Learning From a 10-Year-Old Report

I’ll admit that I’m often dismissive of information, especially in the field of emergency management and homeland security, if it’s over 10 years old.  There is a lot that’s changed in the past 10 years, after all.  But, realistically, for as much as we’ve changed, things have stayed the same.  Arguably, the first decade of this millennium saw much more change in EM/HS than the second decade has, at least so far.  The first decade saw events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.  Yes, there certainly have been major events in this second decade, but none, it seems, were as influential to our field of practice than those in the first decade.

It’s important to reflect upon lessons observed and to examine what lessons we’ve actually learned.  How far have we come in implementing improvements from the 9/11 Report?  What still needs to be accomplished to meet the intent of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA)?  Perhaps when I have some time to devote I’ll review those documents again and look on them reflectively and provide my thoughts here.

Yesterday I received the latest email from DomesticPreparedness.com.  I refer often to their work in my articles.  This weekly brief included an article from one of my favorite authors in this field, John Morton.  I’ve referenced his work in a few of my past articles.  This article, titled The What If Possibility: A Chilling Report, talks about planning for a rogue nuclear attack, the likely lead role the federal government would have to take in response to such an attack (versus a locally-led response), and what the situation would be the day after.  With the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons capability looming, this article was an interesting read and spot-on.  I noticed a problem, though… It referenced Ash Carter as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.  While this was true, Carter’s highest office was SecDef under President Obama.  Surely John Morton, with his incredible attention to detail that I’ve come to recognize couldn’t have made this error.

Nope.  No error on his part.  I looked at the date of the article.  June 27, 2007 – over a decade old.  Incredibly, this article is still highly relevant today.  The article does reference the drafting of certain federal plans for nuclear attack.  Plans which I am not privy to, but that must assuredly exist today.  I’m curious as to the model these plans follow, what has been learned from exercising them, and how we might be able to apply elements of these plans to other catastrophic occurrences.

Despite change, so much seems to stay the same. Of course a decade isn’t that long.  Given that emergency management and homeland security are primarily government roles, we have to acknowledge that the (usually necessary) bureaucracy simply doesn’t move that quickly.  Unfortunately, there are things we are far too slow to adopt, not just from a government perspective, but socially.  As a lover of history and sociology, I see lessons observed from the 1900 Galveston hurricane as well as the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 CE.  There is much that history can teach us, if we are willing to listen. Lessons observed, but not learned.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

The Inability to Apply NIMS is a Human One

With a busy month of travel and project work, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve had much opportunity to write.  While there are always a great number of topics to write about, I find myself regularly drawn to certain focus areas, such as NIMS or exercises, since these topics are regularly the emphasis of my work.

As many of my readers know, Domestic Preparedness Journal is one of my regular reads.  Each issue features a slate of excellent articles from practitioners in the field.  While I don’t always agree with all the articles in DomPrep, they are at least thought provoking and occasionally provide me with some ideas for my blog.

A quick note: Many students of emergency management, homeland security, and related fields reference this blog for research – something I greatly appreciate and am humbled by!  Be sure to search back issues of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, as well.  There is a lot of good stuff there!

I believe I’ve posted my thought in the past that emergency management is largely a sociological endeavor.  This is nothing new or revolutionary… if you care to consider this further, I suggest any of Thomas Drabek’s work.  While emergency management exists to protect and serve people, the actions are implemented by people.  I’ve also written in the past about the human factor of incident management, because that’s what truly makes or breaks our efforts.  Essentially, it’s humans that fail.  Not plans, not incident management systems, or any other excuses that can be contrived.  Human failure is our greatest enemy.

In discussing failure, it doesn’t have to be a total failure.  It can be a mistake, an oversight, or a wrong decision.  It might be intentional, given the body of knowledge we have and other factors, like ego.  Or it might be due to a lack of information; sometimes we have to make a best guess.  Often times we don’t realize until afterwards, if ever, that these even occurred or that there were better choices.  Despite advanced analytics and diligent after action reports, where we are quick to criticize, we don’t often identify what choices individuals (not just the incident commander or other leadership) had available to them.

Back to the Domestic Preparedness Journal.  Last month’s issue had an article penned by Chief Charles Bailey, titled Where Incident Management Unravels.  Chief Bailey offers a thought provoking argument against the effectiveness of NIMS in certain incidents, particularly those that are highly dynamic.  He argues, particularly, that once a situational assessment is completed and accepted early in the ICS planning process, that the process enters a largely static state since plans are developed to address that snapshot of the situation and are unable to account for situational changes during the rest of that planning process.

Fundamentally, Chief Bailey isn’t wrong.  What he mentions is exactly what we are taught and these are criticisms of ICS I’ve heard many times through the years.  Remember, Incident Command System Training Sucks!  (if you aren’t familiar with my thoughts on the sad state of ICS training, click that link and read the few articles I’ve written on the topic).

Let’s examine the situation that Chief Bailey describes.  Most incidents, especially early on, have dynamic elements.  Does this mean we can’t use ICS?  No.  In fact we still need to.  If we don’t make efforts to proactively address the incident, we will continue reacting instead of getting ahead of it.  Our tactics will be purely reactionary and we’ll never have the resources we need when we need them.  We can’t allow the incident to be in charge, we need to manage it.  To do so, we need to acknowledge that new and changing situations will occur, and plan for them.  Just because we are taught to plan in a static situation, does that mean that’s our only option?  Nope.  What we learn little to nothing about in ICS training are concepts like contingency planning.  Interestingly enough, we regularly see first responders account for this.  When an incident occurs with unknown factors, we often hear fire departments call for additional resources to be sent to staging.  Sometimes this is in anticipation of needing them, sometimes this is a contingency plan.  A ‘just in case’.  While no one likes to be stuck in staging and never deployed, it’s better to have the resources immediately available and not need them then to need them right away and have to wait.

Not only can these resources in staging be identified in our incident action plans, we can also develop these resources and even identify tactics (roughly) in our IAPs to account for dynamic situations.  It’s easy enough to identify an objective for contingency planning and have efforts dedicated to it.  Resources in staging can be pulled together into task forces and strike teams for anticipated application.  Our IAPs can pre-identify these potential applications and give the resources tactical parameters, allowing task force and strike team leaders some latitude in their initial tactical response.  While the rest of the incident organization is addressing known issues and proactively managing the incident, we have elements in reserve to tackle pop-up situations.  At best, these reserve forces are able to fully address these emergent needs, at the very least, they can sustain life safety matters until additional resources can be deployed.

Further, if any incident management organization isn’t able to change based on a dynamic situation, I severely question their credentials.  Incidents and disasters are by nature unpredictable.  We must acknowledge that any situational assessment is only, at best, mostly accurate.  For any significant incident, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know when we need to know it.  Having reserve forces and contingency plans, and being able to quickly identify emergent situations and redeploy resources is simply smart incident management.

So while Chief Bailey makes great points about some book answers to ICS applications, I argue that any failures that exist, at least in these regards, are human ones and have little to nothing to do with shortfalls in NIMS/ICS.  First, there are tools available to us to address these situations; although most people aren’t aware of them because of issues with ICS training.  Second, even if direct applications of the system weren’t in place to address certain situations, we can’t be slaves to the system.  We need to be able to think ‘beyond NIMS’ (words used by Chief Bailey, himself).  Finally, I’m not being critical at all of Chief Bailey’s points.  He closes his article identifying a need for creating ‘nimble response paradigms’; I’m just pointing out that we have that ability within the NIMS construct.  It’s our (human) ability to apply these where we often get stuck.

As always, I’m highly interested in the thoughts of readers on the topics I write about.

In closing, a quick but heartfelt thanks to all the responders and organizations who have been working tirelessly as of recent to save lives and help communities stabilize after the impacts of far too many hurricanes and the earthquake in Mexico.  Every small action you take makes a world of difference to those you are helping.  Be safe.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC (ß have you checked out our new website????)

What’s in a Title?

The most recent issue of Domestic Preparedness Journal includes an article by Chas Eby titled Emergency Management – A Misnomer. In his article, Mr. Eby posits that the title of emergency manager does not adequately describe the discipline or represent the skill sets of practitioners.  While I agree with many of the points Mr. Eby makes, particularly in regard to the huge variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) leveraged by most emergency managers which are largely taken for granted, I disagree wholeheartedly that the term or title of emergency manager is limiting, as his conclusion states.

Functionally, we absolutely see emergency managers, at various levels, conducting a variety of activities.  They may be support staff or executives, decision makers or operators.  They may specialize in any single or multiple facets of the profession.  They must have an ability to coordinate and collaborate, work with grants and budgets, and handle daily administrative matters as well as emergency conditions.  They may specialize in one or more specific applications, such as hazard mitigation, disaster recovery, operations, or preparedness (to include planning, training, or exercises).

Does the title of Chef fully define all the duties of managing a restaurant kitchen including staff, developing a menu, ordering food, establishing processes and systems, and maintaining quality control?  No… because titles that are sentences long are impractical.  People within the profession, and some outside the profession, should be aware of what these titles mean and the KSAs and responsibilities that go along with them.

Sometimes I feel that those fighting for emergency management to become a more ‘established’ profession do more harm than good.  My point is, many skill sets don’t define a profession.  A vast array of professions require the ability to use a copy machine and make critical decisions all in the same breath.  It’s the context in which we apply those skill sets that makes the difference.  Yes, I agree that the skill sets of many emergency managers are taken for granted – but often by emergency managers themselves.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Measuring Preparedness – An Executive Academy Perspective

A recent class of FEMA’s Emergency Management Executive Academy published a paper titled Are We Prepared Yet? in the latest issue of the Domestic Preparedness Journal.  It’s a solid read, and I encourage everyone to look it over.

First off, I wasn’t aware of the scope of work conducted in the Executive Academy.  I think that having groups publish papers is an extremely important element.  Given that the participants of the Executive Academy function, presently or in the near future, at the executive level in emergency management and/or homeland security, giving others the opportunity to learn from their insight on topics discussed in their sessions is quite valuable.  I need to do some poking around to see if papers written by other groups can be found.

As most of my readers are familiar, the emphasis of my career has always been in the realm of preparedness.  As such, it’s an important topic to me and I tend to gravitate to publications and ideas I can find on the topic.  The authors of this paper bring up some excellent points, many of which I’ve covered in articles past.  They indicate a variety of sources, including literature reviews and interviews, which I wish they would have cited more completely.

Some points of discussion…

THIRA

The authors discuss the THIRA and SPR – two related processes/products which I find to be extremely valuable.  They indicate that many believe the THIRA to be complex and challenging.  This I would fully agree with, however I posit that there are few things in the world that are both simple and comprehensive in nature.  In particular regard to emergency management and homeland security, the inputs that inform and influence our decisions and actions are so varied, yet so relevant, that to ignore most of them would put us at a significant disadvantage.  While I believe that anything can be improved upon, THIRA and SPR included, this is something we can’t afford to overly simplify.

What was most disappointing in this topic area was their finding that only a scant majority of people they surveyed felt that THIRA provided useful or actionable information.  This leaves me scratching my head.  A properly done THIRA provides a plethora of useful information – especially when coupled with the SPR (POETE) process.  Regardless, the findings of the authors suggest that we need to take another look at THIRA and SPR to see what can be improved upon, both in process and result.

Moving forward within the discussion of THIRA and SPR, the authors include discussion of something they highlight as a best practice, that being New York State’s County Emergency Preparedness Assessment (CEPA).  The intent behind the CEPA is sound – a simplified version of the THIRA which is faster and easier to do for local governments throughout the state.  The CEPA includes foundational information, such as a factual overview of the jurisdiction, and a hazard analysis which ranks hazards based upon likelihood and consequence.  It then analyses a set of capabilities based upon the POETE elements.  While I love their inclusion of POETE (you all know I’m a huge fan), the capabilities they use are a mix of the current Core Capabilities (ref: National Preparedness Goal) and the old Target Capabilities, along with a few not consistent with either and a number of Core Capabilities left out.  This is where the CEPA falls apart for me.  It is this inconsistency with the National Preparedness Goal that turns me off.  Any local governments looking to do work in accordance with the NPG and related elements, including grants, then need to cross walk this data, as does the state in their roll-up of this information to their THIRA and SPR.

The CEPA continues with an examination of response capacity, along the lines of their response-oriented capabilities.  This is a valuable analysis and I expect it becomes quite a reality check for many jurisdictions.  This is coupled with information not only on immediate response, but also sustained response over longer periods of time.  Overall, while I think the CEPA is a great effort to make the THIRA and POETE analysis more palatable for local jurisdictions, it leaves me with some concerns in regard to the capabilities they use.  It’s certainly a step in the right direction, though.  Important to note, the CEPA was largely developed by one of the authors of the paper, who was a former colleague of mine working with the State of New York.

The Process of Preparedness

There are a few topic areas within their paper that I’m lumping together under this discussion topic.  The authors make some excellent points about our collective work in preparedness that I think all readers will nod their heads about, because we know when intuitively, but sometimes they need to be reinforced – not only to us as practitioners, but also to other stakeholders, including the public.  First off, preparedness is never complete.  The cycle of preparedness – largely involving assessment, planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercising – is just that – a cycle.  It’s endless.  While we do a great deal of work in each of these, our accomplishments are really only temporary.

The authors also mention that our information is not always precise.  We base a lot of what we do in preparedness on information, such as a hazard analysis.  While there are some inputs that are factual and supported by science, there are many that are based on speculation and anecdote.  This is a reality of our work that we must always acknowledge.  As is other of their points – there is no silver bullet.  There is no universal solution to all our woes.  We must constantly have our head in the game and consider actions that we may not have ever considered before.

ICS Improvement Officer

The authors briefly discuss a conceptual position within the ICS Command Staff they call the ICS Improvement Officer.  The concept of this fascinating, if not a bit out of place in this paper given other topics of discussion.  Essentially, as they describe this position, it is someone at the Command Staff level who is responsible for providing quality control to the incident management processes and implementations of the organization.  While I’ve just recently read this paper and haven’t had a lot of time to digest the concept, I really can’t find any fault with the concept.  While the planning process itself is supposed to provide some measure of a feedback loop, there isn’t anyone designated in the organization to shepherd that process beginning to end and ultimately provide the quality control measures necessary.  In practice, I’ve seen this happen collaboratively, among members of the Command and General Staff of a well-staffed structure, as well as by the individual who has the best overall ICS insight and experience in an organization – often the Planning Section Chief.  The authors elude to this position also feeding an AAR process, which contributes to overall preparedness.  I like this idea and I hope it is explored more, either formally or informally.

Conclusion

There are a number of other topic areas of this paper which I haven’t covered here, but I encourage everyone to read on their own.  As mentioned earlier, I’d like to see more of the research papers that come from FEMA’s Emergency Management Executive Academy available for public review.  Agree or disagree with their perspectives, I think their discussions on various topics are absolutely worth looking at.  It’s these discussions like these which will ultimately drive bigger discussions which will continue to advance public safety.

I’m always interested in the perspectives of my readers.  Have you read the paper?  What do you think of the discussion topics they presented?

© 2017 – Timothy M Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

ICS and the Human Factor

A number of my articles have mentioned the unpredictable human factor in executing emergency plans and managing incidents, particularly for complex incidents.  We can build great plans and have a great management system to facilitate the incident management process, but the human factor – that largely intangible level of unpredictability of human behavior – can steer even the best emergency plan astray or derail an incident management process.

An article published in the Domestic Preparedness Journal yesterday, written by Eric McNulty, reflects on this.  Mr. McNulty cites several human factors which have relevance within incident management and encourages leaders to understand these factors within themselves and others to bring about more effective leadership.  The introductory paragraph of his article suggests the need for integrating behavior training into ICS training to ‘improve performance and outcomes’.  Given the impact of behavior factors on how we respond, this is a concept I can certainly endorse for a much-needed rewrite of the ICS curriculum.

I’ve heavily referenced Chief Cynthia Renaud’s paper, The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function in The Edge of Chaos, in the past and continue to hold her piece relevant, especially in this discussion.  Chief Renaud’s suggestions draw lines parallel to behavioral factors, which suggest to me that we certainly need to integrate leadership training into ICS training.  The current ICS 200 course attempts to do so, but the content simply panders to the topic and doesn’t address it seriously enough.  We need to go beyond the leadership basics and explore leadership training done around the world to see what is the most effective.

Incident management is life and death – not a pick-up game of stick ball.  Let’s start taking it more seriously and prepare people better for this responsibility.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

ICS: Let’s Keep Talking

I find it interesting that a topic so seemingly mundane – that of the incident command system (ICS) has seen an increase of discussion lately.  The NIMS Refresh seems to have fueled some of that, but other writings and conversations have also been taking place.  While I’ve certainly been critical of the national ICS training program in several of my writings, there have been other thoughts posted on ICS, some you absolutely must take a look at:

Are We Overthinking ICS?  This article, posted by noted emergency management consultant Lucien Canton has some great thoughts on the proposed NIMS Refresh.  He brings up an excellent point about the disappearance of Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS) – something I had myself completely missed in my review.  A must read.

ICS and ESF: An Unhappy Marriage?  Another article by Lu Canton.  This piece gives a concise review of the differences between ICS and FEMA’s Emergency Support Function (ESF) structure and gives some ideas on how the two can be brought together.  I’ve seen the things Lu suggests in action, and I promise you, they can work.

Where Incident Management Unravels.  This article by Charles Bailey in the August edition of the Domestic Preparedness Journal took me on a wild ride, for which I’ll have some extended commentary here… I’ve read and reread this article several times, each time having different reactions and responses.  Through my first read, I saw this piece as being highly critical of ICS. Then I read it again, and I began to understand.  While I don’t agree with all Chief Bailey’s points, I respect everything he is saying and absolutely appreciate the thoughts and ideas this article offers.  I’ll leave you to read the article for yourself and form you own opinions.  The bottom line is the importance of early efforts to gain control over the chaos of the incident.  NIMS/ICS doesn’t provide us with all the answers for how to do that – something that I think needs to be reflected in better instruction of the principles of ICS.  Chief Bailey mentions toward the end of his piece the need to create ‘nimble response paradigms’ for initial response – a concept I fully agree with.  I also think that Chief Cynthia Renaud has some incredible insights on this matter in her Edge of Chaos paper.

I’m excited about the volume of discussion over NIMS and ICS lately.  It’s the system we rely on to manage incidents, coordinate resources, and ultimately save lives.  It’s kind of a big deal.  It should be good, and we should do it right.  While it’s the best we currently have, that doesn’t mean the system is perfect, nor will it ever likely be.  Similarly, the human elements involved in training, interpretation, and implementation of the system means that we will rarely do things ‘by the book’, but we are never handed disasters ‘by the book’, either, which emphasizes the number of variables involved in incident management.  The system must continue to evolve to be effective and to reflect our new and changing ideas on incident management.  We need to regularly examine the system critically and as realists and implement positive changes.  That said, change needs to be carefully administered.  We can’t make change for the sake of change, and we must be mindful that constant change will itself create chaos.

Have you read any other great articles on ICS lately?  What thoughts do you have on ICS, ICS training, and the need for ICS to evolve?  What’s missing?

© Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

Don’t Just Take It From Me – There are Issues with ICS Training

The February 2016 edition of the Domestic Preparedness Journal highlighted, among other things, some concerns with ICS training in the United States.  First off, if you aren’t subscribed to the DPJ, you should be.  It’s free and they offer good content, with few extraneous emails beyond the journals.  Check them out at www.domesticpreparedness.com.

The specific article in this issue I’m referencing is Incident Command System: Perishable if Not Practiced, by Stephen Grainer. Mr. Grainer is the Chief of Incident Management Systems for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs.  Steve has a significant depth in ICS and understands all the nuances of preparedness and application.  I first met him when serving on the national NIMS steering committee with him several years back.

The title of the article is a bit deceptive – it’s not just focused on the issue of the training being perishable.  Right up front, Mr. Grainer, who is a longtime supporter and advocate of ICS, outlines a few shortcomings and constraints related to the application of ICS and ICS training.  He states that “little attention has been given to developing the students’ ability to recognize an evolving situation in which more formalized implementation of the ICS should be undertaken”.  This underscores one of my main points on the failings of the ICS curriculum.  We teach people all about what ICS is, but very little of how to use it.

After giving a few case studies that reflect on the shortcomings he highlighted, Mr. Grainer expresses his support for continued training, refresher training (something not currently required), and opportunities to apply ICS in ways that public safety and emergency management don’t do on a regular basis.  He summarizes by stating that not only does training need to continue to address succession and bench depth, but also the need to address how to maintain competencies and address misunderstandings in NIMS/ICS.

Yes, training does need to continue, but it must be the RIGHT training!  We continue doing a disservice by promoting the current ICS courses which fall well short of what needs to be accomplished.  Mr. Grainer’s mention of the need for our training to address better implementation of ICS, particularly beyond the routine, is perhaps a bit understated, but nonetheless present.  Refresher training also needs to be incorporated into a new curriculum, as these skills are absolutely perishable – particularly the aspects of ICS typically reserved for more complex incidents.

In the event you aren’t familiar with my earlier posts on ICS and my crusade for a better curriculum, check out these posts.  As I’ve said before, this isn’t a pick-up kickball game… this is public safety.  We can do better.

Shameless plug:  Assessments, Planning, Training, Exercises.  Emergency Preparedness Solutions does it all.  Contact us to find out how our experience can benefit your jurisdiction’s or organization’s emergency and disaster preparedness.  We are your partner in preparedness.  www.epsllc.biz.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC