FEMA’s 2017 Hurricane Season AAR

A few days ago, FEMA published its after action report (AAR) for the 2017 hurricane season.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that last year was nothing short of devastating.  The major hurricane activity revolved around Hurricane Harvey (Texas), Hurricane Irma (Caribbean/South Atlantic coast), and Hurricane Maria (Caribbean), but domestic response efforts were also significantly dedicated to a rough season of wildfires in California.  While each of these major disasters was bad enough on its own, the overlap of incident operations between them is what was most crippling to the federal response.  Along with these major incidents were the multitude of typical localized incidents that local, state, and some federal resources manage throughout the year.  2017 was a bad year for disasters.  I don’t think any nation could have supported disaster response as well as the US did.

No response is ever perfect, however, and there were certainly plenty of issues associated with last year’s hurricane responses. Politicians and media outlets made issues in Texas and Puerto Rico very apparent.  While some of these issues may rest on the shoulders of FEMA and other federal agencies, state and local governments hold the major responsibility for them.

This FEMA AAR contains good information, perspective, and reflections.  There are a lot of successes and failures to address.  While I’m not going to write a review of the entire document, which you can read for yourself, but I will discuss a few big-picture items and highlight a few specifics.

First, is the overall organization of the document.  The document is organized through reflection across each of five ‘focus areas’.  I’m not sure why this was the chosen approach.  The doctrinal approach should be a reflection on Core Capabilities, as outlined in the National Preparedness Goal.  Some of these focus areas seem to easily align with a Core Capability, such as ‘Sustained Whole Community Logistics Operations’, which gives me reason to wonder why Core Capabilities were not referenced.  While we use Core Capabilities as a standard in exercises, the purpose for them being part of the National Preparedness Goal is so that we have a standard of reference throughout all preparedness activities.  Any AAR – incident, event, or exercise – should bring us back to preparedness activities.

The second issue I have with the document is the focus.  While it’s understood that this is FEMA’s AAR, not a wholistic federal government AAR, it’s almost too FEMA-centric.  The essence of emergency management is that emergency management agencies are coordination bodies, as such, most of their work gets accomplished through coordinating with other agencies.  While it’s true that FEMA certainly has a significant work force and resources, the AAR seems to stop at the inside threshold of FEMA headquarters, without taking the additional step to acknowledge follow-on actions from a FEMA-rooted issue that may involve other agencies.

Among the positive takeaways were some of the planning assumptions outlined in the report.  There is a short list of planning assumptions on page 9, for example, that provide some encouraging comparisons between planning assumptions and reality.  This is a great reminder for local and state plans to not only include numbers and percentages in their planning assumptions, which will directly lead to identifying capability and resource gaps, but to also reality check those numbers after incidents.

Page 10 of the repost highlights the success of FEMA’s Crisis Action Planning groups.  These groups identified future issues and developed strategies to address these issues.  This is actually an adaptation of an underutilized function within the ICS Planning Section to examine potential medium and long-term issues.

Pages 11 and 12 highlight how Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) data from states and UASIs can inform response.  It’s encouraging to see preparedness data directly inform response.  I hope this is something that will continue to evolve.

Pages 22 and 23 discuss the staffing issues FEMA had with massive overlapping deployments.  Along with their regular full time workforce, FEMA also deployed a huge volume of their cadre personnel.  They also tapped into a pilot program called State Supplemental Staffing.  While there were some administrative and bureaucratic difficulties, it seems to have been considerably successful.

Overall, this is a good document citing realistic observations and recommendations.  While the document is FEMA-centric, the way of FEMA is the way of emergency management in the US, so it’s always worth keeping an eye on what they are doing, as many of their activities have reach to state and local governments we as other federal agencies.

What important concepts jumped out at you?

© 2018 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™

Hurricane Harvey AAR – Lessons for Us All

Harris County, Texas has recently released their After Action Report (AAR) for Hurricane Harvey that devastated the area last year.  I applaud any AAR released, especially one for an incident of this magnitude.  It requires opening your doors to the world, showing some incredible transparency, and a willingness to discuss your mistakes.  Not only can stakeholders in Harris County learn from this AAR, but I think there are lessons to be learned by everyone in reviewing this document.

First, about making the sausage… The AAR includes an early section on the means and methods used to build the AAR, including some tools provided in the appendix.  Why is this important?  First, it helps build a better context for the AAR and lets you know what was studied, who was included, and how it was pulled together.  Second, it offers a great example for you to use for future incidents.  Developing an AAR for an incident has some significant differences from developing an AAR for an exercise.  Fundamentally, development of an AAR for an exercise begins with design of the exercise and is based upon the objectives identified for that exercise.  For an incident, the areas of evaluation are generally identified after the fact.  These areas of evaluation will focus the evaluation effort and help you cull through the volumes of documentation and stories people will want to tell.  The three focus areas covered in the AAR are Command and Control, Operations, and Mass Care and Sheltering.

Getting into the Harvey AAR itself… My own criticism in the formatting is that while areas for improvement in the AAR follow an Issue/Analysis/Recommendation format, identified strengths only have a sentence or two.  Many AAR writers (for incidents, events, or exercises) think this is adequate, but I do not.  Some measure of written analysis should be provided for each strength, giving it context and describing what worked and why.  I’m also in favor of providing recommendations for identified strengths.  I’m of the opinion that most things, even if done well and within acceptable standards, can be improved upon.  If you adopt this philosophy, however, don’t fall into the trap of simply recommending that practices should continue (i.e. keep doing this).  That’s not a meaningful recommendation.  Instead, consider how the practice can be improved upon or sustained.  Remember, always reflect upon practices of planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercises (POETE).

As for the identified areas for improvement in AAR, the following needs were outlined:

  • Developing a countywide Continuity of Operations Plan
  • Training non-traditional support personnel who may be involved in disaster response operations
  • Transitioning from response to recovery operations in the Emergency Operations Center
  • Working with the City of Houston to address the current Donations Management strategy

If anything, for these reasons alone, the AAR and the improvement planning matrix attached should be reviewed by every jurisdiction.  Many jurisdictions that I encounter simply don’t have the POETE in place to be successful in addressing these areas.

What is your biggest take away from this AAR?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™

A Few Words On Hurricane Harvey, and How You Can Help

Readers who have been with me for a while know that I generally refrain from providing commentary on active incidents.  There is already enough chatter out there, with a variety of experts (real and otherwise) providing their opinions.  As with any ongoing incident, there is plenty of information and assumptions, right and wrong.  This disaster is already generating a lot of discussion on the decision by Houston and other jurisdictions to not issue evacuation orders.  Once the flood waters recede and life safety matters are addressed, perhaps I’ll jump into that discussion.  For now, let’s stay focused on the lives that are at risk.

Several people have asked me how they can support the Hurricane Harvey response and relief efforts.  There are many reputable charities out there providing great assistance.  A few tips…

  • Most of these organizations want and need money, not things, so unless they are asking for donations of certain goods or commodities, don’t send them things. The management of unwanted donated goods is an absolute nightmare and a distraction when all resources need to be focused on the disaster at hand.
  • Find a charity/organization that aligns with your own interests and beliefs. If you are most concerned about animal welfare, the ASPCA is a great organization doing incredible work during this and other disasters.  The American Red Cross is a long-standing go-to humanitarian aid organization.  There are also a variety of faith-based organizations, such as the Salvation Army, Adventist Community Services, Catholic Charities, Islamic Relief, and others which are dedicated to supporting communities in need.
  • If you are sending a check (you can even drop off a check at your local offices of any of these organizations), be sure to write ‘Hurricane Harvey’ in the memo of the check. That should direct those funds to this disaster effort.
  • Keep records and request a receipt (if they don’t provide one) for tax purposes.
  • For those of you who want a specific recommendation, I suggest Team Rubicon.  Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams that provide direct life-safety response efforts as well as short-term recovery work, such as mucking out people’s homes.  They are an outstanding organization that not only provides disaster assistance, but also directly supports our veterans.

These organizations absolutely need your support.  The costs of deploying personnel, even volunteers, are high.  Every dollar makes a difference.

-TR