A Re-Framing of Incident Management Structures

I recently finished reading Team of Teams by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The General tells of the new perspective and strategy he needed to employ to better manage the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the 2000s hunting down Al Qaeda insurgents. The Task Force was being out paced by a decentralized organization with all the home team advantages. McChrystal and his team assessed where the Task Force was failing and applied new principles which brought them increased success. The book not only provides examples from the Task Force, but also goes through history and various applications of business and industry to illustrate how different perspectives on organizational management can bring better results. It was fascinating to read this with the constant thought of incident management on my mind and seeing how the early state of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, as well as many of the business and industry examples, had many of the same challenges of incident management today. Highly recommended reading!

Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I’m a big fan of the Incident Command System (ICS), even though I have a lot of issues with how we have been trying to train people to use it (ICS Training Sucks). Similarly, I have a lot of passion for Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and the various organizational models which can be used in these facilities, including those which have a lot of similarity to ICS. I’ll collectively refer to these as incident management.

The root of Gen. McChrystal’s book emphasizes the benefits of organizations that are flexible and collaborative, vs the traditional hierarchal organizations. It’s interesting that much of what we espouse as successful implementations in incident management focuses on flexibility and working together, yet the organizational models we use, and sometimes even just the way we depict them, impedes this success. The traditional org charts that we obsessively plaster up on every wall of every command post and EOC emphasize a chain of command, which is so often confused with lines of communication and the continued and necessary close coordination we need to have in an incident management organization. While chain of command is still necessary to understand, that’s really the only value of the hierarchal organization chart.

From Team of Teams, I’d like you to look at two sets of graphics which are found on this site. (these are important to look at… so click the link!) The first identifies complicated vs complex systems (or environments). Complicated systems may be multi-faceted, but largely have a linear progression. Complex systems are unpredictable. I’d offer that incident management can include both, being a complex system until such a point that we can stabilize the incident, then morphing into a more predictable though still complicated system. The primary argument of Team of Teams is to match the organizational structure to the environment, meaning that while a more linear, hierarchal organizational structure is fine for a complicated system, a more dynamic structure is needed for dealing with complex systems.

The second set of graphics depicts three organizational models from Team of Teams. The first is the familiar Command model. This model, as I mentioned earlier, emphasizes chain of command, though clearly also emphasizes stove-piping, which isn’t a reflection of best practices for being dynamic or having coordination across organizational elements. As argued in the book, the separation of organizational elements only works if their functions are not related or connected. We know in ICS that each function is strongly connected to others.  As such, the Command model really doesn’t represent the reality of ICS, even though it’s what we always depict.

The second model, labeled Command of Teams shows collaboration within each team. In consideration of ICS functionality, when I have managed a Planning Section, I expect my team to work together. Yes, they each have different roles and responsibilities, but they all contribute to the primary purpose of the Planning Section. As just a small example, the Demob Unit absolutely must work with the Resources Unit to have knowledge of what resources are on the incident and various data sets about each. They must also collaborate with the Situation Unit Leader who can provide not only information on the current state of things, but hopefully projections of the situation, helping the Demob Unit Leader to develop more accurate timelines for demobilization. This is all well and good, but this model still maintains separation of the major components of the organization (stove-piping).

Next, consider the Team of Teams model, the third in this graphic. At first glance, it looks messy and chaotic, but consider that the principles it tells us are what we should be doing. Again, as a Planning Section Chief, I expect my team members to not just work together, but to coordinate across the entire organization as needed to get their jobs done. Using the Demob Unit as a continued example, their job requires information from and coordination with Logistics, certainly Operations, and even Finance/Admin, and Safety. Their ability to coordinate with others has nothing at all to do with chain of command, and I know my team is more effective when they are interfacing across the organization. My team quickly learns that they don’t need my permission to coordinate with others.

There are several points emphasized in the Team of Teams book that support the Team of Teams model, particularly through the lens of incident management, including:

  1. Efficiency vs Adaptability. Certainly, in incident management we want both, but particularly in the earlier stages of response, adaptability is more important than efficiency. We need to be able to respond to a dynamic, changing environment in the best ways possible. The Team of Teams model maximizes our adaptability.
  2. Procedure vs Purpose. The structure of checklists and other depictions of rigid procedures, which largely serve to strengthen efficiency, can only get us so far in a complex environment. Leaning back into the efficiency vs adaptability argument, rigidity doesn’t serve us well in incident management. When we focus on purpose, we are more adaptable and resilient. When people are focusing exclusively on their own narrow set of tasks, they often lose the big picture that is the overall purpose. In the complexity of incident management, we need to see the forest, not just the trees, in order to understand needs, implications, priorities, dependencies, and options.
  3. Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE) (pronounced mee-see). MECE is used extensively in the business consulting world to depict clear delineation of tasks within one large activity. ICS likes to force us into a MECE environment, which is certainly great for efficiency and eliminating duplication of efforts. While those things are important, the MECE principal eliminates overlap and coordination. The book uses a great example of a sports team to drive this home. Using a sports analogy of my own, consider that in hockey each team has the broad player categories (positions) of forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders. While they each have very distinct purposes and playing strategies, they need to have some overlap to support teamwork, effectiveness, and contingencies. They can’t simply function in a bubble and expect success. ICS loves the rigidity of separating tasks to specific positions, but to be successful there needs to be coordination.
  4. Common Operating Picture. The book uses the term ‘collective intelligence’, but the principal is the same, being that members of the team at large are at least familiar with what is going on, can access more detailed information as needed, and have the information they need to best perform their jobs. The Team of Teams concept promotes this exchange of information and expanded situational awareness.
  5. Leadership at all Levels. While Team of Teams doesn’t explicitly say this, there are several references related to it. We know in any effective organization, especially incident management, the Incident Commander or EOC manager shouldn’t be the only leader. We need leadership practiced at all levels of the organization. We expect Section Chiefs to be leaders; Unit Leaders, Branch Directors, Group Supervisors, etc. Even individual resources can exhibit and practice leadership. This contributes to our adaptability.

After examining these models, I think most will agree that in incident management we really do use the Team of Teams model, but not to the fullest extent. Why is that? I think it’s primarily because we graphically depict our organizations using the Command model and so much of our mindset is fixated on that structure and a perceived rigidity of the positions and flow within that structure. Sure, the Command model is cleaner and less intimidating, but it psychologically predisposes us to silos. In ICS, for example, we do have people coordinating across sections, but aside from the ‘scripted’ activities (i.e. those within the Planning Process), it seems to not come easily.  

We have a lot of room for improvement, and I think we can do so without violating any of the tenets of ICS. We can open ourselves to a more dynamic environment while still maintaining chain of command, unity of command, and span of control. Safety is still emphasized. ICS espouses the free flow of information, but flow of information is different from collaboration – a term rarely found in ICS materials.  In many plans and training that I develop, when I’m referencing certain positions, I often identify the key interactions that position has both within and external to the organization. Interactions are a key to success and need to not just be acknowledged, but emphasized. There is an almost social aspect to the Team of Teams model, but not in the butterfly kind of way. It’s simply a socialization of the system. More people being familiar with what’s going on and what the priorities of others are. This type of environment encourages better communication, more ideas, and an ability to make course corrections on the fly. I think some will push back saying that they want people to ‘stay in their lanes’, but professionals who are well trained should still maintain a primary focus on their job.

Gen. McChrystal emphasizes that a big key to really implementing the Team of Teams model is the mindset of the ranking officer – the Incident Commander or EOC Manager in our case. They need to be willing to let go of what they might have traditionally controlled. They are still absolutely in command, but we need to consider what they should be directly in command of. What decisions REALLY need to be made by the IC or EOC Manager? I’ve seen too many people at that level want to be involved in every decision. I’ve heard all the excuses. Yes, they are the ones ultimately responsible. Yes, they need to justify actions to their boss. But that doesn’t mean they need to have their hands in everything. That’s often less than effective. (Funny enough, I’ve also experienced those who espoused these reasons for micromanaging, yet they were never available to the team to actually make decisions. That puts the team in a difficult position.)

If the ICs or EOC Managers are the ones who set objectives, we could go the extent of saying that any changes of activity within the scope of those objectives should be allowable without needing their approval. That might be a bit extreme for some (yes, I know that they are approving the incident action plan, which identifies things to the tactical level), but if we trust the people who are put in key positions throughout the organization – not only are they all leaders, but armed with a common operating picture and knowing what is called ‘the Commander’s intent’ in military lingo – we should trust that when urgency dictates, they are empowered to make decisions. Pushing decision-making to the lowest practical level can make us more responsive, perhaps saving lives or at least ‘stopping the bleeding’ until a definitive strategy can be developed.

Show the Team of Teams model around a bit. Talk about it. Sure, when people look at that org chart for the first time, I expect there will be some exasperated reactions. But when they read up on it and think it through, they will realize that we already practice it in part. What’s stopping us from full implementation? Two things… a little cultural shift and a varying degree of ego. Silly excuses for not doing things better. We are professionals, after all – right?

There is so much more gold to mine in the Team of Teams book. As mentioned before, I highly recommend this for those interested in organizational development, organizational psychology, incident management, and other related areas. It’s filled full of great examples and will likely prompt a lot of thought as it did for me.  

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and feedback on this.

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EOC Toolkit: National Comment Period

Yesterday FEMA’s National Integration Center distributed notice of a national engagement period on two new Emergency Operations Center (EOC) related documents: EOC References and Resources Tool and the EOC How-To Quick Reference Guide. This seems to be the initiation of an EOC Toolkit, which I conceptually think is a great idea. My first impression of these documents is that they both have good information and are logically organized. The documents are good, but I’m also not particularly impressed by them.

First up is the EOC References and Resources Tool. The document indicates that the audience is ‘EOC leaders and staff’, and the intent is to provide them with ‘a set of best practices, checklists, references, links, and essential guidance related to EOC operations and administration’. This is a two-page document, seemingly formatted for printing (It’s a PDF), but mostly useless in print form as it has an abundance of internet links to sites and documents which provide much more information. The document itself isn’t really a ‘tool’, per se. It doesn’t have, on its own, any intrinsic utility other than referring you to other sources of information. While the description indicates that this document has checklists, it does not, though several of the documents linked from this document do have checklists. The center of the first page provides a link to the EOC Toolkit website, but it’s not particularly highlighted. To be honest, I think this document should, in essence, be the format and content of the EOC Toolkit site.

The second document is the EOC How-To Quick Reference Guide. This is an 80 page document. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything labeled a ‘quick reference guide’ be that long. If anything, the EOC References and Resources Tool document (discussed previous) is really the ‘quick reference guide’, while this document is more of a ‘tool’. There is solid information in this document, nothing that from a quick review I have any quarrel with. The content areas are fairly comprehensive, giving information on hazard, vulnerability, and capability assessment; EOC site selection; EOC capabilities and physical design; information management; and preparedness. That said, it doesn’t give you much content within any of the topic areas. It almost feels like a literature review.

As with the other document, this document is formatted for printing, but is full of hyperlinks to sites that expand greatly on the information provided. So it’s not really anything I would recommend printing and putting in a binder. Electronically, it does make it a good compendium of resources, but with how rapidly things change and the frequency of new sources of good information becoming available, I think this document is also best organized as a website that can be updated in real time as new information comes available. As soon as one link changes, the document becomes obsolete. That said, the resources they link to are all good and worthwhile. An attachment to this document provides a fairly comprehensive EOC self-assessment tool; though the tool doesn’t really address partially or fully virtual EOC operations and remote access; and while it goes to an extent of detail asking about certain things (such as a helicopter landing pad), it completely misses some functional things (such as dry erase boards) and is far from comprehensive in the realm of security.

As with most national comment periods, the NIC has provided the documents (though without numbered lines) and a comment form. These, along with information on webinars they are conducting, are posted here: https://www.fema.gov/media-collection/emergency-operations-center-eoc-toolkit-how-quick-reference-references-and-tools.

All in all, I feel like these documents hit the outer ring of a dart board. They are fine, but not really close to the bullseye. It seems these were assembled by a NIC employee or consultant who has spent little to no time in an EOC, much less having any role in the design or preparedness activities for an EOC. As I mentioned earlier, they feel a lot like a literature review – providing a summary of sources but themselves providing very little information. Not that that’s a bad thing – but I’d rather see this in a website format.

What are your thoughts on the documents? 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Incident Management Advisors

It’s frustrating to see poor incident management practices. For years I’ve reviewed plans that have wild org charts supposedly based on the Incident Command System (ICS); have conducted advanced-level training with seasoned professionals that still don’t grasp the basic concepts; have conducted and evaluated exercises and participated in incident responses in which people clearly don’t understand how to implement the most foundational aspects of ICS. On a regular basis, especially since people know my focus on the subject, I’m told of incident management practices that range from sad to ridiculous.

Certainly not everyone gets it wrong. I’ve seen plans, met people, and witnessed exercises and incidents in which people clearly understand the concepts of ICS and know how to put it into action. ICS is a machine, but it takes deliberate and constant action to make it work. It has no cruise control or auto pilot, either. Sometimes just getting the incident management organization to stay the course is a job unto itself.

If you are new here, I’ve written plenty on the topic. Here’s a few things to get you pointed in the right direction if you want to read more.

ICS Training Sucks. There are a series of related posts that serve as a key stone to so much that I write about.

The Human Factor of Incident Management. This bunch of related articles is about how ICS isn’t the problem, it’s how people try to implement it.  

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s unrealistic for us to expect most local jurisdictions to assemble and maintain anything close to a formal incident management team. We need, instead, to focus on improving implementation of foundational ICS concepts at the local level, which means we need to have better training and related preparedness activities to promote this. Further, we also know that from good management practices as well as long-standing practices of incident management teams, that mentoring is a highly effective means of guiding people down the right path. In many ways, I see that as an underlying responsibility of mine as a consultant. Sometimes clients don’t have the time to get a job done, but often they don’t have the in-house talent. While some consultants may baulk at the mere thought of building capability for a client (they are near sighted enough to think it will put them out of work), the better ones truly have the interests of their clients and the practice of emergency management as a whole in mind.

So what and how do we mentor in this capacity? First of all, relative to incident management, I’d encourage FEMA to develop a position in the National Qualification System for Incident Management Advisors. Not only should these people be knowledgeable in implementations of ICS and EOC management, but also practiced in broader incident management issues. Perhaps an incident doesn’t need a full incident management team, but instead just one or two people to help the local team get a system and battle rhythm established and maintained. One responsibility I had when recently supporting a jurisdiction for the pandemic was mentoring staff in their roles and advising the organization on incident management in a broader sense. They had some people who handled things quite well, but there was a lot of agreement in having someone focus on implementation. I also did this remotely, demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be in person.

In preparedness, I think there is similar room for an incident management advisor. Aside from training issues, which I’ve written at length about over the years (of course there will be more!), I think a lot of support is needed in the realm of planning. Perhaps a consultant isn’t needed to write an entire plan, but rather an advisor to ensure that the incident management practices identified in planning documents are sound and consistent with best practices, meet expectations, and can be actually implemented. So much of what I see in planning in regard to incident management has one or more of these errors:

  1. Little mention of incident management beyond the obligatory statement of using NIMS/ICS.
  2. No identification of how the system is activated and/or maintained.
  3. As an extension of #2, no inclusion of guidance or job aids on establishing a battle rhythm, incident management priorities, etc.
  4. An obvious mis-understanding or mis-application of incident management concepts/ICS, such as creating unnecessary or redundant organizational elements or titles, or trying to force concepts that simply don’t apply or make sense.
  5. No thought toward implementation and how the plan will actually be operationalized, not only in practice, but also the training and guidance needed to support it.

In addition to planning, we need to do better at identifying incident management issues during exercises, formulating remedies to address areas for improvement, and actually implementing and following up on those actions. I see far too many After Action Reports (AARs) that softball incident management shortfalls or don’t go into enough detail to actually identify the problem and root cause. The same can be said for many incident AARs.

When it comes to emergency management, and specifically incident management, we can’t expect to improve without being more direct about what needs to be addressed and committing to corrective actions. We can do better. We MUST do better.

New polling function in WordPress… Let’s give it a try.

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EOC Mission Planning

I’ve been wrong. I used to teach and otherwise espouse that emergency operations centers didn’t actually do operations. I was bought in to the traditional perspective that EOCs ONLY provided resource support and information coordination. I’m not sure how or why I bought into this when on incidents I was actually involved in planning and directing certain operations. This mentality goes back, for me, about 15 years. It’s important to break this myth and acknowledge the role that EOCs can and should play in incident management.  

EOCs being involved in directing field operations is certainly nothing new. If you don’t want to take my word for it, it’s also doctrinal. Check out the EOC section of the NIMS document. “EOC staff may share the load with on-scene incident personnel by managing certain operations, such as emergency shelters or points of distribution. When on-scene incident command is not established, such as in a snow emergency, staff in EOCs may direct tactical operations.”

This post has been in the works for a while. Several months ago, I was developing structured guidance on EOC mission planning for a client and realized it would be a good topic to write about. I recently made some social media posts on the topic, with responses encouraging me to write more. So, it was clearly time to do so.

As I had posted on social media, if you don’t think an EOC actually does operations, I’d suggest that the EOCs you are familiar with either haven’t had the opportunity to properly apply mission support or they are doing something wrong. Certainly not every incident will require an EOC to provide mission support, but EOCs should be ready to do so.

EOC missions are typically initiated one of three ways:

  1. A request by incident command to handle a matter which is outside their present area of responsibility or capability,
  2. EOC personnel recognize an operational need that isn’t being addressed, or
  3. The EOC is directed to take certain action from an executive level.

As the NIMS doctrine states, operations that are prime candidates for EOC-directed missions could be emergency shelters or points of distribution. Other operations, such as debris management, or (something recently experienced by many jurisdictions) isolation and quarantine operations are also often EOC-directed.

What makes these EOC-directed missions? Typically, they are planned, executed, and managed by an EOC. This could be a multi-agency EOC or a departmental operations center. Of course, there are ‘field’ personnel involved to execute the missions, but unlike tactical activity under the command of an Incident Commander, the chain of command for EOC-directed missions goes to the EOC (typically the EOC’s Operations Section or equivalent).

Ideally, jurisdictions or agencies should be developing deliberate plans for EOC-directed missions. Many do, yet still don’t realize that execution of the plans is managed from the EOC. These are often functional or specifically emergency support function (ESF) plans or components of those plans. For context, consider a debris management plan. As with many deliberate plans, those plans typically need to be operationalized, meaning that the specific circumstances of the incident they are being applied to must be accounted for, typically through what I refer to as a mission plan. In developing a mission plan, with or without the existence of a deliberate plan, I encourage EOCs to use the 6-step planning process outlined in CPG-101. As a refresher:

  1. Form a planning team
  2. Understand the situation and intent of the plan
  3. Determine goals and objectives of the plan
  4. Develop the plan
  5. Plan review and approval
  6. Plan implementation

The planning team for an EOC-driven mission should consist, at the very least, of personnel in the EOC with responsibility for planning and operations. If several mission plans are expected to be developed, the EOC’s Planning Section may consider developing a ‘Mission Planning Unit’ or something similar. Depending on the technical aspects of the mission, technical specialists may be brought into the planning team, and it’s likely that personnel with responsibility for logistics, finance, and safety, may need to be consulted as well.

If a deliberate plan is already in place, that plan should help support the intent, goals, and objectives of the mission plan, with a need to apply specific situational information and context to develop the mission plan.

Developing the plan must be comprehensive to account for all personnel, facilities, resources, operational parameters, safety, support, reporting, documentation, and chain of command. These may need to be highly detailed to support implementation. The mission may be organized at whatever organizational level is appropriate to the incident. This is likely to be a group within EOC Operations (or equivalent). Obviously having a deliberate plan in place can help address a fair amount of this proactively. Outlining processes and position descriptions, and providing job aids will support implementation considerably.

Plan review often seems an easy thing to do, but this needs to be more than an editorial review. The review should be comprehensive, considering the operations from every possible perspective. Consider various scenarios, notionally walking through processes, and even using a red team concept to validate the plan. While this is likely going into immediate implementation, it’s best to spend some time validating it in the review stages instead of having it fail in implementation. Approval will come at whatever level is appropriate within your organization.

Plan implementation should certainly include an operational briefing for the staff executing the plan, and it should ideally be supported through an incident action plan (IAP) or EOC action plan, or a part thereof. As with any implementation, it needs to be properly managed, meaning that progress must be monitored and feedback provided to ensure that the mission is being executed according to plan and that the plan itself is effective. Understand that complex missions, especially those of longer duration, may need to be adjusted as lessons are learned during implementation.

As is typically said in ICS courses, we should begin demobilization planning as early as possible. Missions may have a completion in whole, where the entire mission is demobilized at once, or there may be a phased demobilization. Many EOCs aren’t used to developing tactical-level demobilization plans, so they need to be prepared for this.

As with any operation, identifying and documenting lessons learned is important. Deliberate plans should be updated to reflect lessons learned (and even a copy of the mission plan as a template or sample), or if a deliberate plan didn’t exist prior to the mission, one should be developed based upon the implementation.

EOCs can, in fact, run operations. I’m sure a lot of you have seen this if you have been involved in responses such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, a hurricane response, and more. Sometimes in emergency management we aren’t good at actually acknowledging what’s going on, for better or for worse. We get stuck with old definitions and don’t realize that we need to evolve, or even already have evolved; or we don’t recognize that current ways of doing things simply don’t work as intended. We seem, sometimes, to be our own worst enemy.

How does your EOC execute mission planning?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Updated NIMS Training Program

FEMA recently released an updated NIMS Training Program document. While the document addresses new emergency operations center (EOC) and provides recommendations for joint information system (JIS) and Multi Agency Coordination (MAC) Group training, it doesn’t give us anything really visionary, it simply captures what is. Granted, no where in the document introduction does it say that it’s intended to be a visionary document or something that is goal setting in regard to NIMS training, but to be honest, it should be. I’d like to see a more frequently updated document that not only establishes a current standard, but establishes goals for forward motion and focus.

I’m also disappointed with the insistence that that ICS 400 remains yet another ‘check-the-box’ style of course. As has been mentioned in the past, the ICS 400 is truly an advanced level course that needs to have a bit more context applied in terms of the target audience – not simply ‘incident personnel designated as leaders/supervisors’. Most people taking this course simply don’t need it. In further regard for the ICS 400 course, however, I would say that should also be included in the more advanced levels of training for EOC personnel. Similar to the true need that does exist at higher levels of ICS training, the ICS 400 does have similar value in this track, as EOCs are often key elements of these more complex incident management structures and relationships that are discussed in the ICS 400.

Speaking of training for EOC personnel, I’ll continue to rail against the ELG 2300 course. While it does have some value and may have a place in the training program for EOC personnel (mostly for those planning EOCs, not necessarily working in EOCs), it is not an equivalent of the ICS 300 course for an EOC environment. The ICS 300 course still stands as the course with the highest utility for incident management personnel, though still itself requires considerable improvements.

It’s great to see that the NIMS Training Program does recommend other training opportunities within both the ICS and EOC tracks, such as the Integrated Emergency Management Course (IEMC) and incident management team (IMT) courses, but as I’ve written before, there is still a significant gap in training to meet incident management needs for most local personnel. They require more than just the ICS or EOC courses to bring them the actual realm of application, yet aren’t likely to become part of a formal incident management team. Incident management training as a whole also seems to be missing an extremely important key element – management. It’s one thing to teach someone about the Incident Command System, but the lack of training and guidance to make them good managers of the incident and assigned personnel and resources is considerably lacking. I see this issue more and more, and it’s become very apparent during the Coronavirus response where jurisdictions have very limited ability to call on mutual aid systems for incident management support and are forced to use organic personnel and others who clearly lack in incident management, despite having checked the boxes of completing identified training courses.

I do appreciate that the document encourages development of an organizational training plan, and provides a bit of guidance on that, though even a standard referenced in their guidance is out of date, as it references a multiyear Training and Exercise Plan (TEP), which was replaced in the revised HSEEP doctrine earlier this year with the Integrated Preparedness Plan (IPP). Is it too much to ask that two houses within FEMA communicate with each other?

While the NIMS Training Program document only gives us a view of the training program as it currently exists, it’s not the best picture. It’s clear that certain decision-makers are unwilling to break from traditions that are largely rooted in the history of ICS and the way we have, for far too long, done things in emergency management training. What’s the plan? How are we moving forward? How are we meeting needs? Is anyone even paying attention to needs or are we just recycling much of the same courses and content, simply changing dates and pictures every few years? While some progress has been made, I still see far too much of emergency management and incident management training hung up in approaches that predate 9/11. Where is the vision?

What are your thoughts? What is your vision of incident management training?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Properly Leveraging the EOC Safety Officer

One of my Twitter connections tweeted over the weekend about the importance of the Safety Officer in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during the pandemic response.  This is absolutely true, but it’s not the only time the EOC Safety Officer should be engaged.  There is a significant role for them in many EOC activations, but they are historically underutilized, often relegated to monitoring for trip hazards in the EOC and making sure that no one hits their head on the desk when they fall asleep on those long wind-down shifts. 

While the Safety Officer in an Incident Command Post has a great deal of work to do, monitoring tactical hazards and implementing mitigative measures, we often think that with the EOC’s hands-off approach to tactics (something else that is also a myth in incident management) that there is little for an EOC Safety Officer to do.  Obviously, the potential of an EOC Safety Officer depends on the specific circumstances of the incident and the scope of support being provided by the EOC, especially if it’s staffed with the proper personnel. 

Remember that the Safety Officer is a member of the Command (or EOC Management) staff, and therefore can have assistants to support technical needs as well as a volume of work.  While ideally we want people trained as Safety Officers (in accordance with the NIMS position-specific curriculum), let’s face it – most of pool of position-trained personnel come from the fire service.  While on the surface there is obviously nothing wrong with that – fireground safety applications are incredibly detailed and require a very specific know-how – we need to leverage people with the proper background based on the incident we are dealing with.  That could be someone with a fire background, but, for example, a public health incident likely requires a Safety Officer (or advising assistant Safety Officer) to have a public health background; just as an emergency bridge replacement likely requires someone with an engineering background to be the Safety Officer. 

Through my experience, I’ve found that occupational health and safety personnel (either OSHA-proper from the US Dept of Labor or State/Local Occupational Health and Safety personnel) are great for this position, and even better if they have the proper ICS training.  On one hand, I’d call them generalists, because you can utilize them for darn near any incident, but calling them generalists almost feels insulting, as their knowledge of laws, regulations, and guidelines is often very extensive, and if they don’t know, they know where to find the information.  They also work well with hazard-specific specialists who can be integrated as assistants.  They can also call upon a small army of other OSHA-types to support field monitoring of safety matters. 

I will mention a word on using ‘regulators’ as Safety Officers.  Some may be reluctant to do so.  Reflecting again on my experience, I’ll say that Federal/State/Local OSHA-types are great to work with in this regard.  They are often willing to be flexible, developing and implementing an incident safety plan that can be phased, with safety personnel initially providing guidance and correction (when appropriate) and enforcing later. 

In looking at the scope of responsibility for an EOC Safety Officer, we do need to consider the scope of responsibility for any Safety Officers working from Incident Command Posts to ensure the work is complimentary, with minimal duplication of effort, but enough overlap for continuity.  The Safety Officers in an ICP will be primarily focused on the operating area of their ICP.  They are less likely to be concerned with safety matters off-site. 

For an ‘intangible’ incident, such as the current pandemic, we are more apt to find EOCs running the show vs incident command posts.  Obviously, this greatly expands the responsibility of the Safety Officer – in a jurisdiction’s primary EOC, as well as the Safety Officers in departmental operations centers (DOCs) – as many tactical operations are truly being managed from the EOC.  Considerations such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and operating guidelines for all areas of operation and all tactics are likely to be coming from the EOC Safety Officer.  If DOCs or other incident management facilities are involved, the Safety Officer of the jurisdiction’s primary EOC may be collaborating with the Safety Officers from these other facilities to ensure a common operating picture in regard to safety, a unified safety plan, and consistent monitoring and enforcement.  A Safety Officer operating in this capacity needs to be comprehensive in their scope, not just looking at the hazards associated with the primary issue (i.e. an infectious disease), but examining all tactics and considerations, ranging from people operating equipment, to emerging weather hazards.

For an incident with more traditional EOC involvement, a Safety Officer still has a full range of responsibilities, though the actual range of these are still dictated by the scope of the incident.  If an EOC is primarily serving as a resource ordering point, the EOC Safety Officer should be communicating with the Safety Officer at the ICP to ensure an understanding of the hazards in general operating area as well as the specific hazards and PPE needs of the application each resource will be assigned to.  The EOC Safety Officer should be ensuring that responding resources are aware of these safety requirements, as well as potential safety concerns while in transit.  The EOC Safety Officer may be providing the ICP Safety Officer with specialized safety support, analysis, and resources, including supplies and equipment (in coordination with EOC Logistics). 

An EOC supporting multiple ICPs (and even coordinating with several DOCs) should have a more involved and proactive Safety Officer, as they need to be coordinating safety matters across each of these incident management structures.  This includes ensuring a common operating picture in regard to safety, a unified safety plan, and consistent monitoring and enforcement.  They are also likely to be involved in working with EOC Logistics to ensure the proper supplies and equipment.  They should be watching for tactical applications or resource movements of each incident management structure to ensure there are no conflicts or impacts in regard to safety. 

An EOC more significantly engaged is likely to be providing mission support (a topic I’ll be writing about in the near future).  In summary, EOC mission support are generally tactical applications which are developed and managed by an EOC to address matters that are beyond the scope of the ICP or those which the Incident Commander can’t presently deal with.  EOC mission support could include things like sheltering, points of distribution, or a family assistance center.  Once up and running, each of these examples should have their own management structure including a Safety Officer to address their specific needs, but the EOC Safety Officer should be heavily involved in the planning and development stages of these missions, as well as coordinating and supporting safety matters to each of them, similar to what has been mentioned previously. 

Lastly, I’ll suggest that an EOC Safety Officer may also be working with third parties, to include non-government organizations, the private sector, and the public.  Depending on the activity of any of these, the EOC Safety Officer should be keeping tabs on what the safety issues are and communicating with these parties.  The role of the EOC Safety Officer could even include public education.  A great example of this was the October 2006 snowstorm in Erie County, NY.  The Safety Officer from the County EOC (staffed by US DOL/OSHA) coordinated several chainsaw safety courses for the public, knowing that despite the number of safety messages distributed via the Public Information Officer, homeowners, who perhaps never used a chainsaw or hadn’t used one in years, would be out in their yards clearing debris from fallen trees.  These courses were incredibly effective and appreciated by the public. 

To be honest, I’m in favor of breaking tradition within EOCs and designating EOC safety matters, such as trip hazards and signage for mopped floors, to those who are managing EOC facility needs (i.e. the Center Support Section if you are using the Incident Support Model).  This assignment more appropriately corresponds with the focus of the Center Support Section and allows the EOC Safety Officer to maintain focus on what’s going on outside the EOC. 

So there is some food for thought on how to properly use an EOC Safety Officer.  Don’t continue to let it be a lame position as so many have in the past.  It has incredible importance when properly utilized and staffed.  I’m interested in hearing about how you have leveraged EOC Safety Officers, or if you are a Safety Officer, what activities you have performed from an EOC. 

Be safe out there. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Responding to Coronavirus & a Second Major Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

A Deeper Review of FEMA’s E/L/G 2300 EOC Intermediate Course

A couple months ago I got my hands on the materials for the ELG 2300 EOC Intermediate course.  Back in early June I gave an initial review of this course, based on information from a webinar and the course’s plan of instruction.   Unfortunately, upon reviewing the actual course materials, my initial concerns have been reinforced.

First, I’ll start off with what I think are the positives of this course. The course doesn’t stray from NIMS, and applies a practical integration of the NIMS management concepts, which we are mostly used to seeing in ICS, into the EOC environment.  This is 100% appropriate and should always be reinforced.  The course also references the EOC National Qualification System skillsets.  It’s great to see the NQS referenced in training as they otherwise receive very little attention, which actually brings about a lot of concern as to their overall adoption.  Two units within the course provide some incredibly valuable information.  Those are Unit 5 (Information and Intelligence Management) and Unit 7 (EOC Transition to Recovery).

On to the down side of things… As mentioned in my review a couple months back, the course objectives simply don’t line up with what this course needs to do – that is, it needs to be teaching people how to work in an EOC.  So much of the content is actually related to planning and other preparedness activities, specifically Units 3, 4, and 8. Unit 3 dives into topics such as position tack books, organizational models, EOC design, staff training and qualifications, exercises and more.  Though, ironically enough, there is little to no emphasis on deliberate PLANNING, which is what all this relates to.  This isn’t stuff to be thinking about during an EOC activation, but rather before an activation.  Unit 4, similarly, gets into triggers for activation, how to deactivate the EOC, and other topics that are planning considerations.  Unit 8 dives more into design, technology, and equipment.  While it’s valuable for people to know what’s available, this is, again, preparedness content.

There is a lot of repetitive content, especially in the first few units, along with some typos, which is really disappointing to see.  There are also some statements and areas of content which I wholeheartedly disagree with.  Here are a few:

  • There is ‘no common EOC structure’.   There are actually a few.  Hint: they are discussed in the NIMS document.  I think what they are getting at with this statement is that there is no fixed EOC structure.
  • ‘EOC leaders determine the structure that best meets their needs’. False. Plans determine the structure to be used.  While that organizational model is flexible in terms of size of staff and specific delegations, the lack of context for this statement seems to indicate that the EOC Manager or Director will determine on the fly if they will use the ICS-based model, the Incident Support Model, or another model.
  • One slide indicates that use of the ICS-based model doesn’t require any additional EOC training beyond ICS for EOC staff. Absolutely false!  In fact, this sets you up for nothing but failure.  Even if the model being applied is based on ICS, the actual implementation in an EOC is considerably different.  I’ve written about this in the past.
  • The Incident Support Model ‘is not organized to manage response/recovery efforts’. Wrong again.  With the integration of operations functions within the Resource Support Section, response and recovery efforts can absolutely be managed from the EOC.

There is another area of content I take particular exception with.  One slide describes ‘incident command teams’, and goes on to describe the Incident Command Post (which is a facility, not a team), and an Incident Management Team, with the formal description of a rostered group of qualified personnel.  Not only is this slide wrong to include an Incident Command Post as a ‘team’, they are fundamentally ignoring the fact that ‘incident command teams’ are comprised every damn day on the fly from among responders deploying to an incident.  These are the exact people I espouse the need to train and support in my discussions on ICS.

My conclusions… First of all, this course does not do as it needs to do, which is training people how to work in an EOC.  While the preparedness information it gives is great, operators (people assigned to work in an EOC) will be taking this course expecting to learn how to do their jobs.  They will not learn that.  I’ve advocated before for most training to be set up similar to HazMat training, utilizing a structure of Awareness, Operations, Technician, Management, and Planning focused courses which are designed to TEACH PEOPLE WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW based upon their function.  Largely, this course is a great Planning level course, that is it’s ideal for people who will be developing EOC operational plans, standard operating guidelines, position qualification standards, and other preparedness material.  I think that Operations, Technician, and Management level training is going to be left to jurisdictions to develop and implement, as it certainly isn’t found here.

I urge a lot of caution to everyone before you decide to teach this course.  Take a look at the material and decide if it’s really what your audience needs.

What are your thoughts on this course?  Will your jurisdiction get use out of it?

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EOC Training is Coming from FEMA

Last week I posted an article espousing the lack of emergency operations center (EOC) content in the most recently updated ICS-100 course.  In response to this article, I heard from someone at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) letting me know about two courses which are currently in development, focusing on EOCs.  The first is IS-2200: Basic EOC Functions.  This is being designed as a four-hour online course.  The second is E/L/G-2300: Intermediate EOC Functions.  This course is being designed for a three-day long classroom delivery.  These courses are both expected to release in the spring of 2019.

For those who aren’t familiar with FEMA’s course codes…

IS: Independent Study (web-based delivery)

E: In-resident course, typically delivered at EMI

L: A course delivered on-location by FEMA personnel anywhere around the nation

G: State-delivered courses

Personally, I’m thrilled to get definitive word that courses are being developed and that we have a timeframe for deployment.  I’m a big proponent of the roles EOCs can play in incident management, yet so much of the training conducted for EOC personnel for so many years has been ad-hoc at best.  Hopefully this will further move us toward standardization and common implementation of best practices.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

The EOC Incident Support Model

Since the release of the NIMS Refresh in October 2017, a number of jurisdictions have made changes to the organizational structure of their emergency operations center.  While many jurisdictions use a traditional Incident Command System (ICS)-based structure, a structure aligned to the emergency support functions (ESFs), or a hybrid thereof, the NIMS Refresh seems to have popularized an alternative structure called the Incident Support Model.  I’ve been working with some clients who recently have, or are currently making a change to the Incident Support Model.  The general model of that structure can be found below.

ISM

The intent of this model is to provide an EOC with an organizational model that better fits what an EOC does… information management, planning, and resource support.  This model, unlike the more traditional ICS-based model or the ESF-based model really focuses on what EOCs do instead of potentially utilizing an organization and mission that are mis-matched.  As stated by the NIMS Refresh document, this model puts the EOC manager in direct contact with those doing situational awareness/information management, and streamlines resource sourcing, ordering, and tracking.

As someone who has worked in and long advocated for an ICS-based model for EOCs, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with the Incident Support Model over time.  It certainly makes sense.  Appendix B of the NIMS Refresh document provides some additional detail on this model, but not much.

The Incident Support Model, most prominently, reorganizes some of the major ICS-centered functions we are used to seeing.  It pulls two key functions from the Planning Section, those being situational awareness and resource tracking.  Situational awareness in this model is established as a section.  Those who have managed large and fully staffed Situation Units in an ICS-based model know that the various responsibilities such as information tracking, developing situation reports, addressing requests for information, and information analysis and display can be significant.  Technical specialists, such as meteorologists and other sciences come into the fold of this section, as does Geographic Information Services (GIS).

The function of resource tracking, traditionally from the Resources Unit in the ICS model, is pulled together with all other resource-centered activities in the EOC under the Incident Support Model.  This includes the tasking and assignment of resources, as well as the support of those resources, which functionally has been handled by a combination of Operations and Logistics in the ICS-based model.  Reflecting on how many EOCs have grown comfortable organizing these functions previously, this section may be organized by ESF or other workable function.  The Resource Support Section is also to include Finance/Administration, which I’m not necessarily as keen on.  While I understand it from a contracting and procurement perspective, Finance/Administration is a function that may be best retained as their own section.

Separate from the Resource Support Section is the Center Support Section, which is focused on supporting the EOC itself with IT, admin staff, food, and other needs.  The Center Support Section may also be tasked with providing similar services to other defined facilities, such as a Joint Information Center (JIC) or Family Assistance Center (FAC).  I see this as a smart move as Logistics in the traditional ICS model had to juggle needs internal and external to the EOC.

Lastly is the Planning Support Section.  With information management resource tracking gutted from the Planning Section, you may be left wondering what is left for the Planning Section to do.  The Planning Support Section is still responsible for managing the planning process, which needs a bit of realignment under the Incident Support Model.  With this is overall responsibility to develop the Incident Action Plan (IAP), but there is more.  An astute planning function in an EOC in any sizeable incident should not only be managing the planning process for the next operational period, they should also looking ahead.  They may be pulling together a plan for something like debris management or utility restoration which is expected to be an operational focus in a few days, or perhaps planning for the transition to recovery operations, or even for demobilization.  As such, the Incident Support Model calls for the Planning Support Section to be divided between Current (and next operational period) Planning and Future Planning.  With an organization model underscoring this, we will hopefully see Planning Sections focused on future outcomes as much as they are focused on short-term processes.

The Incident Support Model is certainly a workable structure, which seems to remove some of the awkwardness of the tactically-built ICS-based structure from the EOC.  While we’ve certainly evolved the ICS-based structure to meet our needs in an EOC, I think many, myself included, were reluctant to make the changes needed to make it more functional in an EOC environment and still have it reflect ICS.

Now that jurisdictions are retooling and building this new model into their plans, however, we are in a bit of an awkward position in regard to training and utilization of staff. In the absence of national training program to support this model, jurisdictions are left on their own to train staff how to function in this structure.  Many jurisdictions have invested a great deal of time to have staff trained in the NIMS Position-specific courses.  While I don’t see that training as being wholly wasteful in light of a change to this model, there are obviously some adaptations to be made for those looking to utilize that training in an EOC using the Incident Support Model.  Even established Incident Management Teams (IMTs), which follow the ICS model, will need to determine how they will adjust their deployment to fit EOCs which may use the Incident Support Model.  The functions of this model certainly aren’t foreign, but may require a crosswalk of sorts for personnel who are otherwise trained or qualified to work in an ICS-based environment.

Working with clients who are adopting this model, I’m looking forward to seeing it in action and further identifying pros and cons.  Knowing that some have been using this model for some time, I’m also interested in reviewing their lessons learned, particularly things like operational flow, adaptations to the Planning P, job action sheets, and other things.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC