Preparedness in the Pandemic Age

Planning, training, and exercises, as the foundational activities of preparedness, shouldn’t be stopping because of the pandemic. Preparedness is an ongoing activity which needs to forge ahead with little disruption – and there is always plenty to do! What must we do, though, to accommodate necessary precautions in the age of the Pandemic?

Let’s talk about planning first. The biggest relevant issue for planning is the conduct of stakeholder meetings. These may be larger group meetings to discuss and get buy-in on broader topics, or detailed small-group meetings to discuss very specific topics. Information, sometimes sensitive, is exchanged, presentations are given, and documents are reviewed. I’ve mentioned in various posts through the years the importance of properly preparing for meetings. Even for traditional in-person meetings, there are important things to consider, such as:

  1. Do you really need a meeting?
  2. Developing an agenda
  3. Having the right people in attendance
  4. Ensuring that all speakers and presenters are prepared
  5. Ensuring that all attendees are prepared to discuss the subject matter
  6. An adequate meeting space and support (technology, dry erase boards, etc)

All of these rules still apply in a virtual world, perhaps with even more emphasis. While we’ve obviously had video meeting technology for a long time, we’ve discovered this year that many people haven’t used it much or at all until earlier this year. The surge in use has also brought attention to the plethora of tools which can be facilitated through video conference platforms. While the simple sharing of video supports most of our meeting needs, we can share screens, conduct presentations, and use collaborative tools such as whiteboards and shared documents. Pretty much everything we do in an in-person meeting can be accomplished through video conference platforms – but those who arrange the calls need to take the time to become familiar with the tools and functionality; and if there is anything that needs to be done by participants (some of which are likely to be less tech-savvy) you need to be able to coach them through it. Some of these tools require integrations of other technology, such as cloud document storage or various apps. Remember that meetings should be interactive, so encourage people to use chatrooms to help queue up questions for presenters. If any documents or information are sensitive, be sure you are taking the appropriate precautions with how the meeting is set up, how participants are invited, and how documents are shared.

My tip… read reviews to determine which platform will best suit your needs and watch some tutorials on YouTube.

When it comes to remote training, so much of what I mentioned for stakeholder meetings will apply here. Being interactive is still incredibly important, as is the ability to integrate other technologies, such as videos, PowerPoint, and shared documents. When designing training that will be delivered remotely, if it helps, don’t think about the platform first – think about how you would do the training in person. Would you have breakout sessions for group work? That can be easily accomplished on video conference platforms, but it takes some preparation. Would you put things on a white board or chart paper? That can also be accomplished. Giving an exam? Having participants complete a survey or feedback form? Yes and yes. It can all be done, but preparation is key. Some instructors, especially in public safety, have gotten too used to simply showing up and delivering their material – not because they are lazy, but because they have done it dozens or hundreds of times. They have a routine. If you want participants to get a similar, or perhaps even better learning experience, some deliberate thought and preparation is required. Also, make sure you simply don’t become a talking head. Break things up and be dynamic. It’s easy for our own demeanor to elevate disinterest. I often stand (using a variable height standing desk) when giving presentations and conducting training. Being on my feet helps me push more energy into what I’m doing.

Tip… remember to give people breaks, just as you would in face-to-face training.

Lastly, exercises. A lot of this is a combination of the information I gave for planning and training. Exercise planning meetings need to be conducted, and every exercise has some extent of presentations, with discussion-based exercises having more emphasis on this obviously. To answer the big question – yes, most exercise can be conducted remotely! Obviously, discussion-based exercises are generally the lower-hanging fruit, so they can and should be happening remotely. Remember that exercises are supposed to be interactive experiences, so your exercise design absolutely must account for identifying the means and methods of engagement in the virtual environment. All the things I’ve mentioned already are prime options for this, such as breakout groups, shared documents, live polling, etc. Facilitators and evaluators can be assigned to specific breakout rooms or have access to all of them, allowing them to float from room to room.

What about operations-based exercises? Yes, there are options for conducting operations-based exercises remotely. First, we do need to acknowledge the obvious challenges associated with conducting drills and full-scale exercises via remote environments. Is it impossible? No, but it depends on what the focus of the exercise is. Something like a cyber-security or intelligence exercise may be more naturally brought into a virtual environment, depending on the exercise objectives or tasks. Games may be fully integrated into digital platforms already, which helps, but if they aren’t, these may need to be re-imagined and developed in a virtual environment. This can get expensive, so it really needs to be a properly thought through. Functional exercises, such as the typical command post exercise or emergency operations center (EOC) exercise, can absolutely be performed virtually. Many jurisdictions successfully ran their EOCs virtually during the height of the pandemic (many still are). If the actual activity can be performed virtually, it can (and should!) be exercised virtually. Again, preparation is key to ensuring that participants can do what they would normally do, while controllers and evaluators still have full access and visibility. Simulation Cells can be virtually integrated and most EOC management platforms are web-based. With some thought, we can bring most exercises into a virtual environment and still make them effective experiences while also meeting all HSEEP requirements.

Tip… For a virtual functional exercise, unless the time period of your exercise is set after the initial response, consider including an objective for the participants (and the tech support of their agencies, as needed) to set up everything that is needed in real time during the exercise – just like they would in real life. This would include all their video, file share, data tracking, etc. That set up is a considerable challenge of running a virtual EOC. If you didn’t want that activity to distract from your exercise, it’s also a great drill. Don’t let it just be tech support personnel, though, as EOC personnel should be expressing their needs.

Remote work environments have helped many organizations overcome challenges associated with the pandemic. Some organizations were better prepared than others to make it happen, but most seem to have achieved effective operational continuity. Hopefully your preparedness programs haven’t stalled out because people feel these activities can’t be done in a virtual environment. We also can’t use the excuse that we’re too busy because of the pandemic to not be preparing. While some niche organizations might still be quite busy, the pandemic response, for most, has become an integrated job duty for the medium term. We can’t let things fall to the wayside or we will never get back on track. The time is now!

I’d love to hear how you are using tech platforms to support preparedness efforts.

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

When the Solution Becomes the Problem

Ever think a problem was fixed just to find that the solution was really more of a problem or a totally different kind of problem. While this can certainly happen in our person lives, I see this happen a lot in my professional life, and I’m sure you do as well. Through my tenure in emergency management, I’ve seen a lot of ill-informed assessments, poorly written plans, misguided training programs, bad hires or contracts, unwise equipment purchases, and exercises that could really be called damaging. Not only is the time, money, and effort put into developing these a waste of time (aside from learning how not to do them), they can have ramifications that cause issues to be solved in the short term or down the road.

Poorly conducted assessments can result in a lot of problems. If the data, the analysis, or conclusions are wrong, this can have considerable consequences if that assessment was intended to inform other projects, such as plans, construction, hazard mitigation efforts, staffing, and more. I’ve seen people point to reports with the assumption that the data was complete, analysis was unbiased, and conclusions are correct, and with something akin to blind obedience. When an assessment is used to justify spending and future efforts, we need to ensure that the assessment is carefully planned and executed. Similarly, we’ve all seen a lot of decisions based on no assessment at all. This can be just as dangerous.

Bad planning is a problem that has always, and I fear will always, plague emergency management. Of course, there are some really stellar plans out there, but they seem to be the exception. There are an abundance of mediocre plans in existence, which I suppose are fine but in the end aren’t doing anyone any favors because while the plans themselves may be fine, they tend not to include much useful information, specifics on procedure, or job aids to support implementation of the plan.

Here’s an example of how disruptive bad plans can be: A few years ago, my firm was hired by a UASI to design, conduct, and evaluate a couple of exercises (one discussion-based, the other operations-based) to validate a new plan written for them by another firm. Being that the exercises were to be based on the plan, I took a deep dive into the plan. I honestly found myself confused as I read. I forwarded the plan to a member of our project team to review and, quite unsolicited, I received a litany of communications expressing how confounded he was by the plan. At the very best, it was unorganized and poorly thought out. The subject matter lent itself to a timeline-based progression, which they seemed to have started then abandoned, which resulted in a scattering of topic-based sections that were poorly connected. After conferring with that team member to develop some very specific points, I approached our client for a very candid conversation. I came to find out that the planning process recommended and established by CPG-101, NFPA 1600, and others, was not at all used, instead the firm who built the plan didn’t confer with stakeholders at all and delivered (late) a final product with no opportunity for the client to review and provide feedback. This is a firm that gives other consulting firms a bad name. Working with the client, we restructured our scope of work, turning the tabletop exercise into a planning workshop which we used to inform a full re-write of the plan, which we then validated through the operations-based exercise.

Having been involved in training and exercises for the entire duration of my career, I’ve seen a lot of ugly stuff. We’ve all been through training that is an epic waste of time – training that clearly was poorly written, wasn’t written with the intended audience in mind, and/or didn’t meet the need it was supposed to. For the uninitiated, I’ll shamelessly plug my legacy topic of ICS Training Sucks. Possibly even worse is training that teaches people the wrong way to do things. Similarly, poorly designed, conducted, and evaluated exercises are not only a waste of time, but can be very frustrating, or even dangerous. Don’t reinforce negative behavior, don’t make things more complex than they are, don’t put people in danger, and DO follow established guidance and best practices. Finally, if you are venturing into unknown territory, find someone who can help you.

Equipment that’s not needed, has different capability than what is needed, is overpurchased, underperforms, undertrained, poorly stored and maintained, readily obsolete, and not used. Familiar with any of this? It seems to happen with a lot of agencies. Much of this seems to stem from grant funding that has very specific guidelines and must be spent in a fairly short period of time. Those who have been around for a while will remember the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) preparedness program that started prior to 9/11 and was bolstered by post-9/11 program funding. The centerpiece of this program was equipment purchases. While there was some good that came from this program, I witnessed a lot of wasted money and mis-guided purchases for equipment that wasn’t needed, for jurisdictions that didn’t need it or couldn’t sustain it, and supporting training and exercises to teach people how to use the equipment and keep them proficient. A lot of this circles back to poor (or non-existent) assessments used to inform these purchases, but the real culprit here is the ‘spend it or lose it’ mentality of grant surges like this. Foundational aspects of this program, such as defined need, sustainability, and interoperability were often skewed or ignored in favor of simply spending the funds that were thrust upon jurisdictions. I really blame the poor structuring of this program at the federal level on the poor implementations I saw and heard of at the state and local levels.

There are so many other examples of poor implementations that cause problems. Poorly built infrastructure, misguided hazard mitigation projects, and even poor responses. In the realm of response, I’ll draw on another example that I was involved in. Large disasters really do need to draw on a whole-community approach, which often leads to agencies who aren’t used to large-scale and long-duration incident operations going in over their heads. In one large disaster, I had been hired to help lead a team assembled to fix just such an occurrence, charged with rescuing a functionally necessary program that had been managed into the ground by a well intentioned but overly bureaucratic agency with high degrees of micromanagement. The time, money, and effort exerted to support saving this program from itself was fairly extensive, and, in implementation, challenging given the layers and nuances created by the agency that built it. In the end, the biggest issues they had were not listening to subject matter experts, some of which were in their own agency, and, ultimately, a failure of executives to deal with very apparent problems.

Most emergency management agencies operate on very slim and limited budgets. Being efficient and effective is of great importance. Don’t waste limited money or limited time of limited staff. Sometimes the things with greatest impact are simple, but if executed poorly the consequences can be high. Think things through and consult the right people. It makes a difference.

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

It’s Not Too Late To Prepare

The phrase I’ve been using lately when I speak to people has been “It’s not too late to prepare”.  Many people perceive that in the middle of a disaster we are unable to prepare.  Quite the contrary, we have the potential to integrate all of our preparedness steps into a response.  Because we have problems in front of us that need to be addressed, we have an opportunity to continuously improve, ensuring that organizationally we are offering the very best we can. 

There is a reason why there isn’t a mission area for preparedness in the National Preparedness Goal.  This is because preparedness is ongoing.  It’s not a separate or distinct activity.  Rather it is comprised of activities that support all mission areas, no matter when they are actioned.  Preparedness is continuous.

Assessment

Assessment is a key activity within preparedness.  In fact, assessment is foundational in understanding what’s going on.  During a disaster, good management practices dictate that we should be monitoring our response and adjusting as needed.  What exactly should we be monitoring?  Similar to evaluating an exercise, consider the following:

  • What was the effectiveness of deliberate planning efforts? 
    • Were planning assumptions correct?
    • Was the concept of operations adequate in scope and detail? 
    • What was lacking?
    • What worked well?
  • What was the effectiveness of plan implementation?
    • If aspects of plan implementation need improvement, what was the reason for the shortfall?
      • A poor plan
      • Lack of job aids
      • Lack of/poor/infrequent training
      • Lack of practice
      • Lack of the proper resources or capabilities
      • The plan wasn’t followed
  • Did resources and capabilities meet needs?  If not, why?

Planning

While some planning gaps will require a longer time period to address, I’m aware of many jurisdictions and organizations which have been developing plans in the midst of the pandemic.  They recognized a need to have a plan and convened people to develop those plans.  While some of the planning is incident-specific, many of the plans can be utilized in the future we as well, either in the form they were written or adjusted to make them more generally applicable without the specific details of this pandemic.  I’d certainly suggest that any plans developed during the pandemic are reviewed afterwards to identify the same points listed above under ‘assessment’ before they are potentially included in your organization’s catalogue of plans. Also consider that we should be planning for contingencies, as other incidents are practically inevitable.

Training

Training is another fairly easy and often essential preparedness activity which can performed in the midst of a disaster.  Many years ago FEMA embraced the concept of training during disasters.  FEMA Joint Field Offices mobilize with training personnel.  These personnel not only provide just in time training for new personnel or to introduce new systems and processes, but they provide continuing training a variety of topics throughout response and recovery, providing a more knowledgeable workforce.  I’ve seen some EOCs around the country do the same.  Recently, my firm has been contracted to provide remote training for the senior leadership of a jurisdiction on topics such as continuity of operations and multi-agency coordination, which are timely matters for them as they continue to address needs related to the pandemic. 

Exercises

While assessments, planning, and training are certainly activities that may take place during a disaster, exercises are probably less likely, but may, if properly scoped and conducted, still have a place.  Consider that the military will constantly conduct what they call battle drills, even in active theaters of war, to ensure that everyone is familiar with plans and protocols and practiced in their implementation.  Thinking back on new plans that are being written in the midst of the pandemic, it’s a good idea to validate that plan with a tabletop exercise.  We know that even the best written plans will still have gaps that during a blue-sky day we would often identify through an exercise.  Plans written in haste during a crisis are even more prone to have gaps simply because we probably don’t have the opportunity to think everything through and be as methodical and meticulous as we would like.  A tabletop exercise doesn’t have to be complex or long, but it’s good to do a talk through of the plan.  Depending on the scope of the plan and the depth of detail (such as a new procedure, conducting a walk-through of major movements of that plan (that’s a drill) can help ensure validity of the plan and identify any issues in implementation.  While you aren’t likely to go the extent of developing an ExPlan, an evaluator handbook, or exercise evaluation guides (yes, that’s totally OK), it’s still good to lay out a page of essential information to include objectives and methodology since taking the time to write these things down is one more step to ensure that you are doing everything you need for the validation to be effective.  Documentation is still important, and while it can be abbreviated, it shouldn’t be cut out entirely.  It’s also extremely important to isolate the exercise, ensuring that everyone is aware that what is being performed or discussed is not yet part of the response activity.  Evaluators should still give you written observations and documented feedback from participants.  You probably don’t need a full AAR, especially since the observations are going to be put into an immediate modification of the plan in question, but the documentation should still be kept together as there may still be some observations to record for further consideration. 

Evaluation and After Action

Lastly, incident evaluation is something we shouldn’t be missing.  We learn a lot about incident evaluation from exercise evaluation.   I’ve written on it before, which I encourage you to look at, but the fundamentals are ensuring that all actions and decisions are documented, that a hotwash is conducted (or multiple hotwashes to capture larger numbers of people or people who were engaged in very different functions), and that an after action report is developed.   Any incident should provide a lot of lessons learned for your organization, but the circumstances of a pandemic amplify that considerably.  Ensure that everyone in your organization, at all levels, is capturing observations and lessons learned daily.  Ensure that they are providing context to their observations as well, since once this is over, they may not recall the details needed for a recommendation. You may want to consider putting together a short form for people to capture and organize these observations – essentially identifying the issue, providing context, and putting forth a recommendation to address the issue. Don’t forget to encourage people to also identify best practices.  In the end, remember that if lessons learned aren’t actually applied, nothing will change. 

I welcome any insight on how we can continue to apply preparedness in the midst of a disaster. 

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

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Improving the HSEEP Templates

For years it has bothered me that the templates provided for the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) are lacking.  The way the documents are formatted and the lack of some important content areas simply don’t do us any favors.  These templates go back to the origination of HSEEP in the early 2000s and they have seen little change since then.  It gives me concern that the people who developed these have struggled with concepts of document structuring and don’t understand the utility of these documents. 

I firmly believe that the documents we use in exercise design, conduct, and evaluation should be standardized.  Many of the benefits of standardization that we (should) practice in the Incident Command System (ICS) certainly apply to the world of exercises, especially when we have a variety of different people involved in each of these key phases of exercises and entering at different times.  Much like an incident, some people develop documents while others are users.  Both should count on a measure of standardization so they don’t have to figure out what they are looking at and how to navigate it before actually diving into the content.  That doesn’t mean, however, that standards can’t evolve to increase utility and function. 

I’ve written in the past about the dangers of templates.  While they are great guides and reminders of certain information that is needed and give us an established, consistent format in which to organize it, I still see too many people not applying some thinking to templates.  They get lost in plugging their information into the highlighted text areas and lose all sense of practicality about why the document is being developed, who the target audience for the document is, and the information they need to convey. 

Some of my bigger gripes…

  • Larger documents, such as ExPlans, SitMans, Controller/Evaluator Handbooks, and After-Action Reports MUST have a table of contents.  These documents can get lengthy and a TOC simply saves time in finding the section you are looking for. 
  • Some exercises are complex and nuanced.  As such, key documents such as ExPlans, SitMans, and Controller/Evaluation Handbooks must have designated space for identifying and explaining those situations.  This could be matters of multiple exercise sites and site-specific information such as different scopes of play for those sites, limited scopes of participation for some agencies, statements on the flow and execution of the exercise, and others.
  • Recognize that the first section of an EEG (Objective, Core Capability, Capability Target, Critical Tasks, and sources) is the only beneficial part of that document.  The next section for ‘observation notes’ is crap.  Evaluators should be writing up observation statements, an analysis of each observation, and recommendations associated with each observation.  The information provided by evaluators should be easily moved into the AAR.  The EEG simply does not facilitate capturing this information or transmitting it to whomever is writing the AAR. 
  • The AAR template, specifically, is riddled with issues. The structure of the document and hierarchy of headings is horrible.  The template only calls for documenting observations associated with observed strengths.  That doesn’t fly with me.  There should similarly be an analysis of each observed strength, as well as recommendations.  Yes, strengths can still be improved upon, or at least sustained.  Big missed opportunity to not include recommendations for strengths.  Further, the narrative space for areas of improvement don’t include space for recommendations.  I think a narrative of corrective actions is incredibly important, especially given the very limited space in the improvement plan; plus the improvement plan is simply intended to be an implementation tool of the AAR, so if recommendations aren’t included in the body of the AAR, a lot is missing for those who want to take a deeper dive and see specifically what recommendations correlate to which observations and with an analysis to support them. 

Fortunately, strict adherence to the HSEEP templates is not required, so some people do make modifications to accommodate greater function.  So long as the intent of each document and general organization remains the same, I applaud the effort.  We can achieve better execution while also staying reasonably close to the standardization of the templates.  But why settle for sub-par templates?  I’m hopeful that FEMA’s National Exercise Division will soon take a look at these valuable documents and obtain insight from benchmark practitioners on how to improve them.  Fundamentally, these are good templates and they have helped further standardization and quality implementation of exercises across the nation.  We should never get so comfortable, though, as to let tools such as these become stagnant, as obsolesce is a regular concern. 

I’m interested in hearing what you have done to increase the value and utility of HSEEP templates.  How would you improve these?  What are your pet peeves? 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

NEW: 2020 HSEEP Revision

Earlier today FEMA dropped the latest version of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) doctrine.  Doing a quick comparison between this new version and the previous (2013) version, I’ve identified the following significant changes:

  • They replaced the ‘Elected and Appointed Officials’ mentions within the document with ‘Senior Leaders’. This makes sense, since often the elected and appointed officials simply aren’t involved in many of these activities.  The previous terminology is also exclusionary of the private sector and NGOs.
  • The document specifically references the Preparedness Toolkit as a go-to resource.
  • A big emphasis through the document is on the Integrated Preparedness Cycle (see the graphic with this post). The Integrated Preparedness Cycle covers all POETE (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising) elements plus Evaluate/Improve.  The graphic also eludes to these activities not necessarily happing in a specific order, as well as the consideration of Preparedness Priorities and Threats, Hazards, and Risks.  Developing a preparedness plan is something I wrote about back in 2016.
  • Integrated Preparedness Cycle
    • Going along with the Integrated Preparedness Cycle, they have done away with the Training and Exercise Plan (TEP) and replaced it with the Integrated Preparedness Plan (IPP), which is developed through input obtained during an Integrated Preparedness Planning Workshop (IPPW). I serious HOPE this shift is successful, as I’ve mentioned in the past how often the training aspect of the TEP was ignored or phoned in.  This approach also does a lot to integrate planning, organizing, and equipping (but ESPECIALLY planning) into the effort.  This is all tied together even more if a jurisdiction has completed a THIRA.  The Integrated Preparedness Cycle and IPP are the things I’m happiest about with the updated document.
  • The new document provides easier to find and read layouts for information associated with exercise types and each of the planning meetings.
  • For years, HSEEP doctrine has suggested (though thankfully not required) an ICS-based organization for exercise planning. I’ve never used this as I found it awkward at best (though I know others often use it and have success in doing so).  The update provides a different suggestion (better, in my opinion) of a functionally organized planning team organization.  Consider that this is still a suggestion, and that you can use it, or a version of it, or an ICS-based one, or anything else you desire.
  • The update provides better delineation between the planning and conduct needs of discussion-based exercises vs those of operations-based exercises. Those of us who have been doing it for a while know, but for those who are new to exercises this should be very helpful.
  • Lastly, the document suggests making corrective actions SMART, as these are really objectives.

FEMA is hosting a series of webinars (listed on the HSEEP website) to discuss these changes.

I’m very happy with the changes made to the doctrine.  It’s a great continued evolution of HSEEP and preparedness as a whole.  For as much as I’m a champion of the Integrated Preparedness Plan, though, having it (thus far) only included in the HSEEP doctrine makes it easy to miss or dismiss by some.  I’m hopeful broader promotion of this concept, perhaps even including it as an emergency management performance grant requirement, will help adoption of this concept.

What are your thoughts?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

We’re Off on the Road to Central City

FEMA Training Bulletin number 1580 announced the publication of the Emergency Management Institute’s (EMI) Online Exercise System Simulation Document (ESSD).  The ESSD, quoted from the website is ‘a compilation of information and resources that would typically be available in any community as they respond to and manage an emergency or disaster in a local community.’  The purpose of the ESSD, essentially, is to provide all the information needed for a fictional jurisdiction for use in exercises.  If you’ve taken some classes at EMI, the HSEEP course, ICS courses, or other programs from FEMA/EMI, you are probably already familiar with the magical place called Central City.

Central City, Liberty County, and other jurisdictions that are part of this fictional area have been in use for decades.  Much of the information published in the ESSD has been available at one point or another, developed to serve the needs of different scenario-based training.  The ESSD packages it all conveniently in one place.

While in some training programs, there is direct benefit to developing a scenario grounded in a real location, we often have course participants who come from different areas.  While you can still certainly develop a scenario in a real location for use in a class like this, the use of Central City (et al) can be an ideal option.  With all the resources and supporting information provided in the ESSD, you likely have everything you need.

Speaking of all that material, what’s in the ESSD?  A sampling:

  • Community profiles
  • Hazard Vulnerability Analysis
  • Laws and Ordinances
  • Emergency Plans
  • Resource and Capability Lists
  • Critical Infrastructure

Having used these jurisdictions and much of this material in courses in the past, course managers do need to expect that it will take time for participants to find some information they are looking for.  In real life, they may or may not be familiar with certain information sets.  The ESSD system was developed to be searchable, which is a huge help, though it’s always good to have one or two paper copies as back ups (note… depending on what you are providing, that may be hundreds of pages).  Since many participants are bringing tablets and laptops to class, all that’s needed is internet service to access all this great information.

I do have a couple of noted observations for improvement.

  1. Having just mentioned printing, I’ll state that first. There doesn’t seem to be a way from within the site to print the material or export it to a PDF.  Yes, you can print from your browser, but formatting is drastically thrown off.
  2. The maps are still horrible. While most of the maps are better than what we’ve had in many of the training materials they have been included in, they are still not high def or zoomable. In fact, many of them are still blurry on my computer screen.  For detailed areas, such as the urban Central City, users (and even scenario designers) may have a need to get much closer to the information.  The Central City map itself, is still difficult to read, especially the myriad of small icons strewn throughout the map.  I would have hoped that re-working this map would have been a priority in the ESSD, as it’s a regular complaint in the classes it’s used in.

Another resource I’ve used in the past (2007 or 2008?) was Zenith City, which was provided by the EPA.  Similar to the FEMA ESSD, the EPA provided a wide array of information for the fictional Zenith City and surrounding jurisdictions.  While the EPA still has a significant exercise program (if you haven’t checked out their stuff, you should), I don’t know whatever happened to the Zenith City information… it’s no where to be found.  (Note: if anyone happens to have the Zenith City material, please let me know!  I’d love to add it back into my library of resources!)

I’m thrilled that FEMA pulled all the Central City material together in this collection, and even added new information.  Central City has always provided us with a great location to unleash hell on, and allow responders and emergency managers to solve so many problems.  I’m just glad I don’t live there!

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Emergency Management and Public Safety Should Prepare Like a Sports Team

When and how did a once-annual exercise become the standard for preparedness?  I suppose that’s fine for a whole plan, but most plans can be carved into logical components that can be not only exercised to various degrees, but training can also be provided to support and compliment each of those components.  There are a lot of elements and activities associated with preparedness.  Consider how sports teams prepare. They are in a constant yet dynamic state of readiness.

Sports teams will review footage of their opponents playing as well as their own games.  We can equate those to reviews of after-action reports, not only of their own performance, but also of others – and with high frequency.  How well does your organization do with this quiz?

  • Do you develop after action reports from incidents, events, and exercises?
  • Are they reviewed with all staff and stakeholders or just key individuals?
  • Are they reviewed more than once or simply archived?
  • Are improvements tracked and reviewed with staff and stakeholders?
  • Do your staff and stakeholders review after action reports from other incidents around the nation?

Planning is obviously important – it’s the cornerstone of preparedness.  Coaches look at standards of practice in the sport, best practices, and maybe come up with their own innovations.  They examine the capabilities of their players and balance those with the capabilities of the opposing team.  They have a standard play book (plan), but that may be modified based upon the specific opponent they are facing.  Their plans are constantly revisited based upon the results of practices, drills, and games.  Plans let everyone know what their role is.

  • Do your plans consider the capabilities of your organization or jurisdiction?
  • Do they truly include the activities needed to address all hazards?
  • Are your plans examined and updated based upon after action reports from incidents, events, and exercises?
  • Are your plans flexible enough for leadership to call an audible and deviate from the plan if needed?
  • Is your organization agile enough to adapt to changes in plans and audibles? How are ad-hoc changes communicated?

Training is a tool for communicating the plan and specific roles, as well as giving people the knowledge and skills needed to execute those roles with precision.  Sports players study their playbooks.  They may spend time in a classroom environment being trained by coaches on the essential components of plays.  Training needs are identified not only from the playbook, but also from after action reviews.

  • Is your training needs-based?
  • How do you train staff and stakeholders to the plan?
  • What training do you provide to help people staffing each key role to improve their performance?

Lastly, exercises are essential.  In sports there are drills and practices.  Drills are used to hone key skill sets (passing, catching, hitting, and shooting) while practices put those skill sets together.  The frequency of drills and practices for sports teams is astounding.  They recognize that guided repetition builds familiarity with plans and hones the skills they learned.  How well do you think a sports team would perform if they only exercised once a year?  So why do you?

  • What are the essential skill sets your staff and stakeholders should be honing?
  • What is your frequency of exercises?
  • Do your exercises build on each other?

I also want to throw in a nod to communication.  Even if you aren’t a sports fan, go attend a local game.  It could be anything… hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball, football… whatever.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be pro.  Varsity, college, or semi-pro would certainly suffice.  Even if you don’t stay for the whole game, there is a lot you can pick up.  Focus on the communication between and amongst players and coaches.  Depending on where you are sitting, you might not be able to hear or understand what they are saying, but what you will notice is constant communication.  Before plays, between plays, and during plays.  Sometimes that communication isn’t just verbal – it might be the tapping of a hockey stick on the ice, clapping of hands, finger pointing, or a hand wave or other silent signal.  Coaches are constantly talking to each other on the bench and with players, giving direction and encouragement.  There is a lot going on… strategy, tactics, offense, defense.  What lessons can you apply to your organization?

Lastly, accomplishments should be celebrated.  In public safety, we tend to ignore a lot of best practices not only of sports teams, but also in general employee relations.  Because of the nature of emergency management and other public safety endeavors, it’s easy to excuse getting stuck in the same rut… we get ready for the next incident, we respond to that incident, and we barely have time to clean up from that incident before the next one comes.  Take a moment to breathe and to celebrate accomplishments.  It’s not only people that need it, but also organizations as a whole.

What lessons can you apply from sports teams to your organization?

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠

EOC Skillsets and Position Task Books Finalized

Back in April, FEMA released the drafts of EOC skillset documents and position task books for public comment.  A few days ago, the final versions of these documents were released on FEMA’s National Qualification System (NQS) website: https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/nims/components#nqs

While the hub of emergency response is the incident command post, the hub of emergency coordination is the Emergency Operations Center.  While life saving tactics, directed from the ICP, are absolutely essential, a comprehensive and long-term response can’t be sustained without the activities of an EOC.  We have gone far too long in emergency management without having good national guidance on the organization and qualification of personnel in the EOC.

When you crack into the website you may be a bit overwhelmed by all the documents you find.  Don’t look to this as something that must be implemented 100% right away.  Take a deep breath and remember that most things done well in emergency management, ironically enough, are an evolution and take time.  Also remember that while this has been established as guidance, it’s not a requirement.  Implement what you can, when you can.  Focus on establishing a foundation you can build from and do what makes sense for your jurisdiction or organization.

The foundation of everything in emergency management is planning, so whatever you do decide to implement should find its way into plans, which may need to be supported by policy.  While implementing a qualification system with task books can be cumbersome, it can also solve some problems when it comes to having less than qualified personnel working in your EOC.  The position task books are a great way for individuals to see what standards they are being held to and allows them to track progress.  If you don’t feel that the use of position task books will work for your jurisdiction or you are on a slower track to implementation, it’s still worthwhile to examine the skillset documents for each position you have identified in your EOC.  These can support your own developed standards, expectations, and plans; serve as a foundation for training course development; and support exercise evaluation.

Lastly, talk about these with your committees and your peers.  It’s easy to forget about them so keep these visible.  These documents offer an abundance of solid guidance which can strongly support your operational coordination.

What are your thoughts on the EOC skillsets? Do you plan on implementing them in your system?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠

Use of Pre-Developed Exercises – Proceed with Caution

I was recently asked by a client about my thoughts on pre-developed or ‘canned’ exercises.  As it turns out, I have a lot of feelings about them, most of them negative.  Pre-developed exercises, if properly understood and applied, can be a huge help, but the big problem is that we’re dealing with human nature, and some people are just damn lazy.  Garbage in, garbage out.

We need to keep in mind that exercises, fundamentally, are developed to validate plans.  Not my plans.  Your own plans.  While standards of practice mean that most plans have a high degree of commonality (i.e. a HazMat response plan for a jurisdiction in California will be largely the same as one for a jurisdiction in New York State), it’s often the deviations from the standards and the local applications that need to be tested most.  So it doesn’t do well for anyone to replicate an exercise that doesn’t test your own plans.  Similarly, the foundation of exercise design is objectives.  While the pre-developed exercise may have a theme that coincides with what you want to test, sheltering, for example, there are a lot of different aspects of sheltering.  The pre-developed exercise might not focus on what you need to exercise.  With all this, anyone who wants a quality exercise from something pre-developed is going to have to do a lot of re-development, which might be more frustrating than starting from scratch.

HSEEP1

If you want a quality exercise, you really can’t short cut the process.  Not only might HSEEP be required for whatever grant funding you are using for the exercise, but it’s a best practice – and for good reason.  So often people want to cut corners.  If you do, the final product will look like you’ve cut corners.  It might lack proper context, good reference documents, or meaningful evaluation.   The exercise planning meetings have defined purpose, and the documents help capture that process and communicate the intent to specific audiences.

On the other hand, there are proper ways to use materials from a previously developed exercise to benefit your own exercise.  The development of good questions in discussion-based exercises and injects for operations-based exercises can be a challenge.  Reviewing other exercises, especially when there might be some similarity or overlap in objectives, can be a huge help, so long as they are properly contextualized and relate back to objectives for your exercise.  This isn’t a copy and paste, though… as it all should still be applied within the exercise design process.

There are some exercises out there that might seem like exceptions to what I’ve written above.  The first that comes to mind are FEMA’s Virtual Table Top Exercises (VTTX).  The VTTX is a great program, conducted monthly, focusing on different themes and hazards.  FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) assembles a package of materials that go to each community registered for the event, allowing a measure of local customization.  While jurisdictions may use this material differently, it is at least an opportunity to discuss relevant topics and hopefully capture some ideas for future implementation.

Similarly, my company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, recently completed a contract with the Transportation Research Board for a project in which we developed a number of ‘generic’ exercises for airports.  These functional exercises, facilitated through a web-based tool, can be easily customized to meet the needs of most airports across the nation and are written with objectives focused on the fundamentals of EOC management within the timeline of an incident.  While specific plans aren’t directly referenced in the exercises, airport personnel are able to examine the structure of response in their EOC and can reflect on their own plans, policies, and procedures.  Similar to FEMA’s VTTX series, they aren’t a replacement for a custom-developed exercise, but they can help examine some fundamentals and start some important discussions.  I’m not able to get into much more detail on this project, as the final report has yet to be published, but look forward to future posts about it.

All in all, I tend to caution against using pre-developed exercises.  I simply think that most people don’t use them with the right intent and perspective, which can severely limit, or even skew, outcomes.  That said, there exists potential for pre-developed exercises to be properly applied, so proceed with caution and with your wits about you.  Understanding that time, money, and other resources can be scarce, emergency management has always done well with ‘borrowing best practices’.  While there is sometimes nothing wrong with that, short cutting the process will often short cut the benefits.  Do it right.  Use of a custom-developed exercise is going to maximize benefit to your community or organization.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

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