Preparedness in the Pandemic Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

The Universal Adversary Mindset

Some of you are probably familiar with the concept of the Universal Adversary (UA). From previous Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) doctrine, UA is “a fictionalized adversary created by compiling known terrorist modifications, doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures in live, virtual, and constructive simulations. The UA is based on real realistic threats … providing participants with a realistic, capabilities-based opponent.” UA is often executed by a Red Team, which serves as an exercise-controlled opposing force for participants.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard less and less of the Universal Adversary concept. DHS used to have a UA Program supporting terrorism-based prevention and responses exercises, dating back to the early 2000s, but lately I’ve neither seen or heard anything about the continuation of the program or capability. (can any readers confirm the life or death of this capability?)

Regardless, the concept of UA offers a fair amount of opportunity, not only within the Prevention Mission Area, but across all of exercise design and perhaps other areas of preparedness – yes, even across all hazards. Of course, I recognize the difference between human perpetrators and other hazards, but just stick with me on this journey.

The fact of the matter is that we so often seem to have, as the 9/11 Commission Report made the phrase infamous, a failure of imagination in our preparedness. I’m not saying we need to go wild and crazy, but we do need to think bigger and a bit more creatively – not only in the hazards that threaten us, but also in our strategies to address them.

The UA concept is applied based on a set of known parameters, though even that gives me some concern. In the Prevention world, this means that a Red Team will portray a known force, such as ISIS, based upon real intel and past actions. We all know from seeing mutual fund commercials on TV that past performance does not predict future results. While humans (perpetrators and defenders alike) gravitate toward patterns, these rules can always and at any time be broken. The same can be said for instances of human error or negligence (see the recent and terrible explosion in the Port of Beirut), or in regard to someone who we have a love-hate relationship with… Mother Nature. We need to be ever vigilant of something different occurring.

There is the ever-prolific debate of scenario-based preparedness vs capability-based preparedness. In my opinion, both are wrong and both are right. The two aren’t and shouldn’t be set against each other as if they can’t coexist. That’s one mindset we need to move away from as we venture further into this. We need to continue with thinking about credible worst-case scenarios, which will still be informed by previous occurrences of a hazard, where applicable, but we need to keep our minds open and thinking creatively. Fundamentally, as the UA concept exists to foil and outthink exercise participants, we need to challenge and outthink ourselves across all areas of preparedness and all hazards.

A great example of how we were foiled, yet again, by our traditional thinking is the current Coronavirus pandemic. Practically every pandemic response plan I’ve read got it wrong. Why? Because most pandemic plans were based upon established guidance which emergency managers, public health officials, and the like got in line and followed to the letter, most without thinking twice about it. I’m not being critical of experts who tried to predict the next pandemic – they fell into the same trap most of us do in a hazard analysis – but the guidance for many years has remained fairly rigid. That said, I think the pandemic plans that exist shouldn’t be sent through the shredder completely. The scenarios those plans were based upon are still potentially valid, but Coronavirus, unfortunately, started playing the game in another ball field. We should have been able to anticipate that – especially after the 2003 SARS outbreak, which we pretty much walked away from with ignorant bliss.

It’s not to say that we can anticipate everything and anything thrown at us, but a bit of creativity can go a long way. Re-think and re-frame your hazards. Find a thread and pull it; see where it leads you. Be a little paranoid. Loosen up a bit. Brainstorm. Freeform. Improv. Have a hazard analysis party! (I come darn close to suggesting an adult beverage – take that as you will). We can apply the same concepts when designing exercises. Consider that in the world of natural hazards, Mother Nature is a Universal Adversary. Any time we hope to have out-thought her, she proves us wrong, and with considerable embarrassment. We also try to out-think the oft stupidity and negligence of our fellow humans… clearly, we’ve not been able to crack that nut yet.

“Think smarter, not harder” is such an easy thing to say, but difficult, often times, to do. So much of what we do in emergency management is based on traditional practices, most of which have valid roots, but so often we seem reluctant to think beyond those practices. When the media reports that a disaster was unexpected, why the hell wasn’t it expected? Consider that many of our worst disasters are the ones we never thought of. Challenge yourself. Challenge others. It is not in the best interests of this profession or for the people we serve to stay stuck in the same modes of thinking. Be progressive. Break the mold. Do better.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

It’s Not Too Late To Prepare

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

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

Assessment

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

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

Planning

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

Training

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

Exercises

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

Evaluation and After Action

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

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

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

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Improving the HSEEP Templates

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

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

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

Some of my bigger gripes…

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

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

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

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

NEW: 2020 HSEEP Revision

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

We’re Off on the Road to Central City

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do have a couple of noted observations for improvement.

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

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

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

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

10 Strategies for Improving Emergency Management

I recently listened to an interview with author and professor Sean McFate.  In the interview he discusses the changing landscape of warfare and what the US must do to keep up, particularly since we are still largely stuck in a mindset of conventional warfare.  For those interested in this very insightful interview, it was on The Security Studies Podcast.

Obviously, a great deal has changed over the decades in warfare, but many philosophies and perspectives have remained the same.  As I listened to the interview, I found McFate’s words to ring true for emergency management as well.  We have had some changes in focus from civil defense, to natural hazards, to terrorism, and now toward what seems to be the most comprehensive all-hazards perspective we’ve ever had.  We’ve also had changes in technology and methodologies, but we still seem stuck in a lot of old ways of thinking.  Emergency management isn’t linear.  In fact the lines are blurred so much that it’s hardly cyclical (another old way of thinking).

McFate espoused that high-level warfare strategies should span administrations and leadership changes.  They should be durable and adaptable.  In the interview he discussed 10 new rule of war, which were summarized from his new book.  As such, I offer 10 strategies for improving emergency management.  You will see that most of these items aren’t radical.  The fundamentals of what we do in emergency management must certainly persist, but some perspectives do need to change.  Here’s what I have to offer:

  1. More incentivization for data-driven hazard mitigation and resilience

There are a few items to unpack in this one.  First of all, fully bringing the concept of resilience on board and marrying it up hazard mitigation.  Where there is some overlap in the two, there are also distinct differences.  Ultimately, however, the ideal end state for the two is the same: eliminate or significantly reduce hazards and impacts from those hazards.  The more we start discussing hazard mitigation and resilience together, the more we will see the linkages between the two.  Hazard mitigation funding, likewise, needs to be broadened to incorporate concepts of resilience.

Another key item here is making these projects data-driven.  Let’s do a better job of quantifying risk in relatable terms.  Risk needs to include not only immediate potential impacts, but also cascading effects.  Once we have that impact data, then root cause analysis is important.  Some of this is regulation, some engineering, some human behavior.  Also keep in mind that this needs to truly be all-hazards.

Lastly, incentivization.  Incentivization isn’t just funding, and gold stickers are not tangible incentives.  Make it meaningful.  Also make these incentives more immediate.  It’s great that mitigation measures can result in a locality paying a lower percentage in the event of a future public assistance declaration, but that could happen years from now, or it might not.  That’s still good to include, but let’s be real – tax payers and law makers don’t just want to dream about the reward, they want to enjoy it now.

  1. Ground preparedness in reality

I’ve seen a lot of preparedness activities (planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercises) based on someone’s “good ideas” instead of actual data and needs.  It’s no coincidence that I just mentioned data in the previous point.  How many jurisdictions actually use all that data from their hazard mitigation plan, generally synthesized at significant expense, for other emergency management needs?  It’s quite a rare occasion.  Why?  Most practitioners view hazard mitigation to be a totally different animal.  It’s not sexy response stuff, so they don’t see a need to pay attention to it.  Instead, they fully dismiss what was done for hazard mitigation planning and do their own hazard analysis.  It seems to be a no-brainer that we should do better at developing one system to meet both needs.

Needs assessments take time and that has a cost, but leadership should be making informed decisions about what preparedness needs exist.  Absent conducting a needs assessment, the wrong decisions can easily be made, which results in a waste of time and money.  Most every emergency management agency has a story of time and money wasted on knee-jerk reactions.

Needs assessments should be applied to every aspects of preparedness.  In planning, we want to minimize assumptions and maximize data.  If an incident of the type you are looking at has never happened in your jurisdiction, make comparisons other similar jurisdictions.  Training programs should be based on identified needs, and individual courses should be developed based upon identified needs.  Probably a good opportunity for me to mention that ICS Training Sucks (but a realistic training needs assessment would fix it).  Similarly, the objectives we identify for exercises should be grounded in recognizing what capabilities and plans we need to validate.

Observation: When we look at the 32 Core Capabilities from the National Preparedness Goal, Threat and Hazard Identification is a Core Capability sitting in the Mitigation mission area.  If threat and hazard identification is so fundamental to what we do across all of emergency management, why isn’t it a common capability along with Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning?  Perhaps that needs to change?

  1. Boost regional efforts and coalitions

It’s interesting that everyone talks about how emergency management is a collaborative effort, yet in practice so many are resistant, reluctant, or negligent in working collaboratively.  Sure, it’s often easier to write a plan yourself, but the end result likely isn’t as good as it would be from a group effort.  In healthcare preparedness (yep, that’s a part of emergency management, too), they have been using regional healthcare coalitions.  These coalitions cover all aspects of healthcare, from hospitals, to clinics, to private practices, nursing homes, and EMS, along with health departments.

There is certainly precedent in emergency management to work collaboratively.  There are required collaborations, such as Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), as well as those emphasized in practice, such as in plan development.  LEPCs are great, and often under-utilized in a lot of areas.  In some areas, especially those with heavy industry, they are large and busy, and can’t really take on any more than they already do, but in other areas they have much less to do and could certainly work with a dual purpose as a standing emergency management coordination or advisement entity.  Regardless of how it’s done, build a local or regional EM coalition.  The relationships and perspectives, if properly organized and tasked, will reap some great benefits.  Don’t forget to make them regional, if that makes sense for you.  Disasters don’t give a damn about the funny lines we draw on maps.  And don’t just make these groups about meetings… actually engage them in meaningful preparedness activities and other aspects of emergency management.

  1. Embrace scholar-practitioners

One of the items McFate mentioned in his interview was embracing scholar-practitioners. Now I’m not the kind of person to espouse that a practitioner is any better than a scholar, or vice versa.  They each have an important role, especially in a profession like emergency management, where there is a lot of theory (more than most people realize) and a lot of application.  That said, we don’t have to pick a side.  You can be whoever you want, in fact you can even do both.  Does being a practitioner mean that you have to be a full-time emergency manager? Nope.  Being a scholar doesn’t necessarily mean you must be a professor or a student pursuing an advanced degree, either.  I would absolutely argue that regularly reading some research papers or a book on related topics, or even this blog, makes you a scholar.  If you have interest beyond just direct application, and like to think or discuss broader ideas in emergency management, that makes you a scholar.

I think it is scholar-practitioners that have that capacity to advance our profession more than others.  Not only is this group doing, but they are thinking about how to do it better.  If they come up with an idea of how to do it better, they have the greatest chance of actually giving their idea a try.  They are also the ones most prone to share their lessons learned, both successes and otherwise.

  1. Understand emergency management as a social science

Speaking of theory, we need to recognize emergency management for what it is.  While specific applications of emergency management may be within niche areas of practice and academic disciplines, most of emergency management is really a social science.  Social science is fundamentally about the relationships of people.  That is what we do in emergency management.  There are aspects of social science that may apply more than others, such as sociology or public health, but we also need to embrace political science.

In application, emergency managers need to become more astute in politics.  Not the partisan running for office type of politics, but politics as an aspect of governance, policy, and relationship building.  As an emergency manager, it’s your job to understand what every agency and department does in your jurisdiction, and how they fit into the function of emergency management.  Yes, you can espouse the benefits of emergency management and business continuity to them, but how do they fit into emergency management?  Some connections are easy to make, especially the public safety ones or extensions of that such as transportation, public works, and public health.  But many are quick to dismiss administrative, support, and social welfare agencies.  The better you understand them and are able to champion their involvement in emergency management, the stronger coalition you will build.

  1. Mindset: always in the disaster space

I mentioned in the introduction that the lines between the phases of emergency management are blurred.  We used to teach (and some still do) of distinct phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.  Sure it’s easier to teach about these when we put them in their own box, but that gives the impression to many that we only do one at a time.  The reality is that most jurisdictions are certainly doing mitigation, preparedness, and recovery right now – and maybe even some element of response.

The main point here is that we need to change mindsets of people.  I’ve had plenty of people ask me what emergency managers do when there isn’t an active disaster.  I certainly have no problem satisfying this common curiosity, but the simple fact that they ask means that we aren’t promoting enough of what we do.  We need put ourselves and others in the mindset that are always operating in the disaster space.  It doesn’t need to mean that there is always a disaster response we are involved in, but we need to be very clear that we are active every single day in disaster-related work.

I’ll take this one step further, and that’s to suggest that the primary function of every government agency is emergency management.  Consider that we have roads not only for ease of everyone’s transportation, but so that we can more quickly and efficient respond to save lives and property.  Our public works departments provide potable water and sewage systems for public health purposes, which is part of the greater emergency management family.  I could give examples for every government agency.  The administrative departments support those agencies and the implementation of their missions.

It’s also worth mentioning here that since several of these agencies have involvement in our infrastructure that we need to seriously step up our investments in infrastructure, which not only make it better and more effective and efficient, but also more resilient (tying back to my first point)

  1. Step away from tactics

Far too many emergency managers still focus on tactics.  In defense of that, it’s easy to do, especially if you come from a public safety background.  I still think it’s important to understand tactics.  That said, an effective emergency manager needs to think less about implementation and more about strategy and relationships. There are plenty of tacticians out there.  One more isn’t needed.  What is needed is someone who can step back and see the forest for the trees, as they say.

  1. Private citizens won’t prepare, but volunteers can be engaged

We need to let citizen preparedness go.  I’m not saying we should give up on our message of individual and family preparedness, because it can make a difference, but we need to recognize that most citizens simply won’t do it.  This is a concept that has largely evolved out of society.  In the days of civil defense we were engaging a different generation of people.  We also presented them with a credible and scary threat that was being put in their face all the time.  Now is not that time.  Sure, there are models of citizen preparedness that still work to extraordinary lengths, such as in Cuba, but government oppression and a cold war mentality contribute significantly to that.  Our society has evolved to an extent of individuals not having the time, wherewithal, or interest in preparing themselves.  Sure there are exceptions to every rule, but largely, society has an expectation of being provided for by the government.

Citizen engagement, on the other hand, is still a great reserve that we can spend more effort tapping.  Trained, organized volunteers can accomplish an incredible extent of activity.  Volunteer management is no easy task, though.  Programs need to be developed and promoted, volunteers recruited and trained, and organizations sustained.  Volunteers must be given purpose and don’t forget about the critical link with government… how will this happen.  Religious institutions, corporate and union volunteer groups, and entities such as CERT are all great.  We just need to do a better job at incentivizing, managing, and engaging.

  1. Plan better for recovery

Ah, recovery.  Everyone talks about how we need to do it better, but too few resources are applied to making that happen.  Remember that preparedness starts with a needs assessment and planning.  We can identify estimates of disaster impacts from which we then extrapolate reasonable benchmarks of performance within the core capabilities of recovery.  The problem is that most recovery plans are written at too high a level and generally not followed through on.  Why? Maybe because the emphasis is always on the life safety aspect of response plans.  Certainly that’s important (and we can still do so much better with our response plans), but most recovery oriented plans fall incredibly short.  It seems that most governments that even bother to write recovery plans only do so to the extent of the plan being a framework.  They identify what the goals are, what agencies are involved, and provide some high-level objectives.  Typically no strategy is provided and the management of the recovery function is rarely mentioned, despite such a focus that we have on incident management.

I just recently had a discussion with a client about recovery exercises.  They were approached about the need to conduct more of them.  Smartly, they responded by putting the focus back on the requester by asking if the recovery plans were ready to be exercised.  Once the requestor took a moment to consider, their answer was no.  Remember that (in most cases) exercises validate plans.  We can conduct an exercise in the absence of a plan, but generally that only confirms the lack of a plan.  Plans establish the standards of performance that we use in exercises and in real life.

  1. Use technology to the greatest extent, but prepare for austerity

Ah, technology.  It’s a wonderful thing, until it doesn’t work.  I’m a big fan of the efficiencies that technology provide, especially when technology is developed to solve a specific problem, not to create new ones.  Processes should dictate technology needs, not the other way around.

Technology is mostly a data tool.  It helps us to communicate more quickly and efficiently; access, organize, and transmit data; visualize data; and collect data.  More specifically, we use technology platforms such as EOC management systems and GIS.  These have allowed us to make significant strides in what we do and how we do it.  I’ve used dashboards, databases, maps, 3D models, simulators, and more to do my job.

I’ve seen some emergency managers simply not embrace technology.  And I mean at all.  Not even a computer.  I understand how they are able to function, and though they may have brilliant minds for emergency management, they are simply not able to do much without an assistant to research, type, print, and even communicate for them.  While I’m seeing this less and less, there are still some of these folks out there, and it’s not just older generations, either.

There are many who have a reasonable literacy of technology, but still aren’t embracing inexpensive or even free resources that would make them more effective.  This is even more important for the majority of emergency managers, who are typically one-person offices with few resources.   Maybe listing some of these resources will occur in a future post of mine.

Despite the wonders of technology, I often advocate procedures for going dark (i.e. when your technology fails).  After all, we are emergency managers, are we not?  Every EOC that uses a technology tool to manage functions within their EOC should absolutely have a low tech back up, procedures and training in how to implement it, and an annual exercise to test those procedures and keep people in practice.  Carbon paper and gas station maps are your friends.

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Well there they are: 10 strategies for improving emergency management.  As I stated in the introduction, there really isn’t anything revolutionary here, although some concepts might be a bit controversial, which I am happy to embrace.  Perhaps I missed an important point or have a poor perspective on something.  I absolutely welcome your comments and feedback, as always.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

 

Emergency Management and Public Safety Should Prepare Like a Sports Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠

Emergency Management Exercises: Not for the Inexperienced

Many think exercise design is easy.  I’ve seen agencies relegate it to interns and new staff with little supervision, or even performed by seasoned emergency managers with little concept of what the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) is.  Sadly, we have people completing HSEEP training and even FEMA’s Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) program, thinking they are ready to conquer the world of preparedness exercises, but with little practical experience designing exercises under their belts.  We all need to learn sometime.

Just as any organization or jurisdiction should be eased into their exercise program, exercise designers need to be eased into designing exercises.  They should be starting small and with focused tasks, always under the mentorship of someone experienced, even if they aren’t within your own agency, to give some guidance and feedback.  While HSEEP gives a lot of great guidance, exercise design can quickly become complex.  It can be easy to lose track of tasks or have an oversight.  There are political matters, organizational needs, safety issues, and simply good exercise practices that all need to be recognized and addressed.  I’ve seen far too many exercises go off the rails due to a lack of awareness of these issues, poor exercise design, and poor exercise management.

Have partner agencies (even if not participating) been properly notified?  Do notifications need to go out to the media or public so they are not alarmed?  How about dispatch?  Every exercise, especially operations-based exercises, should be periodically evaluated for risk throughout the design process.  Identify what actions or lack thereof can cause things to go bad.  Consider politics, the media, the public, and safety of participants, observers, and exercise staff.  Do you need a weapons policy?  How will you enforce it?  Are there risks associated with traffic?  How will exercise staff communicate?  The template for the Exercise Plan (ExPlan) prompts you to address some things, but there may be additional needs.

What contingencies do you have for inclimate weather?  Maybe you need to dip into the ICS tool box and conduct an incident (exercise) safety analysis, from that developing a safety plan (you can probably get a qualified/experienced safety officer to help you with this).  Consider what operations will be conducted in the exercise, what can go wrong, how you will mitigate against them, and what resources are needed if something does go wrong.  In the event of a real-world emergency, what needs to happen?  Should you have EMS standing by?  Should you have a rapid response team in reserve for a rescue situation?  The information assembled in your risk assessment and safety plans should be provided to exercise staff prior to the exercise as part of their pre-exercise briefings.

As with exercise design, it can be a great learning experience for new staff to be part of the exercise support staff, but don’t put them in charge.  You should have experienced staff serving in the key positions of exercise director, lead controller, and lead evaluator.  If you are using a simcell, you want a strong and experienced simcell lead.  Safety matters aside, the staff of an operations-based exercise need to have great awareness of what’s going on and excellent communication up their chain of command and with the simcell to ensure that the exercise is flowing properly.  For a discussion-based exercise, your facilitators should be experienced as well.  Participants in discussion-based exercises may take a discussion in a different direction.  While this is generally not desired, sometimes it does bring great unintended results.  An experienced facilitator should know how to properly handle this to ensure that participants and stakeholder agencies are getting the most benefit.

Far too many poorly designed exercises have gotten to execution, resulting in a failure to accomplish the exercise objectives, frustrating participants, and even resulting in inter-agency political issues or injuries.  Even a well-designed exercise can be poorly conducted or facilitated, getting similar results.  If you are new to emergency management and have little experience in the design, conduct, and evaluation of exercises, there is no shame in asking for help or at least another set of eyes to look over your exercise documents.  While we want to encourage learning and growth, no one learns properly by being shoved into a situation with no guidance and so many pitfalls.  Train people up properly, giving them mentored practical experience to compliment their classroom training. If you don’t have the personnel in place, there are a number of well experienced and well qualified firms (ahem…) that provide these services.

For more information on running an exercise program, take a look at this 10-part blog post.

What tips do you have for people new to the exercise world?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™

2018-2019 HSEEP Training

Based on my listing last year of Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) training, some have asked recently where they can find HSEEP training.  One of the most convenient sources is the web-based program run through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI).  This course, K0146, is conducted in a live webinar over several blocks of time.

The schedule can be found at this link.  Just type K0146 into the course search field.

Also keep in mind that many state emergency management/homeland security offices offer the HSEEP course in a classroom setting.

-TR