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®

Incident Management vs Incident Command

As I was writing my thoughts on the updated ICS-100 course in my previous post, I got to thinking that it may be prudent to reinforce the difference between incident management and the incident command system (ICS).  ICS is a specific application of incident management, while incident management is, in all, much broader than ICS.  Incident management includes field responses, emergency operations centers (EOCs), activities of secondary and tertiary organizations, funding streams, public information, and even the mechanics of politics focused on that disaster response.  Ideally, we would prefer these to all be orchestrated, such that they operate lock-step, but rarely, if ever, do we see such a thing.  It would be as if a chorus, band, orchestra, stage performers, ushers, concessioners, stage hands, lighting and sound operators, and custodial staff were all working on the same performance and conducted by one person.  They don’t.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  That’s why incident management systems, such as ICS, were developed.

Knowledge and application of systems, like ICS, are certainly important.  The beginning of every ICS class tells you why, so I don’t need to get into that here.  But to continue with my oft criticized analogies, if ICS is the trees, incident management is the forest.  And, as it turns out, many people can’t see the forest for the trees.  While ICS may be concerned with putting out the fire, stopping the bleeding, or catching the proverbial bad guy, incident management is about so much more.  Even doctrinally, consider that the National Incident Management System (NIMS), comprised of key elements, such as resource management, command and coordination (this is the ICS piece, and more), and communications and information management.  We also need to consider incident management beyond these, in as broad a scope as possible.

Incident management is a deliberate series of actions taken to solve problems associated with incidents and disasters.  There are a lot of problems that can be caused, directly or indirectly, by whatever issue we are dealing with, be it flood, fire, or hostile event.  Incident management needs to prioritize these problems and take action to address them.  While it may sound like our incident command system structures do the same type of thing, they are often concerned with immediate effects and actions that save lives and stabilize the incident, as they should be.  But that focus, necessarily, is narrow in scope and doesn’t address all the ancillary and important issues that an incident may cause.

Consider FEMA’s Emergency Support Function (ESF) structure and the matters they address.  Here are a few:

  • Transportation
  • Communications
  • Public Works and Engineering
  • Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing, and Human Services
  • Public Health and Medical Services
  • Agricultural and Natural Resources
  • Energy
  • External Affairs

Do your plans address these issues?  And by plans, I mean real, actionable plans.  Many jurisdictions have functional annexes to their plans, most following the federal ESF structure, which do little more than state what agencies participate in each of the jurisdiction’s ESFs and what their primary goals are.  Let’s be honest… these are aren’t plans.  They are fully inadequate to be plans.  These are prose I might use for the introduction of a plan, but certainly not the substance of the plan itself.  This is exactly why we are missing the mark when it comes to incident management.  We talk a lot about ICS, ICS is in our plans, we train people in ICS (though not as good as we should be), emphasize ICS in exercises, and focus on ICS when an incident occurs, but how much attention is given to broader incident management?  Typically far too little.  I’ve actually had conversations with local public safety officials, asking them how well they feel they are prepared for the next disaster, and they responded that they are fine because they are trained in ICS.  I’ve received this response in more than one jurisdiction.  That’s pretty scary, especially given the lackluster condition of their plans.

Can ICS be applied to broader incident management issues?  It sure can.  It’s simply a management system that can be applied to anything you want.  But the problem is that people conceptualize ICS as something to only use ‘in the field’ and during the more urgent initial period of response.

The take-away from this is that we need to identify what our issues are and how we are going to manage them.  These are essential parts of the planning process.  Write good plans.  Invest time, effort, and likely some money into it.  Do you need to use the ESF structure?  No, but certainly make sure that all concerns are addressed.  Think about the cascading impacts of an incident.  Leverage stakeholders from across the community to ensure that you are getting input from multiple perspectives and interests.  Doing so will help you be better prepared to manage the entirety of the incident.

As always, thoughts are appreciated.

© 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

 

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

What Planning Format To Use?

Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 101 (CPG 101) describes three format options for your emergency operations plan (EOP): The traditional functional EOP format, the Emergency Support Function (ESF) format, and the agency/department focused format.  As mentioned in CPG 101 the traditional functional EOP format is the most popular and widely used.  It generally provides for three major sections – the basic plan, functional annexes, and hazard specific annexes.  The traditional format provides for the greatest flexibility and allows a jurisdiction or organization to easily evolve their plan as the need for addressing additional issues or hazards is recognized.  Continuity of Government/Continuity of Operations (COG/COOP) plans are easily integrated as annexes as our newer concepts such as resiliency plans and climate change plans. 

Agency/department focused EOP formats provide utility for those folks that like to crack open the book looking to answer the question ‘what is expected of me?’.  This format offers some flexibility, but under most occurrences where the need to address a new issue arises edits need to be made through much of the plan to identify and address each agency’s involvement in said issue.  It can also be awkward to include other associated plans, such as the afore mentioned COOP and COG plans.  It does work for smaller communities, though, whose hazards and other planning areas stay fairly static. 

The ESF EOP format is modeled after the National Response Framework (NRF) (originally the Federal Response Plan) which addresses functions by grouping agencies and organizations with responsibility and resources to address those functions.  This model has worked fairly well for the federal government given their structure and the general federalist approach of most agencies (aside from those agencies with direct authorities such as the US Coast Guard).   There is some flexibility in this model with the ability to include both support and hazard specific annexes, but one must be cautioned not to confuse the ESF annexes with the support annexes.  The key word in the format is ‘support’, which is largely what the federal government does in response to a disaster. 

Last week Lucien Canton posted an article Emergency Support Functions: Misunderstood and Misapplied.  Read this!  As usual, Lu states his point expertly as he discusses the pros, cons, and uses for the ESF structure.  Many jurisdictions, in an effort to mirror a system which seems to work for the federal government, create their EOP in an ESF format.  I’ve rarely ever seen it well applied – at least not in the form that the feds use.  Understanding that the feds structure their ESFs to address policy and coordination, these same needs may not exist at a state or local level.  Therefore states and locals change the ESF structure.  While there is certainly no requirement to use only those ESFs which are used in the NRF, using a different format can cause great confusion.  For example, what is ESF #12 (Energy) in the NRF may be an ESF for economic recovery for a city or county.  Now we have what we’ve been trying to avoid in incident management – a lack of common terminology. 

Each jurisdiction and organization should choose which format works best for them.  I would strongly recommend the traditional format which is the easiest to shape to meet your needs rather than trying to work within an awkward planning framework.  Remember that no plan is ever perfect, but requires regular attention to ensure that it evolves with and addresses your needs.  Don’t try to tackle it all at once, either, or on your own.  Proper planning is a team effort requiring input from multiple stakeholders in your jurisdiction or organization.  CPG 101 references ‘whole community’ planning which is a great idea to ensure that you capture multiple perspectives and that all stakeholders are bought into the process and the product.  Take on your planning work in small bites, one component at a time.  First work on the base plan – the most essential part.  Then identify those functional and hazard specific annexes which are most important – accomplish those next.  To help guide your work it will help to create a project chart for your planning efforts identifying timelines and benchmarks, stakeholders, and needed inputs.  Finally, don’t forget to exercise your plans to validate them! 

Lastly, my marketing plug – If you need help planning please contact Emergency Preparedness Solutions!  EPS is experienced in working with governments, private sector, and not for profits in all facets of preparedness including assessment, planning, training, and exercises.  We are happy to discuss your needs and determine the best way to meet them. 

What planning format do you prefer and why?

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker