Incident Evaluation

I’ve written at length about the importance of quality evaluation of exercises.  Essentially, if we don’t evaluate exercises, and do it well, the benefits of the exercises are quite limited.  Generally, we don’t see a benefit to incidents.  By their very nature, incidents threaten and impact life, property, and environment – things we don’t view as being beneficial.  However, benefits are often a product of opportunity; and we absolutely should take the opportunity to evaluate our responses.

Many incidents do get evaluated, but through research after the fact.  We retrace our steps, review incident documents (such as incident action plans), interview personnel, and examine dispatch logs.  These efforts usually paint a decent picture of intent and result (things that are often different), but often miss the delta – the difference between the two – as well as other nuances.  When we evaluate an exercise, we do so in real time.  Th evaluation effort is best done with preparation.  Our evaluation plans, methodologies, and personnel are identified in the design phase of the exercise.  Just as we develop emergency operations plans and train personnel to respond, we can develop incident evaluation plans and train personnel to evaluate incident responses.

Understandably, a hurdle we might have is the availability of personnel to dedicate solely to evaluation, especially on larger incidents – but don’t be afraid of asking for mutual aid just to support incident evaluation (just be sure to include them in your preparedness efforts).  Just as regional exercise teams should be developed to provide cooperative efforts in exercise design, conduct, and evaluation; incident evaluation teams should be developed regionally.  To me, it makes sense for many of these personnel to be the same, as they are already familiar with how to evaluate and write up evaluations.

In exercises, we often use Exercise Evaluation Guides (EEGs) to help focus our evaluation efforts.  These are developed based upon identified Core Capabilities and objectives, which are determined early in the exercise design process.  While we don’t know the specific objectives we might use in an incident, we can identify these in general, based upon past experiences and our preparedness efforts for future incidents.  Similarly, our emergency planning efforts should be based around certain Core Capabilities, which can help inform our incident evaluation preparedness efforts.  Job aids similar to EEGs, let’s call them incident evaluation guides (IAGs), can be drafted to prepare for incident evaluation, with adjustments made as necessary when an incident occurs.

Evaluating an incident, in practice, is rather similar to how we would evaluate an exercise, which is why the training for these activities is relatively portable.  Evaluation efforts should avoid evaluating individuals, instead focusing on the evaluation of functions and processes.  Don’t reinvent the wheel – evaluate based upon documented (hopefully!) plans and procedures and use the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) standards to guide your process. Incident evaluation must be managed to ensure that evaluation gaps are minimized and that evaluation progresses as it should.  Observations should be recorded and, just as we would for an exercise, prepared for and eventually recorded in an after action report (AAR).

I favor honest after action reports.  I’ve seen plenty of after action reports pull punches, not wanting the document to reflect poorly on people.  Candidly, this is bullshit.  I’ve also heard many legal councils advise against the publication of an after action report at all. Similarly, this is bullshit.  If our actions and the need to sustain or improve certain actions or preparations is not properly recorded, necessary changes are much less likely to happen.  If an AAR isn’t developed, a corrective action plan certainly won’t be – which gives us no trackable means of managing our improvements and disavows our intent to do so.

As a profession, public safety must always strive to improve.  We have plenty of opportunity to assess our performance, not just through exercises, which are valuable, but also through the rigors of incident responses.  Prepare for incident evaluation and identify triggers in your emergency plans for when evaluation will be employed, how, and who is involved.  Begin evaluation as early as possible in an incident – there are plenty of lessons learned in the early, and often most critical moments of our incident response.  Finally, be sure to document lessons learned in an AAR, which will contribute to your overall continuous improvement strategy.

How does your agency accomplish incident evaluation?  If you don’t, why?

Need help with the evaluation of incidents?  We are happy to help!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Incident Action Planning

Hello readers!  It’s been a couple of months since I’ve last posted – along with the holidays, I’ve been fortunate to be busy with some great projects and a bit of travel.  While I’m still busy, I’ve been itching to get back to posting.

Over the past few months, I’ve had an opportunity to look at some different aspects of incident action planning.  Having worked as a Planning Section Chief for numerous state and federally declared disasters, I’ve created Incident Action Plans (IAPs), part and parcel, for a variety of incidents.  Teaching hundreds of course offerings of ICS and EOC management, I’ve also had a lot of opportunity to help others understand and appreciate the value of an IAP.

What is an IAP?

The Incident Action Plan is really the culmination of the planning process.  It documents our expected actions for the next operational period, which, through that planning process, should be ready to be supported through an identified organization and necessary resources.  It begins, foundationally, with an understanding of the situation and objectives built to solve the problems that situation imposes upon us.  IAPs identify some situational information, the incident objectives, and tactics – which specific resource assignments – to accomplish those objectives.  To support the tactics, additional elements are added to the IAP, such as the organizational structure, a medical plan (for responders), a communications plan, and specific safety messages.  Based upon the unique characteristics of each incident, additional material can be added.

The planning process, and thus IAPs, are a standard of practice within NIMS/ICS.

Issues with Teaching the Planning Process

For those coming up through the ranks, as it were, of ICS training, the forms integrated into ICS are often one of the most frustrating aspects.  Responders want to do the hands-on stuff, not fill out forms.  Most areas and systems, however, are able to find the responders who are interested in becoming involved in incident management aspects, and engage them in formal or ad-hoc incident management teams.

Often the only exposure that responders have to IAPs is from the ICS 300 course, where they are able to see some samples and are walked through the planning process and associated forms of the IAP.   Having taught hundreds of these, I know it’s a challenge*.  We inundate course participants with a pile of forms and expect them to leave the class to go out and do great things.  While it might be a reasonable initial exposure, this needs to be followed up on, practices, and reinforced if we expect anyone to be successful, much less use the system.

*note: if you aren’t familiar with my position on the current state of ICS training, here are a few other blog posts to orient you.  In short… ICS Training Sucks!

The planning process can be confusing – who does what?  When?  Based upon what information?  The Planning P is the best visual out there and incident management handbooks (aka Field Operations Guides or FOGs) are references that every IMT member should have in the utility pocket of their 5.11s.  While all based on the same system, I find the United States Coast Guard to have the best handbook out there.  These are great job aids for something we don’t go to work and do every day, no matter how proficient you might think you are.

planning P for Planning

Uses of IAPs

IAPs can be applied to anything we can/should apply the planning process to.  These include incidents, pre-planned events, and exercises.  Planned events and exercises provide a great opportunity to practice the planning process and development of IAPs.  It is certainly something that requires practice to be proficient.  Every member of the Command and General staff, as well as a number of support positions, have an important role to play and responsibilities to contribute to the planning process.  The forms themselves even require some practice to ensure that the right information is obtained.  Large incidents can also require a great deal of tactical planning, which means greater time for that and for documenting the tactics and necessary support.

One aspect that is often forgotten in the heat of battle is that our response should, ideally, be based on our emergency operations plans (EOPs).  These should be a regular reference to the Command and General staff, as they can, at the very least, provide some general guidance.  Good EOPs, and their associated annexes, should provide some detailed guidance on certain aspects of response, which can prevent the IMT from having to re-invent a plan in the midst of chaos.  The direction of EOPs, to the greatest extent possible, should be referenced in the planning process and reflected in the IAPs.  EOPs should serve as the foundation for the planning process – with that in mind, EOPs can be implementation-ready.  More thoughts on emergency plan development here.

As mentioned, exercises are a great opportunity for participants to practice the planning process and IAP development, along with other facets of ICS – especially those that we don’t get to apply so often.  Also consider, however, the use of an IAP for exercise management.  Our company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, worked with the State of Vermont this past summer providing exercise control and evaluation services for their Vigilant Guard exercise.  This week-long exercise spanned nearly 60 distinct venues across the state and involved thousands of participants.  We coordinated over 100 control and evaluation staff throughout the exercise.  While staffing decisions were made weeks in advance, we knew that with so many variables, needs and assignments were bound to change.  For each operational period of the exercise, venues had staff assigned, a point of contact they should coordinate with, a need to communicate with the simcell and exercise management staff, a need to be aware of weather and safety matters, and processes to follow in regard to exercise management and reporting.  We recognized the similarities to a tactical deployment and decided to develop incident action plans for exercise management.  We called these eXercise Action Plans (XAPs).  Within just a couple of operational periods, we were receiving great feedback on the documents from exercise staff.  Use of XAPs were identified as a best practice in exercise management for that project.

Final Thoughts

Incident Action Plans are great tools that can help us put our emergency plans in action.  They allow us to apply incident or event-specific ground-truths and the realities of incident needs and resources.  While it’s understanding that some are frustrated with the forms used, the forms are job aids, tested through decades, to help us navigate complex incident management.  When I walk into a command post or an EOC, the IAP is the first thing I look for.  Because the format and forms are relatively standardized, I can flip through it, and in a couple of minutes have a good sense of the activity and who is responsible for what.  Someone told me long ago that ICS is forms facilitated, not forms driven – and that’s very true.  The forms (and thus the IAP) are products of the planning process, which is another decades-old practice in incident management.

What best practices have you seen in the application of the planning process and incident action plans?

Need assistance with planning, training, or exercises?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!

Until next time.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

 

Embracing the Playbook in Emergency Management

This morning I suggested to a client the possible use of a playbook as a training supplement for their duty officer program.  A playbook is a job aid, but more than just a check list or a chart.  Ideally, a playbook is a structured collection of job aids, broken down by situation for easy reference by whomever needs the information.

Playbooks are best known to be most extensively used in American football.  They contain a variety of strategies for accomplishing certain objectives (short yardage gain, long yardage gain, end zone scoring, kick return, etc.), with each strategy often accompanied by one or more diagrams of Xs (the opposition) and Os (your team), with lines showing movement and action by certain positions.  Playbooks are tested, practiced, and memorized by players before the season begins, but are constantly referenced every game by coaches and players alike.

playbook-diagram

Fundamentally, the play book exists because there are so many situations the team needs to respond to and several different ways in which they can respond.  While some of their plays are fairly routine, others are rarely, if ever, used.  Just like emergency management, however, it’s good to have the plan available if we need it.

Assembling a playbook for emergency management purposes doesn’t have any set standard, but as with any other tool or plan we assemble, we must first identify the purpose and the audience.  Play books can be assembled for elected officials and executives, duty officers and middle management, or dispatchers and first responders – it all depends on what is needed.  One thing that should be stressed, though… playbooks are NOT plans, nor should they be treated as a replacement for training.  Playbooks should be based upon established policy, plans, and procedures; and training still should be conducted on those policies, plans, and procedures.  A playbook is the collection of job aids which will help us to navigate the things people may not routinely do – which makes them excellent for emergency management applications.

Consider that the content of the playbook won’t (and probably shouldn’t) try to map out an incident from inception to completion.  The playbook is intended to address critical actions within an early timeframe of the incident.  Following this, a team should be assembled and striving to manage the incident using the planning process and referencing the foundational plans and policies.  There may be a few nuanced circumstances and activities within the playbook that are still relevant in the extended response, but these should be few.

The organization and content of the playbook should depend on the objectives and audience of the tool.  It should not be heavy in narrative and doesn’t require a lot of background as a plan might.  For emergency management purposes, most playbooks are organized by hazard and/or impact, with topics such as Mass Shooting, Severe Storm, or Power Outage.  For each topic, the essential elements of response can be identified, perhaps in check-list format.  Additional job aids such as decision tables, flow charts, and references can also be incorporated.  While I’m a big fan of keeping things digital, playbooks and similar references are better in hard copy, as this helps to ensure the information is always accessible.  Bind it (a three ring binder is best, so content can be updated as needed) and insert tabs for easy reference.  Be sure to give all users their own copy.

When creating the playbook, consider what information needs to be conveyed.  While some repetition may be necessary from topic to topic, reduce the amount of in-document references (i.e. See page 19 for additional information), as the purpose of the document is to help keep people organized.  Always keep the user in mind, ensuring that they understand each step and that they have the ability, resources, and authority to perform the identified actions.  Ensure that the playbook is a proper reflection of established policy and procedure and be sure to test it for effectiveness.  Train people in its content and use, and be sure to provide regular training and content updates and to incorporate its use into exercises.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on playbooks and if you have created and/or used them.  Of course, if your jurisdiction or organization is looking for assistance in developing a playbook for your critical activities, let us know!

© 2016 – Timothy M. Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

 

Planning for Preparedness

Yes, planning is part of preparedness, but organizations must also have a plan for preparedness.  Why?  Preparedness breaks down into five key elements  – remember the POETE mnemonic – Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising.  I’m also in favor of including assessment as a preparedness element.  Needless to say, we do a lot when it comes to preparedness.  Each of these elements alone involves significant activity, and together there are opportunities for activities to be synchronized for maximum benefit.  In smaller organizations, these elements may be addressed by one or two people, which itself can be challenging as these are the same people running the organization and addressing myriad other tasks.  In larger organizations each element alone may be addressed by a number of people, which also provides a complication of synchronizing tasks for maximum benefit.  Either way, as with all project and program management, without a plan of action, we may forget critical tasks or do things out of order.

By establishing a preparedness plan, we can address many of these issues.  The plan can be as detailed as necessary, but should at least identify and address requirements (internally and externally imposed) as well as benchmarks to success.  But what do we plan for?

Assessment – Yes, I’m including this as an element.  Assessment is something we should constantly be doing.  Just as we strive to maintain situational awareness throughout an incident, we have to be aware of and assess factors that influence our state of readiness.  There are a variety of assessments that we do already and others that can be done as they relate to the other five elements.  In fact, assessments will inform our preparedness plan, helping us to identify where we are and where we need to be.  We can review after action reports from incidents, events, and exercises to determine what improvements must be made.  We can research best practices and examine funding requirements, legal requirements, and standards such as EMAP or NFPA 1600 which can broadly influence our programs.  We assess current plans to identify what our gaps are and what plans need to be revisited.  We can assess our organization to determine if staffing is maximized and that policy, procedure, and protocol support an agile organization.  The status of equipment can be assessed to determine what is operational and ready to deploy.  We can conduct a training needs assessment to identify what training is needed; and lastly, we can assess opportunities to exercise.  Not only should our assessments inform what needs to be accomplished for each of the POETE elements, but regular assessment check ins and activities should be identified, nay planned for, within our preparedness plan.  Consider what else can inform our preparedness plan.  A recent hazard analysis, THIRA, or state preparedness report (SPR) can feed a lot of information into a preparedness plan – especially the state preparedness report, as it is specifically structured to identify POETE gaps.

Planning – We should always examine what we have.  If plan reviews aren’t scheduled, they often fall to the wayside.  Plan review teams should be identified for each plan, and a review schedule or cycle established.  Benchmark activities for plan review activities should also be identified.  The need for new plans should also be highlighted.  Based on standards, requirements, best practices, or other need, what plans do you organization need to assemble in the next year or two?  Again, identify benchmarks for these.

Organization – Assessments of your organization, either as direct efforts or as part of after action reports or strategic plans can identify what needs to be accomplished organizationally.  Maybe it’s a reorganization, an increase in staffing levels, an impending change in administration, expected attrition, union matters, or something else that needs to be addressed.  As with many other things, some matters or organization are simple, while others are very difficult to navigate.  Without a plan of action, it’s easy to allow things to fall to the wayside.  What changes need to be made?  Who is responsible for implementing them?  Who else needs to be involved? What’s a reasonable timeline for making these changes happen?

Equipping – Many logisticians are great at keeping accurate records and maintenance plans.  This measure of detail isn’t likely needed for your preparedness plan, but you still should be documenting the big picture.  What benchmarks need to be established and followed?  Are there any large expenditures expected for equipment such as a communications vehicle?  Is there an impending conversion of equipment to comply with a new standard?  Are there any gaps in resource management that need to be addressed?

Training – Informed by a training needs assessment, a training plan can be developed.  A training plan should identify foundational training that everyone needs as well as training needed for people functioning at certain levels or positions.  Ideally, you are addressing needs through training programs that already exist, either internally or externally, but there may be a need to develop new training programs.  A training plan should identify what training is needed, for who, and to what level (i.e. to steal from the hazmat world – Awareness? Operations? Technician?).  The plan should identify who will coordinate the training, how often the training will be made available, and how new training will be developed.

Exercises – We have a standard of practice for identifying exercises into the future – it’s called the multi-year training and exercise plan (MYTEP).  While it’s supposed to include training (or at least training related to the identified exercises), training often falls to the wayside during the training and exercise planning workshop (TEPW).  The outcomes of the TEPW can be integrated into your preparedness plan, allowing for an opportunity to synchronize needs and activities across each element.

Just as we do with most of our planning efforts, I would suggest forming a planning team to shepherd your preparedness plan, comprised of stakeholders of each of the elements.  I envision this as a group that should be in regular communication about preparedness efforts, with periodic check-ins on the preparedness plan.  This engagement should lead to synchronization of efforts.  Identify what activities are related and how.  Has a new plan been developed?  Then people need to be trained on it and the plan should be exercised.  Has new equipment been procured?  Then people should be trained in its use and plans should account for the new or increased capability.

Like any effort, endorsement from leadership is necessary, especially when multiple stakeholders need to be brought together and working together.  Many emergency management and homeland security organizations have positions responsible for preparedness, often at the deputy director level.  The formation and maintenance of a comprehensive preparedness plan should be a foundation of their efforts to manage preparedness and forecast and synchronize efforts.

Does your organization have a plan for preparedness beyond just a multi-year training and exercise plan?  What elements do you tie in?  Do you find it to be a successful endeavor?

Do you need assistance in developing a preparedness plan?  Contact us!

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

Emergency Management: Why Failure is Necessary

One of the many podcasts I listen to is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.  For the uninitiated, the TED Radio Hour is a compilation of highlights from several TED Talks (you know what these are, right?) arranged around certain topics.  I like the topical arrangement and the sampling they do of the presentations, as well as the inclusion of interviews with many of the presenters.  Yesterday I listed to one from July 29, 2016 titled Failure is an Option.  In it, I was most drawn to the points made by Tim Hartford, an economist, and began to think that this guy needs to speak at some emergency management conferences.  What can an economist tell emergency managers?  His TED Talk is titled Trial, Error, and the God ComplexIt’s worth checking out.

How often do you hear someone in public safety proclaim that they don’t know about a certain topic or how to handle a certain situation.  Not very often.  Certainly we have a lot of confident, Type A people (myself included) who will not be stopped by a problem, even if we don’t know right off how we will solve it.  At the extreme end of this are those who refuse to plan.  Why?  Maybe they don’t want to be constrained by a plan, or maybe they don’t want something put in writing.  Maybe they simply don’t know right now what they will do, either a) hoping that it never happens, or b) assuming they will figure it out when it does.  Determination and persistence is good, but we can’t become ignorant despite it.  As I often mention in my posts, this is public safety, not a pick-up game of kick ball.  To me, there is nothing more serious.

Our egos drive us to feel that everything is on the line all the time.  While some may refuse to plan, others do plan, but the approach may not be realistic.  We’ve all seen plans that begin with one, two, maybe even three pages of assumptions.  That’s a lot of assuming for an emergency or disaster situation, which we all know is uncertain and dynamic.  Those long lists make me uncomfortable, as they should you.  Why do we do it?  Sure there are some things we can expect, but otherwise we are trying to dictate terms to the disaster.  Trust me, the disaster doesn’t give a damn about the plan you wrote or the terms and conditions you try to lay out for it.  But it makes us feel better by putting the disaster in a very defined box.  I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Let’s remove the ego.  Let’s proclaim that maybe we have no idea, or we have a few ideas but we aren’t sure which one is best.  Preparedness should be collaborative.  Get lots of ideas from people.  Talk though them and figure out which ones are the most viable.  Get these ideas down on paper, even loosely, and try them out.  We need to take advantage of our preparedness work to figure out the things we don’t know.

A number of years ago, it was identified through feedback and after action reports of incidents that the flow of information and resource requests in a certain EOC simply wasn’t working the way it was intended.  While I’m a big fan of the application of ICS in an EOC, the specific role an EOC plays as a multi-agency coordination center, the cross functions of some staff, and the politics involved aren’t really accounted for in ICS, so the strictest applications of ICS sometimes don’t apply well.  A small group of us were tasked to fix it.  While we each had some theories, none of really knew why the current processes weren’t working.  So we set up a small exercise solely for this purpose.  Our observations helped us identify the root cause of the problem.  The members of our group, all experienced EOC personnel, had different theories on how to solve the problem.  We went again to exercises, this time a series of small ones.  We ushered some people into the EOC, each time giving them a flow chart and some narrative on what each person should be doing relative to the processes we devised.  The injects flowed and we observed the outcomes.  We saw what worked and what didn’t.  We then assembled an amalgamation of the best traits of each methodology into a new process.  Then guess what we did – we exercised that – and it worked.  Not only did we have a great scientific and structured approach, we also had validation of our final product – one that stood up to further exercises and actual incidents.

Does trial and error take time?  Sure it does.  Does it always yield results?  Yes – although not always positive ones – but those are still results.  It’s important to remember to collect data on each of our attempts.  Just like an exercise we want to evaluate and document.  Sometimes our ideas turn out to be epic failures, and that’s OK.  Had we not found this out during our trial and error, just like an exercise, it could have been devastating and costly in a real life application.  A severe mistake during an incident can be career ending for you, and life ending for those you are sworn to protect.

The bottom line is that it’s OK to fail – just try to control when and how you fail.  In order to accept that premise, however, we need to let go of the super Type A hero/god/ego thing.  Yes, we can learn from successes, but we learn more from failure, especially with a little root cause analysis.  Sometimes things look great on paper, but unless you actually try them out, you’ll never know.  In your trial and error, also consider different variables which may have influence on the outcomes.  It’s great to plan for a response and practice it on a sunny day, but what about pouring rain, freezing temperatures, or high winds?  How does this impact your plan?  Often we can make assumptions (remember those?), but we’ll never really know unless we try.

Do you buy into this?  Thoughts appreciated.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

Water System Preparedness

For at least the past eight years or so, I’ve kept tabs on what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been doing for emergency preparedness for water systems.  Their efforts, spearheaded from their Water Security Division, include information on comprehensive emergency management activities – mitigation and resilience, surveillance and response, preparedness, and more.  Their website offers a plethora of resources, not only for water utilities and systems operators, but for others as well.  These resources include tools and guidance for conducting risk assessments, creating emergency plans, building resilience, developing a training and exercise plan, and conducting exercises.  These resources and tools all help to de-mystify emergency management systems and help to build a bridge into the emergency management world.  While they provide information on certain hazards, such as flooding or criminal activity, their approach, overall is all-hazards.  The EPA includes links to ICS and other FEMA training, as well as other agencies, and encourages water systems to interact with other agencies at the local, state, and federal level.

Back in November of last year, I gave a review of the TEEX course MGT: 342 Strategic Overview of Disaster Management for Water and Wastewater Utilities.  Those who work with or for water utilities would certainly benefit from attending this training and reviewing the EPA’s Water Security Division website.  Water is an important component of our Critical Infrastructure, with dependencies cascading across all other sectors.  These resources strengthen and support our continued preparedness within these sector, while also adding to whole community preparedness.

The EPA Water Security Division provides a quarterly e-newsletter, to which you can subscribe to stay abreast of their tools, resources, and information.

© 2016 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC Your Partner in Preparedness

Do you Really Know Unified Command?

Despite how much incident command system (ICS) instructors try to hammer this one home, there still remains some measure of confusion about what the concept of unified command really is. I regularly review documents or sit in meetings where unified command is improperly defined, applied, and discussed.  There are many who espouse that they use unified command instead of ICS.  Unified command is, in fact, an application of ICS, just like many other concepts within the system.  It is not a different system. When unified command is used, all other concepts within ICS remain the same.

From the National Incident Management System (2008) document, unified command is defined as follows: In incidents involving multiple jurisdictions, a single jurisdiction with multiagency involvement, or multiple jurisdictions with multiagency involvement, Unified Command allows agencies with different legal, geographic, and functional authorities and responsibilities to work together effectively without affecting individual agency authority, responsibility, or accountability.

Once we can gain an understanding of what unified command is, implementation of unified command is where the greatest misconceptions lie.  People often think that unified command is applied with a concept best described as ‘We use unified command, but the Fire Chief is in charge.’.  Nope.  That’s not it.  That’s simply an application of single command, with deputies coming from other agencies.  Unified command is truly unified.  The participants in unified command operate at the same level of authority.  Obviously standards of professionalism and legal authority should hold true, ensuring that none are issuing orders contrary to those of their counterparts, and often there is deference to the member of unified command who may have certain jurisdiction or subject matter expertise as it applies to a particular matter, but decisions and made and applied jointly.  The unified command, therefore, acts and speaks as a single entity.

Given the factors described above, as well as the need to properly synchronize incident management (see my recent article on this topic, here), unified command is absolutely something that should be prepared for.  Because of the nuances of its application, planning for unified command is helpful.  While the application of unified command is generally optional, some regulations and policies may require its use under certain circumstances. Be it required or not, plans establish a course of action for stakeholders to follow and can be strongly supported by procedures.  Plans should at least acknowledge that unified command may be an option for certain incidents, and may need to identify who makes the decision to implement unified command.  I’ve seen some plans require unified command for certain incidents, which I’m not crazy about.  Unified command, as mentioned, is just one more application of ICS.  Given the right circumstances, a single command may be the best option.  That said, if something isn’t included in a plan, even as an option, it may not even be considered during an incident.  Unified command should always at least be an option.

As an example of unified command application, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) commonly encourages and participates in unified command for many of their incidents, often pulling together, at a minimum, the USCG, a local or state government representative, and a representative of the responsible party (owner and/or operator).  They do this because it makes sense.  While the USCG has legal authority over navigable waterways and a response requirement within those waterways, incidents can also impact the shorelines, which are generally the responsibility of state and local governments.  State and local governments may also be providing a great deal of resources to assist in the incident.  International laws require that responsible parties do, in fact, take responsibility (usually financially) for incidents caused by or involving their vessels, which makes them a significant (although sometimes reluctant) stakeholder.

Further preparedness measures are needed for practitioners to become proficient in the application of unified command.  The inclusion of the option in plans alone isn’t enough.  It should be trained, so people understand what it is and how best to apply it.  The concept of unified command is incorporated into every level of the ICS national training curriculum.  Sadly, the common misconceptions associated with unified command tell me that we aren’t communicating well enough what unified command actually is.  Beyond training, the best opportunity to reinforce the application of unified command is exercises.  Exercises obviously offer an opportunity for a no-fault environment which allow for informal feedback and formal evaluation, which should both inform potential improvements. Unified command certainly should be practiced to be successful.  The reason it’s so successful with USCG applications is because their people train and exercise heavily in ICS concepts, including unified command.  They also enter a unified command environment with an eye toward coaching other participants who may not be so familiar with it and how it works.

There are a number of keys to success for unified command.  Chief among them are an understanding of what it is and what is expected and an ability to work as a team.  Working well as a team involves essential elements such as communication, coordination, and checking your ego at the door. Rarely is unified command successful when someone is trying to strong-arm the matter.  A successful unified command requires discussions to identify the priorities that each agency or jurisdiction has, and determining how to properly plan, shape, and synchronize the response efforts to ensure that each of these is handled appropriately.  Clearly, some measure of negotiation must regularly take place.

People often ask who should be part of the unified command.  The membership of unified command should remain fairly exclusive.  Representatives should only come from those agencies or jurisdictions that are significant stakeholders within the incident (i.e. they have responsibility or authority for major components of the response).   Just because an agency or jurisdiction is providing resources or support to an incident does not mean they should be part of the unified command.  Unified command functions best when it is small.  If your unified command effort is exceeding five or six people, you are entering the land of management by committee, and that should be avoided.  While some claim that there are a multitude of interests that should be represented in the management of an incident, I would suggest establishing a multi-agency coordination group, which is a policy-level body who can guide the incident command/unified command from that level.  The goal is to have only essential agencies working at the command level.

As I continue the crusade of improving ICS training, we will need to ensure that the concept of unified command gets some special attention to ensure better understanding of what it is and how it works.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts and practices on how you prepare for and implement unified command within your jurisdiction or organization.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

 

 

Incident Management Synchronization

I wrote most recently on Building a System of Response, focusing on the preparedness perspective of bringing stakeholders together to better anticipate each other’s priorities and objectives through collaborative planning, training, and exercising.  Incident synchronization is the step beyond having a system of response.  It’s the implementation where we make the system work.  Effective incident synchronization, however, is not as simple as building a good system of response.  There are a number of factors at play.

Incident Timeline

Every incident has its own timeline.  There are parts of this timeline that we can control, and parts that we can only respond to.  Most incidents occur with little or no notice, which already puts us in the passenger seat, regardless of our level of preparedness.  There is a period of time where we must play catch-up.  This initial response MUST be an early focus of incident management synchronization.  The success of our initial response will set a tone for the rest of the incident.

Looking at the incident timeline as a whole, we find that most incidents we deal with have a focus on response, with little need for intensive recovery activity.  Major incidents may have a response of a few hours or days, with recovery lasting months or even years.  The impacts of the incident largely determine the overall timeline.  The activities within the timeline, however, are determined by us.

Incident Priorities

Our response and recovery actions have certain timelines associated with them.  In response, our timelines are largely dictated by the three priorities of:

  1. Life Safety
  2. Incident Stabilization
  3. Property Conservation

These priorities should be addressed in order – that is, our life safety activities tend to go before incident stabilization and property conservation, although we do often have some overlap of activities associated with these priorities, especially where it can make sense to prevent further life safety issues.  These priorities, particularly life safety, are reflected in our initial response.

Depending on the nature and impacts of the incident, other priorities may be introduced by various stakeholders as we go into an extended response.  The extended response brings about a measure of bureaucracy, as responders enter non-emergency activities and non-traditional responders arrive to take part in matters related to their areas of responsibility.  These non-emergency activities and areas of responsibility may be associated with laws and regulation, plans, organizational charter, executive direction, or simply managing expectations. Of all of these, plans, particularly interagency plans, stand the best chance of respecting a system of response, aiding in a synchronization of incident management.  This extended response is often associated with incidents of Type 3 or larger.  Effective incident management synchronization during the extended response is critical. 

The Transition to Recovery

While politicians like to make declarations about the end of response and the beginning of recovery, these lines are rarely, if ever, so solid and defined.  On even the simplest of incidents – a motor vehicle accident – the incident commander will call for a tow truck early in the response activity.  In the microcosm of the small-scale Type 5 incident, this is a recovery activity.  Clearly then, when extending these concepts to a larger incident, we also initiate a number of short and long-term recovery activities within our response phase.

Recovery tends to bring in a number of agencies and organizations with little concern about response, but rather with a focus on getting people, organizations, and infrastructure back to where they were pre-incident, if not better.  We look at capabilities such as infrastructure systems, economic recovery, health and social services, housing, and natural and cultural resources.  We are addressing human needs, continuity of operations, restoration of infrastructure, social stabilization, and environmental remediation.  Clearly there are a variety of organizations and priorities at play.  While many of these activities, for a time, will run parallel to response, there are intersections, and recovery will continue well past the response phase.  Incident management synchronization must account for the integration of and transition to recovery. 

Accomplishing Incident Management Synchronization

Good preparedness leads to good implementation.  If we have built an effective system of response (and recovery), this lays an essential foundation for our success in incident management synchronization.  A big factor of our plans being effective is if they can actually be implemented.  Some good reading on operational emergency plans here.  Frameworks and conceptual plans offer a good start, but an effective plan should walk you through key activities.  We also need to recognize that our system of response is actually a system of systems.

Implementation of plans and synchronization of incident management is strongly supported by an incident management system, such as the Incident Command System (ICS).  ICS supports short term and long term incidents.  ICS embraces a planning process, which is summarized visually by the Planning P.  The planning process provides a system for developing incident action plans for the next operational period.  When performed properly, the planning process should be informed by all stakeholders, integrating their priorities, objectives, and activities into one consolidated plan.  Their objectives are vetted by the incident commander (or unified command, if used), which helps to ensure coordination, synchronization, and support throughout the timeline of the incident.

planning P for Planning

Despite this standard of incident management, there are still some organizations and individuals that work in disaster recovery that view ICS and concepts such as the planning process as too response-oriented and refuse to use it.  Looking back on the need to integrate recovery activities with response early in the incident, I find this myopic perspective simply foolish and a significant contributor to the disconnect between response and recovery.  I certainly acknowledge that ICS is foundationally very response-oriented, but just as it was adapted from wild-fire response, ICS can (and has been) adapted into recovery, with the foundational principles of incident management continuing to hold true.

Outside of ICS, incident management synchronization will only be successful with good communication among and between all stakeholders.  Effective communication fosters all measure of effective incident management.  Hopefully preparedness measures helped ensure that the organizations and perhaps the personnel involved were familiar with each other, but if not, communication can help overcome that gap.

To further reinforce the connection and need for synchronicity between response and recovery, I reflect again upon preparedness measures.  Short-term recovery activities should be anticipated and planned for alongside and integrated with response.  The full transition to long-term recovery should also be planned, acknowledging that the transition must be phased.  Further, key staff must be trained in these plans and the plans should be exercised at every opportunity.

As always, thanks for reading.  I’m interested in your perspectives, thoughts, and experiences with incident management synchronization.

© Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness

 

 

Building a System of Response

On even relatively simple incidents, multiple agencies respond, each with their own priorities, objectives, and authorities.  Even on these small and fairly routine incidents, agencies will complain about one another, typically from a lack of understanding of their role and priorities at an incident scene.  On-scene conflict between police and fire departments is almost cliché, but if you’ve been in this business for a while, you’ve certainly seen it occur.

The number of agencies and interests often expands with great leaps and bounds as the size, duration, and complexity of an incident grows.  While we have incident management systems (such as the incident command system or ICS) which help us to organize and manage the multitude of resources and interests involved during an incident, it’s critical that we have a better understanding and accountability of these agencies and interests before a complex incident occurs.  How can this best be done?

Management Level

Establishing this mutual understanding and accountability is the foundation of a system of response.  From the broadest levels, this is established in the National Response Framework, which is a national-level document describing how the US Federal government organizes to response to large incidents, but also identifies, in general terms, the roles and responsibilities of state, local, tribal, private, nonprofit, faith-based, and community stakeholders; along with how they interrelate during a response.  In the US, states have their own emergency operations plans, which further narrow this perspective within their state, addressing their own unique hazards, resources, laws, and ways of operating.  County and local governments, individual agencies, organizations, and others can and often times do have their own plans with a continually refined focus.

It is through the creation and ongoing maintenance of these planning documents where our system of response is first built.  Dialogue and understanding among the stakeholders are essential.  We must learn who are partners are in emergency response (and mitigation, recovery, prevention, and protection, for that matter) and what their interests and objectives are.  Sometimes those partners are asked to participate, other times they simply arrive on scene, leaving local responders and the person in charge feeling insecure and frustrated.  In your planning efforts, try to anticipate who might be involved in a critical incident so you can better anticipate those needs.

Responder Level

To further this understanding, especially with those who may find themselves working directly with responders of other agencies, it is important to train and exercise together.  Joint training and exercises give responders an opportunity to navigate course and exercise objectives together, leveraging their own knowledge, experience, and capabilities along with those of others; increasing the value of the learning experience as well as their aptitude for joint operations.

Many training courses are well suited for mixed audiences – from the management and planning level to the tactical level.  Incident command system courses, which all responders should take to an appropriate level, are also ideal for this, especially since they should encourage discussion about operational priorities, objectives, and strategies.  Additionally, courses that are heavy in scenario-based training can greatly maximize this synergy, since they are a combination of training and structured exercises.  Courses that use simulation tables are excellent for cross-discipline integration.

Joint training and exercises might not always be practical, especially for those new to their field of practice.  Acknowledging that, consider including information on the other disciplines within the basic or academy-level training that is conducted.  A brief amount of time spent on the legal authorities, priorities, and operational objectives of partner disciplines can be valuable to creating understanding on a complex incident.

Keep it Going

As with all preparedness efforts, ‘one and done’ is not a mantra you want to follow.  To be effective, contemporary, and impactful; you have to build a legacy program.  As the program continues, strive to constantly improve.  Don’t only keep plans up to date, but create procedures on integration that lead to an effective system of response.  Use training to support these plans and procedures and use exercises as both an opportunity for practice as well as an opportunity to identify strengths and areas for improvement within the plans and procedures.  Joint exercises will help identify areas that need to be addressed, such as interoperable communications, conflicting protocols, and competing priorities.  It’s better to identify and address these matters now than during a critical incident.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC Your Partner in Preparedness

Using Departmental Operations Centers for Incident Management Success

Increasingly, government agencies and departments are identifying the benefits of establishing and activating departmental operations centers (DOCs) to help manage their responses to incidents.  At the Vermont Vigilant Guard 2016 exercise, which concluded last week, I had some opportunity to discuss the benefits of DOCs, particularly with an agency who used theirs for the first time in this exercise.

For most agencies, a DOC can relieve agency representatives in an EOC from also having to manage and track their agency’s response activity.  In an EOC, an agency representative is largely a conduit for communication and they provide knowledge of their agency and their agency’s capabilities as they contribute to the greater discussions within the EOC.  According to NIMS/ICS, an agency representative should have some decision-making capability for their agency, although political and practical realities often dictate otherwise.  The overall scope of activity for an agency representative in an EOC largely precludes them from also managing the details of their agency’s response, particularly if that response is even moderately complex.

A DOC is the ideal location from which an agency can oversee and coordinate their own response to an incident.  They can deploy and track resources, address internal logistics matters, and coordinate external logistics matters back through their agency representative at the EOC.  DOCs are also an excellent application for large agencies, which may have a variety of technical functions organized throughout, such as a health department or transportation department.  Pulling together representatives from each organizational element within the agency to collectively troubleshoot, problem solve, and share resources, is excellent use of a DOC.  In a way, this application of a DOC could be considered similar to a multi-agency coordination center (MACC).

Does a DOC need to mirror NIMS/ICS (or the new Center Management System) standards?  While there is no set standard for organizing and managing a DOC, there are a lot of applications of ICS that can certainly be applied.  If you look at the main activities of your DOC, you will see where opportunities for integration of ICS principles exist.  Consider that a DOC should have and maintain good situational awareness.  While much of this can be provided by the EOC, the EOC may (should) be looking for some specific information from your agency.  A situation unit within your DOC would certainly be helpful.  Likewise, DOCs often address tactical or near-tactical application, by deploying and directing resources from throughout their agency.  Having a resource unit within your DOC will help tremendously in the tracking of these resources.  Depending on the size and scope, it may be prudent for your DOC to establish an incident action plan (IAP) of its own.

Logistics, mentioned earlier, may be another need within a DOC.  Certainly an element of finance is important for the approval of procurements and tracking of costs within the agency related to the incident.  If resources are being deployed, someone should be in charge of operations.  Lastly, any organization needs to maintain someone in charge.  A DOC Manager would be the ideal generic term for this position.

What are the draw backs of establishing a DOC?  First of all, it’s an additional layer of incident management.  While possibly necessary based on factors discussed earlier, adding layers of incident management can make incident management more complex, especially if roles of each layer and function are not well defined.  The best way to address this is pre-planning!  Staffing can also be a significant concern.  Many agencies may be too small to warrant, much less have staff available, for a DOC.  If such is the case, just as in other applications of ICS, you should be able to collapse down to a manageable size.

An often seen pitfall of DOCs is that they can quickly devolve into a management by committee type of structure; particularly with larger agencies where senior staff, who are used to regular meetings with each other, are now representing their functional interests within the DOC.  I’ve seen this result in what is essentially one endless meeting, interrupted by phone calls and emails which introduce new problems and perpetuate more discussion.  Strong leadership is absolutely required to ensure that a group such as this stays focused and on task, resolving issues on a timely basis.

Overall, the use of Departmental Operations Centers is a smart practice.  Work internally to plan their use, scoping out when and how it will be applied, where it will be located, the organization to be used, and how it is integrated into the overall incident management effort.  Once plans are developed and appropriate training is performed, exercise the plan to identify areas for improvement, turning those into corrective actions, and implementing them for continued success.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness