On even relatively simple incidents, multiple agencies respond, each with their own priorities, objectives, and authorities. Even on these small and fairly routine incidents, agencies will complain about one another, typically from a lack of understanding of their role and priorities at an incident scene. On-scene conflict between police and fire departments is almost cliché, but if you’ve been in this business for a while, you’ve certainly seen it occur.
The number of agencies and interests often expands with great leaps and bounds as the size, duration, and complexity of an incident grows. While we have incident management systems (such as the incident command system or ICS) which help us to organize and manage the multitude of resources and interests involved during an incident, it’s critical that we have a better understanding and accountability of these agencies and interests before a complex incident occurs. How can this best be done?
Establishing this mutual understanding and accountability is the foundation of a system of response. From the broadest levels, this is established in the National Response Framework, which is a national-level document describing how the US Federal government organizes to response to large incidents, but also identifies, in general terms, the roles and responsibilities of state, local, tribal, private, nonprofit, faith-based, and community stakeholders; along with how they interrelate during a response. In the US, states have their own emergency operations plans, which further narrow this perspective within their state, addressing their own unique hazards, resources, laws, and ways of operating. County and local governments, individual agencies, organizations, and others can and often times do have their own plans with a continually refined focus.
It is through the creation and ongoing maintenance of these planning documents where our system of response is first built. Dialogue and understanding among the stakeholders are essential. We must learn who are partners are in emergency response (and mitigation, recovery, prevention, and protection, for that matter) and what their interests and objectives are. Sometimes those partners are asked to participate, other times they simply arrive on scene, leaving local responders and the person in charge feeling insecure and frustrated. In your planning efforts, try to anticipate who might be involved in a critical incident so you can better anticipate those needs.
To further this understanding, especially with those who may find themselves working directly with responders of other agencies, it is important to train and exercise together. Joint training and exercises give responders an opportunity to navigate course and exercise objectives together, leveraging their own knowledge, experience, and capabilities along with those of others; increasing the value of the learning experience as well as their aptitude for joint operations.
Many training courses are well suited for mixed audiences – from the management and planning level to the tactical level. Incident command system courses, which all responders should take to an appropriate level, are also ideal for this, especially since they should encourage discussion about operational priorities, objectives, and strategies. Additionally, courses that are heavy in scenario-based training can greatly maximize this synergy, since they are a combination of training and structured exercises. Courses that use simulation tables are excellent for cross-discipline integration.
Joint training and exercises might not always be practical, especially for those new to their field of practice. Acknowledging that, consider including information on the other disciplines within the basic or academy-level training that is conducted. A brief amount of time spent on the legal authorities, priorities, and operational objectives of partner disciplines can be valuable to creating understanding on a complex incident.
Keep it Going
As with all preparedness efforts, ‘one and done’ is not a mantra you want to follow. To be effective, contemporary, and impactful; you have to build a legacy program. As the program continues, strive to constantly improve. Don’t only keep plans up to date, but create procedures on integration that lead to an effective system of response. Use training to support these plans and procedures and use exercises as both an opportunity for practice as well as an opportunity to identify strengths and areas for improvement within the plans and procedures. Joint exercises will help identify areas that need to be addressed, such as interoperable communications, conflicting protocols, and competing priorities. It’s better to identify and address these matters now than during a critical incident.
© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP
Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness