Funeral Services in the Midst of a Pandemic

Despite Coronavirus and COVID19, there are things that must continue. Public safety, health and hospitals, grocers, shipping and distribution, banking and finance all carry on.  Unfortunately, be it related to COVID19 or otherwise, people die.  Based on social norms, religious practice, and family tradition, we mourn our dead, typically coming together to see them off to the afterlife.  Obviously, we need not risk our own lives to mourn the dead. 

With the recommendation for gatherings being no more than ten people, we should understand that this will likely mean only immediate family, or just a few select family members to be physically present for services.  There has been some great guidance going out from the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA) for funeral home directors and other related practitioners based upon information from and consultation with the CDC and other public health experts.  The CDC’s COVID19 site also has an FAQ for funerals (and other topics).  The NFDA recommends that funeral home directors and religious facilities provide live streams of services for loved ones who may not be able to attend services. 

Public safety agencies, emergency management offices, and other government officials may be getting inquiries about the conduct of funeral services.  It’s important that we know where to go for this information. 

Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Responding to Coronavirus & a Second Major Incident

Springtime is practically upon us.  Trees are budding, asparagus is growing (yes, I mentioned asparagus), birds are chirping, and snow is melting.  And it’s raining.  Some people call it spring, others call it the first flood season of the year.  Flooding isn’t the only hazard we face right now.  It’s still early enough for the threat of snow and ice storms, and we’ve already seen tornado activity in the US.  Oh, and by the way, we’re dealing with a pandemic.  EDIT: In the midst of writing this post and also exchanging emails re Coronavirus with a client in Utah, he exclaimed in one of his responses that a 5.7 earthquake had just struck with an epicenter just outside Salt Lake City.  As one of my old bosses used to say, you can’t make this stuff up. 

So often we are used to dealing with one disaster at a time.  Yes, sometimes we get hit with a one-two punch, or other times the same incident, such as a hurricane, persists, but these are typically localized, not a nation-wide concern, much less global.  When our resources are already strained from dealing with Coronavirus, it can be a challenge to respond to another significant incident, especially when there is little mutual aid to be had.  I often think back to an example I use back from my days in EMS, and that’s the multi-trauma patient.  Most EMS instructors, following the standard curriculum, will teach you how to treat lacerations, fractures, burns, and the like.  But rarely do we learn about how to deal with those things when they all happen at once. I remember back when I was a young pup EMT, my first multi-trauma patient was a victim of a motor vehicle accident (as it probably was for most EMTs).  I recall having a brief moment of panic because that’s not what we were taught to handle.  My brain quickly reset, and I went back to my ABCs, assessing and stabilizing the patient in priority order. 

Another personal example I have is the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on November 12, 2001 – two months and one day after 9/11.  The plane crashed in Queens borough of New York City as the result of a critical structural failure.  260 souls on board, plus 5 on the ground died.  This occurred in the midst of the response to one of the most impactful disasters in US history.  In a way we ‘lucked out’ that the incident occurred in New York City.  On a normal day, the City of New York can leverage more resources in a response than some US states and even nations.  November 2001 was anything but ‘normal’ with a massive amount of additional resources still rotating into the City to support 9/11 activities.  While at this point, two months following 9/11, things were reasonably stable in and around ground zero, the crash of Flight 587 still required a significant change in operations.  From my recollection, in the State EOC in Albany, we actually split some of our staff for a brief period of time (within the same chain of command), with some staying focused on 9/11 activity while others were focused on the crash.  We didn’t create a new organization, but there were people in Operations and Planning committed specifically to monitoring and supporting the new incident.  Like a Venn diagram, there were some different needs in the initial response with some overlapping needs between the two incidents.  As the two circles moved closer together, creating more overlap, we re-integrated our staff to track and support both incidents collectively.  I recall the reintegration occurring after only a few operational periods. 

So what to do when an incident occurs during our current pandemic?  There are a few concerns, some related to incident management, others related to our tactical responses and humanitarian needs.  While our general response times are likely to be improved, many resources are already strained.  We are likely in an operational continuity mode already, currently working with or ready to work with fewer staff as Coronavirus impacts our people and their families.  It’s incredibly important to be rotating your emergency staff, keeping people as rested as possible.  We can also leverage the lead agency status that is presently at play in most jurisdictions, with public health having the lead, and emergency management agencies and others supporting them.  If something occurs other than a second public health event, the emergency management agency may be able to pivot to be the lead coordinating agency for the new incident while still supporting public health.  (Of course, I say this fully recognizing that the vast majority of emergency management offices are one-person shops.)  If you are able to split off some staff within your Coronavirus organization (really speaking in terms of your EOC) similar to my Flight 587 example, that may be a workable strategy.  Another strategy could be the reverse of that, where most of your organization is focused on the new incident, since that is in its critical early stages, leaving a few other staff to continue supporting Coronavirus needs.  I generally wouldn’t consider creating parallel organizations as most jurisdictions simply don’t have the capacity for that, plus EOCs are intended to be able to support multiple incidents.  The splitting off of staff is generally only for the early response to ensure that we are gathering information and providing the support that is needed.  We can still leverage the organization as a whole (you probably don’t have a need to dedicate anyone in Logistics or Finance specifically to the new incident, though expenses should be tracked separately), and the chain of command still remains intact.  Your planning process, likewise, should accommodate both incidents. Depending on the scope of the new incident, certain subject matter experts may need to be brought in to address specific response and disaster recovery needs for the new incident.  Overall, flexibility is key.  I’ll also say that all this can be done while still adhering to organization tenants of ICS (even if your EOC doesn’t purely use ICS). 

From a more tactical perspective, the main concerns are staffing and safety.  Staffing, as mentioned before, may be a challenge as we progress through the most infectious stages of this pandemic.  Your continuity plans must absolutely address this.  I mention safety not only in regard to whatever hazards the new incident brings about, but also the continued safety measures we need to maintain for Coronavirus.  The most prominent of these safety measures are those involving an expanded circle of exposures for responders and the public; dealing with large numbers of victims, perhaps displaced from a building who may need shelter and other care.  Mass care is a big concern. Certainly, for smaller numbers of victims, hotels may be more appropriate than a shelter, but we know that we need to prepare for a credible worst-case scenario.  How?

  • We must ensure that our responders, VOAD, and social services agencies are prepared to address needs. 
  • With so many facilities being closed, we need to ensure that we still have access to identified shelters and the people and resources necessary to support them. 
  • Many of the VOAD organizations and social services agencies may have limited operations due to Coronavirus, with staff working from home.  Do they have the resources and equipment at-hand to support a response or do they need to retrieve these from their offices? 
  • Do they have an ability to recall staff? 
  • Is there any change in their capability and capacity? 
  • Are the supply chains we use for shelter food and supplies still viable?    
  • What needs to be done to support social distancing and limit exposure within a shelter environment?
  • How will you address isolation needs for those who may have been exposed or are symptomatic?
  • Are their activation and notification procedures impacted by Coronavirus? 

Now is the time to convene your VOAD and social services agencies (by tele/video conference, of course) to answer these questions and ensure that a written plan (an amendment to your standing sheltering/human needs plan) is developed and circulated for common understanding. 

Regardless of the circumstances, we cannot allow ourselves to become so focused on Coronavirus that we forsake the challenges we would face should another major incident strike, the changes to our capability and capacity, and the continued preparedness we need to maintain.  Remember, preparedness doesn’t stop simply because we are in the midst of a disaster. I’ll also mention that I’m certainly not the first to consider this issue.  Over the past few days, several people, including Ralph Fisk and Dr. Samantha Montano have posted their concerns about our ability to respond to other disasters in the midst of the Coronavirus response and impacts.  It’s something that shouldn’t just be on our minds, it’s something we need to be prepared for.  Developing a contingency plan for your EOC operations and other related support is something that should absolutely be taking place sooner rather than later.

I’m sure I didn’t cover all possibilities or considerations on this topic (I rarely do on any topic), but my intent is to get your mental juices flowing and to plant some ideas.  Please be sure to share any ideas or considerations you have in your contingency preparedness. 

Be smart, stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Convening and Operating an EOC Remotely

I typically refrain from writing about disasters in the midst of those disasters.  It’s very easy to be critical of things as they are happening, without an appreciation for the circumstances and information that decision-makers are in.  There are also often plenty of critics out there between the media, politicians, and social media.  There is one thing, however, that has jumped out at me in this Coronavirus/COVID19 incident that is so egregious that it absolutely needs to be addressed, and that is the traditional convening of face-to-face EOCs by many jurisdictions, agencies, and organizations.  Much of the messaging we have seen in this incident promotes social distancing, yet so many are not practicing this.

It’s one thing to have a handful of people physically in your EOC.  While I acknowledge there are absolutely advantages to operating an EOC face-to-face, by doing so in the event of a pandemic, we are endangering these critical staff, other co-workers, and their families.  At this point, I have serious concerns with the leadership of any agency or organization that is substantially staffing an EOC in-person in the midst of this incident.  I’m tremendously disappointed in this.  Is it hubris?  Ignorance?  I don’t know what the cause is, but I do know that it’s simply irresponsible to endanger people and your operations, and it’s pretty much against everything we work for.

A virtual EOC is the answer to this.  Hopefully you have a plan for implementing one, though we know that many do not. Web-based EOC management platforms, of which there are many (and of varying capability and quality) can support facilitation of this, but aren’t necessary.  Through use of other technology, most of it free or potentially already owned by your agency or organization, you can still accomplish the things you need to.  Preparation obviously plays off, but you can make this happen on the fly, if needed, but it will still take some work to set up. 

What’s needed?  In all likelihood, most people will be working from home.  As such, reliable internet and a computer are essential, as are a phone, even if you are planning on doing most of your audio (and even video) through your computer.  We have a lot of collaboration tools available to us.  Below are a few (non endorsed) collaboration apps that, depending on the app, cover a range of capability from document sharing and live collaboration, chat, voice, video, project management, and more.  Some are practically full service, while others specialize in one or a few features.  Many of them integrate with each other for even more benefits.  They do have varying security capability, so be sure to read up on that if security is a concern (it should be to at least some extent):

  • Microsoft Teams – broad capability (available free from Microsoft)
  • Crisis Communications (this is an add-on to Microsoft Teams, also currently free from Microsoft)
  • Skype/Skype for Business – voice and video, some document sharing (available free from Microsoft)
  • OneDrive/SharePoint – document sharing (pay for more storage)
  • OneNote – document collaboration (Microsoft)
  • Dropbox – document sharing (free for limited data storage, pay for more)
  • Google Drive/Docs/Calendar/Hangouts – broad capability (free for limited data storage, pay for more)
  • Slack – broad capability, especially with add on apps (free for smaller-scale use)
  • Discord – broad capability, especially with add on apps (free)
  • WebEx – voice and audio, some document sharing (basic is free, pay for more capability)
  • HipChat – broad capability (basic is free, there is a cost for additional capability)
  • Zoom – voice and video, some document sharing (basic is free, pay for additional capability)
  • Yammer – broad capability (free with Office 365, pay for additional capability)

Working remotely may not be as convenient as face-to-face interaction, but it’s certainly possible and better for the safety of your staff and your own operational continuity.  Through use of these tools, we can still conduct all the necessary activities in an EOC.  We can communicate with people as a group or one-on-one.  We can conduct collaborative meetings.  We can develop documents, share drafts, and even work collectively on the same document in real time.  We can view videos, take calls, write reports, manage information, and track resources. 

Aside from EOC operations, I’d suggest that organizations look to these or similar tools to support remote work for their staff where possible.  I have some recent tips on continuity here.  For those of you in government, I suggest looking into what needs to be done to conduct public meetings in a virtual environment as well, while still ensuring they are open and accessible to the public.  Tools like Skype, WebEx, or Zoom can help support this.  States have varying requirements for public meetings, so these of course should be examined before making any changes.  I’d also encourage courts, especially lower ones such as traffic court, to consider postponing their proceedings or looking to alternate means of conducting their proceedings that don’t require individuals to be there in person.  I obviously appreciate that these are complex matters with a lot of legality, and as such may not have ideal solutions in the near-term, but good solutions absolutely need to be considered for future implementation. 

The bottom line here is that social distancing applies to you, whether you like it or not.  Some professions, such as public health and hospitals, first responders, and others have no choice but to continue engaging face-to-face and hands-on with people.  They are provided with PPE and safety procedures to minimize their exposures while they continue providing these critical services.  In emergency management, however, we do not need to be face-to-face.  It’s an unnecessary risk to take and there is plenty of availability of technology tools to help us do what we need to do. 

What collaboration tools do you use to support remote/virtual operations? 

Be smart, be safe, be well. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Facing Coronavirus/COVID19 and Implementing Business Continuity

Many organizations are trying to figure out how to sustain in the midst of COVID19.  While we have been advocating business continuity plans for decades, many organizations haven’t seen the necessity.  COVID19 seems to be demonstrating that necessity.  Understanding that many organizations are not familiar with business continuity, I’m offering some considerations in this article and have written on the topic in the past as well.  You may be tempted to short-cut the planning process in a sense of urgency… don’t do it.  This can result in missing important things. 

  1. Don’t do it alone.  The first step in all emergency planning is to build a team.  Get the right people together in a room to talk things through.  It ensures you have multiple perspectives and helps you divide the work. 
  2. Document, document, document.  Documentation is a key to successful planning and implementation. It helps support effective communication and understanding internally and externally. 
  3. Identify your Mission Essential Functions.  Mission Essential Functions are those activities that are absolutely necessary to keep your organization running.  Things like finance, payroll, HR, IT, and critical organizational operations (the activities that make you money or the activities that are part of your core organizational charter) are among your Mission Essential Functions.
  4. What else to think about? What work can or can’t be performed remotely?  Consider how your organization will handle the absence of your own employees if they become ill, must care for an ill family member, or have to care for children if schools are closed.  It’s also important to identify considerations for key partners (shippers, suppliers, etc.) if they are unable to conduct their services for a time.  How will these things impact your organization? 
  5. Engage HR.  Your Human Resources staff are critical cogs in the wheel of business continuity.  They will help identify HR/personnel/labor union policies, contracts, and other matters that may encumber the success of your business continuity.  Once problems are identified, set them to addressing those problems.  Sick leave policies, remote work policies, child care, and worker safety are among the priority discussions we’ve been seeing lately. 
  6. Engage IT.  Information Technology is a big aspect of business continuity.  Most business continuity plans call for many of an organization’s staff to work remotely.  Amazingly, so many organizations still have policies against working remotely, or at least no standard addressing how remote work is to be implemented, conducted, and managed.  HR and IT should be partnering on policies and procedures to address accountability, expectations of the organization, expectations of staff working remotely, and expectations of any staff still working in the office.   
    1. Along with policy matters, there are also matters of hardware, connectivity, and procedures.  What staff will be working remotely?  Has the organization provided them with the tools to do so?  Do they have internet connectivity from their remote location?  What systems and information will be accessed remotely and how?  How will system security be monitored and maintained?  Will a help desk be available to address problems?
    1. Test, test, test.  If you’ve not engaged a number of your staff in remote work before, now is the time.  Have some staff work from home and see how it goes.  Don’t just pick your most tech-savvy staff, either.  Now is the time to identify and address problems. 
  7. Consider the impacts of your changes.  Whatever organizational operations you are changing will have some impact on how you do business.  Where will your phones be directed to?  How will you conduct meetings?  How will signatures be handled?  How will you accept deliveries?  How will staff send mail from their remote work location?  Will you still meet face to face with clients/customers?  Does the office still need to be staffed? 
  8. Staff Communication.  Ensure that staff know what’s going on. Don’t leave them in the dark on this. Keep safety as the central point of your messaging.  Listen to their questions and concerns, and be timely and honest in your responses.  Keep open lines of communication.
  9. Stakeholder Communication.  Vendors, clients/customers, shippers, boards of directors, even the public at large… they all need to know what’s going on and how the continuity event will impact them and their interests.  Just as with your staff, listen to their questions and concerns, and be timely and honest in your responses.  Keep open lines of communication.

The items I listed here are some of the more common concerns and considerations I’ve seen as of recent.  There are a lot of other aspects to business continuity and business continuity planning.  Pressure may be on, but move with urgency, not reckless haste.  If your plan and systems aren’t properly in place, your organization will suffer from poor preparations. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Improving the HSEEP Templates

For years it has bothered me that the templates provided for the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) are lacking.  The way the documents are formatted and the lack of some important content areas simply don’t do us any favors.  These templates go back to the origination of HSEEP in the early 2000s and they have seen little change since then.  It gives me concern that the people who developed these have struggled with concepts of document structuring and don’t understand the utility of these documents. 

I firmly believe that the documents we use in exercise design, conduct, and evaluation should be standardized.  Many of the benefits of standardization that we (should) practice in the Incident Command System (ICS) certainly apply to the world of exercises, especially when we have a variety of different people involved in each of these key phases of exercises and entering at different times.  Much like an incident, some people develop documents while others are users.  Both should count on a measure of standardization so they don’t have to figure out what they are looking at and how to navigate it before actually diving into the content.  That doesn’t mean, however, that standards can’t evolve to increase utility and function. 

I’ve written in the past about the dangers of templates.  While they are great guides and reminders of certain information that is needed and give us an established, consistent format in which to organize it, I still see too many people not applying some thinking to templates.  They get lost in plugging their information into the highlighted text areas and lose all sense of practicality about why the document is being developed, who the target audience for the document is, and the information they need to convey. 

Some of my bigger gripes…

  • Larger documents, such as ExPlans, SitMans, Controller/Evaluator Handbooks, and After-Action Reports MUST have a table of contents.  These documents can get lengthy and a TOC simply saves time in finding the section you are looking for. 
  • Some exercises are complex and nuanced.  As such, key documents such as ExPlans, SitMans, and Controller/Evaluation Handbooks must have designated space for identifying and explaining those situations.  This could be matters of multiple exercise sites and site-specific information such as different scopes of play for those sites, limited scopes of participation for some agencies, statements on the flow and execution of the exercise, and others.
  • Recognize that the first section of an EEG (Objective, Core Capability, Capability Target, Critical Tasks, and sources) is the only beneficial part of that document.  The next section for ‘observation notes’ is crap.  Evaluators should be writing up observation statements, an analysis of each observation, and recommendations associated with each observation.  The information provided by evaluators should be easily moved into the AAR.  The EEG simply does not facilitate capturing this information or transmitting it to whomever is writing the AAR. 
  • The AAR template, specifically, is riddled with issues. The structure of the document and hierarchy of headings is horrible.  The template only calls for documenting observations associated with observed strengths.  That doesn’t fly with me.  There should similarly be an analysis of each observed strength, as well as recommendations.  Yes, strengths can still be improved upon, or at least sustained.  Big missed opportunity to not include recommendations for strengths.  Further, the narrative space for areas of improvement don’t include space for recommendations.  I think a narrative of corrective actions is incredibly important, especially given the very limited space in the improvement plan; plus the improvement plan is simply intended to be an implementation tool of the AAR, so if recommendations aren’t included in the body of the AAR, a lot is missing for those who want to take a deeper dive and see specifically what recommendations correlate to which observations and with an analysis to support them. 

Fortunately, strict adherence to the HSEEP templates is not required, so some people do make modifications to accommodate greater function.  So long as the intent of each document and general organization remains the same, I applaud the effort.  We can achieve better execution while also staying reasonably close to the standardization of the templates.  But why settle for sub-par templates?  I’m hopeful that FEMA’s National Exercise Division will soon take a look at these valuable documents and obtain insight from benchmark practitioners on how to improve them.  Fundamentally, these are good templates and they have helped further standardization and quality implementation of exercises across the nation.  We should never get so comfortable, though, as to let tools such as these become stagnant, as obsolesce is a regular concern. 

I’m interested in hearing what you have done to increase the value and utility of HSEEP templates.  How would you improve these?  What are your pet peeves? 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

An Alternate Concept of Incident Management Support

Through many of my writings on the Incident Command System (ICS), the training shortfalls we have with ICS, and the fallacy of most local governments relying on incident management teams, I have a different take that I’ve been thinking through.  The concept is similar to that of an Incident Management ‘Short’ Team, but pared down to be even more realistic and focused on support rather than assuming positions.  The training requirements, I expect, would be more palatable to many modestly sized local governments, and even more attainable for regional cooperatives.  For lack of any better terminology, I’m calling this the Incident Support Quick Response Team (ISQRT… because there always needs to be an acronym). 

I’ll note that while some teams call themselves Incident Support Teams, they really are functionally Incident Management Teams, simply softening the nomenclature for political purposes.  What I propose for the ISQRT lies much more firmly in the role of support. 

To give some context, when we look at the requirements for a Type 1 & 2 Wildfire Short Team, they list a team comprised of 20-26 individuals.  A short team is intended to get boots on the ground and begin managing the incident until a full team can arrive in force.  This is certainly appropriate for a Type 1 or 2 incident, which most local jurisdictions certainly aren’t able to manage on their own, though these types of incidents also typically have implications extending beyond just one jurisdiction.  The same reference shows a Type 3 IMT for out-of-area deployments; with this list showing a team of 9-12 personnel.  An in-area deployment team is generally even larger, as more subordinate positions are filled.  Also note that all these numbers are overhead staff for only one operational period.  Bottom line, it’s still far too big of a lift for most local jurisdictions I’ve worked with, even modestly sized cities, who don’t have the capability or capacity to support an IMT.

The consideration of the ISQRT follows a specific line of thinking, and that is that perhaps the most significant thing most local jurisdictions really need help in regard to formal incident management are the processes associated with it.  Come hell or, literally, high water, jurisdictions will have an incident commander and probably an operations section chief and safety officer.  They may even have a public information officer.  The concepts of the Planning Process and proactive incident management, despite dismal efforts of our current ICS training programs, simply become foreign to those who rarely, if ever, use them.  If we don’t use it, we lose it. Responders are largely used to addressing the needs of an incident here and now, when they face it, with only a modicum of (usually routine) tactical planning being performed.  These are the hallmarks of Type 5 and 4 incidents.  But as I’ve referenced so many times, the differences between a Type 4 and Type 3 incident are considerable, with a Type 3 having layers of complexity that most responders rarely, if ever, experience. 

With that understood, the core of the ISQRT needs to be support of the Planning Process.  I think we can agree that, even if not by true ICS definitions of qualification, most jurisdictions have reasonably experienced go-to people to fill the roles of Incident Command, Operations Section Chief, and Safety Officer.  Local jurisdictions also have their own finance people. 

Now wait… I can already hear some of the complaints.  Yes, I fully agree that most of the people we see in these positions certainly don’t have IMT training, nor do they have abundant experience beyond their jurisdiction.  Yet I offer that they still get through most Type 5 and 4 incidents just fine.  An ISQRT may help them fully get through a Type 3 incident, or at the very least help them begin a cycle of proactive incident management much sooner than an IMT can mobilize and arrive.  I’ll also offer that the emergency response chief officers of most jurisdictions simply won’t stand for a delegation of authority of Incident Commander to anyone else; most people who will fill the position of Operations Section Chief have a reasonable handle on tactics, though I acknowledge that it’s not as comprehensive as we would like; and essentially the same statement can be made for Safety Officers.  While local jurisdictions have their own finance people, I’ll accept that most aren’t experienced with working under pressures of an incident or familiar with things like FEMA reimbursement.  These are realistic shortcomings that we can’t ignore, so how can we address these shortcomings?  Good preparedness practices is the answer; such as emergency operations plans that provide solid guidance and are implementation-ready; scenario-based training programs, such as an improved ICS training curriculum; and exercises to test plans and keep people familiar with the roles and responsibilities. 

Getting back to the ISQRT.  Keep in mind that my philosophy here is not to fill ICS positions, rather it is to support incident management processes and activities.  So what could an ISQRT look like? 

  • First, an Incident Management Advisor.  This is someone who can support the Incident Commander directly, as well as evaluate the incident management effort as a whole to identify needs and provide advice to the IC, as well as other command staff, who typically don’t have experience with larger incidents.
  • Next, an Incident Planning Specialist.  With the foundation of proactive incident management being the Planning Process, the Incident Planning Specialist will help promote and foster that process, ideally mentoring a Planning Section Chief assigned by the local jurisdiction, but capable of assuming the position should the jurisdiction need and desire it.   
  • Joining them would be a Planning Assistant, to support essential Planning Section responsibilities of situational awareness and resource tracking.  This, again, is ideally an advisor, who can help guide local personnel, but who can directly assume these responsibilities if requested. 
  • I’m also suggesting an Operations and Logistics Planner.  A big part of proactive incident management is defining future operations, identifying resource needs for those operations, adjudicating those needs with what we have, and sourcing the balance.  The Operations and Logistics Planner is someone to help guide that process, working with the local Operations Section Chief (who is likely VERY focused on ‘now’ and very little on what’s next) and supporting a logistics structure that may or may not exist.   

That’s a total of four personnel per operational period.  That’s much more palatable for most jurisdictions and regions than building and maintaining even a Type 3 IMT.  Certainly there could be arguments for additional personnel to expand support in a variety of capacities. I’ll maintain first that the ISQRT concept is something I’ve only recently ‘formalized’ in my head so I’m sure it could use some refinement; and second that we should always be flexible when it comes to incident management, so having other options and capabilities can certainly be helpful, so long as the underlying premise of the ISQRT remains. 

What would it take to build ISQRTs?  First, deliberate effort rather than something ad-hoc. Jurisdictions and/or regions would need to identify the most experienced/capable/willing personnel for the ISQRT.  In terms of formal training, certainly a lot of the existing IMT training goes a long way, with perhaps a capstone course developed to specifically address the form and function of the ISQRT.  This reduces the burden of training and maintaining the personnel needed for a full IMT, while still ensuring that the ISQRT still has a full handle on the standards and best practices associated with incident management.  If local/regional ISQRTs are supported by states or another formal program, they can keep their direct skills sharp by taking rotating assignments on incidents which may be out of their area; or at the very least participating in regular exercises. 

Before you think the ISQRT is an outlandish thing, consider that many states may already be doing something similar to this, either through an informal program, or allowing jurisdictions to order overhead positions as single resources (i.e. a Planning Section Chief).  In my own experience of supporting preparedness and response for a wide variety of jurisdictions, the activities I identified are those which typically need the most support.  I’ve even served in similar capacities, being tasked as an IMT member, but in practice actually working more in an advisory role supporting local personnel. 

For my conclusion, I still support the concept of incident management teams, and for some large jurisdictions or even more capable regions, these are a realistic goal.  But for most jurisdictions they simply aren’t.  The concept of the ISQRT provides the support needed early in a larger incident to get in a cycle of proactive incident management.  The ISQRT isn’t a replacement for an IMT, but can provide solid support much more quickly than an IMT for most jurisdictions.  I also see the ISQRT as being flexible enough to support an Incident Command Post, an EOC, or a departmental operations center. 

What are your thoughts on this concept?  Do you see potential for application?  What obstacles exist? 

© 2020 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Operational Readiness in Emergency Management

Back in 2017 I wrote a piece on defining operational readiness.  It’s a topic, which, after some recent discussion with a colleague, I think bears revisiting and expanding upon.  Specifically, how we apply it in emergency management, or not.  Readiness is really a final comprehensive perspective of preparedness.  That is, once you have reached a certain level of preparedness, you can be ready, but being prepared doesn’t necessarily make you ready.  Preparedness is generally perceived as an ongoing process, though a state of readiness is typically a snapshot in time.

It struck me that the military tends to have more of a focus on readiness, while emergency management has a focus on preparedness.  While you will find both concepts within the doctrine of emergency management and military, the actual applications are considerably skewed.  After my discussion, I began to wonder why there this difference exists and what we can learn from it.

Having worked a considerable amount with various National Guard elements, I’ve come to highly respect their processes and their endeavor for readiness.  Not that we don’t have similar rigor in emergency management, but the focus seems to be more on the processes of preparedness rather than a state of operational readiness.  Sometimes the differences are so subtle that I have to sit back and think them through, but they are certainly there, and they are meaningful.  Given the military’s focus on operational readiness, they serve as a good source of information, though it needs to be properly filtered for application to emergency management.

As I’ve applied more thought to this, I’ve assembled a refined definition of readiness as it applies to emergency management, that being:

[Readiness is the nexus of benchmark outcomes of preparedness matched with the needs of a specific kind and type of response. A state of operational readiness is achieved when all applicable preparedness benchmarks are met and the organization is willing and able to adequately leverage the resulting capabilities against a corresponding threat or hazard.]

I’ve put together a graphic I think reasonably represents this relationship below.  Readiness is represented by a cloud because, as I explore further in this writing, it is itself rather amorphic and complex.

Readiness

To explain the components of my definition…  Readiness comes from a culmination of outcomes from preparedness activities, but only when each of these outcomes achieves a specific benchmark state.  The achievement of benchmarked preparedness activities define a measure of capability.  These capabilities are associated with a specific threat(s) or hazard(s).  As such, that state of readiness is only applicable to a specific kind (threat or hazard) and type (size and complexity) incident.  To help illustrate my points, here are a couple of examples using field response scenarios:

We can assume that a volunteer fire department is prepared to handle a room and contents fire.  They should have all the elements needed to do so, and in fact, these elements have standards (benchmarks) defined by the NFPA and state fire marshals.  Does this mean they have achieved readiness?  Hopefully yes, but perhaps not.  Given the rather extensive crisis of low membership in volunteer fire departments, the department in question may not have adequate staff to respond to this fire if it occurs, for example, in the middle of a week day.  This gives them a measure of degraded, or even negligible readiness.

Similarly, if we take the same fire department, having accomplished the benchmarks of preparedness for response to a room and contents fire, and even given adequate staff to do so, they may not have a state of readiness to fully address a hazardous materials incident.  While many of the elements of preparedness apply to both types of incidents, there are some critical differences which they would have to overcome to establish a state of readiness for a different type of incident.  Likewise, we could revert back to the room and contents fire and make it bigger – say a fully involved structure fire. While the department might have operational readiness to address the room and contents fire, they may not have the operational readiness to address a structure fire.

I think it’s fair to say that we can be prepared for something without having operational readiness for it.  Years ago, when there was a planetary ‘near miss’ by a meteor, a news outlet contacted our state OEM PIO.  They asked if we had a plan for a meteor strike.  The PIO acknowledged that we didn’t have a plan specific to that, but we did have a comprehensive emergency management plan, through which, and supported by various functional annexes, we were prepared to respond to such an incident and its effects should it occur.  Was the PIO wrong?  Not at all.  Assuming the other elements of preparedness were reasonably in place (and they were), it would be fair to say we were generally ‘prepared for anything’.  Were we ready, however?  Absolutely not.  The operational readiness needs for such an extraordinary, high impact incident are near-impossible to achieve.

When we examine this, it’s important to identify that a state of readiness can wax and wane, based on our ability to apply the identified preparedness measures to the incident in question. Considering the first example of the fire department and the room and contents fire, the department has a state of operational readiness when, as included in the definition I gave, all the preparedness benchmarks are met and they are willing and able to adequately leverage the resulting capabilities against a corresponding threat or hazard.  Changes in capability and/or the willingness or ability to apply those capabilities will result in degradation of readiness.  Depending on the factor in question, it may fully disqualify their readiness, or it may decrease their readiness by some measure.

So why is readiness important?  Readiness is the green light.  If we accomplish a state of operational readiness, we increase our chances of success in addressing the threat or hazard in question.  If we haven’t achieved readiness, we still can obviously be successful, but that success may come at a greater cost, longer period of time, and/or increased error.

How do we achieve readiness?  The current approach we have in emergency management certainly isn’t enough.  While some efforts may culminate in operational readiness, there is, as a whole, a significant lack of focus on operational readiness.  This seems to largely be a cultural issue to overcome.  In general, we seem to have the attitude that preparedness equates to readiness, and that preparedness itself is an end state. Even though we intuitively, and doctrinally, know that preparedness is a cycle, we seem to take comfort in ‘completing’ certain tasks among the preparedness elements – planning, organizing, equipping, training, exercises, and improvement – and then assuming readiness.  Readiness itself is actually the end state, though it is a dynamic end state; one that we can easily lose and must constantly strive to maintain.  To accomplish and maintain operational readiness, it is imperative that we aggressively and rigorously pursue activity in each of the elements of preparedness.  We must also continually monitor our ability to execute the capabilities we are preparing.  That ability, ultimately, is our measure of readiness.

The scale and unit of measuring readiness is something I’m not exploring in depth here (it really warrants its own deliberate effort), but expect to revisit in the future.  I surmise that the factors may be different based upon the various capabilities, and types and kinds of threats/hazards we are trying to address.  We need to examine capability requirements at a granular (task) level to truly assess our current state of readiness and identify what we need to address to increase our readiness.  I also assume that there is a somewhat intangible factor to readiness, one that likely revolves around the human factor. Things like leadership, decision-making, confidence, and ability to improvise. The measure of readiness may also involve certain external factors, such as weather.  The measurement of readiness certainly is complex and involves numerous factors.

I do know that practice is a significant factor in operational readiness.  Earlier I mentioned my experience with the National Guard.  Much of that revolves around exercises, which is one of the best (though not the only) measures of readiness.  Operational military units seem to constantly exercise.  Sometimes small scale, sometimes large.  They exercise different aspects, different scenarios, and different approaches.  It’s the regular repetition that builds competence and confidence, along with identifying shortfalls within the capability such as planning gaps, equipment failures, and the need to anticipate and prepare for certain contingencies.  While we exercise a fair amount in emergency management, we still don’t exercise enough.  I see a lot of people in emergency management leadership develop a complacency and virtually declare that ‘close enough is enough’.  It’s absolutely not enough to exercise a plan or capability once a year, which is something we often see (and often at best).

Preparedness is not something we achieve, it’s something we do; but through it we strive to achieve and maintain readiness.

It’s interesting to note that at the level of federal doctrine, we have a National Preparedness Goal.  We need to recognize that preparedness isn’t the goal – Readiness is.  A possible starting point for change would be the assembly of a blue-ribbon panel, likely by FEMA, to explore this topic and provide recommendations on a unified way ahead for emergency management to recognize the need for operational readiness, including purposeful changes in doctrine and culture to emphasize this desired end state.  We need a solid definition, means of measurement, guidelines for implementation, and an identification of the barriers to success with recommendations on how to overcome them (yep, I already know money and staff are the big ones).

I hope I’ve given some food for thought in regard to readiness.  The simple act of writing this and the bit of associated reading and thinking I’ve done on the topic certainly has me thinking about things differently.  As always, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on operational readiness, what it means to you, and what we can do to achieve it.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

 

 

 

NEW: 2020 HSEEP Revision

Earlier today FEMA dropped the latest version of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) doctrine.  Doing a quick comparison between this new version and the previous (2013) version, I’ve identified the following significant changes:

  • They replaced the ‘Elected and Appointed Officials’ mentions within the document with ‘Senior Leaders’. This makes sense, since often the elected and appointed officials simply aren’t involved in many of these activities.  The previous terminology is also exclusionary of the private sector and NGOs.
  • The document specifically references the Preparedness Toolkit as a go-to resource.
  • A big emphasis through the document is on the Integrated Preparedness Cycle (see the graphic with this post). The Integrated Preparedness Cycle covers all POETE (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising) elements plus Evaluate/Improve.  The graphic also eludes to these activities not necessarily happing in a specific order, as well as the consideration of Preparedness Priorities and Threats, Hazards, and Risks.  Developing a preparedness plan is something I wrote about back in 2016.
  • Integrated Preparedness Cycle
    • Going along with the Integrated Preparedness Cycle, they have done away with the Training and Exercise Plan (TEP) and replaced it with the Integrated Preparedness Plan (IPP), which is developed through input obtained during an Integrated Preparedness Planning Workshop (IPPW). I serious HOPE this shift is successful, as I’ve mentioned in the past how often the training aspect of the TEP was ignored or phoned in.  This approach also does a lot to integrate planning, organizing, and equipping (but ESPECIALLY planning) into the effort.  This is all tied together even more if a jurisdiction has completed a THIRA.  The Integrated Preparedness Cycle and IPP are the things I’m happiest about with the updated document.
  • The new document provides easier to find and read layouts for information associated with exercise types and each of the planning meetings.
  • For years, HSEEP doctrine has suggested (though thankfully not required) an ICS-based organization for exercise planning. I’ve never used this as I found it awkward at best (though I know others often use it and have success in doing so).  The update provides a different suggestion (better, in my opinion) of a functionally organized planning team organization.  Consider that this is still a suggestion, and that you can use it, or a version of it, or an ICS-based one, or anything else you desire.
  • The update provides better delineation between the planning and conduct needs of discussion-based exercises vs those of operations-based exercises. Those of us who have been doing it for a while know, but for those who are new to exercises this should be very helpful.
  • Lastly, the document suggests making corrective actions SMART, as these are really objectives.

FEMA is hosting a series of webinars (listed on the HSEEP website) to discuss these changes.

I’m very happy with the changes made to the doctrine.  It’s a great continued evolution of HSEEP and preparedness as a whole.  For as much as I’m a champion of the Integrated Preparedness Plan, though, having it (thus far) only included in the HSEEP doctrine makes it easy to miss or dismiss by some.  I’m hopeful broader promotion of this concept, perhaps even including it as an emergency management performance grant requirement, will help adoption of this concept.

What are your thoughts?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

We’re Off on the Road to Central City

FEMA Training Bulletin number 1580 announced the publication of the Emergency Management Institute’s (EMI) Online Exercise System Simulation Document (ESSD).  The ESSD, quoted from the website is ‘a compilation of information and resources that would typically be available in any community as they respond to and manage an emergency or disaster in a local community.’  The purpose of the ESSD, essentially, is to provide all the information needed for a fictional jurisdiction for use in exercises.  If you’ve taken some classes at EMI, the HSEEP course, ICS courses, or other programs from FEMA/EMI, you are probably already familiar with the magical place called Central City.

Central City, Liberty County, and other jurisdictions that are part of this fictional area have been in use for decades.  Much of the information published in the ESSD has been available at one point or another, developed to serve the needs of different scenario-based training.  The ESSD packages it all conveniently in one place.

While in some training programs, there is direct benefit to developing a scenario grounded in a real location, we often have course participants who come from different areas.  While you can still certainly develop a scenario in a real location for use in a class like this, the use of Central City (et al) can be an ideal option.  With all the resources and supporting information provided in the ESSD, you likely have everything you need.

Speaking of all that material, what’s in the ESSD?  A sampling:

  • Community profiles
  • Hazard Vulnerability Analysis
  • Laws and Ordinances
  • Emergency Plans
  • Resource and Capability Lists
  • Critical Infrastructure

Having used these jurisdictions and much of this material in courses in the past, course managers do need to expect that it will take time for participants to find some information they are looking for.  In real life, they may or may not be familiar with certain information sets.  The ESSD system was developed to be searchable, which is a huge help, though it’s always good to have one or two paper copies as back ups (note… depending on what you are providing, that may be hundreds of pages).  Since many participants are bringing tablets and laptops to class, all that’s needed is internet service to access all this great information.

I do have a couple of noted observations for improvement.

  1. Having just mentioned printing, I’ll state that first. There doesn’t seem to be a way from within the site to print the material or export it to a PDF.  Yes, you can print from your browser, but formatting is drastically thrown off.
  2. The maps are still horrible. While most of the maps are better than what we’ve had in many of the training materials they have been included in, they are still not high def or zoomable. In fact, many of them are still blurry on my computer screen.  For detailed areas, such as the urban Central City, users (and even scenario designers) may have a need to get much closer to the information.  The Central City map itself, is still difficult to read, especially the myriad of small icons strewn throughout the map.  I would have hoped that re-working this map would have been a priority in the ESSD, as it’s a regular complaint in the classes it’s used in.

Another resource I’ve used in the past (2007 or 2008?) was Zenith City, which was provided by the EPA.  Similar to the FEMA ESSD, the EPA provided a wide array of information for the fictional Zenith City and surrounding jurisdictions.  While the EPA still has a significant exercise program (if you haven’t checked out their stuff, you should), I don’t know whatever happened to the Zenith City information… it’s no where to be found.  (Note: if anyone happens to have the Zenith City material, please let me know!  I’d love to add it back into my library of resources!)

I’m thrilled that FEMA pulled all the Central City material together in this collection, and even added new information.  Central City has always provided us with a great location to unleash hell on, and allow responders and emergency managers to solve so many problems.  I’m just glad I don’t live there!

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

ICS Training Sucks: A Revival

It’s sad to say that in the past four and a half years of stumping for changes in ICS training, we have seen little progress.  I was recently sent a response org chart developed by an agency that completely tore apart ICS and rebuilt it in a fundamentally different image.  ICS is a standard.  It shouldn’t be changed.  Once you change it, especially at fundamental levels, you no longer have a standard.  It has innate flexibility, but those are applied without changing the fundamentals.  I vented some of my frustration about this last night on Twitter, to a mix of celebration and naysayers, as expected.  Some of those naysayers think the system simply doesn’t work. Others think the system simply can’t accommodate their type of agency.

(note that I’m using the word ‘agency’ here to mean any type of government, non-government, or private sector organization.  I decided to use it since I’m also heavily using the term ‘organization’ in regard to the structure we apply for a response)

So let’s back up a bit.  Why is this happening?  It starts with people having some knowledge of ICS and, with good intentions, wanting to adapt it to their agency and their circumstances.  But there is simply no reason to do any adaptation.  The functions outlined in ICS are all you need in a field-level response.  I’ve heard all the excuses – “We need to make it work for us.”  “FEMA needs to build an ICS for our type of agency.”  “It’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve worked with a lot of stakeholders across a lot of sectors across the whole country, and I have yet to find a field-level response that I can’t organize without violating the fundamentals of ICS.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but adhering to the standard is important because if we don’t adhere to a standard, we are out of the loop.  If enough people don’t adhere to a standard, it’s no longer a standard.  Either way, the benefits of having a standard are crumpled up and thrown away.

One problem is that a lot of entities, particularly large agencies with multiple components, like to ensure that every function or department within their static structure is represented in an ICS model.  This isn’t what ICS is built for.  If you are seeking specific representation, you can assign agency representatives to the ICP or the EOC, or use a department-based EOC model, but the foundational ICS structure itself isn’t intended to reflect your static organization.  You have an animal control officer.  Do they need to be represented in your pre-planned ICS org chart?  No, they are brought in as a resource if needed, likely in Operations.  You have an IT department.  Do they need to be represented in your pre-planned ICS org chart?  Not as a department. But their capability is identified, likely for assignment within Logistics.  It’s not about recreating ICS to fit your static organization.  It’s about knowing the capabilities of your static organization and applying them within the established ICS structure when and how they are needed. 

Let’s put this out there… ICS isn’t just for you, it’s for everyone.  What I mean is that the greatest benefit of ICS (the prime reason it was actually devised) is for multi-agency operations.  In a local incident of any significance, your agency is likely to be part of a multi-agency response.  Depending on the type of incident, scope, location, and other factors, certain positions will be staffed with personnel selected from the agencies with primary responsibility and, hopefully, with qualified staff.  So that carefully crafted org chart you have developed for your agency’s response is largely irrelevant in a multi-agency operation.  Yes, your agency certainly should have a go-to model for single-agency responses, but consider that a single-agency response probably isn’t going to need a full-blown org chart.

There is a difference, though… and that’s for EOCs, or more specifically departmental emergency operations centers.  These are, by definition, not multi-agency, and established to support your own agency’s needs for deployment, sustainment, internal coordination, and matters that may not be addressed at the field-level.  EOCs have a variety of organizational models available to them, which don’t necessarily need to be ICS.   A problem I often see is agencies trying to accomplish everything in one org chart.  They are trying to fit executive level positions in with field response.  Stop.  Take a breath and figure out what you are trying to accomplish.  It’s OK (and perhaps necessary) for your agency to have two organizational models to accomplish what you need, depending, of course, on your agency’s role, responsibilities, and capabilities.  You may need a field-level organization that addresses a tactical response (this is ICS-based) and an EOC organization that supports that response and the needs of your agency as a whole in regard to the incident (again, lots of options for the EOC organization).  Also consider, depending on your agency, that a policy group may be necessary to guide things.  A policy group is non-operational and they essentially exist to make the broad-reaching decisions on behalf of the organization.

Why are we seeing such extensive mis-applications of ICS?  First, people still don’t understand ICS.  Second, they aren’t truly considering the needs of their agencies.  The irony is that many of the people doing this DO think they understand ICS and that they are making changes to it to better serve the needs of their agencies.  So… we’re still maintaining that ICS Training Sucks.  Do I have a total solution to that problem?  No. But in the articles you find in that link, I certainly have some ideas.  I’ve also found a great many kindred spirits in this whole crusade that agree with the need for change in how we train people in ICS.

What I do know is that the solution isn’t as straight forward as we would like it to be.  Considerations:

First, we are considerably tainted by our knowledge of current and past ICS curricula.  When talking with people about how to fix ICS training, I have to regularly remind myself to push that knowledge aside and look at the problem with fresh eyes.  Lessons learned aside; we can’t move forward when we are still planting ourselves in what is in use now.

Second, we need to consider that there may not be a single solution that fits all needs.  I still think we may need a curriculum structure similar to that used for HazMat training, which addresses the needs of different user groups (i.e. Awareness, Operations, Technician, Planner, Commander).

Third, we need to actually teach people how to apply ICS.  At present, with only a bit of exception, true application of ICS isn’t deliberately instructed until someone takes position-specific and incident management team training.  This in no way meets the needs of most agencies, many of which are volunteer, and have limited availability to go away for several weeks to get the training they need.

Fourth, recognize that if you aren’t using ICS regularly (and I mean at a large scale), your knowledge and skill degrades.  Refresher training should be required and scenario-based learning should be incorporated across the curriculum.

Fifth, stop trying to re-develop ICS.  Trust me, all the needed capabilities of your agency for a field-level response fit within an ICS org chart.  It’s not about your static organization, it’s about capabilities.  Identify and assign capabilities.

I love the continued dialog and attention this topic gets.  The only way we will see positive change is by continuing that dialog.  Please share these blogs and your ideas with colleagues.  Let’s keep spreading this and striving for change.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEPD

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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In memoriam: I humbly dedicate this post to a friend and colleague who recently lost a battle with cancer.  Phil Politano is known by many for his good nature, his gregarious laugh, and his incredible knowledge as a Public Information Officer.  I’ve known Phil since about 2002, and had worked with him on incidents, taught classes with him, and learned a lot from him.  Phil eventually left Central NY and moved his family a bit south, taking a job with FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.  There, his talents were applied to their greatest extent.  He reshaped PIO training, spread that gospel to people from all around the world, and supported large scale responses with his knowledge, skills, and abilities.  He was a master in his craft and shared his mastery with anyone who wanted to learn.  He was an incredible practitioner, a great friend, and a wonderful person.  He made us all better simply by knowing him.   He is missed by so many.  Rest well.