An Update of Ontario’s Incident Management System

Just yesterday, the Canadian province of Ontario released an update of its Incident Management System (IMS) document. I gave it a read and have some observations, which I’ve provided below. I will say that it is frustrating that there is no Canadian national model for incident management, rather the provinces determine their own. Having a number of friends and colleagues from across Canada, they have long espoused this frustration as well. That said, this document warrants an examination.

The document cites the Elliot Lake Inquiry from 2014 as a prompt for several of the changes in their system from the previous iteration of their IMS document. One statement from the Inquiry recommended changes to ‘put in place strategies that will increase the acceptance and actual use of the Incident Management System – including simplifying language’. Oddly enough, this document doesn’t seem to overtly identify any strategies to increase acceptance or use; in fact there is scant mention of preparedness activities to support the IMS or incident management as a whole. I think they missed the mark with this, but I will say the recommendation from the Inquiry absolutely falls in line with what we see in the US regarding acceptance and use.

The authors reinforce that ICS is part of their IMS (similar to ICS being a component of NIMS) and that their ICS model is compatible with ICS Canada and the US NIMS. I’ll note that there are some differences (many of which are identified below) that impact that compatibility, though don’t outright break it. They also indicate that this document isn’t complete and that they already identified future additions to the document including site-specific roles and responsibilities, EOC roles and responsibilities, and guidance on resource management. In regard to the roles and responsibilities, there is virtually no content in this document on organizations below the Section Chief level, other than general descriptions of priority activity. I’m not sure why they held off of including this information, especially since the ICS-specific info is reasonably universal.

I greatly appreciate some statements they make on the application of Unified Command, saying that it should only be used when single command cannot be established. They give some clarifying points within the document with some specific considerations, but make the statement that “Single command is generally the preferred form of incident management except in rare circumstances where unified command is more effective” and reinforce that regular assessment of Unified Command should be performed if implemented. It’s quite a refreshing perspective opposed to what we so often see in the US which practically espouses that Unified Command should be the go-to option. Unified Command is hard, folks. It adds a lot of complexity to incident management. While it can solve some problems, it can also create some.

There are several observations I have on ICS-related organizational matters:

  • They use the term EOC Director. Those who have been reading my stuff for a while know that I’m really averse to this term as facilities have managers. They also suggest that the term EOC Command could be used (this might even be worse than EOC Director!).
  • While they generally stick with the term Incident Commander, they do address a nuance where Incident Manager might be appropriate (they use ‘manager’ here but not for EOCs??). While I’m not sure that I’m sold on the title, they suggest that incidents such as a public health emergency that is wide-reaching and with no fixed site is actually managed and not commanded. So in this example, the person in charge from the Health Department would be the Incident Manager. It’s an interesting nuance that I think warrants more discussion.
  • The document refers several times to the IC developing strategies and tactics. While they certain may have input to this, strategies and tactics are typically reserved for the Operations Section.
  • There is an interesting mention in the document that no organization has tactical command authority over any other organization’s personnel or assets unless such authority is transferred. This is a really nuanced statement. When an organization responds to an incident and acknowledges that the IC is from another organization, the new organization’s resources are taking tactical direction from the IC. Perhaps this is the implied transfer of authority? This statement needs a lot of clarification.
  • Their system formally creates the position of Scribe to support the Incident Commander, while the EOC Director may have a Scribe as well as an Executive Assistant. All in all, I’m OK with this. Especially in an EOC, it’s a reflection of reality – especially the Executive Assistant – which is not granted the authority of a Deputy, but is more than a Scribe. I often see this position filled by a Chief of Staff.
  • The EOC Command Staff (? – they don’t make a distinction for what this group is called in an EOC) includes a Legal Advisor. This is another realistic inclusion.
  • They provide an option for an EOC to be managed under Unified Command. While the concept is maybe OK, ‘command’ is the wrong term to use here.
  • The title of Emergency Information Officer is used, which I don’t have any particular issue with. What’s notable here is that while the EIO is a member of the Command Staff (usually), the document suggests that if the EIO is to have any staff, particularly for a Joint Information Center, that they are moved to the General Staff and placed in charge of a new section named the Public Information Management Section. (a frustration here that they are calling the position the EIO, but the section is named Public Information). Regardless of what it’s called or if there is or is not a JIC, I don’t see a reason to move this function to the General Staff.
  • Aside from the notes above, they offer three organizational models for EOCs, similar to those identified in NIMS
  • More than once, the document tasks the Operations Section only with managing current operations with no mention of their key role in the planning process to develop tactics for the next operational period.
  • They suggest other functions being included in the organization, such as Social Services, COOP, Intelligence, Investigations, and Scientific/Technical. It’s an interesting call out whereas they don’t specify how these functions would be included. I note this because they refer to Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance/Admin as functions (which is fine) but then also calling these activities ‘functions’ leads me to think they intend for new sections to be created for these. Yes, NIMS has evolved to make allowances for some flexibility in the organization of Intel and Investigations, something like Social Services (for victims) is clearly a function of Operations. While I appreciate their mention of COOP, COOP is generally a very department-centric function. While a continuity plan could certainly be activated while the broader impacts of the incident are being managed, COOP is really a separate line of effort, which should certainly be coordinated with the incident management structure, but I’m not sure it should be part of it – though I’m open to discussion on this one.
  • I GREATLY appreciate their suggestion of EOC personnel being involved in planning meetings of incident responders (ICP). This is a practice that can pay significant dividends. What’s interesting is that this is a measure of detail the document goes into, yet is very vague or lacking detail in other areas.

The document has some considerable content using some different terminology in regard to incidents and incident complexity. First off, they introduce a classification of incidents, using the following terminology:

  • Small
  • Large
  • Major
  • Local, Provincial, and National Emergencies

Among these, Major incidents and Local/Provincial/National Emergencies can be classified as ‘Complex Incidents’. What’s a complex incident? They define that as an incident that involves many factors which cannot be easily analyzed or understood; they may be prolonged, large scale, and/or involve multiple jurisdictions. While I understand that perhaps they wanted to simplify the language associated with Incident Types, but even with the very brief descriptions the document provided on each classification, these are very vague. Then laying the term of ‘complex incident’ over the top of this, it’s considerably confusing.

**Edit – I realized that the differentiator between small incident and large incident is the number of responding organizations. They define a small incident as a single organization response, and a large incident as a multi agency response. So the ‘typical’ two car motor vehicle accident that occurs in communities everywhere, requiring fire, EMS, law enforcement, and tow is a LARGE INCIDENT????? Stop!

Another note on complex incidents… the document states that complex incidents involving multiple response organizations, common objectives will usually be high level, such as ‘save lives’ or ‘preserve property’, with each response organization developing their own objectives, strategies, and tactics.  I can’t buy into this. Life safety and property preservation are priorities, not objectives. And allowing individual organizations to develop their own objectives, strategies, and tactics pretty much breaks the incident management organization and any unity of effort that could possibly exist. You are either part of the response organization or you are not.

Speaking of objectives, the document provides a list of ‘common response objectives’ such as ‘save lives’ and ‘treat the sick and injured’. These are not good objectives by any measure (in fact they can’t be measured) and should not be included in the document as they only serve as very poor examples.

So in the end there was a lot in this document that is consistent with incident management practices, along with some good additions, some things that warrant further consideration, and some things which I strongly recommend against. There are certainly some things in here that I’d like to see recognized as best practices and adopted into NIMS. I recognize the bias I have coming from the NIMS world, and I tried to be fair in my assessment of Ontario’s model, examining it for what it is and on its own merit. Of course anyone who has been reading my posts for a while knows that I’m just as critical of NIMS and related documents out of the US, so please understand that my (hopefully) constructive comments are not intended to create an international incident. I’m a big fan of hockey and poutine – please don’t take those away from me!

I’m always interested in the perspectives of others. And certainly if you were part of the group that developed this document, I’d love to hear about some of your discussions and how you reached certain conclusions, as well as what you envision for the continued evolution for the Provincial IMS.

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

What Actually is Emergency Management?

Many people have a concept of what emergency management is, typically shaped by their own experiences or aspirations, but it is so much more. I think a part of the seeming identity crisis emergency management suffers as well as the issues expressed by some that emergency management isn’t a recognized profession stem from that the fact that so much of emergency management is actually a unified effort of an amalgamation of other professions. So let’s consider what emergency management actually is. The list below is not exhaustive and is largely formed around common professions, major activities, and areas of academic study.

  • Grants management
  • Accounting
  • Procurement
  • Logistics
  • Equipment Maintenance
  • GIS
  • Information Technology
  • Planning
  • Document Development and Publishing
  • Marketing
  • Communications
  • Public and Media Relations
  • Community Outreach
  • Volunteer Management
  • Instructional Design and Delivery
  • Data Analysis
  • Engineering
  • Project Management
  • Policy and Political Science
  • Business/Public Administration
  • Organizational Management and Leadership
  • Consulting and SME
  • Academics and Research
  • Physical Sciences (Geology, Meteorology, Earth Science, etc.)
  • Social Sciences (Sociology, Anthropology, etc.)

These are all distinct functions and major activities/professions I’ve seen in emergency managers and emergency management agencies. Many emergency managers do a lot of these, while some focus on a few or even just one. Some of these activities may be outsourced to other agencies or to the private sector. Yet any of the items on the list taken out of the context of emergency management are then no longer (at least directly) emergency management. This may be a permanent state for someone holding one of these positions, or perhaps they are brought into the realm of emergency management on more of an ad-hoc or temporary basis. On the other hand, the application of these activities within emergency management often requires them to have knowledge of the areas of emergency management in which they are being applied.

Defining what emergency management is and does without the context of these other professions/activities is difficult. There is a big part of emergency management that is less defined and tangible, filling in the gaps and connective tissue between and among all of these; harnessing and focusing the collective capabilities toward distinct efforts across preparedness and the five mission areas, by way of a highly complex effort which we encapsulate with one simple word – coordination. So oddly enough, emergency management is all of these, yet it is also something else.

I think the recognition of this will go a long way for us, helping to progress the profession while also being less rigid in our approach to pigeon-hole what an emergency manager is.

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Building Local Incident Management Capability

Just over a year ago I wrote An Alternate Concept of Incident Management Support, identifying the gap that exists in most local communities and areas for improved incident management capability. While I still think that formal Incident Management Teams (IMTs) are the gold standard, not every community or even multi-county region can support a formal IMT, which requires dozens of personnel and rigorous qualification and maintenance. Over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of use of IMTs across the nation, supporting the COVID-19 response and myriad other incidents. Sitting in over the last few days on the All Hazard Incident Management Team Association (AHIMTA) virtual symposium, there is a lot of exciting evolution happening with IMTs as they continue to enhance their capabilities. And while this is great, I feel we are leaving a lot of areas behind. This isn’t on the AHIMTA, but rather on the emergency management community as a whole. That said, there are certainly some intersections, as a lot of the training available to IMT personnel may need to be made more accessible to those who would be part of the Incident Support Quick Response Teams (ISQRTs) as I came to call them in the article I mentioned from last year, and addressing a fundamental need I’ve been espousing for a long time.

As I’ve soaked in a lot of great information from the AHIMTA symposium about IMTs, the need to build local capability in the absence of IMTs is even more apparent. Some may argue that IMTs are available to deploy to any area if requested. Possibly. Obviously there are a lot of conditions… what are other teams dealing with? What’s the relative priority of the requesting area? EMAC is certainly an option, but States need to approve the local request if they are to put the request into the EMAC system. The state may not agree with the need, may not want to spend the funds for an incoming team for an incident that may not receive a federal declaration, or it may not be practical to wait a couple of days to get an IMT on the ground when the response phase of the incident may be resolved or near resolved by then.   

Fundamentally, every area should have its own organic incident management capability. As mentioned, most areas simply can’t support or sustain the rigors of a formal IMT, but they can support a short roster of people who are interested, able, and capable. This is a situation where a little help can go a long way in making a difference in a local response for a more complex Type 4 incident or the onset of a Type 3 incident – or simply to do what they can for a larger incident where additional help simply isn’t available. I mentioned in last year’s article that the focus should really be on incident planning support, with an Incident Management Advisor to support the IC and local elected officials, an Incident Planning Specialist to help the local response organization harness the Planning Process, a Planning Assistant to support the detailed activities involved in a Planning Section such as situational awareness and resource tracking, and an Operations and Logistics Planner to support local responders who may have great tactical knowledge, but not much experience on operational planning much less forecasting logistical needs associated with this. Largely these are all advisors, who are likely to integrate into the incident management organization, so we aren’t creating new ICS positions, though I still encourage some deeper and deliberate application of incident management advisors.

My big thought today is how do we make something like this happen? First, I think we need to sell FEMA and State IMT programs and or State Training Officers on the concept. That comes first from recognizing and agreeing on the gap that exists and that we must support the organic incident management capability of local jurisdictions with fewer resources, through something that is more than the ICS courses, but less than what is required for an IMT. Part of this is also the recognition that these ISQRTs are not IMTs and not intended to be IMTs but fill an important role in addressing this gap. This will go a long way toward getting this past ICS and IMT purists who might feel threatened by this or for some reason disagree with the premise.

Next is establishing standards, which first is defined by general expectations of activity for each of these roles, pre-requisites for credentialing, then training support. The existing position-specific training is likely not fully appropriate for these positions, but a lot can be drawn upon from the existing courses, especially those for Incident Commander and the Planning Section positions, but there are also some valuable pieces of information that would come from Operations Section and Logistics Section Courses. I’d suggest that we work toward a curriculum to address these specific ISQRT roles. There are then some administrative details to be developed in terms of local formation, protocols for notification and activation, etc. State recognition is important, but perhaps approval isn’t necessarily needed, though coordination and support from States may be critical to the success of ISQRTs, again considering that these are most likely to be serving areas with fewer resources. ISQRTs will also need to work with local emergency managers and local responders to gain support, to be included in local preparedness activities, and to be called upon when they should be. A lot of success can be gained from things such as local/county/regional/state meetings of fire chiefs and police chiefs.

Do you agree with the gap that exists for most communities? What do you think we need to get the ball rolling on such a concept?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

FEMA’s First Lessons Learned From COVID-19

FEMA recently released the Pandemic Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Initial Assessment Report (January – September 2020). The report has many elements of a traditional after-action report. The authors reinforce that the report only evaluates FEMA’s response, not those of other agencies or entities. That said, emergency management, by nature is collaborative and FEMA’s interactions with other agencies and entities are cited as necessary. The report covers five primary areas of evaluation:

  1. Coordinating Structures and Policy
  2. Resources
  3. Supporting State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (SLTT) Partners
  4. Preparedness and Information Analysis
  5. Organizational Resilience

Also, with similarity to a traditional after-action report, this report provides a table of key findings and recommendations as Appendix A.

Here are some of my primary observations:

Following the executive summary is a the COVID-19 Pandemic Overview, which is a well-constructed piece providing a combined narrative timeline and topical highlights, providing information and context to the pandemic and the response, as well as some of the complexities encountered. While the report does well to acknowledge the myriad disasters that SLTT partners and federal agencies responded to over 2020, I find it shameful that they very obviously ignore the societal impacts of the US political climate (related to the pandemic and otherwise) as well as events surrounding the BLM movement. I firmly believe this report should fully acknowledge these factors and could have done so without itself making a political statement. These were important, impactful, and far-reaching, certainly influencing the operating environment, public information, and other very real facets of the response. I feel that the exclusion of these factors leaves this report incomplete.

Relative to the Coordinating Structures and Policy section, FEMA reinforces many, many times that they were put into a leadership position for this disaster that was unexpected and perhaps led to some coordination problems. I feel FEMA should always be a lead or co-lead agency for the federal response for large disasters regardless of the hazard. While a pandemic is certainly a public health hazard, FEMA has practiced experience in federal coordination to major disasters, mobilization of resources and logistical support, SLTT coordination, and overall incident management. The Unified Coordination Group is a sound application in situations where other federal agencies share significant authority. The kinks should be worked out of this, with the National Response Framework updated to reflect such.

Also mentioned within this section is the creation of a White House Task Force which was intended to make executive decisions of the highest level. This is not unprecedented and should certainly be expected for other large-scale disasters in the future. I feel, however, that removing the FEMA Administrator from having a direct line of communication with the White House during ‘peace time’ has significant impact on FEMA leadership’s ability to integrate. Positioning FEMA subordinate to the Secretary of Homeland Security is akin to putting a police officer in charge of a pool and keeping the lifeguard in the breakroom. Sure, the police officer can do a lot, but there are specific skills needed which necessitate that the lifeguard has a constant presence at the pool rather than only being called in when something gets bad enough. 

FEMA makes a point about inheriting eight task forces created by HHS which then needed to be integrated into the NRCC organization. These task forces had some overlap with the existing NRCC and ESF structure, resulting in duplications of effort and coordination problems. While FEMA says they were able to overcome this over time, it is obviously something that, given the National Response Framework, should have not happened in the first place. FEMA’s recommendations associated with this matter do not once cite the National Response Framework and instead point the finger at NIMS/ICS use, fully ignoring that the foundation of preparedness is planning. Either HHS made these task forces up on the fly or had a plan in place that accounted for their creation. Either way, it’s the National Response Framework that was ignored. NIMS/ICS helps support plan implementation.

The next section on resource management demonstrates that FEMA learned a lot about some intricacies of resource management they may have not previously encountered. With the full mobilization of resources across the nation for the pandemic, along with targeted mobilizations for other disasters, the system was considerably stressed. FEMA adapted their systems and processes, and in some cases developed new methodologies to address resource management needs. One key finding identified was a need to better integrate private sector partners, which isn’t surprising. I think we often take for granted the resources and systems needed to properly coordinate with the private sector on a large scale during a disaster. One of the largest disasters within this disaster was that of failed supply chains. Granted, the need was unprecedented, but we certainly need to bolster our preparedness in this area.

To help address supply chain issues, novel solutions such as Project Airbridge and specific applications of the Defense Production Act were used. The best practices from these strategies must be memorialized in the form of a national plan for massive resource mobilizations.

SLTT support for the time period of the report was largely successful, which isn’t a surprise since it’s fundamentally what FEMA does as the main coordination point between SLTT partners and federal agencies. Significant mobilizations of direct federal support to SLTT partners took place. The pandemic has provided the best proof of concept of the FEMA Integration Teams (FIT) since their development in 2017. With established relationships with SLTT partners and knowledge of needs of the federal system, they provided support, liaised, and were key to shared situational awareness. I appreciate that one of the recommendations in this section was development of a better concept of operations to address the roles and responsibilities of FIT and IMATs.

One item not directly addressed in this section was that in emergency management we have a great culture of sharing resources and people. Sharing was pretty limited in the pandemic since everyone was impacted and everyone needed resources. This caused an even greater demand on FEMA’s resources since SLTT partners largely weren’t able to support each other as they often do during disasters.

The section on preparedness and information analysis was interesting, especially on the information analysis side. The preparedness findings weren’t really much of a surprise, including not anticipating supply chain issues or SLTT needs. What this boils down to is a lack of effective plans for nation-wide disasters. On the information side, the key findings really boil down to not only improved defining of data sets and essential elements of information relative to specific needs, audiences, functions, capabilities, and lines of effort. It appears a lot was learned about not only the information needed, but also how to best utilize that information. Analytics makes data meaningful and supports better situational awareness and common operating picture.

The last section on FEMA’s organizational resilience is a good look at some of the inner workings and needs of FEMA as an agency and how they endured the pandemic and the varied demands on the agency. FEMA has always had a great culture of most employees having a disaster job which they are prepared to move into upon notice. They learned about some of the implications associated with this disaster, such as issues with engaging such a large portion of their employees in long-term deployments, public health protection, and mental health matters.

Ultimately, despite my disagreement with a couple of recommendations and leaving out some very important factors, the report is honest and, if the corrective actions are implemented, will support a stronger FEMA in the future. I’m hopeful we see a lot of these AAR types of documents across federal agencies, state agencies, local governments, the private sector, etc. EVERYONE learned from this pandemic, and continues to learn. That said, while the efforts of individual entities hold a lot of value, there also needs to be a broader, more collective examination of ‘our’ response to this disaster. This would be a monumental first task for a National Disaster Safety Board, would it not? 

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

The Contrarian Emergency Manager™

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

New EOC Toolkit Documents

FEMA announced the release of five EOC Toolkit documents on their website. In downloading these documents, I’m actually finding six documents, all with file dates of January 8, 2021. What’s there:

  • Tips for Healthcare Professionals: Coping with Stress and Compassion Fatigue
  • Tips for Disaster Responders: Preventing and Managing Stress
  • An Exercise for Creating Position Task Books from EOC Skillsets
    • Exercise Cards for the above referenced exercise (probably why they indicate only five documents, though this is a separate download)
  • EOC Financial Tools Reference Fact Sheet
  • EOC Operations Period Briefing Template

A quick review:

Coupling together the Tips for Healthcare Professionals and Tips for Disaster Responders as they both deal with workplace stress; these are really good documents that provide information, tools, and resources for recognizing and managing stress. Both are developed by the HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What I’d like to see, though, are documents actually developed for EOCs. It might seem a bit petty, while nearly 100% of the information in these documents is applicable to an EOC environment, this is yet another example of emergency management needing to borrow best practices from others and not getting something of our own. A simple change in the title and focusing the scope of the documents can go a long way. I would hope that FEMA and the National Integration Center would be supporting emergency management a bit more by at least giving us things that are intentionally developed for us.

I’m also coupling together the two documents of the EOC Skillsets Exercise instructions and cards; the purpose of the exercise is to create position task books (PTBs) from the list of EOC Skillsets. The exercise is used to help familiarize participants with the EOC Skillsets and to give leaders a practical, scenario-based experience in building position qualifications based on an organization’s needs and resources. I’ll be honest that I have some mixed feelings about this. I’m not sure of the real value of this exercise. Sure it’s nice to teach people new things and an exercise like this can be useful for getting buy-in on the qualifications certain positions should have, but the EOC Skillset Guide already gives us alignment of the EOC Skillsets for each of the primary EOC positions for the common, NIMS-identified EOC model organizations. That said, if your EOC has an organizational deviation from these models, the exercise could be helpful.

The EOC Financial Tools Reference Fact Sheet is a pretty good overview and list of resources for incident financial management, including guidelines and practices for reimbursement. A solid document. I think the document could be expanded upon by some experienced Finance/Admin Section Chiefs, Public Assistance SMEs, and Individual Assistance SMEs – to not only provide additional information, guidance, and tools, but also to address the continuum of financial management and reimbursement that starts with preparedness and goes through response then into disaster recovery, with the ultimate goal of maximizing reimbursement for eligible expenses.

Lastly, the EOC Operations Period Briefing Template. The document provides the pretty standard guidance for an Ops Period Briefing seen in ICS-related publications and introduces a couple of topics that are important to EOCs which are typically not found in field-level applications. That said, this is called a template. It’s laid out as a template. The instructions even say that the template is customizable. They give you the document as a PDF. <shrug>

Wrapping this up, these are documents that really can help EOCs and EOC personnel, but we see some shortfalls because of simple lack of thought, perspective, and utility. Continuous improvement, however, should always be a goal, and we need to start somewhere. I’m hoping these, and other documents will evolve as needs and opportunities are identified.

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

The Contrarian Emergency Manager™

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

FEMA’s 2020 National Preparedness Report – A Review

It seems an annual tradition for me to be reviewing the National Preparedness Report. I’ve endeavored to provide constructive criticism of these documents, which are compilations of data from state and federal agencies, national-level responses, and other sources.

This year’s National Preparedness Report emphasizes that it is based on data from the 2019 calendar year. In looking back on past reports (note: they are no longer on the FEMA site – I was able to find them in the Homeland Security Digital Library) this has been the past practice. Perhaps I never realized it before, but a report talking about data from practically a full year ago seems to hold even less relevance. That means that enacting changes on a national level based on this data may not even begin to occur until two years have passed. Even taking into consideration that states and UASIs are compiling their reports early in a year for the previous year, it still seems a long time to wait for the national level report. This extent of lag is further emphasized by the document’s foreword, written by the FEMA Administrator, which makes many references to COVID-19 and how much different next year’s report will be, while not really speaking at all about the current report. This speaks a lot to how much we, as a practice, are attracted by the shiny objects dangled in front of us, seemingly ignoring all else.

My first pass of the 2020 report brought two primary impressions: 1) The instructive content of the document is some of the best I’ve seen out of FEMA, and 2) There is a considerable lack of data, with a low value for much of what they have included.

In regard to my first impression, the discussion of concepts such as risk (including emerging risk and systemic risk), capabilities, cascading impacts, community lifelines, public-private partnerships, and vulnerable populations has the perfect level of depth and detail. Not only do they discuss each of these concepts, but they also identify how they each connect to each other. This is EXACTLY the kind of consolidation of information we have needed for a long time. This lends itself to truly integrated preparedness and the kinds of information I’ve mentioned many times as being needed, including in the next version of CPG-101. I’m truly impressed with this content, the examples they provide, and how they demonstrate the interconnectedness of it all. I’ll certainly be using this document as a great source of this consolidated information. Now that I’ve extolled my love and adoration for that content, I’m left wondering why it’s in the National Preparedness Report. It’s great content for instructional material and doctrinal material on integrated preparedness, but it really has no place, at least to this extent of detail in the National Preparedness Report. Aside from the few examples they use, there isn’t much value in this format as a report.

This brings me to my next early observation: that of very little actual data contained in the report. Given the extent to which states, territories, UASIs, and other stakeholders provide data to FEMA each year by way of their Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments (THIRAs) and Stakeholder Preparedness Reviews (SPRs), along with various other sources of data, this document doesn’t contain a fraction of what is being reported. There are two map products contained in the entire report, one showing the number of federal disaster declarations for the year, the other showing low-income housing availability across the nation. Given the wide array of information provided by state and UASI, and compiled by FEMA region, surely there must be some really insightful trends and other analysis to provide. There are a few other data sets included in the report showing either raw numbers or percentages – nothing I would really consider analytics. Much of the data is also presented as a snapshot in time, without any comparison to previous years.

Any attempt to view this document as a timely, meaningful, and relevant report on the current state of preparedness in the nation, much less an examination of preparedness over time, is simply an exercise in frustration. The previous year’s report at least had a section titled ‘findings’, even though any real analysis of data there was largely non-existent. This year’s report doesn’t even feign providing a section on findings. To draw on one consistently frustrating example, I’ll use the Core Capability of housing. While this report dances around doctrine and concepts, and even has a section on housing, it’s not addressing why so little preparedness funding or even moderate effort is directed toward addressing the issue of emergency housing, which has arguably been the biggest preparedness gap for time eternal in every state of the nation. Looking broadly at all Core Capabilities, this year’s report provides a chart similar to what we’ve seen in previous years’ reports, identifying how much preparedness funding has gone toward each Core Capability. In relative numbers, very little has changed; even though we know that issues like housing, long-term vulnerability reduction, infrastructure systems, and supply chains have huge gaps. All these reports are telling me is that we’re doing the same things over and over again with little meaningful change.

So there it is… while I really am thoroughly impressed with some of the content of the report, much of that content really doesn’t have a place in this report (at least to such an extent), and for what little data is provided in the report, most of it has very little value. The introduction to the document states that “this year’s report is the product of rigorous research, analysis, and input from stakeholders”. To be blunt, I call bullshit on this statement. I expect a report to have data and various analysis of that data, not only telling us what is, but examining why it is. We aren’t getting that. The National Preparedness Report is an annual requirement per the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. I challenge that FEMA is not meeting the intent of that law with the reports they have been providing. How can we be expected, as a nation, to improve our state of readiness when we aren’t provided with the data needed to support and justify those improvements?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EOC Toolkit: National Comment Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the documents? 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Keeping the C in CERT

I’m a big fan of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). For several years I was, in addition to other duties, New York State’s CERT program coordinator. I had interactions with most CERT programs in the state, conducted many CERT train-the-trainer courses, and managed federal CERT and Citizen Corps grant programs. CERT programs, when properly organized, managed, and maintained hold incredible value to their communities.

For those not fully aware of what CERT is, it is a construct that arose from high earthquake hazard communities in California a few decades ago. It is founded on the recognition that the true first responders to a disaster are in fact community members who will tend to themselves, their families, and their neighbors. The core CERT training provides information and skills practice on team organization, first aid, light search and rescue, hazard recognition, and more. Fundamentally, CERT organizations will self-activate in the event of a sudden disaster to care for those immediately around them. CERT programs have evolved in a positive fashion through the years, spreading around the nation and the world. Ideally, they should be formed with a linkage to local emergency responders, and can be leveraged to support community preparedness and mitigation efforts as well. CERT programs are organized around the needs of their communities, with their operational protocols and training rooted in that local need. The C in CERT is for COMMUNITY.

For many years, FEMA has been developing the National Qualification System (NQS), which supports resource typing as a key component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The primary purpose of the NQS is to establish standards for positions and functions utilized in emergency management, with the greatest benefit being the requesting, processing, deployment, and utilization of resources to disaster areas. These efforts strongly support effective resource management by providing consistent definitions of capability for various kinds and types of resources, backed up by a means for resources to track and even certify progress toward meeting those qualifications.

Yesterday, FEMA released a NIMS Alert for NQS information for several CERT positions. To be honest, this frustrates the hell out of me. CERT is a community-level resource. Not one that is intended to be deployed. Yes, FEMA has called for and deployed CERT personnel in the past, but this is not a consistent practice, has not happened often, and as far as I know was deemed a less than effective utilization. The draft position task books provided by the NQS for comment for CERT indicate roles in support of the CERTs in the jurisdictions in which they are being deployed. While some jurisdictions have prepared CERT members for roles beyond the core tasks associated with CERT, such as EOC support or field data collection, CERT is not fundamentally expected to be a long-term function in the aftermath of a disaster, so to be deploying personnel to support sustained ‘normal’ CERT operations is largely a misutilization and clearly a misunderstanding of what CERT is fundamentally about, especially when most external resources requests occur days or even weeks after a disaster.

CERT members and CERT programs are and should be focused on their own neighborhoods and communities. As individuals and as organizations they are generally not trained, equipped, or otherwise prepared to be deployable resources. They are also not being deployed to a disaster in a professional capacity, many of which have their own NQS documents. While it may sound like a great opportunity for people who want to make a difference, there are a lot of pitfalls – many of which I saw when FEMA requested CERT volunteers from around the nation to deploy for Gulf coast hurricanes about 15 years ago.

The NQS documents identify several trainings in addition to the Basic CERT course, most of which are FEMA Independent Study courses which only provide a general baseline of knowledge; and none of which specifically address issues associated with actually deploying to a disaster area. If CERT personnel wish to be deployable resources, they should do so through organizations such as the Red Cross, Team Rubicon, World Central Kitchen, or the myriad faith-based groups who are established and reputed providers of various disaster-essential services. These are entities that are also organizationally capable of managing personnel and the logistical and procedural requirements of a deployment, of which there are many. These organizations train and prepare personnel for deployments, have experienced personnel that manage and coordinate deployments, they ensure they are managed and cared for on site, they support supply chains, and are experienced in addressing liability matters.

The bottom line here is that we are expecting too much from people signed up to support a disaster response in or even near their own communities, but not to be deployed around the country. I’m sure I’ll get some responses from people espousing some specific successes in deploying CERT personnel outside their jurisdiction, of which I’m sure there are; however that is the exception and not the rule. It’s not what CERT is or ever was intended to be. I’m a big fan and supporter of CERT, and believe in the extraordinary abilities of trained, organized volunteers, but I strongly feel that CERT is not a deployable asset. Personnel who are interested in such endeavors should be steered towards organizations that have the expertise in doing so.

Your thoughts, of course, are welcome.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

A National Disaster Safety Board

You’ve heard of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), right? If not, the nitty gritty of it is that they are an independent federal accident investigation agency. They determine probable cause of the full range of major transportation incidents, typically putting forward safety recommendations. They are granted some specific authorities related to these investigations, such as being the lead federal agency to investigate them (absent criminal aspects) and they maintain a schedule of deployment-ready teams for this purpose.  They can conduct investigative hearings (ever see the film Sully?) and publish public reports on these matters. Overall, I’ve had positive interactions with NTSB representatives and have found their work to be highly effective.

While certainly related to emergency management, the main purpose for my quick review of the NTSB in this post is to provide a starting point of understanding for Congressional legislation urging the formation of a National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB). The draft bill for discussion can be found here. This bill has been put forth with bi-partisan sponsors in both the US Senate and the House of Representatives.

The purpose of the NDSB, per this bill, is:

  1. To reduce future losses by learning from incidents, including underlying factors.
  2. Provide lessons learned on a national scale.
  3. Review, analyze, and recommend without placing blame.
  4. Identify and make recommendations to address systemic causes of incidents and loss from incidents.
  5. Prioritize efforts that focus on life safety and injury prevention, especially in regard to disproportionately impacted communities.

To execute this mission, the bill provides that the NDSB will have the authority to review incidents with 10 or more fatalities; may self-determine the need for board review of an incident; and shall have the full ability to investigate, review, and report on incidents.

The bill directs the NDSB to coordinate with all levels of government to identify and adopt standard methods of measuring impacts of disasters to provide for consistent trend analysis and comparisons, and to ensure that these standards are uniformly applied. The bill requires the NDSB to coordinate with all levels of government in their investigations during incident responses, and to participate in the incident command system for coordination of efforts as well as investigative purposes. Affected authorities shall have an opportunity to review the NDSB report 30 days prior to publication.

The NDSB will be comprised of seven board members, selected by the President from a slate of candidates provided by both houses of Congress, with no more than four board members having affiliation with the same political party, and with all members having technical and/or professional qualifications in emergency management, fire management, EMS, public health, engineering, or social and behavioral sciences.

There is a lot of other legalese and detail in the bill, but I’m happy to find that the language supports coordination among and with federal agencies, including FEMA, NIST, NTSB, and others; and also has an emphasis on investigating impacts to disproportionately impacted communities. The bill also charges the NDSB with conducting special studies as they see fit and providing technical support for the implementation of recommendations.

I’m thrilled with this effort and I’m hopeful the bill progresses to law. We have had a history of outstanding research from academic institutions and after action reports from government entities, which should all still continue, but it’s incredibly substantial that the NDSB will establish standards and consistency in how we examine disasters over time. We’ve seen how impactful the NTSB has been since its inception in 1967, and I feel the NDSB could have an even greater impact examining a broader spectrum of disasters. This is an effort which has been long encouraged by various emergency management related groups. The NDSB, I suspect, will also support a stronger and more defined FEMA, as well as strengthening all aspects of emergency management at all levels.

What thoughts do you have on the NDSB? What do you hope will come of it?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

What Makes an Emergency Manager?

Over the weekend I posted a question on Twitter that prompted a fair amount of discussion with my EM colleagues. What I asked:

Does simply working in emergency management make you an emergency manager? (Even with my ego) it took several years of working in the field before I was comfortable calling myself an emergency manager.

The resulting discussion brought up considerations of time on the job, job responsibilities and titles, education, professional certifications, standards, and other relevant topics. I fully admitted to my own biases, initially directed toward myself and my own career trajectory, but that I honestly have a tendency to carry over to others who might be new to an emergency management job; certainly, with no intent to belittle anyone or gatekeep the profession. The discussions over the weekend on Twitter led me to realize that part of my bias came from what roles I performed early in my career. My primary being a training technician, helping to prepare for and conduct training courses – certainly not managing the program until a few years later. Similarly, early in my career, any emergency deployments or taskings were at the ‘doer’ level, not anywhere near the actual supervision or management responsibilities that came a few years into my career. All of this was appropriate for early in my career. Certainly, I felt that I worked in the field of emergency management, but not that I was a true emergency manager. Not until I was given responsibility and authority, both in my primary job and emergency assignments, that I felt that I was an emergency manager.

I’d also suggest that I was influenced by my own impressions of many of the people I worked with and worked for. I was fortunate enough to learn and be mentored by some really incredible emergency managers (both in their primary and emergency roles). I was awed by their knowledge, their talent, and their ability to coordinate some very diverse groups of people and resources into a unity of effort. In my early years I couldn’t yet do that. I had a lot to learn and respect to garner before I felt I could call myself an emergency manager.

Certification is an interesting thing. While there are certifications in many professions, these fall into two significant types: Those that require experience and those that do not. I think they each have their place and are often appropriate to the profession which they are in. Standards are a related yet still different matter, especially since, in emergency management and related professions, there are several ‘certifications’ that can be obtained. The ideal is to have a standard in the profession. I think standards are something to be explored further, and I give a shoutout to friend and colleague Ashley Morris (@missashes92) who has a lot of thoughts about where standardization should go in emergency management. Personally, I think one standard of practice should be internships or mentorships. These are required by certain professions and I think that, when structured well, they are a great way to gain the proper kind of experience necessary.

Education was another topic that has relevance but also a lot of nuance, as it also has ties to job duties, certification, and standards. I don’t feel that someone having a degree at any level can simply call themselves an emergency manager. There is a lot of consideration for what degrees are applicable, and that’s a challenge given how broad emergency management is. Despite so many of us beating the drum that emergency management is not just response, we still see so many emergency management job postings listing experience requirements as a first responder. It’s a challenge for us to identify as a unique profession when so many jurisdictions simply appoint a police officer or fire fighter to an emergency management job because it’s “close enough” (given no other screening or qualifications). We all know emergency management is so much broader than response applications yet, as a profession, we tolerate that crap. Emergency management has so many niche functions within, many of which are supported by their own unique education standards: engineers, finance and grants, technology, communications, public and/or business administration/management, instructional design, human services, public health, and so much more. Think about all the business units within a large emergency management agency, or a ‘day in the life’ of a one-person emergency management shop. Recovery, mitigation, preparedness, response, grants, volunteer management, community engagement, interagency coordination, logistics, etc. None of that is one skillset. Yet many education programs in emergency management will just talk history and theory. Others will focus on response. Few seem to do it right, giving a good, comprehensive picture of it all. Depending on where they will work, some practitioners need to know about a lot of different things, while in others they can specialize.

Is someone who just does grants management any less of an emergency manager than someone who only does mitigation or someone who only does training? To even put a bit more of a curve on this, how about someone who is an academic, or a researcher, or a consultant? What boxes need to be checked to be labeled as an emergency manager?

The discussion on Twitter to my one question lasted a couple of days, with a lot of really interesting thoughts and insight. Everyone that contributed had very valid perspectives, and it seemed that many agreed that there is no simple answer.

As always, I’m interested in the thoughts of my readers. What do you think is makes an emergency manager?

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®