Federal Coordination of All-Hazard Incident Management Teams

A few months ago the FEMA administration decided that the US Fire Administration (USFA) would discontinue their management of the All-Hazards Incident Management Team (AHIMT) program, which they have developed and managed for years. While I was never in favor of the USFA managing the program (AHIMTs are not fire-service specific), the staff assigned to the program did an admirable job of growing the AHIMT concept to what we have today.

The All-Hazards Incident Management Team Association (AHIMTA), which has been a vocal proponent of the development of AHIMTs, has thankfully been working to make people aware of this change. As part of their advocacy, they also wrote to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell regarding their concerns with the dissolution of this formal program. Administrator Criswell responded to AHIMTA, indicating that despite successes, the AHIMT program has “not been able to establish a sustainable or robust AHIMT program with long-term viability.” She did indicate that the USFA will continue providing related training to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) partners (though she specified that USFA training efforts will apply to fire and EMS agencies) and that she has directed the USFA to collaborate with the FEMA Field Operations Directorate to continue support to AHIMTs.

This change and some of the wording in the Administrator’s response is obviously very concerning for the future of AHIMTs. I first question the Administrator’s statement about the AHIMT program not being sustainable long-term. Not that I’m doubting her, but I’m curious as to what measures of sustainability she is referring. I’m guessing most of the issue is that of funding, along with this never having fully been part of the USFA’s mission. Everything really does boil down to funding, but how much funding can a small program office really need? I’m also concerned about the USFA continuing with the AHIMT training mission (as I always have been), and even more so with the Administrator’s specification of fire and EMS (only?) being supported. While I have no issue at all with the USFA, and think they have done a great job with IMT and related training, their primary focus on fire and EMS (even absent the Administrator’s statement) can be a barrier (real or perceived) to other disciplines obtaining or even being aware of the training.

I firmly believe that a federal-level program office to continue managing, promoting, and administering a national AHIMT program is necessary. I do not think it should be in the USFA, however, as it has been, as their mission is not comprehensive in nature. It’s a program that should be managed properly within FEMA, though not by the FEMA Field Operations Directorate, which is primarily charged with FEMA’s own field operations. While this does include FEMA’s own IMATs, their focus is internal and with a very different purpose. My biggest inclination is for the program to be placed within the NIMS Integration Center, which already does a great deal of work that intersects with AHIMTs. On the training side of things, I’d like to see AHIMT training moved to FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI), to emphasize the inclusion of SLTT participants regardless of discipline. Incident management, as a comprehensive response function, is inclusive of all hazards and all disciplines and practices, just like emergency management.

The dissolution of the AHIMT program at the federal level makes no sense to me at all. The absence of a program office not only degrades the importance of incident management teams, but of incident management as a concept and a skillset – which I think also needs some vision beyond the current IMT model to support local incident management capabilities. I’m appreciative of the AHIMTA and their advocacy for a federal AHIMT program office, and I’m hopeful that they will be able to convince FEMA of this need and that a program office is properly restored.

© 2022 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

NIMS Change – Information and Communications Technology Branch

FEMA recently released a draft for the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Information and Communications Technology (ICT) guidance, providing a framework for incorporating ICT into the Incident Command System (ICS). The draft guidance in many ways formalizes many of the functional changes ICS practitioners have been incorporating for quite a while.

Essentially, the guidance creates an ICT branch within the Logistics Section. That branch can include the traditional Communications Unit as well as an Information Technology (IT) Service Unit. They also make allowances for a Cybersecurity Unit to be included the branch – not as an operational element for a cyber incident, but largely in a network security capacity. The creation of an ICT branch is also recommended for emergency operations centers (EOCs), regardless of the organizational model followed.

The IT Service Unit includes staffing for a leader, support specialists, and a help desk function, while the Cybersecurity Unit includes staffing for a leader, a cybersecurity planner, a cybersecurity coordinator, and a cyber support specialist. The position descriptions and associated task books are already identified pending final approvals and publication of this guidance, with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) seemingly ready to support training needs for many of the new positions.

I’m fully in support of this change. FEMA is accepting feedback through October 20, 2022, with instructions available on the website provided previous.

Not being a communications or IT specialist myself, I’m interested in the perspectives of others on this.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Legislative Advocacy in Emergency Management

Yet another discussion I’ve had with a few colleagues over the past few weeks highlighting a situation which absolutely needs to be improved upon. On a reasonably regular basis there are laws being considered across the US that directly or indirectly impact emergency management and our interests. In fact, there are more than we are even aware of. From annual budget bills, to bills about pets in disaster, bills impacting inclusion and equity, and bills about the National Disaster Safety Board, there is no shortage – and this is just an example of recent federal legislation. Last year, many state legislatures pushed back hard on the authority of their governors during a disaster. Be it at the federal or state level (or even local level), most of these things, unfortunately, are politicians wielding politics, often with little to no consideration of consequences, intended or otherwise, and the mechanics behind implementation. Emergency managers, on behalf of our own profession as well as the people we serve, MUST be involved.

Unfortunately, we don’t see enough legislative advocacy at state and federal levels. Some organizations claim they do, and I believe them, yet there is little transparency in this. Most states have emergency management associations, with membership composed of emergency managers working in the respective state. Some have active legislative advocacy, others do not. I found a reference from North Dakota State University’s acclaimed Center for Disaster Studies and Emergency Management that provides information on state EM associations. Unfortunately, the document is undated (so frustrating!!!), but I know it is at least a few years old as Vermont’s association is not listed. Most of these state associations don’t post anything publicly about their legislative advocacy work, so we have no idea what they may or may not be involved in.

At a national level in the US, there are two prominent emergency management membership organizations, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA). NEMA, of which I am a private sector member, maintains numerous topic-based committees, including a Legislative Committee. Accessible to members are various bill tracking summaries providing information on federal-level bills, budget requests, and such; and letters submitted to elected officials and voicing favor or opposition to certain actions or bills. Unfortunately, the most recent of any of these listed is from about a year ago. I’m hopeful NEMA has been taking action since then, but there is no evidence of such. Similarly, IAEM has a US Government Affairs Committee. They publicly list the organization’s legislative priorities and a variety of documents and links. While there are a few things from within the past year, there isn’t much – certainly nothing on the recent climate bill that was just signed by the president, the recent pets in disaster bill that’s working its way through the legislative process, or the National Disaster Safety Board bill that’s also progressing. Perhaps there is more available to members, but what’s posted certainly isn’t impressive.

Specifically in the case of NEMA and IAEM, they are both membership organizations, though they both claim to be advocating on behalf of the profession – not just their membership. It’s disappointing that we don’t see much of the work they claim to be doing. Likewise, if they are working on behalf of the profession, I’d like to see more of them gathering input on various topics of legislative interest from the greater emergency management community.

Having friends and colleagues in both organizations who are vocal about what their organizations do, I’ll head that off a bit… Don’t just tell me what you do. Show me. Show people across the profession what it is you are doing. Seek their input. Work collaboratively. At present, any measure of transparency in their legislative advocacy is well below par. And while there are numerous federal bills and actions to be tracked, there are even more at the state level that IAEM regions, state EM Directors (who are the voting membership of NEMA), and state associations should be aware of and working on.

While there will always be an extent of voicing an opinion on a bill that pops up or trying to get changes made before it progresses too far, the goal is to have emergency managers involved in the process from the start. We should be consulted, not only as subject matter experts, but also as the ones who are largely responsible for implementation. I see bills in process and/or get signed that may have great intent, but don’t use wording consistent with the profession, don’t consider the impacts of what they are requiring, or are simply poorly written with ambiguity and lack of clarity. While I’m sure there are some great success stories in certain areas of the country and even the world in regard to legislative advocacy (particularly as a consistent practice, not just a single success), I’m giving the efforts I see and hear about here in the US a failing grade. We must do better.

How to do better? And who? NEMA appears to be best positioned and comes with the weight of state directors at the core of their membership but may presently lack the resources or organizational structure to be effective at this. Legislative advocacy on such a scale requires not just a committee of volunteers, but it also requires staff support dedicated to research and establishing and maintaining constant contact with lawmakers. This is not an ad-hoc initiative, rather it is a collection of constant, steady-state activities. State associations can help by working closer with their state emergency management offices to flag matters of concern to emergency managers at the local and state levels, providing input to the process. We must be at the table.

Let’s take control of our practice.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

A bit of an update… I received a call from NEMA in response to this post. It’s great to see there are people paying attention! As expected, they do more than we see. While they do send email updates to members (something I admittedly need to pay better attention to) they aren’t as diligent about listing a lot of their activity on their website. Certainly some progress is being made, but we collectively need to do better as a profession and in a collaborative, cohesive manner.

Applying What We’ve Learned

The COVID-19 pandemic shattered so many of our planning assumptions. Not only assumptions on how a virus would act, spread, and react, but also assumptions on human behavior. Many of our plans accounted for security in the transportation and distribution of vaccines to address theft and violence caused by people who would commit these acts to get their hands on the vaccine (perhaps too many apocalyptic movies led us to this assumption?), we also falsely assumed that everyone would want the vaccine. The political divisiveness, faux science, misinformation, disinformation, and members of the public simply not caring enough for each other to take simple actions to prevent spread were largely unanticipated.

I think that had the virus been different, we would have seen things align better with our assumptions. Had the symptoms of the virus been more apparent, and had the mortality rate been higher, I think we would have seen more people wanting to protect themselves and each other. Would this have been fully aligned with our earlier assumptions? No. I think that we’ve learned that human behaviors aren’t as easy to generalize, but also the societal and political climate we are in, not just in the US but in many other nations around the world would have still perpetuated many of the problems we have and continue to see during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where to from here? I’m not a sociologist, but I’m a firm believer that much of what we do in emergency management is rooted in sociology. I’m sure an abundance of papers have already been authored on sociological and societal behaviors during the pandemic, with many more to come. I’m sure there are even some that are aligned to support and inform practices of emergency management, with valuable insights that we can use in planning and other activities. I look forward to having some time to discover what’s out there (and always welcome recommendations from colleagues). Speaking of implementation, what I do know is that we shouldn’t necessarily throw away the assumptions we had pre-COVID-19. Most of those assumptions may still be valid, under the right circumstances. The challenge is that there are many variables in play that will dictate what assumptions will apply. We do need to learn from what we have/are experiencing in the current pandemic, but this doesn’t hit the reset button in any way. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate what we thought to be true. It simply offers an alternative scenario. The next pandemic may yet align with a third set of truths.

While it makes things much more complex to not know which assumptions we will see the next time around, at least we know there are a range of possibilities, and we can devise strategies to address what is needed when it’s needed. What also adds complexity is the reinforcement of plans needing to be in place for various aspects of a pandemic and written to an appropriate level of detail. Most pandemic plans (and other related plans) that were in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic simply weren’t written to the level of detail necessary to get the job done. Yes, there is a matter of variables, such as assumptions, but the fundamental activities largely remain the same. As with many disasters, jurisdictions were scrambling to figure out not only what they needed to do but how, because their plans were written at too high a level. As always, we are challenged to ensure the right amount of flexibility in our plans while still providing enough detail.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

The Value of a Plan

Lately I’ve seen things circulating yet again which reflect on the old adage, one I’ve even used myself, that ‘plans are worthless, but planning is everything’. I believe this original quote is credited to Dwight D. Eisenhower, though the quote has been paraphrased and altered through the years. A point being made by this quote is that there is great value in the process of planning. The coordination between parties. The effort put into considering strategies and analyzing variables. Meeting people at the planning table for the first time instead of the heat of battle (or a response). And that such activity can have greater value than the documented outcome.

In recognition of these points, and with all due respect to Ike, I’ve grown tired of this quote and all derivations thereof. Why? Because plans are NOT worthless.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, plans CAN be worthless. I’ve seen plenty that fit this definition. But to lay a blanket over all plans, I think is an overgeneralization. In fact, it’s rather insulting to the time and effort put forth by the planning team and the plan writers and an insinuation of a waste of funds which may have been spent to support the process. If your plan is really that worthless, this is likely to be a reflection of a terribly executed planning process – which then really negates the spirt of the quote in the first place.

Yes, there is great value in the planning process WHEN DONE PROPERLY. But a well-executed planning process should also bring about a valuable plan. While I’ve never seen a plan address all circumstances of an incident with even moderate complexity, a well written plan should get you most of the way there. It should also lay the groundwork for getting you the rest of the way through moderate deviations from the plan and some improvisation. If you think of your plan as a roadmap, you need to anticipate and plan for the potential for multiple detours, GPS outages, potty breaks, and a flat tire or two. It’s a fundamental principle of emergency management that we need to expect the unexpected, which makes the unexpected not so unexpected after all.

If you approach planning with the anticipation that an incident will force you to deviate from your plan, accommodate that in the plan. As I’ve told people for years, don’t plan yourself into a corner. Give yourself outs. Identity contingencies and alternate strategies. Even if you don’t plot the entirety of the detour, identify the exits and give guidance for how the unknown might be navigated. Extreme detail for all possible alternatives will give us plans with hundreds or thousands of pages which no one will ever use.

Speaking of using plans, the disuse of plans might actually be the largest failure. It’s unfortunately a rare occasion I’ve ever seen anyone reference a plan during a response. A very early question should be ‘what does the plan say?’. We need to analyze our current circumstances and see how they apply to the plan assumptions, then use the guidance formulated in the plan the best way possible. For more on emergency planning, check out this post authored by me and this one authored by Ashley Morris.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Bring MAC Back

Multi Agency Coordination, or MAC, is a concept most frequently applied to incident management. MAC Groups are the most commonly defined, being a collection of executives from various agencies, organizations, and/or jurisdictions who may commit the resources of their respective agencies, and often provide high-level decision-making and policy coordination to support an incident. Multi Agency Coordination Systems (MACS) have also been commonly defined, essentially as the combination of resources assembled to support the implementation of multi agency coordination. Multi agency coordination, as a concept, however, transcends MAC Groups and MAC Systems. In incident response we see multi agency coordination occur at the field level and in emergency operations centers (EOCs), the latter of which is generally viewed as an operational extension of the MAC Group. We even see the concept of multi agency coordination specifically extended into Joint Information Systems and Joint Information Centers. Multi agency coordination can and often does also exist across all phases and mission areas associated with emergency management. This is simply a reinforcement that emergency management is a team sport, requiring the participation and input of multiple organizations before, during, and after a disaster as well as in steady-state operations. MAC can be applied in many effective ways to support all of this.

But where did MAC (the more formal version) go? MAC was one of the foundational aspects of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) at one time. But now if you look for information on MAC, you will be pretty disappointed. The NIMS doctrine provides barely a single page on MAC, which might be fine for a doctrinal document if there were supplemental material. Yet, when looking through FEMA’s page for NIMS Components, there are no documents specifically for MAC. There used to be a pretty decent independent study training course for MAC, which was IS-701. That course, and the materials provided, no longer exist as of September 2016. (side note… lots of states and other jurisdictions assembled NIMS Implementations Plans. Many of those have not been updated in years and still reference this as a required training course). You will find only scant references to MAC in some of the ICS and EOC courses, but not with the dedicated time that once existed.

So why is this a problem? MAC as a concept is still alive and well, but without doctrine, guidance, and training to reinforce and support implementation, it will fall into disuse and poor practice. Just in the past two weeks alone, I’ve had direct conversations about MAC with three different clients: one in regard to a state COVID AAR; the other for all hazard planning, training, and exercises; and the other for state-level coordination of a response to invasive species. Superficially, MAC seems an easy concept. You get a bunch of executive-level stakeholders in a room, on a call, or in a video chat to talk about stuff, right?  Sure, but there are right and wrong ways to go about it and best practices which should be embraced. There is no single true model for MAC, which is appropriate, but absent any reasonable guidance, MAC may be misapplied, which could become an impediment to a response – something we’ve certainly seen happen.

All that said, we need to bring significant MAC content and guidance back. One of the better resources I’ve found out there comes from Cal OES. It’s a bit dated (2013) but still relevant. While it does have some language and application specific to California, it is an all-hazards guide (actually adapted from a wild-fire oriented FIRESCOPE document). The document is good, but I’d like to see a national approach developed by FEMA (properly the National Integration Center). MAC is an incident management fundamental, with application even broader than response. Their importance for response, especially larger more complex incidents, is huge, yet the information available on MAC is fairly dismissive. While some content exists in training courses, most of the courses where the content is found are not courses which many MAC Group members would be taking. We must also not confuse training with guidance. One does not replace the other – in fact training should reflect guidance and doctrine.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP – The Contrarian Emergency Manager

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Guides for Senior Officials – Finding the Right Tool

In late March, FEMA released the ‘Local Elected and Appointed Officials Guide’ for national engagement review and feedback. My first thought before even looking at the document is that there are already so many of these in existence. Not necessarily from FEMA (though they have released some, such as a NIMS guide for elected officials), but the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) has one (actually two), and most state emergency management offices have developed and published their own guides suitable for local emergency managers.

Each guide out there has pros and cons. The draft FEMA guide is very… FEMA. It has the same look and feel of every other FEMA publication out there, which is both good and bad. While it offers a lot of references, external links, and has placeholders for case studies, it’s in smaller print and still comes in at 62 pages including the cover. While it has good information, I feel this is way too long for most elected and appointed officials to spend time on – plus it’s still incomplete in many ways because these officials need to learn about their own state systems, standards, and laws.

The NEMA elected official’s guide is much shorter, at 6 pages cover to cover. While this is a good marketing piece championing emergency management, it doesn’t provide any resources or state-specific information. I do appreciate the marketing aspect of it, though, as in many cases what we often need most is for elected and appointed officials to know what emergency management is and does, along with who their emergency manager is (or encouraging them to hire one).

NEMA also publishes a State Director Handbook. This comes in at 129 pages, but has a very specific target audience. Despite its length (and smaller print), it is well organized and has solid information for State Directors, including plenty of references. Their document (as of this post) is dated 2019, which while not very old, does need some updates in this dynamic environment.

As mentioned, many states produce their own documents. New York State has regularly published and updated a guide for elected officials. The current version comes in at 32 pages with larger print and all the relevant state-specific information needed, included contact information for regional emergency management personnel. Nebraska publishes a guide with 15 pages, though I find it missing some important information, such as contact information. Maryland publishes a guide that is 28 pages long and seems to have a lot of the right info.

While quantity doesn’t necessarily reflect quality, I think the goal is to have a shorter guide that gives the right information. FEMA’s draft guide has great information, but goes on with far too many paragraphs of information. I think the best value for elected and appointed officials (who are mostly at the local government level) is a guidebook coming from their state emergency management office. I think FEMA’s best approach is to provide tools and information for state emergency management offices to use, by way of a library of graphics and succinctly formatted prose, for the development and maintenance of their own guides.

As with all engagement efforts, FEMA is seeking feedback and is hosting a series of webinars to discuss the draft. Information can be found here.

As with all forms of communication, we need to find the right tools for the audiences we are trying to reach. Content, length, formatting, resources, and even things like font size and graphics all need to be considered. Someone may be great at document development, but poor at marketing – and in some situations we may need the perspective of both talents. We also need to consider if we are the right people to be providing certain information or if it’s best coming from another source, perhaps with our input.

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

2021: Another Horrible National Preparedness Report

FEMA’s Christmas present to us in 2021, as with the past several years, was the National Preparedness Report. Before I dive in, a few of reminders. 1) You can find my reviews of the reports of prior years here. 2) To get copies of the reports of prior years, FEMA archives these in the unrestricted side of the Homeland Security Digital Library. 3) Each report is derived from data from the year prior, so this December 2021 report actually covers the calendar year of 2020.

The 2021 report covers risks and capabilities, as have the reports of past years. It also covers ‘Management Opportunities’ which “the Federal Government, SLTTs (state, local, territories, and tribes), and the private sector could use to build capability and address capacity gaps.” It offers a slightly different perspective than the prior year’s ‘Critical Considerations for Emergency Management’, but fundamentally offers the same type of constructive commentary.

Keeping in mind that through much of 2020, the US, as with nations across the globe, was managing the COVID 19 Coronavirus pandemic. An observation from this report is that the word ‘COVID’ comes up 222 times in the document. That is a LOT of focus on one particular hazard. While I’ll grant that it impacted everyone, had a number of cascading impacts, and there are some statements made in the document about other hazards and concurrent incidents, I fear that when nearly every paragraph mentions COVID, we seem to lose a sense of all-hazard emergency management in the document and thus in the state of the nation’s preparedness. What I do appreciate, as with FEMA’s new Strategic Plan and other recent documents, there is acknowledgement and discussion around inequities in disaster relief. This is an important topic which needs to continue getting exposure. Related to this they also reference the National Risk Index that was released in 2020, which includes indices of social vulnerability. This is a valuable tool for all emergency managers.

The information on Risk included in the 2021 report is much more comprehensive and informative than that in the 2020 report, though they once again miss an opportunity to provide metrics and displays of infographics. While words are valuable, well-designed infographics tell an even better story. Most numbers given in this section of the report were buried in seemingly endless paragraphs of text, and there certainly were no deep analytics provided. It’s simply poor story telling and buries much of the value of this section.

While the mention of climate change had been forbidden in the past few reports, I would have expected the 2021 report to have some significant inclusion on the matter. Instead, it’s highlighted in two pages covering ‘Emerging Risks’ with very little information given. Climate change isn’t emerging, folks, it’s here.

Capabilities are a significant focus of the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) and Stakeholder Preparedness Review (SPR) completed by states, Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funded regions, and others. As part of the THIRA/SPR process, stakeholders traditionally identify their own preparedness goals (capability targets) for each of the 32 Core Capabilities outlined in the National Preparedness Goal. For the 2021 report, FEMA limited the capability targets to a given set focused on pandemic-related capabilities. As mentioned earlier, while the pandemic is certainly a principal concern, and many of the capability targets can be leveraged toward other hazards, I think this was a failure of the all-hazards approach. Further, with this focus, the 2021 report fails to provide most of the metrics provided in reports of the past, identifying, in aggregate, where stakeholders assessed their own standing in each Core Capability. This is the most significant gauge of preparedness, and they provide so little information on it in this report that I feel the report fails at its primary goal.

I’ve mentioned in the past that the metrics provided in previous reports are superficial at best and provide little by way of analysis. Unfortunately, the metrics provided in the 2021 report are even more lacking, and what there is only provides a snapshot of 2020 instead of any trend analysis.

What is included in this section of the document that I appreciated were some infographics compiling information on some of the capability targets that FEMA pre-determined. Unfortunately, they didn’t even provide these infographics for all of the limited set of capability targets, and the information provided is still fairly weak. Again, this severely limits the value of this being a national report on preparedness.

The last major component of the document is Management Opportunities. This section similarly provides seemingly endless paragraphs of text, but does approach these management opportunities like a strategic plan, setting goals, objectives, and (some) possible metrics for each opportunity. These offer valuable approaches, which coincidentally dovetail well into the goals of FEMA’s new strategic plan and will hopefully provide some solid value to emergency management programs at all levels. I think this section is really the most valuable component of the entire report. Unfortunately, it’s the shortest. The opportunities identified in the report are:

  • Developing a Preparedness Investment Strategy
  • Addressing Steady-State Inequities, Vulnerabilities, and a Dynamic Risk Landscape
  • Strengthen Processes Within and Better Connect Areas of the National Preparedness System

Overall, while there are some pockets of good content, this is another disappointing report. FEMA still isn’t telling us much about the state of preparedness across the nation; and in fact this report tells us even less than prior reports, which I didn’t think was possible. They attempt to tell stories through some focused discussion on a few capability targets, which has some value, but are providing little to no information on the big picture; not the current state of preparedness and certainly not any analysis of trends. Even the section on Management Opportunities isn’t consistent in identifying metrics for each opportunity.

What remains a mystery to me is that it takes a full year to develop this report. The metrics I allude to throughout my commentary are largely easy to obtain and analyze, as much of this information comes to FEMA in quantifiable data; also making trend analysis a rather easy chore. Last year’s report, while still severely lacking, was formatted much better than this year’s, which lacked a vision for story telling and communication of data.

Simply put, emergency managers and other recipients of this report (Congress?) should not accept this type of reporting. Despite coming in at 94 pages, it tells us so little and in my mind does not meet the spirit of the requirement for a National Preparedness Report (this is defined in Presidential Policy Directive 8). States, UASIs, and others who complete and submit THIRAs and SPRs should be livid that their efforts, while certainly (hopefully) valuable to them, are being poorly aggregated, studied, analyzed, and reported as part of the National Preparedness Report. In fact I feel that the 2021 report is telling a story that FEMA wants to tell, supported by select data and case studies; rather than actually reporting on the state of preparedness across the nation, as informed by federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, private sector, and non-profit stakeholders.  

As always, the thoughts of my readers are more than welcome.

Happy New Year to everyone!

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

State of Emergency and Emergency Orders

In times of disaster, many jurisdictions will declare a state of emergency, often without fully realizing the potential of what that emergency declaration can do. Many jurisdictions might also NOT declare a state of emergency, similarly because they don’t realize the potential of what it can do. In the US, state laws provide for certain powers of governors and local officials, which include the ability to declare a state of emergency (or similar language). State laws typically provide for a formal procedure for the declaration, which generally include certain notifications to other government officials and the public. Issuing a state of emergency can be one of the most important things that elected officials can do to support response and recovery efforts. While declaring a state of emergency is itself important, it’s really what you do with it that counts.

Most state officials are fairly well versed in emergency declarations, but many local officials really don’t know what an emergency declaration is or does, much less how to actually issue one. Because of the differences in state laws, this is really on state emergency management agencies to promote to their local governments. Many do a good job of it, including it in training and orientation materials for new local emergency management officials, as well as guidance for local elected officials. While I strongly feel that emergency managers should be advising elected officials on state of emergency declarations, many jurisdictions obviously don’t have their own emergency manager. I’ve also seen many emergency managers simply not communicate the information with their local elected officials until they feel it’s necessary. Obviously this isn’t the way to go. Elected officials with this authority should be well aware of it, how it’s done, when it should be done, and how it’s done well ahead of any disaster – even if the EM wants to (and should) be advising when the time comes.

So what can the declaration of a state of emergency get you? First of all, it makes an important statement that there is a serious situation probable or at hand. Most state laws seem to allow for the situation to be from an incident or event, and arising from a natural hazard, technological hazard, or human action. The declaration provides a notice to the public, surrounding jurisdictions, and the state that there is a danger to the public and/or property. I’ve seen disaster declarations for a specific property, a neighborhood or other geographic area, or for entire jurisdictions; any of which can be valid depending on the situation at hand. Unfortunately, this is where I see a lot of emergency declarations stop. They simply aren’t utilized any further than this.

Some states require local emergency declarations to support a request for state assistance, while others do not require one to be in place. While state laws have some differences, one of the most significant doors that an emergency declaration opens is the ability for emergency issuance or suspension of local laws. These can, again depending upon specific state laws, allow for things such as:

  • Establishing a curfew and/or limiting traffic or access to and within certain areas
  • Order prolonged evacuation of buildings and areas
  • Closing places of amusement or assembly
  • Limiting or suspending the sale, use, or transportation of alcoholic beverages, firearms, explosives, or other hazardous materials
  • Establishing emergency shelters or other facilities
  • Suspension of local laws, ordinances, or regulations (in whole or in part) which may prevent, hinder, or delay disaster response or recovery actions.

Over the past nearly two years, we’ve seen emergency orders issued regarding limiting density in certain locations, the requirement of masks, requirement of vaccinations, etc. Unfortunately, the political divisiveness of the pandemic has caused emergency declarations and emergency orders to become political, with many state legislatures pushing to make changes to state laws to restrict the ability of governors and local elected officials in this regard. While checks and balances are important, we need to be very careful in how we may inadvertently hinder a response and life safety actions. These matters must be carefully reviewed with multiple perspectives and scenarios studied.

Declaring a state of emergency should be a consideration in your emergency plan. It’s an important tool for incident management, and just like most tools in higher level incident management, we don’t do it with enough frequency to remember how to do it. Ensure that emergency operations plans include information on declarations, including a job aid for issuing a state of emergency and associated emergency orders. As with all aspects of our plans, it should also be exercised. It’s a great item to include for discussion in a tabletop exercise and to go through the motions of in a functional exercise.

It’s also important to note that state laws may allow for various entities to declare a state of emergency. For example, in New York State, a county Sheriff can declare a ‘special emergency’. Doing so provides the Sheriff with specific authorities to support the management of an emergency. While I always appreciate having several avenues available to tackle a problem, I’m regularly concerned with duplication of effort, or, even worse, conflicting information. It certainly could occur that the emergency orders of a Sheriff’s declaration of a ‘special emergency’, the orders of a county executive, and those of local governments could conflict or not be consistent. This is why relationships and ongoing coordination are important.

What best practices have you seen for issuing a state of emergency and emergency orders?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EM Engagement with the Public

Emergency management is notoriously bad at marketing. People have a much better idea of what most other government agencies do, or simply (at least) that they exist. Establishing awareness and understanding of emergency management not only for the people you serve, but those you work with can go a long way toward meeting your goals.

As with any message everything is about the audience. Emergency management has a variety of audiences. While we have some programs and campaigns oriented toward individuals, much of our work is with organizations, including non-profits, other government agencies, and the private sector. All in all, most emergency managers are pretty good at interfacing and coordinating with organizations. It’s the public that we still struggle with. Emergency management inherited the burden of individual and family preparedness from the days of civil defense. Things were different then. Civil defense focused on one threat, it was persistent, and the calls to action were tangible and even practiced with the public in many communities.

And yes, I said that our present engagement with the public is a burden. Can it make a difference? Sure. Does it make a difference? Sometimes. While some can argue that any measurable difference we make is good, we all need to acknowledge that campaigns and programs for the public are often a huge source of frustration for emergency managers across the nation and elsewhere. We feel compelled to do it, but so often we can’t make that connection. While I think it is a worthwhile mission and there are successes, the usual rhetoric is stale (i.e., make a plan, build a kit, be informed, get involved) and our return on investment is extremely low.

We need to do more than handing out flyers at the county fair. Some communities have been able to find success through partner agencies or organizations that actually do work with the public on a regular basis, which I think is a better formula for success. These agencies and organizations already have an in with a certain portion of the population. They have an established presence, rapport, and reputation. Given that agencies and organizations have different audiences, it is best to engage more than one to ensure the best coverage throughout the community.

As mentioned, our usual rhetoric also needs to change. With continued flooding here in the northeast US, I saw a message from a local meteorologist on Twitter recently giving some information on the flooding and saying to ‘make a plan’. Fundamentally that’s good. Unfortunately, this message is pretty consistent with what we put out most of the time in emergency management. Yes, it’s a call to action, but incredibly non-specific. Should I plan to stay home? Should I plan to evacuate? Should I plan to get a three-week supply of bread and milk? I’ll grant that Twitter isn’t really the best platform for giving a lot of detail, but I think we can at least tell the public what to make a plan for and provide a reference to additional information.

Should EM disengage with the public at large? No, absolutely not. But we do need to find better ways to engage, and I think that really requires a keen eye toward marketing, analyzing our audiences to determine what kinds of messaging will work best, how to reach them, and what is important to them. Two messages a year about preparedness doesn’t cut it. Neither does a bunch of messages giving the FEMA hotline after a disaster. It needs to be consistent. It needs to be fun. It needs to be engaging. It should be multimodal – social media, speaking at local meetings, articles in the town newsletter, etc. Don’t be boring, don’t be technical, don’t be doom and gloom. Make it clear, make it interesting (to them… not you), and make it brief. Essentially, don’t be so ‘government’ about it. (The same applies for any corporate emergency management program as well).

I’ll also add that having a presence with the public in your community is, in a practical sense, a presence with voters. While emergency managers often talk about the need for emergency management to be politically neutral, there are a lot of interests that align with emergency management that are clearly partisan, giving cause for us to be political. For context (because ‘politics’ has become such a bad word) I’m not talking about campaigning for someone, attending a rally, or spewing political rhetoric; but rather being engaged in political processes, of which a huge part is having a regular and strong presence. Even with partisan issues aside, emergency management requires funding and other resources to be effective, and that often requires an extent of political engagement and support. We need to actively and regularly promote what we do and what we accomplish. No, it’s not usually as sexy as putting out a big fire or building a bridge, but most fire and highway departments don’t miss an opportunity to get that stuff in the news. That’s why people know them.

Given the fairly universal benefits to emergency managers everywhere, I’d love to see FEMA engage with a marketing firm to produce a broad range of reusable content. TV and radio spots; website and social media graphics; customizable newsletter articles and handouts; speaking points for meetings (no PowerPoint necessary, please), interviews, and podcasts; etc. This also can’t be done every 10 or 15 years. It’s something that should be refreshed every two years to stay relevant, fresh, and meaningful, and with the input of actual emergency managers and public information officers. Speaking of PIOs, if you think your only work with emergency management is during a disaster, think again. PIOs, even if not within EM, should absolutely be engaged in these efforts.

FEMA has produced some material in the past, as have some states for use by local governments, but we need more and we can’t hold our breath for this to be done. Emergency management is, however, a great community of practice. If you have a successful practice or message, please share it! Bring it to your networks or even provide information in a comment to this post.

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®