable.

There were many exercises performed and most of them had great value.  The problem is that there were a lot of assumptions in these exercises and policy decisions made in the exercises were rarely challenged as they would be in reality.  The US Ebola response brought this all to light as decisions such as quarantine were being handled at the governor level and under significant controversy.  So in this recent response I ask why were decisions delayed and deferred to higher authorities?  Why were adequate local/regional plans not in place to address the care and handling of potentially infected persons?  Why did procedural issues take weeks to resolve?  The simple answer is that there was a lack of proper preparedness.

Back in October of last year, when Ebola was emerging in the US, I posted an article titled Preparing for Ebola – and Whatever Else May Come.  The article still has a great deal of relevancy since I’ve seen very little preparedness for future occurrences – only a harried response to the most recent incident.  There have certainly been a great deal of policies and procedures assembled for the current Ebola issue, but these have a feeling of being temporary, throwaway, or single-use documents, applied only for this instance instead of durable and lasting plans.  Many will keep them ‘on the books’, only to find that their hasty assembly wasn’t comprehensive enough for the next occurrence.  Emergency management and homeland security professionals, public health leaders, and elected and appointed officials need to take a step back and re-look at out preparedness efforts – especially in regard to public health issues.  While we should learn from what we have experienced, we also need to think comprehensively about what is needed.  Well considered policies need to be put in place, supported by our laws and responsibilities to protect the public while also considering protection of civil liberties.  Other preparedness efforts such as planning, training, and exercising need to continue to occur but must have their connections strengthened and intentional.  Exercises need to test plans and policies and challenge decision makers who are certainly making difficult decisions that may include ethics and moral issues in the consideration of caring for few while protecting the greater society.

These are not easy things to be done – which supports the need to work on them now, when we aren’t facing an imminent disaster.  While Ebola certainly wasn’t a health care crisis and there were a lot of things done right, there is always room for improvement – especially when the next biological occurrence could be a crisis.

What have you and your organization learned from the Ebola response?  What gaps have you addressed?  What do you feel still needs to be addressed?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker