Management and Organization of EOCs

I’ve always been fascinated by emergency operations centers (EOCs).  Through my career I’ve worked in many of them across the nation as a responder, trainer, and exerciser (is that a word?).  I’ve seen EOCs large and small, dedicated facilities and multi-use rooms.  I’ve been in EOCs on the top floor of buildings, so as to have a bird’s-eye view; and those underground, originally designed to withstand a Soviet nuclear attack.  I’ve seen technology that rivals NASA’s Mission Control, and EOCs that drop phone and internet lines from the ceiling when needed.  While the size, layout, and technology can all support an EOC’s mission, it’s really all about the people.

IMG_3226Over the past several months I’ve seen an even greater variety of EOCs due to a broad range of consulting projects I’ve led for my company.  These projects have brought me to EOCs in states, cities, and airports across the nation.  While coordination is the commonality, there are a great deal of differences between and among these EOCs, not only in their physical space, but also in how they operate.  While all pay heed to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in some fashion, some lean more heavily on the Incident Command System (ICS) than others, while some prefer the emergency support function (ESF) model, and others yet seem to be in limbo, searching for the best model.

It’s been over a year since the National Integration Center (NIC), charged with maintaining NIMS, released a draft for public comment of the NIMS Refresh, which included the Center Management System (CMS) concept.  CMS is/was intended as a model for organizing EOCs and other such incident support functions.  Despite promises, we have yet to see any of that come to fruition.  That said, there are certain expectations and activities that must still exist for an EOC to be successful and productive.

With tactics being managed by the Operations Section in the Incident Command Post (ICP), planning is really the focal point of an EOC.  The perspective of an EOC is generally much bigger picture than that of an ICP.  Assuming a traditional coordination and support role of an EOC, the Operations Section of an EOC is really geared toward pulling agencies together and facilitating strategic-level problem solving through proper coordination.  For an EOC to function properly, current information is just as important as the ability to anticipate future needs so that problems can be solved and resources obtained.  This information management and forecasting is the responsibility of the Planning Section in an ICS-centered model, or of a planning function in any other model.

Every agency that contributes to the EOC, regardless of the model, should be prepared to contribute time and potentially even staff to this planning function.  Often, the incident is ‘routine’ enough that the planning staff are familiar with the various facets of the incident to do proper information collection, analysis, and forecasting; but on occasion subject matter experts are needed to support each of these critical activities.  Those subject matter experts often come from the agencies or emergency support functions represented in the EOC.  As forecasting is performed, opportunities are identified for needs that may need to be supported.  This is where the forecasting loops back to Operations to coordinate the agencies/emergency support functions to solve these problems.

None of this actually means that an EOC doesn’t oversee tactics, even indirectly.  While an ICP, for most incidents, doesn’t report to the EOC, there may be ancillary organizations developed to address other matters which the ICP isn’t overseeing.  While the ICP is focused on immediate life-safety issues, the EOC may be coordinating evacuation, sheltering, or public health matters.  In each of these examples, or numerous others which could be contrived, someone has to be in charge of them.  If the incident commander’s attention is focused on the highest priorities, these other matters are likely to be run by the EOC.  Typically, these would be within the chain of command of the EOC’s Operations Section or through an ESF.

I love seeing how different EOCs address problems and manage their own functions.  I’m all for creativity, but there fundamentally should be some standardization to the organization and management structure.  What’s unfortunate, however, is that so many EOCs don’t have proper plans which identify these functions or how they will be managed.  Some simply insert the phrase ‘NIMS/ICS’ into their plan, and assume that’s enough (it’s not).  Others have no plan at all.  The enemy of coordination is chaos, and if you don’t have quality plans in place, which have been trained to and exercised, the EOC stands to add even more chaos to the incident at hand.

Put some thought into your EOC management structure and plans.    How would the EOC run if you or someone else who usually runs it weren’t there?  Are plans and procedures detailed enough for it to operate smoothly?  Are personnel from all agencies trained properly in their roles and responsibilities?  Have you exercised these plans recently?  If so, what lessons learned do you usually see and have you worked to address them?

Feedback is always welcome!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Training EOC First-Timers

If you’ve worked in an EOC, you’ve certainly seen it.  The deer-in-the-headlights stare of an EOC first-timer.  There is so much to take in and a lot going on.  A room full of work stations with people typing, people on the phone, and others talking to each other.  While all these people might be wearing vests or name badges, some are in a shirt and tie, some lost the tie hours ago, some in a polo shirt, and others are in uniforms.  Walls are covered in screens, some showing the news, some weather, and some with a list of information on shelters or road closures.  Where do I sit?  What do I do?  How do I dial an outside line???

Remember, though, we were all once that first-timer, too.

Lucien Canton, one of the most prolific consultants and bloggers in the field of emergency management, just posted a great article in his regular newsletter titled ‘Just in Time Training: Tips for Orienting EOC Newcomers.’.  In it, he lists some great ideas on how we can better prepare for these inevitable first-timers and help ensure they become productive members of the EOC team quickly.  Check it out.  Oh, and if you aren’t subscribed to his newsletter (you should be!), info can be found here.

– TR

Musings of October – and the Crusade to End Bad ICS Courses

Last month sure was a busy one!  Much of the focus was on marketing for our company Emergency Preparedness Solutions.  I had the opportunity to meet a number of county and local government representatives in a reverse trade show in the Poconos and see some old and new faces at the Vermont Emergency Preparedness Conference.  Pictures of our booth are below.  I also had the opportunity to present with their State Training Officer on the State-Wide Emergency Management and Homeland Security Training Needs Assessment project we completed for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security a few months ago.  We also need to congratulate Doug Babcock for being honored as Vermont’s Local Emergency Manager of the Year!

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While those trips were great, the highlight of the month was a trip to Toronto.  The impetus for the trip was the Emergency Preparedness staff of Public Health Ontario, who, after reading my blog posts on the necessity for improvements in Incident Command System (ICS) training, extended an invitation for me to sit in on some training they offer that came about from just that need.  The course I attended was Public Health Emergency Preparedness – An IMS-based Workshop.  Fear not – this is not a reinvention of ICS (or Incident Management System – IMS – as they refer to it in Canada), rather this is an enhancement to the current curriculum.

The Canadian provinces have each adopted curricula for their IMS which are near 100% mirrors of the ICS courses we use here in the States.  While in Toronto, I also had the opportunity to sit in for a bit on an IMS-200 course being conducted by the Toronto Office of Emergency Management.  They were great hosts and have made excellent enhancements to the curriculum for a Toronto-based audience.  (Thank you Sherry and Sarah!) The course offered by Public Health Ontario is truly workshop based, with little lecture and a lot of group work to walk participants through concepts of IMS.  The workshop is positioned between IMS-100 (which most took online) and IMS-200, and is public health focused.

While I’m often weary of discipline-specific courses in emergency management, since the essence of emergency management is cooperative, this workshop absolutely made sense.  Why?  Two big themes built the foundation for this… First, practitioners must be comfortable with their own sand box before they can play with the neighborhood kids.  Second, this particular application works for public health (and several other disciplines) because most of the public health response occurs at the population level, not necessarily at an incident site.  Because of this, public health will almost always function (at least the higher echelons of their incident management structure) from an emergency operations center or departmental operations center.  As such, it pays to invest some training time on a homogeneous audience.  That said, the scenarios that drove the workshop were in no way introverted only to public health concerns and the instructors encouraged thought and discussion toward other activities and associated agencies which would be involved in an incident.

With the positioning of this training between IMS-100 and IMS-200, Public Health Ontario has armed participants with better knowledge and familiarity of the IMS, allowing those who will progress through further (and multi-disciplinary) training a better perspective of how IMS is applied by public health which allows for a better understanding of the system itself.  Not only does the workshop address some internal incident management training needs for public health, it also addresses some of the issues I’ve mentioned previously with ICS training as a whole.  The workshop is expertly designed by the Emergency Preparedness team at Public Health Ontario, and embraces concepts of adult educational methodology which we need to pay more attention to.  The high level of interaction lends to improved transfer of knowledge and better outcomes.  They included information such as the phases of emergency management and the need to reference deliberate planning efforts such as Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs) and Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs).  This is certainly something we don’t have enough of in ICS courses yet is critically related.  Do you think the majority of our attendees know what these are, much less what is in theirs?  Guess again!

More information on this workshop can be found at https://www.publichealthontario.ca/en/About/Departments/Pages/Incident-Management-System-for-Public-Health.aspx.  Many thanks to Moira, Richard, and Evanna for the invite and the hospitality!

With my road trips complete, I am returning back to the normal pace of work and preparing for another graduate course which begins next month.  I’ve also considered the need to ramp up my concern on this matter of poor ICS curricula from an occasional rant to a crusade.  This is a matter of public safety – from a sociological perspective there is nothing more important than our ability to effectively respond to save lives, stabilize the incident, and preserve property.  Let’s make some changes!

As always, many thanks to my readers; and if you are with a government entity, not for profit, or private interest that is seeking consulting services in the areas of emergency and disaster planning, training, exercises, and anything in between, please feel free to contact me.

© Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Incident Command System Training Sucks

There it is.  I said it.  Before you unleash the hounds, hear me out.

A bit of background:

As another grad course at American Military University was coming to a close last month I was racking my brain over the theme of my term paper.  In one of our final assignments I was dissecting NIMS – and that’s where it struck me.  ICS training is all wrong.  Now that my paper is all wrapped up and submitted, I wanted to get some discussion on my blog.  So, since I don’t want to bore everyone with the paper itself, what follows is a much less academic and more conversational version of my term paper.

For those of you who read my blog, you will be familiar with a few fairly recent posts that involve ICS:  The Human Aspect of ICS and Overcoming Transitional Incidents, Preparedness – ICS is Not EnoughTraining EOC Personnel – ICS is not Enough, and finally The Need for Practical Incident Command Training.  In that last one I feel I was headed in the right direction but not yet on the right road.

Before we go any further, here is my disclaimer.  I am a big believer in ICS.  If you take a look at the aforementioned posts, you’ll see that.  It’s a system that has been in use for a long time and has a proven track record of working well when properly applied.  Along with that, I’ve been an ICS practitioner, instructor, and instructor trainer – since before NIMS, in fact.  I’ve also been in positions influencing NIMS-related policy at both the state and national level.  So I have a fair amount of familiarity with the system, how it is used, and how it is taught.

Defining the need:

A great many after action reports (AARs) reflect on Operational Coordination (the current core capability which most heavily features ICS), On-Scene Incident Management (the previous iteration under the target capabilities), and just ICS in general.  These AARs often go on to recommend that responders need more ICS training.  How can they say that, though?  Following NIMS compliance requirements, darn near everyone who has been required to take ICS training has done so over the past 10 years.  So how could we be so off base?

The reality is summed up in this simple statement from John Morton: “With respect to using ICS from NIMS… training incorporated in the NIMS doctrine largely does not provide any actual skills training or development.”  If you aren’t yet familiar with John Morton’s work, I suggest you take a look here: Book Review – Next-Generation Homeland Security.  Brilliant guy.

Looking at the substance of Mr. Morton’s quote, it’s true that the foundational ICS courses (ICS-100 through ICS-400) don’t provide any skills training.  However, there is a significant expectation that taking these courses is somehow a magic bullet.

Much of my paper focuses on the ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses.  The ICS-100 and ICS-200 courses are probably not far off from where they actually need to be.  There exists, however, a higher expectation from people to have learned something from the ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses which can be readily applied in the field.  One of the foundations for my paper was an analysis of the course objectives from the current ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses through the lens of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Bloom’s is a learning hierarchy which helps identify the depth of instruction and thus learning.  The revised version of Bloom’s is a scale of six levels, ranging from ‘Remembering’ to ‘Creating’, with remembering being pretty basic and creating being quite advanced.  The expectation of ICS training, obtained from a few sources as well as our perception, is that it falls somewhere in the middle under the taxonomy level of ‘Applying’.   The reality is that most of the objectives from these two courses fall short of that expectation.

How is it possible that we have been expecting more from people when we haven’t been giving them the proper training to do so?  In essence, all we have been training people in is theory.  Sorry, but theory doesn’t save lives, application does.  Why does the fire chief of even the small city (population ~62k) closest to me care what an incident complex or branch-level planning is?  It’s not something he can use.  He and his officers require proficiency in the system for not only the day to day type 4 and 5 incidents they deal with (which they generally have), but also enough for the type 3 incidents which occasionally occur from storms, hazmat incidents, and the like.

Yes, we do have position-specific courses for those who are members of incident management teams (IMTs).  Those courses presumably identify at a higher taxonomy level (I haven’t had a chance to do an analysis on them).  IMTs are great assets, but let’s have another brief shot of reality … not every jurisdiction is suited for an IMT.  Identifying potential members, getting them trained and experienced, and maintaining their skills is an investment that most jurisdictions simply aren’t willing or able to make.  The result is a huge gap between those who have only the core ICS training, which we have already identified does not meet the real need, and an IMT from a larger jurisdiction or region.  Jurisdictions need to be able to function for at least two days, if not longer, on their own.  Most incidents will be resolved at that point or ready for transition to an IMT.  If appropriate, the IMT can then apply things like branch-level planning.  That is the level of application expected from IMTs.

What can we do about it:

So what is needed?  Here are my rough ideas.  First off, at a micro level, we need a full rewrite of the ICS-300 and 400 courses.  Let’s make them more meaningful and focus on application.  Pull out all the theory and structure them around practical learning practices.  Second, we need refresher training.  Let’s stop the argument about that.  Knowledge and skills deteriorate over time, we all know that.  So let’s go with annual refresher training.  Not a day of being lectured, to, either.  Something more involved which reflects the identified need for applicable learning.  Third, continued reinforcement through exercises.  If you don’t use it you lose it.  The last ten years or so have seen a strong emphasis on exercises which we should certainly continue.  Lastly, all of this culminates at the macro level as a restructuring of the whole training program.  Why is that needed?  Well, aside from the current one being ineffective, we need to logically identify what training is needed for certain audiences based upon their roles and responsibilities and support it through accessible training programs.

In regard to restructuring the whole training program, I would suggest adoption of the Awareness, Management and Planning, and Performance course structure (AWR, MGT, PER).  ICS-100 is certainly awareness.  Awareness level training is appropriate for most responders and staff of assisting and supporting agencies who don’t have any leadership or decision-making roles and don’t need to have a high degree of interaction with larger system.  ICS-200 has some operational application for first line supervisors, so it’s probably a suitable introductory MGT course.  The ICS-300 should continue with a focus on the planning process but obviously needs to be bolstered with more application-level content and instruction.  With that, the target here is probably higher level management and planning.  The ICS-400, still needing a rewrite, is best left for those functioning at higher levels of incident management, such as EOC management and IMTs.  It will probably serve as a good foundational performance level course.  Now, just don’t leave it at that.  Let’s pull other courses in line to support this.  Many of those courses already exist, particularly those that have a strong ICS relationship, like the FEMA EOC and ICS/EOC courses (which are also in desperate need of rewrites to focus on application), the TEEX Enhanced Incident Management course (which is excellent), and others.  Let’s build a real, viable program for incident management as we have for other technical areas.  Without incident management we remain in chaos and the impacts of other activities are greatly minimized.  Let’s give it the respect it deserves.

Now that I’ve put all that out there, I’m absolutely prepared for your thoughts, ideas, and feedback.  I’m also hoping that someone forwards this on to Doc Lumpkins at the NIC.  Doc – let’s talk!  I might have an idea or two…

Unleash the hounds!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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