2021: Another Horrible National Preparedness Report

FEMA’s Christmas present to us in 2021, as with the past several years, was the National Preparedness Report. Before I dive in, a few of reminders. 1) You can find my reviews of the reports of prior years here. 2) To get copies of the reports of prior years, FEMA archives these in the unrestricted side of the Homeland Security Digital Library. 3) Each report is derived from data from the year prior, so this December 2021 report actually covers the calendar year of 2020.

The 2021 report covers risks and capabilities, as have the reports of past years. It also covers ‘Management Opportunities’ which “the Federal Government, SLTTs (state, local, territories, and tribes), and the private sector could use to build capability and address capacity gaps.” It offers a slightly different perspective than the prior year’s ‘Critical Considerations for Emergency Management’, but fundamentally offers the same type of constructive commentary.

Keeping in mind that through much of 2020, the US, as with nations across the globe, was managing the COVID 19 Coronavirus pandemic. An observation from this report is that the word ‘COVID’ comes up 222 times in the document. That is a LOT of focus on one particular hazard. While I’ll grant that it impacted everyone, had a number of cascading impacts, and there are some statements made in the document about other hazards and concurrent incidents, I fear that when nearly every paragraph mentions COVID, we seem to lose a sense of all-hazard emergency management in the document and thus in the state of the nation’s preparedness. What I do appreciate, as with FEMA’s new Strategic Plan and other recent documents, there is acknowledgement and discussion around inequities in disaster relief. This is an important topic which needs to continue getting exposure. Related to this they also reference the National Risk Index that was released in 2020, which includes indices of social vulnerability. This is a valuable tool for all emergency managers.

The information on Risk included in the 2021 report is much more comprehensive and informative than that in the 2020 report, though they once again miss an opportunity to provide metrics and displays of infographics. While words are valuable, well-designed infographics tell an even better story. Most numbers given in this section of the report were buried in seemingly endless paragraphs of text, and there certainly were no deep analytics provided. It’s simply poor story telling and buries much of the value of this section.

While the mention of climate change had been forbidden in the past few reports, I would have expected the 2021 report to have some significant inclusion on the matter. Instead, it’s highlighted in two pages covering ‘Emerging Risks’ with very little information given. Climate change isn’t emerging, folks, it’s here.

Capabilities are a significant focus of the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) and Stakeholder Preparedness Review (SPR) completed by states, Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funded regions, and others. As part of the THIRA/SPR process, stakeholders traditionally identify their own preparedness goals (capability targets) for each of the 32 Core Capabilities outlined in the National Preparedness Goal. For the 2021 report, FEMA limited the capability targets to a given set focused on pandemic-related capabilities. As mentioned earlier, while the pandemic is certainly a principal concern, and many of the capability targets can be leveraged toward other hazards, I think this was a failure of the all-hazards approach. Further, with this focus, the 2021 report fails to provide most of the metrics provided in reports of the past, identifying, in aggregate, where stakeholders assessed their own standing in each Core Capability. This is the most significant gauge of preparedness, and they provide so little information on it in this report that I feel the report fails at its primary goal.

I’ve mentioned in the past that the metrics provided in previous reports are superficial at best and provide little by way of analysis. Unfortunately, the metrics provided in the 2021 report are even more lacking, and what there is only provides a snapshot of 2020 instead of any trend analysis.

What is included in this section of the document that I appreciated were some infographics compiling information on some of the capability targets that FEMA pre-determined. Unfortunately, they didn’t even provide these infographics for all of the limited set of capability targets, and the information provided is still fairly weak. Again, this severely limits the value of this being a national report on preparedness.

The last major component of the document is Management Opportunities. This section similarly provides seemingly endless paragraphs of text, but does approach these management opportunities like a strategic plan, setting goals, objectives, and (some) possible metrics for each opportunity. These offer valuable approaches, which coincidentally dovetail well into the goals of FEMA’s new strategic plan and will hopefully provide some solid value to emergency management programs at all levels. I think this section is really the most valuable component of the entire report. Unfortunately, it’s the shortest. The opportunities identified in the report are:

  • Developing a Preparedness Investment Strategy
  • Addressing Steady-State Inequities, Vulnerabilities, and a Dynamic Risk Landscape
  • Strengthen Processes Within and Better Connect Areas of the National Preparedness System

Overall, while there are some pockets of good content, this is another disappointing report. FEMA still isn’t telling us much about the state of preparedness across the nation; and in fact this report tells us even less than prior reports, which I didn’t think was possible. They attempt to tell stories through some focused discussion on a few capability targets, which has some value, but are providing little to no information on the big picture; not the current state of preparedness and certainly not any analysis of trends. Even the section on Management Opportunities isn’t consistent in identifying metrics for each opportunity.

What remains a mystery to me is that it takes a full year to develop this report. The metrics I allude to throughout my commentary are largely easy to obtain and analyze, as much of this information comes to FEMA in quantifiable data; also making trend analysis a rather easy chore. Last year’s report, while still severely lacking, was formatted much better than this year’s, which lacked a vision for story telling and communication of data.

Simply put, emergency managers and other recipients of this report (Congress?) should not accept this type of reporting. Despite coming in at 94 pages, it tells us so little and in my mind does not meet the spirit of the requirement for a National Preparedness Report (this is defined in Presidential Policy Directive 8). States, UASIs, and others who complete and submit THIRAs and SPRs should be livid that their efforts, while certainly (hopefully) valuable to them, are being poorly aggregated, studied, analyzed, and reported as part of the National Preparedness Report. In fact I feel that the 2021 report is telling a story that FEMA wants to tell, supported by select data and case studies; rather than actually reporting on the state of preparedness across the nation, as informed by federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, private sector, and non-profit stakeholders.  

As always, the thoughts of my readers are more than welcome.

Happy New Year to everyone!

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

State of Emergency and Emergency Orders

In times of disaster, many jurisdictions will declare a state of emergency, often without fully realizing the potential of what that emergency declaration can do. Many jurisdictions might also NOT declare a state of emergency, similarly because they don’t realize the potential of what it can do. In the US, state laws provide for certain powers of governors and local officials, which include the ability to declare a state of emergency (or similar language). State laws typically provide for a formal procedure for the declaration, which generally include certain notifications to other government officials and the public. Issuing a state of emergency can be one of the most important things that elected officials can do to support response and recovery efforts. While declaring a state of emergency is itself important, it’s really what you do with it that counts.

Most state officials are fairly well versed in emergency declarations, but many local officials really don’t know what an emergency declaration is or does, much less how to actually issue one. Because of the differences in state laws, this is really on state emergency management agencies to promote to their local governments. Many do a good job of it, including it in training and orientation materials for new local emergency management officials, as well as guidance for local elected officials. While I strongly feel that emergency managers should be advising elected officials on state of emergency declarations, many jurisdictions obviously don’t have their own emergency manager. I’ve also seen many emergency managers simply not communicate the information with their local elected officials until they feel it’s necessary. Obviously this isn’t the way to go. Elected officials with this authority should be well aware of it, how it’s done, when it should be done, and how it’s done well ahead of any disaster – even if the EM wants to (and should) be advising when the time comes.

So what can the declaration of a state of emergency get you? First of all, it makes an important statement that there is a serious situation probable or at hand. Most state laws seem to allow for the situation to be from an incident or event, and arising from a natural hazard, technological hazard, or human action. The declaration provides a notice to the public, surrounding jurisdictions, and the state that there is a danger to the public and/or property. I’ve seen disaster declarations for a specific property, a neighborhood or other geographic area, or for entire jurisdictions; any of which can be valid depending on the situation at hand. Unfortunately, this is where I see a lot of emergency declarations stop. They simply aren’t utilized any further than this.

Some states require local emergency declarations to support a request for state assistance, while others do not require one to be in place. While state laws have some differences, one of the most significant doors that an emergency declaration opens is the ability for emergency issuance or suspension of local laws. These can, again depending upon specific state laws, allow for things such as:

  • Establishing a curfew and/or limiting traffic or access to and within certain areas
  • Order prolonged evacuation of buildings and areas
  • Closing places of amusement or assembly
  • Limiting or suspending the sale, use, or transportation of alcoholic beverages, firearms, explosives, or other hazardous materials
  • Establishing emergency shelters or other facilities
  • Suspension of local laws, ordinances, or regulations (in whole or in part) which may prevent, hinder, or delay disaster response or recovery actions.

Over the past nearly two years, we’ve seen emergency orders issued regarding limiting density in certain locations, the requirement of masks, requirement of vaccinations, etc. Unfortunately, the political divisiveness of the pandemic has caused emergency declarations and emergency orders to become political, with many state legislatures pushing to make changes to state laws to restrict the ability of governors and local elected officials in this regard. While checks and balances are important, we need to be very careful in how we may inadvertently hinder a response and life safety actions. These matters must be carefully reviewed with multiple perspectives and scenarios studied.

Declaring a state of emergency should be a consideration in your emergency plan. It’s an important tool for incident management, and just like most tools in higher level incident management, we don’t do it with enough frequency to remember how to do it. Ensure that emergency operations plans include information on declarations, including a job aid for issuing a state of emergency and associated emergency orders. As with all aspects of our plans, it should also be exercised. It’s a great item to include for discussion in a tabletop exercise and to go through the motions of in a functional exercise.

It’s also important to note that state laws may allow for various entities to declare a state of emergency. For example, in New York State, a county Sheriff can declare a ‘special emergency’. Doing so provides the Sheriff with specific authorities to support the management of an emergency. While I always appreciate having several avenues available to tackle a problem, I’m regularly concerned with duplication of effort, or, even worse, conflicting information. It certainly could occur that the emergency orders of a Sheriff’s declaration of a ‘special emergency’, the orders of a county executive, and those of local governments could conflict or not be consistent. This is why relationships and ongoing coordination are important.

What best practices have you seen for issuing a state of emergency and emergency orders?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management

There have been a number of efforts to further the expansion of diversity and inclusion in Emergency Management recently. A great step forward has recently been made by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), by organizing their own internal Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) within the agency. Their press release states it is the first of its kind across the nation dedicated to reducing barriers to assistance and equality in disaster relief and emergency management. They will provide subject matter expertise, strategic leadership, and technical assistance to VDEM and other Emergency Management partners.

Diversity and inclusion are equally important internally to Emergency Management as they are externally. It starts with deliberate intent from leadership and inclusion in the strategic plans of the organization, with personnel across the organization made familiar with goals, specific approaches, and given examples of what to do and how to do it. Whether you establish a specific unit within your Emergency Management organization or not, the effort must permeate the entirety of the Emergency Management practice, regardless of those efforts originating with the Emergency Management agency or elsewhere. Consider your own internal matters, such as hiring, partner agencies and organizations, and your own personnel practices and relationships. Large agencies should ensure that their staff reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. It’s not just a matter of race and gender, but ethnic and cultural background, languages, disability, and other factors.

We need to examine how we deliver programs. When I took over a state training and exercise program, I had the realization that many of the training locations we used across the state were not accessible. The most basic but significant barrier being that facilities were either up flights of stairs or down flights of stairs, with no elevators. While we didn’t have any complaints, it was still wrong; not to mention in violation of the federal funding used for training which required adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I sought the advice of an organization that advocates for persons with disabilities and developed ADA-consistent standards for the selection of our training facilities. Those not meeting those standards were immediately discontinued.

Community outreach efforts, which may also crosscut to other lines of effort such as training, hazard mitigation, and disaster recovery; need to be inclusive. We must always consider our audiences and how they will be reached and communicated with. There is no single solution, therefore multiple solutions should be made available. We need to not only consider languages and accommodations for hearing impairments, but also the inherent distrust that some cultures, particularly refugees, may have of government. We need to address technological barriers as well – not everyone is on Twitter, much less following your account. Even the simple ability to relate is important. While it’s important to dress professionally (I’m seeing some EM agencies wearing tee shirts… which I think is far too casual), a suit and tie is often too intimidating, too ‘government’, and too impersonal when working with community members.

Our planning efforts must identify, acknowledge, and address the diverse audiences and communities we have, the barriers they may have relative to the plan, and how we will work toward supporting those communities. Hazard mitigation and disaster recovery efforts are where some of our biggest gaps are when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Our existing policies and procedures are great, and applicable to a large percentage of the situations and people who need help, but they also unintentionally (I’m being optimistic) leave some people behind. We need to ensure concerted efforts to assess and meet the needs of traditionally underserved populations, which not only includes vulnerable and small rural communities, but urban communities as well. We also need to consider a customer service perspective in these efforts; remembering that while WE know the rules, policies, and procedures, the people impacted often do not. Persons impacted are confused, overwhelmed, and traumatized. This requires special care, deliberate outreach, and helping them through the bureaucracy we seem to thrive in. In regard to hazard mitigation, the long-established standard of community participation is important to ensuring that we are not only meeting needs we may not fully be aware of, but also not creating unintended consequences by any of our approaches to addressing known problems. Reflecting back on our community outreach efforts, we all know that most requirements for advertising public meetings do NOT reach across the entire community. We need to make better efforts.

Diversity and inclusion should somehow be on the agenda of most meetings. We should always consider who we are aren’t including or not reaching and how we can do better, regardless of the activity. Do we need to do something different internally? Is there an external partner that can support our efforts? Are we unintentionally creating barriers? If someone is not able to go through the process as we have prescribed it, is there an alternate means of doing so? We also need to recognize where law and regulation create barriers, and work with elected officials to advocate for meaningful changes.

Emergency Management has always been about engaging different stakeholders through our coordination activities. Diversity and inclusion then seem an easy bridge to cross, yet far too many Emergency Management agencies and efforts continue to be dominated by able-bodied white men. It’s (mostly) not a knock on that demographic (of which I am a part), but we need to recognize the benefits of the different perspectives offered by others, as well as the need to better serve those who have consistently been underserved by our efforts, through error or omission. We have long espoused ‘whole community’ in our efforts, yet we often aren’t practicing what we preach.

I think the VDEM ODEI may serve as a model for other states and larger local Emergency Management offices. I hope to see them spreading lessons learned, speaking at conferences, and being embraced by FEMA as a new standard of practice in Emergency Management. For those Emergency Management organizations that are perhaps too small to include a new organizational component for this, they can still incorporate the concepts into what they do, along with establishing partnerships with organizations that can support these efforts. We can and must do better!

What other efforts toward diversity and inclusion does Emergency Management need to engage in?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Soft Skills Are Hard to Find

Across emergency management, dependent upon specific jobs, we certainly need to apply a lot of technical skillsets. So often, though, soft skills are dismissed, which is quite ironic given that soft skills are really the foundation of what emergency managers need given our emphasis on communication, collaboration, and coordination.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, soft skills are things that are generally applicable to various types of work. These include things like communication, writing, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, organizing, time management, and others. These are skills generally expected of any working professional. They can be honed, but often require some innate ability. Soft skills are different from hard skills, which are those that tend to be more technical and industry specific. These are also generally something acquired more through learning and less dependent upon innate ability.

FEMA’s Professional Development Series (PDS) used to be a cornerstone of emergency management training. Many state emergency management training programs had an emphasis on these courses and the content they provided. The PDS offered soft skills courses, such as Effective Communication, Decision Making and Problem Solving, and Leadership alongside training on topics more so focused on emergency management topics. These courses did a lot to support the professionalism of emergency managers and their abilities to do their jobs in a reasonably comprehensive nature. About 15 years ago FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute made the decision to offer these courses as part of their Independent Study program, a choice that made the content more widely available while also arguably decreasing the effectiveness of the training by removing the dynamics of a live instructor and the learning gained from group activities. While states still had the option to continue delivering classroom versions of these courses, demand severely dropped as people opted to take the courses online.

While the PDS is still available, it’s in a diminished popularity. FEMA’s EMI now offers the National Emergency Management Basic Academy, which provides a great series of courses, and to their credit, they do include some soft skills topics within the courses, especially the Foundations of Emergency Management course. That said, we still need more. Soft skills aren’t a one-off, they need to be built and honed. While FEMA’s EMI isn’t the only provider of soft skills training, they are the go-to provider for most emergency managers.

Having recently had the opportunity to review the participant manual for the new Advanced Planning Practitioner course, I was very happy to see the thought put into providing content on soft skills particularly as they relate to the hard skills involved in emergency planning. Emergency planning at its essence is absolutely a hard skill, with specific technical aspects, but there are several soft skills that are complimentary to the process of emergency planning, without which the planning effort will be less than effective. Consider that so much of emergency planning is consensus building, coordination, meeting management, research, and writing. Communication, facilitation, and public speaking are central to much of this.

I think a lot of people have a tendency to roll their eyes at soft skills, thinking that their abilities are already at peak performance or claiming that they are good because they took a course 15 years ago. As professionals in emergency management, we need to regularly spend time honing our skills. Yes, there are plenty of technical things for us to be trained in and practice such as plan writing, exercises, ICS, etc., but soft skills make us better at doing those things. Both in government service and as a consultant, I see far too many people lacking in soft skills. There may be some highly technical jobs where soft skills have less importance, but soft skills in emergency management are just as important, if not more important, than some technical skills, especially when you consider that one of the greatest values we contribute is our ability to bring people to the table, facilitate discussions, and gain consensus on important decisions before, during, and after disaster. How all that is applied may very well be technical, but we can’t get there without good soft skills.

What do you think are the most valuable soft skills?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

ICS – Assistant Section Chiefs

Somehow this one snuck past me, but luckily I have some friends and colleagues who brought it to my attention and talked it through with me. The latest ICS curricula (not consistently, however) identifies that Section Chiefs can have Assistants. It’s been a long-standing practice for General Staff to have Deputies rather than Assistants. So where did this come from?

Page 82 of the NIMS document, as pointed out to me by someone at EMI, provides some language that seems to be the root of this. Here are the definitions provided:

Deputies are used at section and branch levels of the incident organization. A deputy, whether at the command, section, or branch level, is qualified to assume the position.

Assistants are used on Command Staffs and to support section chiefs. Unlike deputies, assistants have a level of technical capability, qualification, and responsibility subordinate to the primary positions and need not be fully qualified to assume the position.

None of those I spoke with are aware of the actual source of this change or why it was changed. Of course, I initially balked at it because it wasn’t the ICS I ‘grew up with’. Given some thought, however, it provides some organizational opportunities and certainly doesn’t violate any of the primary tenets of ICS.

There are absolutely some occasions in the past when, as a Planning Section Chief, I could have used this option. Planning Section Chiefs end up in a lot of meetings, and while I always felt comfortable with leaving the personnel staffing the section to their own tasks, it’s good to have another leader there in the absence of the Section Chief, both for the benefit of the section staff as well as the rest of the organization. However, if there was no one technically qualified to be a Deputy Section Chief but still capable of leading the staff and serving as an interim point person for the section, we would be (and have been) stuck in an organizational nuance. By definition, they couldn’t be assigned as a Deputy, but we didn’t have another option. This is a great opportunity to assign an Assistant. This is somewhat like an ‘executive officer’ type of position, whereas they have authority but can’t necessarily fill the shoes of the principal position.

To add to the myriad options for the Intelligence function, I also see the potential in the use of an Assistant, either in Planning or Operations, to be a viable option. This is someone qualified to lead the task, but not necessarily the Section they are organized within. I similarly see possibilities for addressing other defined needs within the incident organization. Sometimes we take some liberties, again for example in the Planning Section, to create Units that are non-standard, perhaps for tasks such as ‘Continuity Planning’, or ‘Operational Planning Support’ – of course being non-standard, you may have some different titles for them. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, as we aren’t violating any of the primary rules of ICS, nor are we creating positions that actually belong elsewhere (as I often see). Planning is planning, and there may be necessity to have personnel specifically tasked with functions like these. Instead of creating a Unit, which could still be done, you could assign the task to an Assistant. Consider something like debris management. There is a significant planning component to debris management, separate from the operations of debris management. This could be tasked specifically to an Assistant Section Chief to handle.

Another consideration, and somewhat tied to my first example of a de facto leader/point of contact for a section in the absence of the Section Chief, is that an Assistant Section Chief seems to carry more authority than a Unit Leader. That level of authority may need some doctrinal definition, but I think is also largely dependent upon the task they are given and the desires of the Section Chief assigning them – though this can make for inconsistencies across the incident organization. Having someone with a measure of authority, depending on the needs of the task, can be extremely helpful, particularly with the bureaucracies that incident management organizations can sometimes evolve into.

It’s important for us to recognize the need for doctrine to evolve based on common sense approaches to addressing identified needs. That means that the ICS we ‘grew up with’ can and should change if needed. As NIMS/ICS (and other standards) continues to evolve, we need to have discussions on these needs and potential solutions. Every change, however, has consequences, or at least additional considerations. I don’t feel this change should have been made without further exploration of the topic and answering questions such as the level of authority they may have, qualification standards, and support staff assigned to them (let’s be honest – things like this were never well defined for Assistant Command Staff positions either).  I also see a lot of value in doctrine offering best practice examples of use. Once doctrinal changes are made, curriculum changes certainly need to follow. In just examining the ICS 300 and ICS 400 course materials, the inclusion of Assistant Section Chiefs is simply not consistent or adequate.

Where do you find yourself on this topic? For or against Assistant Section Chiefs? What potential uses do you see? What potential problems do you see? How can we address these and ensure good implementation?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

A New CPG – 101 for Emergency Planning (v 3)

I know I’m a big nerd when it comes to this stuff, but I was really excited to receive the notice from FEMA that the new Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 101: Developing and Maintaining Emergency Operations Plans has been published! This has been a long time coming. This update (version 3) replaces the previous version which was published in November 2010. The update process was also rather lengthy, with the first public review occurring in November 2019 and the second in November 2020.

Did a lot change? No.

Is it better? Yes.

Could it be even better? You bet.

The changes that are included in the new document are meaningful, with an emphasis on including accessibility concepts in plans; and references to current practices and standards, such as new and updated planning guides, CPG 201 (THIRA), Community Lifelines, and more. It even highlights a couple of lessons learned from the COVID 19 pandemic. I’m particularly pleased to see Appendix D: Enhancing Inclusiveness in EOPs, which I think is an excellent resource, though more links to other resources, of which there are many, should be provided in this appendix.

The format of the document is largely the same, with a lot of the content word-for-word the same. As a standard, a lot of change shouldn’t be expected. While we’ve seen some changes in our perspectives on emergency planning, there really hasn’t been anything drastic. Certainly “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I think there could have been some better formatting choices, narrative, graphics, and job aids to enhance readability and implementation.  

There is some added content as well as a bit of highlighting of planning approaches, such as the District of Columbia’s services-based emergency operations plan. While I advocated for heavy reference to newer implementations and standards, such as THIRA, into the document (which was largely done) I also advocated for more user-friendly approaches, such as a hazard analysis matrix, to be included. My feedback from both public comment periods heavily emphasized the need to develop a document that will mostly benefit novice emergency planners. To me this means the inclusion of more graphic depictions of processes and tasks, as well as job aids, such as checklists and templates. The new CPG 101 does include more checklists. At first glance these are buried in the document which is not very user friendly. However, they did make a separate Compilation of Checklists document available, which I’m really happy about. It’s not highly apparent on the website nor is it included as part of the main document, so it could be easily missed.

I would have really liked to see a comprehensive library of job aids provided in the appendices to support implementation by new planners. We have other doctrine and related documents that provide rather extensive job aids to support implementation, such as HSEEP and NIMS (and not only the ICS component of NIMS). Not including that kind of supporting material in this update is very much a missed opportunity. Planning really is the cornerstone of preparedness, yet it doesn’t seem we are providing as much support for quality and consistent planning efforts. Given the extent of time between updates, I expected better. While being largely consistent in the format and content between versions is practically a necessity, there really should have been a parallel effort, separate from document revision, to outline practices and approaches to emergency plan development. Integrating that content into the update, ideally, would have done more to support HOW each step of the planning process is accomplished, as well as providing some job aids.

Speaking of implementation support, I’m curious about how EMI’s new Advanced Planning course, which I didn’t get into the pilot offering of, builds on the Emergency Planning course and compliments use of CPG 101.

Be sure to update your own personal reference library with this new version of CPG 101. If you are interested in a review with FEMA personnel, they are providing a series of one-hour webinars. What are your thoughts on the new CPG 101?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Preparing for Disaster Deployments

I wrote last year about my trepidation over Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) being considered as a deployable resource. The problem is that even most professionally trained emergency personnel aren’t prepared for deployment. We need to do better.

One of the key aspects of a disaster is that it overwhelms local resources. This often requires help from outside the impacted jurisdiction(s). Working outward from the center, like the bullseye of a dartboard, we are usually able to get near-immediate assistance from our neighbors (aka mutual aid), with additional assistance from those at greater distances. When I use the word ‘deployment’, I’m referring to the movement of resources from well outside the area and usually for a period of time of several days or longer.

The US and other places around the world have great mutual aid systems, many supported by laws and administrative procedures, identifying how requests are made, discerning the liability for the requesting organization and the fulfilling organization(s), and more. Most of these are intended for response vs deployment, but may have the flexibility to be applicable to deployment. Some, such as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) are specifically written for deployments. While all this is certainly important, most organizations haven’t spent the time to prepare their people for deployment, which is a need that many organizations seem to take for granted. Those organizations which are, practically be definition, resources which are designed to deploy, such as Type 1 and 2 incident management teams (IMTs), often have at least some preparations in place and can be a good resource from which others can learn.

What goes into preparing for deployment? First, the sponsoring organization needs to recognize that their resources might be requested for deployment and agree to take part in this. That said, some organizations, such as volunteer fire departments, might have little control over their personnel deploying across the country when a call for help goes out publicly. These types of requests, in my opinion, can be harmful as large numbers of well-intentioned people may abandon their home organization to a lack of even basic response resources – but this is really a topic to be explored separately.

Once an organization has made a commitment to consider future requests, leadership needs to develop a policy and procedure on how they will review and approve requests. Will requests only be accepted from certain organizations? What are the acceptable parameters of a request for consideration? What are the thresholds for resources which must be kept at home? 

Supporting much of this decision making is the typing of resources. In the US, this is often done in accordance with defined typing from FEMA. Resource typing, fundamentally, helps us to identify the capabilities, qualifications, and eligibility of our resources. This is good not only for your own internal tracking, but is vitally important to most deployment requests. Organizations should do the work now to type their resources and personnel.

If an organization’s leadership decides they are willing to support a request, there then needs to be a canvass and determination of interest to deploy personnel. This is yet another procedure and the one that has most of my focus in this article. Personnel must be advised of exactly what they are getting into and what is expected of them (Each resource request received should give information specific to the deployment, such as deployment duration, lodging conditions, and duties.). The organization may also determine a need to deny someone the ability to deploy based on critical need with the home organization or other reasons, and having a policy already established for this makes the decision easier to communicate and defend.

These organization-level policies and procedures, along with staff-level training and policies should be developed to support the personnel in their decision and their readiness for an effective deployment.

Many things that should be determined and addressed would include:

  • Matters of pay, expenses, and insurance
  • Liability of personal actions
  • Code of conduct
  • What personnel are expected to provide vs what the organization will provide (equipment, supplies, uniform, etc.)
  • Physical fitness requirements and inoculations
  • Accountability to the home organization

Personnel also need to be prepared to work in austere conditions. They may not have a hotel room; instead they could be sleeping on a cot, a floor, or in a tent. This alone can break certain people, physically and psychologically. Access to showers and even restrooms might be limited. Days will be long, the times of day they work may not be what they are used to, and they will be away from home. They must be ready, willing, and able to be away from their lives – their families, pets, homes, jobs, routines, and comforts – for the duration of the deployment. Their deployment activity can subject them to physical and psychological stresses they must be prepared for. These are all things that personnel must take into consideration if they choose to be on a deployment roster.

This is stuff not taught in police academies, fire academies, or nursing schools. FEMA, the Red Cross, and other organizations have policy, procedures, training, and other resources available for their personnel because this is part of their mission and they make these deployments regularly. The big problem comes from personnel with organizations which don’t do this as part of their core mission. People who are well intentioned, even highly trained and skilled in what they do, but simply aren’t prepared for the terms and conditions of deployment can become a liability to the response and to themselves.

Of course, organizational policy and procedure continues from here in regard to their methods for actually approving, briefing, and deploying personnel; accounting for them during the deployment; and processing their return home. The conditions of their deployment may necessitate follow up physical and mental health evaluations (and care, as needed) upon their return. They should also be prepared to formally present lessons learned to the organization’s leadership and their peers.

I’ll say that any organization interested in the potential of deploying personnel during a disaster is responsible for making these preparations, but a broader standard can go a long way in this effort. I’d suggest that guidance should be established at the state level, by state emergency management agencies and their peers, such as state fire administrators; state departments of health, transportation, criminal justice, and others. These state agencies often contribute to and are even signatories of state-wide mutual aid plans which apply to the constituents of their areas of practice. Guidance developed at the state level should also dovetail into EMAC, as it’s states that are the signatories to these agreements and often rely on the resources of local organizations when requests are received.

There is clearly a lot to consider for organizations and individuals in regard to disaster deployments. It’s something often taken for granted, with the assumption that any responder can be sent to a location hundreds of miles away and be fully prepared to live and function in that environment. We can do better and we owe our people better.

Has your organization developed policies, procedures, and training for deploying personnel?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Metrics and Data Analytics in Emergency Management

I’ve lately seen some bad takes on data analytics in emergency management. For those not completely familiar, data analytics is a broad-based term applied to all manner of data organization, manipulation, and modeling to bring out the most valuable perspectives, insights, and conclusions which can better inform decision-making. Obviously, this can be something quite useful within emergency management.

Before we can even jump into the analysis of data, however, we need to identify the metrics we need. This is driven by decision-making, as stated above, but also by operational need, measurement of progress, and reporting to various audiences, which our own common operating picture, to elected officials, to the public. In identifying what we are measuring, we should regularly assess who the audience is for that information and why the information is needed.

Once we’ve identified the metrics, we need to further explore the intended use and the audience, as that influences what types of analysis must be performed with the metrics and how the resultant information will be displayed and communicated.

I read an article recently from someone who made themselves out to be the savior of a state emergency operations center (EOC) by simply collecting some raw data and putting it into a spreadsheet. While this is the precursor of pretty much all data analysis, I’d argue that the simple identification and listing of raw data is not analytics. It’s what I’ve come to call ‘superficial’ data, or what someone on Twitter recently remarked to me as ‘vanity metrics’. Examples: number of people sheltered, number of customers with utility outages, number of people trained, number of plans developed.

We see a lot of these kinds of data in FEMA’s annual National Preparedness Report and the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) ‘Return on Investment’ report generated by IAEM and NEMA. These reports provide figures on dollars spent on certain activities, assign numerical values to priorities, and state how much of a certain activity was accomplished within a time period (i.e. x number of exercises were conducted over the past year). While there is a place for this data, I’m always left asking ‘so what?’ after seeing these reports. What does that data actually mean? They simply provide a snapshot in time of mostly raw data, which isn’t very analytical or insightful. It’s certainly not something I’d use for decision-making. Both of these reports are released annually, giving no excuse to not provide some trends and comparative analysis over time, much less geography. Though even in the snapshot-of-time type of report, there can be a lot more analysis conducted that simply isn’t done.

The information we report should provide us with some kind of insight beyond the raw data. Remember the definition I provided in the first paragraph… it should support decision-making. This can be for the public, the operational level, or the executive level. Yes, there are some who simply want ‘information’ and that has its place, especially where political influence is concerned.

There are several types of data analytics, each suitable for examining certain types of data. What we use can also depend on our data being categorical (i.e. we can organize our data into topical ‘buckets’) or quantitative. Some data sets can be both categorical and quantitative. Some analysis examines a single set of data, while other types support comparative analysis between multiple sets of data. Data analytics can be as simple as common statistical analysis, such as range, mean, median, mode, and standard deviation; while more complex data analysis may use multiple steps and various formulas to identify things like patterns and correlation. Data visualization is then how we display and communicate that information, through charts, graphs, geographic information systems (GIS), or even infographics. Data visualization can be as important as the analysis itself, as this is how you are conveying what you have found.

Metrics and analytics can and should be used in all phases of emergency management. It’s also something that is best planned, which establishes consistency and your ability to efficiently engage in the activity. Your considerations for metrics to track and analyze, depending on the situation, may include:

  • Changes over time
    • Use of trend lines and moving averages may also be useful here
  • Cost, resources committed, resources expended, status of infrastructure, and measurable progress or effectiveness can all be important considerations
  • Demographics of data, which can be of populations or other distinctive features
  • Inclusion of capacities, such as with shelter data
  • Comparisons of multiple variables in examining influencing factors (i.e. loss of power influences the number of people in shelters)
    • Regression modeling, a more advanced application of analytics, can help identify what factors actually do have a correlation and what the impact of that relationship is.
  • Predictive analytics help us draw conclusions based on trends and/or historical data
    • This is a rabbit you can chase for a while, though you need to ensure your assumptions are correct. An example here: a hazard of certain intensity occurring in a certain location can expect certain impacts (which is much of what we do in hazard mitigation planning). But carry that further. Based on those impacts, we can estimate the capabilities and capacities that are needed to respond and protect the population, and the logistics needed to support those capabilities.
  • Consider that practically any data that is location-bound can and should be supported with GIS. It’s an incredible tool for not only visualization but analysis as well.
  • Data analytics in AARs can also be very insightful.

As I mentioned, preparing for data analysis is important, especially in response. Every plan should identify the critical metrics to be tracked. While many are intuitive, there is a trove of Essential Elements of Information (EEI) provided in FEMA’s Community Lifelines toolkit. How you will analyze the metrics will be driven by what information you ultimately are seeking to report. What should always go along with data analytics is some kind of narrative not only explaining and contextualizing what is being shown, but also making some inference from it (i.e. what does it mean, especially to the intended audience).

I’m not expecting that everyone can do these types of analysis. I completed a college certificate program in data analytics last year and it’s still challenging to determine the best types of analysis to use for what I want to accomplish, as well as the various formulas associated with things like regression models. Excel has a lot of built-in functionality for data analytics and there are plenty of templates and tutorials available online. It may be useful for select EOC staff as well as certain steady-state staff to get some training in analytics. Overall, think of the variables which can be measured: people, cost, status of infrastructure, resources… And think about what you want to see from that data now, historically, and predicted into the future. What relationships might different variables have that can make data even more meaningful. What do we need to know to better support decisions?

Analytics can be complex. It will take deliberate effort to identify needs, establish standards, and be prepared to conduct the analytics when needed.

How have you used data analytics in emergency management? What do you report? What decisions do your analytics support? What audiences receive that information and what can they do with it?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

ESFs Aren’t for Everyone

Through the years I’ve had numerous conversations with states, cities, and others about organizing their emergency operations plans (EOPs) around Emergency Support Functions (ESFs). In every conversation I’ve suggested against the use of ESFs. Why?

Let’s start with definitions. One definition of ESFs provided by FEMA states that ESFs ‘describe federal coordinating structures that group resources and capabilities into functional areas most frequently needed in a national response’.  Another states that ESFs are ‘a way to group functions that provide federal support to states and federal-to-federal support, both for Stafford Act declared disasters and emergencies and for non-Stafford Act incidents.’ The National Response Framework (NRF) states that ESFs are ‘response coordinating structures at the federal level’.

The key word in these definitions is ‘federal’. ESFs are a construct originally of the Federal Response Plan (FRP) which was in place from 1992 to 2004. The FRP was a signed agreement among 27 Federal departments and agencies as well as the America Red Cross that outlined how Federal assistance and resources would be provided to state and local governments during a disaster. The ESFs were carried into the National Response Plan in 2004 and the National Response Framework in 2008.

While the NRF, CPG 101, and other sources indicate that other levels of government may also organize their response structure utilizing ESFs, I think any attempts are awkward and confusing at best.

Jumping to present day, the following ESFs are identified in the NRF:

  1. Transportation
  2. Communications
  3. Public Works and Engineering
  4. Firefighting
  5. Information and Planning
  6. Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Temporary Housing, and Human Assistance
  7. Logistics
  8. Public Health and Medical Services
  9. Search and Rescue
  10. Oil and Hazardous Materials Response
  11. Agriculture and Natural Resources
  12. Energy
  13. Public Safety and Security
  14. Cross-Sector Business and Infrastructure
  15. External Affairs

The ESFs work for the Federal government by providing organizations to address the legal, regulatory, and bureaucratic coordination that must take place across various agencies. These organizations are utilized before (preparedness), during (response and recovery… though ultimately most of these transition to the Recovery Support Functions per the National Disaster Recovery Framework), and after (AAR) a disaster as a cohesive means of maintaining relationships, continuity, and operational readiness. Each of the ESFs maintains a lead agency and has several supporting agencies which also have capabilities and responsibilities within the mission of that ESF.

Where does this fall apart for states and other jurisdictions? First of all, I view Emergency Support Function/ESF as a branded name. The ESF is a standard. When someone refers to ESFs, it’s often inferred that they are speaking of the Federal constructs. ESFs are defined by the Federal government in their current plans (presently the NRF). When co-opted by states or other jurisdictions, this is where it first starts to fall apart. This creates a type of ‘brand confusion’. i.e. Which ESFs are we speaking of? This is further exacerbated if names and definitions of their ESFs aren’t consistent with what is established by the Federal government.

Further, the utilization of ESFs may simply not be the correct tool. It may be the same agencies responsible for transportation as well as public works and engineering. So why have two teams comprised of personnel from the same agencies – especially if bench depth is small in those agencies. Related to this, I’ll say that many jurisdictions (which may even include smaller states, territories, or tribes) simply don’t have the depth to staff 15 ESFs. This is why an organization should be developed for each jurisdiction by each jurisdiction based on their needs and capabilities. It’s simply silly to try to apply the construct utilized by our rather massive Federal government to a jurisdiction much smaller.

Next, I suggest that the integration of ESFs into a response structure is simply awkward. I think in many ways this holds true for the Federal government as well. Is ESF 7 (Logistics) an emergency support function or is it a section in our EOC? The same goes for any of the other ESFs which are actually organizational components often found in response or coordination structures inspired by the Incident Command System.

All that said, the spirit of ESFs is valuable and should be utilized by other jurisdictions in other levels of government. These are often referred to as Functional Branches. Similar to ESFs, they can be used before, during, and after a disaster. Your pre-disaster planning teams become the core group implementing the plans they developed and improving the plans and associated capabilities after a disaster. As functional branches, there is no name confusion with ESFs, even though there is considerable similarity. You aren’t constrained to the list of Federal ESFs and don’t have to worry about how they define or construct them. You can do your own thing without any confusion. You are also able to build the functional branches based on your own needs and capabilities, not artificially trying to fit your needs into someone else’s construct. I’ve seen a lot of states use the term State Support Function or SSF, which is certainly fine.

I will make a nod here though to a best practice inspired by the ESFs, and that is having certain standing working groups for incident management organizational elements (i.e. communications, logistics, information and planning, and external affairs) that may not be organized under the operations section or whatever is analogous in your EOC. Expand beyond these as needed. Recall that the first step in CPG 101 for emergency planning calls for developing a planning team. There is a great deal of benefit to be had by utilizing stakeholder teams to establish standard operating guidelines, job aids, etc. in these functions or others in your EOC or other emergency organizational structure. Often it’s the emergency manager or a staff member doing this, expecting others to simply walk in and accept what has been developed. If people want to work in a Planning Section for your jurisdiction, let them own it (obviously with some input and guidance as needed).

I think ESFs are a valuable means for the US Federal government to organize, but don’t confuse the matter or develop something unnecessary by trying to carbon copy them into your jurisdiction. Examine your own needs and capabilities and form steady state working groups that become functional entities during disaster operations.

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®