Understanding and Using the Core Capabilities

One of the great features of WordPress (my blogging platform) is that it identifies various statistics and sets of data for me.  One of those bits of data is search terms used to find my blog.  Yesterday there were three that caught my eye:

  • Which of the 31 core capabilities are useless
  • How many of the 31 core capabilities do we really need
  • Are there any of the 31 core capabilities that we can do without

Obviously there is some interest in the Core Capabilities.  These searches are so similar they are very likely from the same person or a group of people, such as college students.  As a side, I have been flattered to find that many of my blog posts have been cited in college papers.  It’s quite an honor.

On to the Core Capabilities.  First of all, with the release of the second edition of the National Preparedness Goal, there are now 32 Core Capabilities.  The Core Capabilities can be viewed as key areas of activity.  Mass Care Services, for example, involves a broad array of activities including sheltering, feeding, hydration, mental and spiritual care, and others.  Each of the 32 Core Capabilities have applicability, although that applicability will vary from location to location.

32 Core Capabilities

NPG 32 Core Capabilities

My company recently completed a state-wide homeland security and emergency management assessment for a client.  This assessment was based upon the Core Capabilities, as they provide consistent definitions of these activity areas and are comprehensive, incorporating all key activities in all phases of emergency management and homeland security and are generally not hazard-specific.

We met face to face with a number of jurisdictions, large and small, to gather input on each Core Capability.  It was no surprise that certain Core Capabilities, specifically Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning were consistently identified as top concerns for stakeholders.  These three Core Capabilities, by the way, are applicable across all five Mission Areas identified in the National Preparedness Goal.

In our study, there were other Core Capabilities which we found to be important to some, but not to others.  Many smaller jurisdictions, especially those without their own law enforcement, saw little applicability to them of those Core Capabilities which are contained within the Prevention and Protection Mission Areas.  As these two Mission Areas are generally focused on criminal and homeland security issues, we found that those not in law enforcement tended to be dismissive of their importance.  Even some law enforcement professionals, at least in the state we were working in, viewed some of these Core Capabilities as being a responsibility of the State Police and generally not a local police activity.

Potential application of the Core Capabilities is quite broad with many possibilities.  Unfortunately, FEMA doesn’t seem to be marketing their applicability very well, which makes the questions about their usefullness quite understandable.  Going back about ten years, FEMA provided us with the predecessor to the Core Capabilities – these were the Target Capabilities.  The Target Capabilities were a good start, albeit a bit complex and unrefined.  The Core Capabilities are a great evolution of the same concept.  When the Target Capabilities were released, there was a big push for their integration into all aspects of preparedness.  FEMA encouraged their consideration in planning efforts, they encouraged training courses to identify what Target Capabilities were being trained to, and for exercises to identify what Target Capabilities were being exercised.  While much of that encouragement has seemed to disappear, there is no reason why we can’t still do it with the Core Capabilities.  And we should.

The most direct application of the Core Capabilities is in the THIRA process.  THIRA stands for Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment.  Many discussions on THIRA can be found here.  The annual completion of a THIRA is required of every state, territory, and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funded program.  The THIRA is essentially a very thorough and in-depth hazard analysis that other jurisdictions should consider conducting.  The insights revealed from the process and the end product are widely applicable and can fully change the basis for an emergency management program.  The THIRA process centers on the Core Capabilities.

Other preparedness efforts can certainly reference the Core Capabilities, and easily so.  The greatest benefit of the Core Capabilities, from my experience, is consistency.  They provide a concise definition of these key activities.  The definition is broad enough to find applicability to any jurisdiction, which then uses that definition to identify their own capability targets.  Capability targets define how the jurisdiction is going to accomplish each Core Capability.  That is the brilliance of the system – national-level definitions for key activity areas which are then refined by each jurisdiction to identify how they will best apply them.  While the creation of capability targets is part of the THIRA process, any jurisdiction can do it.  These targets help define what they want to accomplish in their emergency management programs.

As with the Target Capabilities, the Core Capabilities can be referenced in planning, training, exercises, assessments, and other activities.  Many of the Core Capabilities may warrant their own planning efforts for many jurisdictions.  Things like Mass Care Services, Fatality Management, Situational Assessment, and Housing can all be planning annexes to a more comprehensive emergency management planning effort.  The HSEEP process still calls for the identification of Core Capabilities early in the exercise design process.  This identification, along with the creation of good exercise objectives, helps define the scope of the exercise and maintain focus.  The same application works for training programs.  From a program management perspective, Core Capabilities should be used to identify areas of focus in a Training and Exercise Plan (TEP).

The definitions that Core Capabilities provide, along with the benefit of jurisdiction-specific capability targets, can help broadly identify what emergency management and homeland security programs are focused on.  The consistency allows for increased understanding, prioritization, and connectivity between activities and programs.  Integrating the Core Capabilities into EM and HS programs is relatively easy and scalable, it just simply requires a slightly different perspective.

Questions?  Comments?

Thanks, as always, to my readers.  As mentioned, my company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, has great experience using the Core Capabilities and applying them to all areas of preparedness.  Need help?  Give us a call!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

7 thoughts on “Understanding and Using the Core Capabilities

  1. Very well written summary. It makes this area, which for many a very complex issue, understandable. I have been involved in process of the development of HSEEP from the beginning when I was with the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), even before DHS was created. The original intent was to develop a national set of Preparedness standards so that when faced with a catastrophic event responding assistance from anywhere in the US would be doing so in a consistent manner. The first evolutions focused primarily on tasks, which quickly became overwhelming. The newest version, while in my opinion may suffer from some lack of detail, could be effective. However, again in my opinion, it is not at all because FEMA made a huge mistake by changing the format of the After Action Report (AAR), to be driven by objectives and not Core Capabilities. If they would have remained focused on Core Capabilities then you would have seen a nation building consistent Capabilities. This is one reason FEMAs National Exercise Division in such utter chaos and completely inept that they recently changed the entire leadership. It’s unfortunate but something desperately needed. I am hoping, for the good of of nations Preparedness that they go back to the drawing board and focus on what is important.

    1. Kevin,
      Thanks for the response. I agree with many of your points. It’s important for us to have a continuity across the spectrum of preparedness. The Core Capabilities can absolutely facilitate that, but it requires deliberate implementation.


  2. Tim and Kevin,

    Really interesting thoughts all around. I spent a good chunk of my career at FEMA, including working as a planner during the period when the Core Capabilities were developed (although I didn’t have a hand in that effort). I believe in the logic and value of the CCs generally—although I have to admit that at first I had no idea what to do with them, largely because their relationship to the Emergency Support Functions that we all knew and loved was (and for many, still may be) about as clear as mud. The names sounded similar, and many of the activities looked the same…but why was there such a pronounced lack of coherence between our preparedness framework and our operational framework? What were the implications of the CCs for exercise evaluation? And why were we suddenly writing response plans using preparedness words rather than an operational words?

    From a change management perspective, I’m still not sure whether it was a help or a hindrance that the CCs essentially punctuated the transmogrification of preparedness from a longstanding and familiar emergency management program phase into an amorphous aspirational state manifested in the form of 3.7 metric tons of new policy and doctrine. In contrast to the focused, deliberate socialization effort that took place when crisis management and consequence management were supplanted by incident management (i.e., the NIMS compliance push), the promulgation of the Core Capabilities seemed, at least to me, seriously lacking in the outreach and education department. Presumably there was quite a lot of inside baseball that drove the way in which the Core Capabilities shook out vis-a-vis the ESFs.

    Again, I’m a believer but at times I still find the link between the CCs and the ESFs to be a bit tenuous. Version 2 was an improvement, and hopefully Version 3 will incorporate a clearer definition of the strategic and operational relationships between these two frameworks.

    1. Shawn,
      Thanks for the comment and the interesting insight. I for one am a huge supporter of the umbrella concept of preparedness as it is now defined, encompassing all phases of EM/HS. The core capabilities should be fueling more of it, but as you mentioned, the concept suffers from a lack of marketing and education – along with thorough doctrinal integration. While they are used throughout the frameworks, there is little else to promote their use. In actuality, they can serve as foundational references for every preparedness activity we do.

      You bring up a good point regarding the application of the core capabilities within operations and their relationship to the ESFs. I think that capability based planning provides a great focus and should be encouraged. If you remove the FEMA defined ESFs, capability based planning really is functional planning in many ways. What has long concerned me is when states and especially local governments try to use the ESFs in their planning efforts. The ESFs, as defined and organized, work well for federal agencies, but not as well for lower levels of government. The concept, however does apply very well. State and local governments can utilize the core capabilities as a foundation for some of these efforts to enhance preparedness and build operational plans.

  3. Is there a process to take exercise objectives and link them specifically to core capabilities? Is there a detailed listing of what each core capability includes?

    1. Hi Laura,
      The National Preparedness Goal is the source document for the Core Capabilities. It provides short summaries of each. More detailed explanations and activities are found in the frameworks assembled for each mission area (i.e. the National Response Framework).

      There isn’t really an explicit process for associating objectives to Core Capabilities, but once you have a good understanding of what each Core Capability is about, it’s pretty easy. Keep in mind that a single objective can also link to multiple Core Capabilities, so it’s not necessarily a 1:1 correlation.

      I hope this helps!


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