Dispatch Transition to EOC Operations

Within the LinkedIn discussion thread of one of my recent posts on applications of ICS, I was prompted to consider that one more awkward element for an EOC operation can be the transition or integration of dispatch with the EOC.  Consider that during ‘routine’ operations, it is dispatch who is supporting field operations and tracking critical actions.  Many jurisdictions encounter a difficulty when activating an EOC locally to support a growing response – what to do with dispatch?

The EOC’s traditional role as ‘expanded dispatch’ aids a field response by providing a greater level of coordination far beyond the tools normally available to most dispatchers by facilitating direct access to agency representatives who are dedicated to supporting the needs of the incident.  Under routine operations, Command (or Logistics) is contacting dispatch directly (usually via radio) to request resources.  Upon activation of an EOC, these requests must be routed to the EOC.  In some jurisdictions, EOCs are co-located with dispatch (at least in the same building), making this transition a bit easier in regard to technology and people, but some jurisdictions have these buildings separated.

How do you solve this awkward dilemma of ICS/EOC interface?  First of all, it needs to be thought through and planned PRIOR to an incident!  This is when we can do our best work, ideally bringing all relevant stakeholders to the table, mapping out processes and procedures, and identifying equipment and technology issues needed to support it.  With everyone together, talk through what you want to do given the circumstances you have.  Each idea likely has pros and cons that have to be weighed.

Some possibilities… Keep all resource orders going through dispatch. In doing so, you are not interrupting the ‘normal’ communications link with field operations.  In this circumstance, though, you need to consider how the dispatcher will transfer the resource request to EOC Logistics.  Since you likely do not want Logistics to be accessing the PSAP system, the dispatcher will likely have to enter the request into another system, such as EOC management software (something they likely don’t use often).  This can be time consuming so it will likely require the dispatcher to be solely dedicated to this incident.  The scope of resources (or ideally missions) is also beyond what a dispatcher usually deals with (thus the reason for activating the EOC), so it would likely require some additional training and use of dispatchers with greater experience.

Another option is to bring the dispatcher into the EOC.  Sometimes physical separation, despite technology, can make things awkward.  If the jurisdiction has the technological ability to bring a dispatcher into the EOC as part of the Communications Unit, they can interact with field operations and facilitate communication better.  The need to enter the resource/mission request into a formal system which is assignable and trackable still exists.

Another option is to pull dispatch out of the incident.  This can cause significant disruption to the incident but is manageable if pre-planned, trained, and exercised.  At this point in an expanded incident the need to use radio communications beyond field operations may be exceeded.  Field Logistics can interface directly with EOC Logistics via phone or other technology to communicate resource requests.  This methodology gets the request directly to EOC Logistics for them to handle.

There are certainly other models and possibilities that exist.  What experiences do you have?  What have you seen work?  What have you seen fail?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

WWW.EPSLLC.BIZ 

Best Practices for the New Year – Situation Reporting

Situation reports or SitReps have a great deal of importance in conveying information on an incident or event to a variety of stakeholders.  Having worked for many years as a Planning Section Chief in a State EOC and county and local EOCs and command posts on a variety of incidents and events; well structured, well written, and relevant SitReps have become a bugaboo of mine.  SitReps are intended to provide a snapshot of a common operating picture for stakeholders involved in the incident or event.  Creation of a SitRep should be viewed as a process, similar to incident action planning.

The information contained in a SitRep provides them with the information they need to know to perform their duties in support of the incident.  Keep in mind that stakeholders may not be involved in the operations or support of an incident but still need to have awareness as they may be impacted.  A series of SitReps can also contribute greatly to the historical record of the incident or event.

Looking into the New Year and toward your next incident and event, I’ve provided some things I’ve learned along the way which can bake your situation reporting more effective and meaningful.

Defining the Audience

In the first step to building a benchmark SitRep, regular readers of my blog will recognize one of my common themes – identifying needs.  Just as we do in training, we need to be aware of who are audience is what their needs are.  The primary purpose of a SitRep is to meet the information needs of your audience.

Who are the stakeholders that see your SitReps?  Are they operators, decision makers, or executives?  Generally, based on these three categories, here is the information they need:

Operators.  These are the folks who are ‘boots on ground’ getting the work done.  While they might love to see detail of what is going on throughout the incident or event, they don’t NEED this information as it can, in fact, be simply distracting to them.  Very rarely are SitReps geared toward this audience as you want them tactically focused on the tasks they are assigned to. Usually a brief incident summary satisfies their limited need to have a bigger picture of what is occurring.  Those who are managing them should be providing them with the information they need to know.

Decision makers.  Decision makers are found at many levels throughout an incident structure.  They may be task force or strike team leaders, division or group supervisors, facility managers, branch directors, section chiefs, functional managers of agencies or departments, or others functioning in similar capacities.  Decision makers have the greatest functional information need.  The information being provided to this group strongly supports their role in the incident, the planning and management of the incident, and the safety of personnel.  The information provided to them should have some degree of operational detail and should include information on hazards and safety issues as well as potential problem areas.

Executives.  This category includes chief elected officials, high level appointed officials, and organizations with ancillary involvement.  Executives are of course decision makers in their own right, but aren’t often involved at the level of detail of the decision makers discussed above.  Generally executives don’t require a great degree of operational detail, but they do like numbers and statistics.  Like the decision makers, they also need to be aware of potential pitfalls on the horizon as they need the information to make high level decisions to address the problem or be prepared to deal with the outcomes politically.  You may have to be the most aware and response of the needs of this audience as they may have different information needs during an incident.

Where the Information Comes From

We know from communications training that information we convey must be timely, relevant, and accurate – this must be the litmus test by which you judge all SitRep content.  The Planning Section should be obtaining information from all relevant stakeholders.  They need an overview of what has, is, and will be happening operationally (and the outcomes/impacts of these operations) as well as all support activities and external influences (such as weather, crowd activities, etc.).  Information from field operations should come, ideally, from individuals functioning in the field for the sole purpose of obtaining and providing information (field observers).  Often times, however, we don’t have this luxury and have to obtain information directly from field-level managers themselves.  Caution should be exercised with the information you receive from them, or anyone really, as some will alter information based upon their own agendas or bias.  Information should also be obtained from support services, usually found through your Logistics section.

In an EOC environment we will also usually obtain information from the agencies and functions represented there.  These agencies are also audiences for the SitRep so they get to see first-hand how their situational awareness contributes to a common operating picture.  You may also be obtaining a lot of raw data.  If it’s relevant, track this data and report on it, ensuring that it is meaningful to your audience.  Leverage the talents of GIS to display this information in usable and meaningful formats.  As the years have progressed, I’ve seen SitReps with less narrative and more GIS.

In obtaining information, I’ve found that a form or script can be of the greatest help.  It ensures not only consistency in the information being gathered but it also ensures that nothing is missed.  Often those reporting information will have a particular perspective which will be the focus of their reporting.  Asking additional questions encourages them to think more broadly.  Be sure to get your information sources on a firm schedule so you are not waiting on their information.  Late information from your sources will result in a late or incomplete SitRep.  Personnel may need regular reminders to compile and submit their situational information.  Also be sure to give GIS plenty of time to do their work.  Set a publication time and work backwards to establish reporting and work schedules for everyone involved.

Remember – timely, relevant, and accurate.  While a short summary of previous actions may be important to provide context, it is not necessary to provide a long historical narrative.  Be sure to report on the outcomes or effectiveness of actions.  This detail of progress is important for a situation report.  As far as accuracy, work to verify information to the greatest practical extent, especially any information that is speculative.  Inaccurate information can be career ending.

Organizing the Information

Typically you only have time to assemble one SitRep, despite having to serve multiple audiences.  Inclusion of an executive summary is then a very appropriate means of providing an area within the SitRep for those audiences which need a shorter overview.  After the executive summary you have a great deal of flexibility on the structure and formatting of the document, but keep things organized and largely consistent from report to report.  Often times SitReps are organized the way we organize the incident – have you organized functionally or geographically?  It may be a mix of the two, so organize your SitRep based upon that.  Simply find a format that makes sense.  I like to arrange information that applies to everyone first, such as a weather forecast.  You may have information such as statistical tables or GIS products which are best provided as attachments so they don’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Keep in mind that this is NOT a document providing operational direction – that comes from an Incident Action Plan (IAP).  Therefore, all associated operational information such as safety matters, communication plans, etc. should be included in the IAP and generally not replicated in the SitRep.  Those who need access to that operational information should be also receiving copies of the IAP.  A short synapsis of the SitRep can be provided in the IAP to add context and to provide information for operators but should not be replicated to any great extent.

Conclusion

Creating a situation report takes a lot of time and patience and is not something to be hurried, but their publication is something counted on so they must adhere to a schedule.  It is very much a ‘garbage in – garbage out’ activity, so the quality of the information coming in is extremely important.  A large incident or event may require a largely staffed Situation Unit to collect and organize information.  SitReps should always be reviewed before being finalized.  It is a professional report so attention should be paid to things like grammar and spelling.

So what have you learned from your experiences in assembling situation reports?

Need help building SitRep templates and standard operating guidelines?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!  www.epsllc.biz

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Training EOC Personnel – ICS is not Enough!

A consistent misconception is that if an emergency operations plan calls for an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to utilize the Incident Command System (ICS), then EOC personnel only require ICS training to be successful in their jobs.  ICS training, however, only gets personnel part way to success.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a big advocate of conducting needs assessments.  Often times, agencies don’t know how to conduct a needs assessment, don’t think it’s important enough to conduct one, don’t think that conducting one is necessary, or simply don’t even consider conducting a needs assessment.  The result is creating training or using existing training that does not meet the real needs.  Certainly if an EOC is using the foundations of ICS to define its organizational structure and processes, then ICS training is absolutely important.  Consider, however, the multitude of other processes that take place in an operational EOC that are not included (in whole or in part) in ICS training.  Processes including financial management and procurement, situation reporting, and use of EOC management and resource tracking software are so diverse and can very from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The unique application of Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS), an element of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), just like ICS, by each jurisdiction also has to be considered.  While there are numerous best practices in MACS, their interface with ICS – often implemented through an EOC – is influenced significantly by governmental structure, statutory responsibilities, and politics more than can be addressed by any training curriculum. Consider simply the differences between a state EOC, a county EOC, and a local government EOC and their unique roles and needs. For as much standardization NIMS encourages, there will still be different ways of implementing these systems.  In the end, the challenge remains the same – how do we train people to function in EOCs?

First, do conduct that needs assessment.  What do people have to know and what skills must they have to be successful in an EOC?  At this point, I speak foundationally, as additional and more in-depth training can be explored based on position and responsibility.  Certainly ICS – with sufficient detail in positions of the organization and the planning process.    What else do they need to know?  ICS training does not address in detail what an EOC is or does – an important understand for people to have.  What processes must they be familiar with?  What tools or methodologies does the EOC use that must be trained on?  Are there specific organizational elements that require unique interactions with the greater organization (such as emergency support functions <ESFs>)?  Look through your jurisdiction’s EOC Standard Operating Procedures/Guidelines (you do have one, right?) to help you identify some of these needs.

Second, identify how to address these training needs.  ICS organization and the planning process are covered in the ICS-300 course, so that will meet some of your needs.  Unfortunately, since so many of the other needs are unique to your jurisdiction, you will have to build custom training to meet these needs.  Yes, FEMA does have available a course called EOC Management and Operations (IS/G – 775).  While some material in this course may or may help meet your training needs, chances are the course in its entirety will not.  First, it dedicates time discussing ideal facilities for an EOC (not really necessary if you already have such a facility), and second, while it provides an outline for general EOC operations it still won’t address all of your specific needs, although course materials can be used as a resource to inform your instructional design.

Third, build staying power into your training.  Much of what is learned is quickly forgotten, especially when people don’t practice it often.  There are a few strategies to combat this knowledge loss… 1) offer refresher training, 2) conduct regular exercises, 3) create job aids.  ICS is big on job aids – that’s very simply what the ICS forms are.  There are a multitude of additional job aids that you can create for your EOC.  Practically every position and process can have checklists and flow charts which help remind staff of what they need to do and in what order to do it in.

This can all be a lot of work, but it will pay off next time you have to activate your EOC.  Remember, there is always help available.  My consulting firm, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, has a great deal of experience working in a variety of EOCs across the country.  We have developed plans, procedures, job aids, training, and exercises unique to each EOC.  We can help you!  Check out our website at www.epsllc.biz or contact us at consultants@epsllc.biz.  Be Proactive, Be Prepared!™

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker

FEMA National Preparedness System Updates

This afternoon EMForum.org hosted Donald ‘Doc’ Lumpkins, the Director of the National Integration Center from the National Preparedness Directorate. Doc had some great information on their current and near future activities regarding updates to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and new Comprehensive Preparedness Guides (CPGs) expected to be released this year.  This is great news as we are always seeking additional national guidance and revisions which help us to maintain standards of practice.

Regarding NIMS, the guiding document has not been revised since 2008.  Doc specifically mentioned updates to NIMS to include:

  • the National Preparedness Goal and the National Preparedness System
  • Expanding NIMS across all five mission areas (Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery)
  • Encouraging whole community engagement and understanding
  • Continued emphasis that NIMS is more than just the Incident Command System (ICS)
  • Integrating incident support structures (such as EOCs – more on EOCs later)
  • Integrating situational awareness content
  • Incorporating lessons learned from exercises and real world events (Doc mentioned his office’s activity of culling through LLIS.gov to gain much of this information)
  • Including stakeholder feedback in the revision efforts
  • NIMS update activities will be conducted through the summer with an expected release of a new document this fall

As a significant component of the NIMS update, there will also be continued efforts to update the resource typing list.  Priority will be given to resources which are often requested.

The next topic of discussion was the Comprehensive Preparedness Guides (CPGs).  I was very excited to see a list of likely and potential CPGs either currently under development or expected to be developed soon.  These included:

  • Updating CPG 101
  • A CPG for Strategic Planning (This should shape out to be excellent guidance and essentially serves as a ‘catch all’ for many of the strategic planning tasks we do in emergency management)
  • Incident Action Planning (Doc said this will not be anything new or a replacement of best practices such as the Planning P.  Rather this document will serve to capture these best practices and ensure currency and critical linkages)
  • Planning for mass casualty incidents
  • Social media (a critical aspect of emergency management that is still changing regularly, and I don’t yet feel that we have a firm grasp on it and how to best use it.)
  • Access/Re-Entry to disaster sites
  • Improvised Explosive Devices (crafting hazard-specific annexes)
  • EOC guidelines (I’m hoping this document, while outlining best practices, provides flexibility for different management models of EOCs)
  • Search and rescue management

I’ve come to greatly appreciate that the National Preparedness System is a blanket thrown over the five mission areas, recognizing that each mission area (again – Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery) must be prepared for at every level of government to achieve the greatest measure of effectiveness.  There are many critical linkages within preparedness that are found within each or at least most mission areas and the continued efforts of the National Preparedness Directorate seem to be going in a good direction and incorporating the right people and information in their efforts.  Within this frame of thought, Doc mentioned that all of these efforts will utilize subject matter experts from across the country, with many drafts having public comment periods.  Be on the look out for these (I’ll post them as I see them) and be sure to review and comment on them.

As a final note, this was the last broadcast for EMForum.  After 17 years they are shutting down their program.  There has been no mention as to why they are shutting down.  While I’ve not attended every webinar, I do catch a few each year when the topic and/or speaker interest me.  The loss of EMForum is a loss to emergency management and the spirit of sharing information we have.  Through EMForum, there have been many great webinars, such as this one, where new programs and best practices are shared.  I’m hopeful the function that EMForum has served in facilitating this soon replaced so we can continue to stay up to date on what is transpiring.

©2014 Timothy Riecker

A great post reflective of how producers of EOC management software need to focus on meeting the needs of users.

DisasterNet

I recently attended a great demo by a new emergency management technology called Veoci.  This has great potential.  I even sent this along to my friend who works emergency management at a major airline.

But as I look at the market for technical solutions and compare it against the problems of emergency management (and business continuity), which is increasingly cost-conscious, I realize there is a great divide between what is out there and what is needed such as feature mix, usability and scalability.  This post focuses on the innovative entrepreneur who wants to help the “disaster” solutions market go beyond its current technical limitations, provide a great service to its customers, and realize success.

Features and Specialization.  Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that product specialization is a key element of growth strategy and innovation.  After all, it is very hard to pinpoint precise problems and actually develop…

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