Incident Management vs Incident Command

As I was writing my thoughts on the updated ICS-100 course in my previous post, I got to thinking that it may be prudent to reinforce the difference between incident management and the incident command system (ICS).  ICS is a specific application of incident management, while incident management is, in all, much broader than ICS.  Incident management includes field responses, emergency operations centers (EOCs), activities of secondary and tertiary organizations, funding streams, public information, and even the mechanics of politics focused on that disaster response.  Ideally, we would prefer these to all be orchestrated, such that they operate lock-step, but rarely, if ever, do we see such a thing.  It would be as if a chorus, band, orchestra, stage performers, ushers, concessioners, stage hands, lighting and sound operators, and custodial staff were all working on the same performance and conducted by one person.  They don’t.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  That’s why incident management systems, such as ICS, were developed.

Knowledge and application of systems, like ICS, are certainly important.  The beginning of every ICS class tells you why, so I don’t need to get into that here.  But to continue with my oft criticized analogies, if ICS is the trees, incident management is the forest.  And, as it turns out, many people can’t see the forest for the trees.  While ICS may be concerned with putting out the fire, stopping the bleeding, or catching the proverbial bad guy, incident management is about so much more.  Even doctrinally, consider that the National Incident Management System (NIMS), comprised of key elements, such as resource management, command and coordination (this is the ICS piece, and more), and communications and information management.  We also need to consider incident management beyond these, in as broad a scope as possible.

Incident management is a deliberate series of actions taken to solve problems associated with incidents and disasters.  There are a lot of problems that can be caused, directly or indirectly, by whatever issue we are dealing with, be it flood, fire, or hostile event.  Incident management needs to prioritize these problems and take action to address them.  While it may sound like our incident command system structures do the same type of thing, they are often concerned with immediate effects and actions that save lives and stabilize the incident, as they should be.  But that focus, necessarily, is narrow in scope and doesn’t address all the ancillary and important issues that an incident may cause.

Consider FEMA’s Emergency Support Function (ESF) structure and the matters they address.  Here are a few:

  • Transportation
  • Communications
  • Public Works and Engineering
  • Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing, and Human Services
  • Public Health and Medical Services
  • Agricultural and Natural Resources
  • Energy
  • External Affairs

Do your plans address these issues?  And by plans, I mean real, actionable plans.  Many jurisdictions have functional annexes to their plans, most following the federal ESF structure, which do little more than state what agencies participate in each of the jurisdiction’s ESFs and what their primary goals are.  Let’s be honest… these are aren’t plans.  They are fully inadequate to be plans.  These are prose I might use for the introduction of a plan, but certainly not the substance of the plan itself.  This is exactly why we are missing the mark when it comes to incident management.  We talk a lot about ICS, ICS is in our plans, we train people in ICS (though not as good as we should be), emphasize ICS in exercises, and focus on ICS when an incident occurs, but how much attention is given to broader incident management?  Typically far too little.  I’ve actually had conversations with local public safety officials, asking them how well they feel they are prepared for the next disaster, and they responded that they are fine because they are trained in ICS.  I’ve received this response in more than one jurisdiction.  That’s pretty scary, especially given the lackluster condition of their plans.

Can ICS be applied to broader incident management issues?  It sure can.  It’s simply a management system that can be applied to anything you want.  But the problem is that people conceptualize ICS as something to only use ‘in the field’ and during the more urgent initial period of response.

The take-away from this is that we need to identify what our issues are and how we are going to manage them.  These are essential parts of the planning process.  Write good plans.  Invest time, effort, and likely some money into it.  Do you need to use the ESF structure?  No, but certainly make sure that all concerns are addressed.  Think about the cascading impacts of an incident.  Leverage stakeholders from across the community to ensure that you are getting input from multiple perspectives and interests.  Doing so will help you be better prepared to manage the entirety of the incident.

As always, thoughts are appreciated.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Updated IS-100 Course: Missing the Target

Earlier this week, FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) released course materials, including student manual, handouts, instructor guide, and visuals, for the updated IS-100/ICS-100: An Introduction to the Incident Command System.  Note that this update (IS-100.c) has been available online since the summer.  The release of materials, however, included no errata, so absent comparing the previous version to this, I can’t speak specifically to what the changes include, though I’m aware from their release of the online course several months ago that there were adjustments to account for some of the revised content of the third edition of the NIMS doctrine, released in October of last year.

Those familiar with my running commentary for the past few years of ‘ICS Training Sucks’ are aware that much of my wrath was focused on the ICS-300 and ICS-400 courses.  That said, with the release of the third edition of NIMS (my review of the document can be found here), there were some needed additions to incident management fundamentals and my realization that the ICS-100 and ICS-200 courses are ignoring a significant population of professionals in their content.  While ICS itself was largely built for field personnel working within a command (vice coordination) structure, over the years, the prevalence of various forms and types of emergency operations centers (EOCs) has grown significantly.  One of the biggest additions in the most recent version of the NIMS document was, in fact, the inclusion of much more meaningful content on EOCs and their potential organizational models.  While still a minority compared to first responders, there is a significant audience of people taking ICS-100 because of their assignment to a local, county, state, or organizational EOC.  Yet, the ICS-100 materials have scantly more than ONE SLIDE talking about EOCs.

Yes, we do have courses such as the ICS/EOC Interface course and others that dive deeper into EOC operations and how they coordinate with each other and with command structures, but the introduction to all of this is often the ICS-100 course, which all but ignores EOCs and the audiences who primarily serve in them.  In fact, there are many jurisdictions that require EOC personnel to have ICS training (smartly), which starts with the ICS-100 course (why?  Because it’s the best/only thing generally available to them), but I’m sure many people taking the course are a bit confused, as it doesn’t speak at all to their role.  While I feel that ICS training for EOC personnel is important, an introductory course like this should include a bit more on EOCs.

As with my original writing on ICS Training Sucks, I bring this back to the fundamentals of instructional design, which is focused on the AUDIENCE and what THEY NEED TO LEARN.  It’s evident that these fundamentals are being ignored in favor of a quick update, which might change some content but does not improve quality.  Let’s actually look at who are audience groups are and either incorporate them all into the course, or develop another course and curriculum to meet their specific needs (aka EOC-100).  Otherwise, they are simply ignoring the fact that what is currently available is like fitting a square peg into a round hole.  Sure it fills a lot of space, but there are also some significant gaps.

While a number of jurisdictions have identified this need and developed their own EOC training, there are a lot of standards and fundamentals that could be addressed by FEMA in a national curriculum.  This is certainly a missed opportunity, and one that makes many of our responses less than what they should be.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

A Discussion on Training Needs for the EOC Incident Support Model

Last week I wrote a piece on the Incident Support Model for Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs).  The article got a good amount of attention which prompted some dialogue both on and off line with a variety of practitioners.  So for those who might be integrating this model into their plans, let’s consider what training might be needed to support implementation.

First, I’ll say that I feel foundational ICS training (hopefully we’ll eventually have something better than what we have now since ICS training still sucks) is still necessary, even though the Incident Support Model deviates significantly from the traditional ICS model.  A couple of reasons… first, others are still using ICS, be it in EOCs or in the field.  Second, the principles and concepts of ICS still largely apply to the Incident Support Structure, regardless of the differences in organizational composition.  Perhaps only to the ICS 200 level is necessary since those functioning in an Incident Support Model organization only need be aware of it.

Next, I think we then need an overall Incident Support Model course.  I would envision this similar to an ICS-300 course, which has a more in-depth exploration of the entire organizational structure of the Incident Support Model and discusses the processes inherent in the system, such as the planning process, which would see some revisions to at least the positions involved under this model as compared to that for ICS.

Position-specific training is important, be it for an in-house EOC team(s) or for incident management teams which may be deployed to EOCs using this model.  While many of the position-specific courses in existence for a traditional ICS model are analogous to what we see in the Incident Support Model, there are significant enough changes, I think, to require different training specific for this model if we expect a professionally functioning organization (and we do).

One thing currently missing in the position specific courses is an EOC manager course.  While there is an Incident Commander course, which provides a lot of great information, there are significant enough differences between running an EOC and running an incident command post.  That said, I’m not so sure we need an entirely different course.  Given the propensity for incident management teams (IMTs) to work in EOCs, I think an additional module in the IC training may suffice to ensure that ICs are equipped to work in all environments.

Looking at the composition of the general staff of the Incident Support Model, we can first start with the Situational Awareness Section Chief.  From the ICS IMT model, we have great training for Situation Unit Leaders, which can largely apply to this position in the Incident Support Model with just a few changes, mostly addressing the expansion and elevation of the role.

The new Planning Support Section Chief would require very different training from what current exists for the IMTs. While in-depth training on the planning process is still relevant (with changes to make it specific to this model), as is training on demobilization planning, new training is required to address future planning, which doesn’t have as much content in the current Planning Section Chief course as needed.

Center and Staff Support Section Chief training is largely internal logistics, so really just requires a course that is narrowed in scope from the traditional Logistics Section Chief course, with perhaps some additional content on occupational and facility support matters.

Lastly, the Resource Support Section Chief.  This one is a monster.  It’s really an amalgamation of the Operations Section Chief, the Logistics Section Chief, and the Resource Unit Leader, along with Finance/Admin (if you subscribe to putting it in this section).  There is clearly a lot going on here.  Very little of the traditional ICS IMT courses really apply to this in an EOC environment given the difference in scope and mission for an EOC.  This largely requires completely new training based on functional coordination, mission assignments, and support to deployed resources.  This is a course that will require a lot of work to ground it in reality while also providing enough flexibility to allow for how each EOC may organize within this section.  Similar to the Operations Section in a traditional ICS model, this section may have the most variety from facility to facility and incident to incident.

Certainly other training may be needed, but the command and general staff positions are probably the most urgent to address.  In lieu of FEMA providing this training, some are developing their own training to support implementation of this model.  I’d love to hear about what has been done, the challenges faced, and the successes had.  Given my own passion and interest, I’d certainly love an opportunity to develop training for the Incident Support Model.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Incident Management – Beyond ICS

The Incident Command System (ICS) provides an important foundation to incident management.  ICS grounds us in standards, providing structure and processes which help mitigate against the fact that all incidents themselves are unique.  While ICS may not be perfect, and I have been and continue to be highly critical of ICS training, the Incident Command System has proven to be effective – when properly implemented.  One of our biggest stumbling blocks with the implementation of ICS is the human factor – something else I’ve written about on a few occasions.  The other obstacle to effective incident management is relying too heavily on ICS.  ICS is not the solution to incident management – it’s a tool.  For incident management to be truly effective, we need to think beyond ICS.

So aside from ICS, what do incident managers need to know and do to be more effective? (Note that I’m not using the term ‘incident commander’ here, as incident management, fundamentally, is a team sport.  I’m using the term ‘incident managers’ as a collective term for all personnel involved in the higher echelons of incident management).

First, good incident managers should have proven leadership and management skills.  I’m not going to go at this one in length… there are no fewer than a gazillion books written on leadership and management and the importance of effectively leading organizations.  Just like any other organization, someone in a position of incident management who can’t properly lead is not only going to fail themselves, but also the organization.

Second, good incident managers need to have a grasp of emergency management.  Not just an application of public safety, such as the fire service or law enforcement, or whatever field they happen to be performing response in (i.e. public health, transportation, etc.).  They should have a solid awareness of what each major participant in emergency management does and the major processes of emergency management.

Next, incident managers should understand the fundamentals of project management.  This one is really important.  The tactics we execute in our response to an incident are really a series of projects.  Not that a Gantt chart needs to be developed for each incident (although I’ve actually done this for prolonged incidents – and it is seriously insightful), but an understanding of tactical timeframes, progress toward completion, and what activities can be done simultaneously versus those that should be done in sequence can be a huge help.  It’s a great visual tool that can be easily developed with the help of ICS 204s.  Progress toward completion (i.e. how much of a tactic have we accomplished as part of the whole) helps us to measure effectiveness, gauge how long we continue to need certain resources, and will answer the questions ‘how are we doing?’ and ‘are we there yet?’.  In larger incidents (NIMS Type 3 and larger) this is incredibly important.  What’s the progress on evacuation?  How much longer until all the boom is deployed?  How much debris has been cleared?  Etc.  These aren’t just pain the ass questions asked by elected officials and the media… these are questions you should be asking as well.

Continuing on with project management (that’s how important I think it is), I’ll make a few more notes here.  First of all, field observers are really important to monitoring progress.  Don’t rely on the tacticians to do this.  First of all, the tacticians are too busy.  They need to be focused on getting things done.  Also, they may be too close to the situation to give an objective assessment (or in the case of the use of contractors, it’s simply good contract management).  Digging into your ICS knowledge, recall that field observers are an actual position (although one not used often) within the Planning Section assigned to the Situation Unit.  Their job is to monitor and report on tactical progress and other situational information.  Also consider that if you see issues with a slower than expected progress toward completion, that means that either your initial estimates were wrong or something is slowing down the operation.  This may justify a root cause analysis to determine why things are not progressing as they should be.  Perhaps there was more to accomplish than anticipated, or the wrong resources are being applied?

Next, the highest members of incident management (i.e. incident command, unified command, EOC manager, etc.) need to have some separation from the rest of the incident management staff, agency representatives, and tactical operations.  They can’t be ‘in the pit’, ‘on the floor’, ‘in the trenches’, or whatever other lingo you might use in your command post, EOC, or field operations – at least not as their usual place to be.  Yes, some measure of ‘management by walking around’ is good, but I’ve been in plenty of command posts, EOCs, and departmental operations centers that have command right in the mix of everything.  These places get noisy and there are a lot of distractions.  You can’t hold a productive meeting in this environment, much less concentrate.  People are also inclined to go directly to command with issues and problems… issues and problems that are likely best solved by someone else.  Even in the field, an IC shouldn’t be too close to the tactics on a large incident.  Pull back and think about incident management, not tactics.

That’s the list that I have for now.  It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, so I plan on adding to it in the future.  I also expect to be doing some presentations in the near future as well.  What thoughts do you have on this?  What can we do to improve on incident management?

© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC ™

NIMS Implementation Objectives and A Shot of Reality

Happy 2018 to all my readers!  Thanks for your patience while I took an extended holiday break.  A minor surgery and the flu had sidelined me for a bit, but I’m happy to be back.

This morning, FEMA issued NIMS Alert 01-18: National Engagement for Draft NIMS Implementation Objectives.  NIMS Implementation Objectives were last released in 2009, covering a period of FY 2009-FY2017.  With the release of the updated NIMS last year, FEMA is updating the implementation objectives and has established a national engagement period for their review.

So first, a bit of commentary on this document…

The new objectives are broken out by major content area of the updated NIMS document, including: Resource Management, Command and Coordination, and Communication and Information Management; as well as a General category to cover issues more related to management and administration of the NIMS program.  What we also see with these updated objectives are implementation indicators, which are intended to help ground each objective.  Overall, the number of objectives in this update has been cut in half from the 2009 version (28 objectives vs 14 objectives).

All in all, these objectives appear to be consistent with the current state of NIMS implementation across the nation.  They are certainly suitable for most matters in regard to the oversight of implementing NIMS and it’s various components.  The biggest sticking point for me is that this document is intended for use by states, tribal governments, and territories.  If the goal is to have a cohesive national approach to implementation, I’d like to know what the implementation objectives are for FEMA/DHS and how they compliment those included in this document.

Objectives 8 through 11 are really the crux of this document.  They are intended to examine the application of NIMS in an incident.  These objectives and their corresponding indicators (which are largely shared among these objectives) are the measure by which success will ultimately be determined.  While it’s a good start for these to exist, jurisdictions must be more open to criticism in their implementations of NIMS and ICS.  In addition, there should be an improved mechanism for assessing the application of NIMS and ICS.  While formal evaluations occur for exercises under the HSEEP model, we tend to see inconsistent application of the feedback and improvement activities to correct deficiencies.  Proper evaluations of incidents, especially at the local level, are often not performed or performed well. For those that are, the same issue of feedback and improvement often stands.

Extending this discussion into reality…

The reality is that many responders are still getting it wrong.  Last year my company conducted and evaluated dozens of exercises.  Rarely did we see consistently good performance as far as NIMS and ICS are concerned.  There are several links in this chain that have to hold firm.  Here’s how I view it:

First, the right people need to be identified for key roles.  Not everyone is suited for a job in public safety or emergency management in the broadest sense.  Organizations need to not set up individuals and their own organization for failure by putting the wrong person in a job.  If a certain job is expected to have an emergency response role, there must be certain additional qualifications and expectations that are met.  Further, if someone is expected to take on a leadership role in an ICS modeled organization during an incident, there are additional expectations.

Next, quality training is needed.  I wrote a couple years ago about how ICS Training Sucks.  It still does.  Nothing has changed.  We can’t expect people to perform if they have been poorly trained.  That training extends from the classroom into implementation, so we can’t expect someone to perform to standards immediately following a training course.  There is simply too much going on during a disaster for a newbie to process.  People need to be mentored.  Yes, there is a formal system for Qualification and Certification in ICS, but this is for proper incident management teams, something most local jurisdictions aren’t able to put together.

Related to this last point, I think we need a new brand of exercise.  One that more instructional where trainees are mentored and provided immediate and relevant feedback instead of having to wait for an AAR which likely won’t provide them with feedback at the individual level anyway.  The exercise methodology we usually see applied calls for players to do their thing: right, wrong, or otherwise; then read about it weeks later in an AAR.  There isn’t much learning that takes place.  In fact, when players are allowed to do something incorrectly and aren’t corrected on the spot, this is a form of negative reinforcement – not just for that individual, but also for others; especially with how interrelated the roles and responsibilities within an ICS organization are.

While I’m all for allowing performers to discover their own mistakes and I certainly recognize that there exist multiple ways to skin the proverbial cat (no animals were harmed in the writing of this blog), this is really done best at a higher taxonomy level.  Many people I see implementing portions of ICS simply aren’t there yet.  They don’t have the experience to help them recognize when something is wrong.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t a school yard game of kickball.  Lives are at stake.  We can do better.  We MUST do better.

As always, thoughts are certainly appreciated.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC SM

 

 

2017 National Preparedness Report – A Review

With my travel schedule, I missed the (late) release of the 2017 National Preparedness Report (NPR) in mid-October.  Foundationally, the findings of the 2017 report show little change from the 2016 report.  If you are interested in comparing, you can find my review of the 2016 NPR here.

The 2017 NPR, on the positive side, provided more data and more meaningful data than its predecessor.  It appeared to me there was more time and effort spent in analysis of this data.  If you aren’t familiar with the premise of the NPR, the report is a compilation of data obtained from State Preparedness Reports (SPRs) submitted by states, territories, and UASI-funded regions; so the NPR, fundamentally, should be a reflection of what was submitted by these jurisdictions and regions – for the better or worse of it.  The SPR asks jurisdictions to provide an honest analysis of each of the core capabilities through the POETE capability elements (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising).

From the perspective of the jurisdictions, no one wants to look bad.  Not to say that any jurisdiction has lied, but certainly agendas can sway subjective assessments.  Jurisdictions want to show that grant money is being spent effectively (with the hopes of obtaining more), but not with such terrific results that anyone would think they don’t need more.  Over the past few years the SPRs, I believe, have started to normalize and better reflect reality.  I think the authors of the NPR have also come to look at the data they receive a little more carefully and word the NPR to reflect this reality.

The 2017 NPR (which evaluates 2016 data from jurisdictions) identified five core capabilities the nation needs to sustain.  These are:

  • Environmental Response/Health and Safety
  • Intelligence and Information Sharing
  • Operational Communications
  • Operational Coordination
  • Planning

I’m reasonably comfortable with the first two, although they both deal with hazards and details that change regularly, so keeping on top of them is critical.  Its interesting that Operational Communication is rated so high, yet is so commonly seen as a top area for improvement on after-action reports of exercises, events, and incidents.  To me, the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion in regard to this core capability.  Operational Coordination and Planning both give me some significant concern.

First, in regard to Operational Coordination, I continue to have a great deal of concern in the ability of responders (in the broadest definitions) to effectively implement the Incident Command System (ICS).  While the implementation of ICS doesn’t comprise all of this core capability, it certainly is a great deal of it.  I think there is more room for improvement than the NPR would indicate.  For example, in a recent exercise I supported, the local emergency manager determined there would be a unified command with him holding ‘overall command’.  Unfortunately, these false interpretations of ICS are endemic.

I believe the Planning core capability is in a similar state inadequacy.  Preparedness lies, fundamentally, on proper planning and the assessments that support it. While I’ve pontificated at length about the inadequacy of ICS training, I’ve seen far too many plans with gaps that you could drive a truck through.  I’ve recently exercised a college emergency response plan that provided no details or guidance on critical tasks, such as evacuation of a dormitory and support of the evacuated students.  The plan did a great job of identifying who should be in the EOC, but gave no information on what they should be doing or how they should do it.  The lack of plans that can be operationalized and implemented is staggering.

The NPR identified the top core capabilities to be improved.  There are no surprises in this list:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Economic Recovery
  • Housing
  • Infrastructure Systems
  • Natural and Cultural Resources
  • Supply Chain Integrity and Security

Fortunately, I’m seeing some (but not all) of these core capabilities getting some needed attention, but clearly not enough.  These don’t have simple solutions, so they will take some time.

Page 10 of the NPR provides a graph showing the distribution of FEMA preparedness (non-disaster) grants by core capability for fiscal year 2015.  Planning (approx. $350m) and Operational Coordination (approx. $280m) lead the pack by far.  I’m curious as to what specific activities these dollars are actually being spent on, because my experience shows that it’s not working as well as is being reported.  Certainly there has been some positive direction, but I’m guessing that dollars are being spent on activities that either have negligible impact or actually have a negative impact, such as funding the development of some of the bad plans we’re seeing out there.

I’m curious as to what readers are seeing out in real life.  What capabilities concern you the most?  What capabilities do you see successes in?  Overall, I think everyone agrees that we can do better.  We can also get better and more meaningful reports.  This NPR was a step in the right direction from last year’s, but we need to continue forward progress.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

The Inability to Apply NIMS is a Human One

With a busy month of travel and project work, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve had much opportunity to write.  While there are always a great number of topics to write about, I find myself regularly drawn to certain focus areas, such as NIMS or exercises, since these topics are regularly the emphasis of my work.

As many of my readers know, Domestic Preparedness Journal is one of my regular reads.  Each issue features a slate of excellent articles from practitioners in the field.  While I don’t always agree with all the articles in DomPrep, they are at least thought provoking and occasionally provide me with some ideas for my blog.

A quick note: Many students of emergency management, homeland security, and related fields reference this blog for research – something I greatly appreciate and am humbled by!  Be sure to search back issues of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, as well.  There is a lot of good stuff there!

I believe I’ve posted my thought in the past that emergency management is largely a sociological endeavor.  This is nothing new or revolutionary… if you care to consider this further, I suggest any of Thomas Drabek’s work.  While emergency management exists to protect and serve people, the actions are implemented by people.  I’ve also written in the past about the human factor of incident management, because that’s what truly makes or breaks our efforts.  Essentially, it’s humans that fail.  Not plans, not incident management systems, or any other excuses that can be contrived.  Human failure is our greatest enemy.

In discussing failure, it doesn’t have to be a total failure.  It can be a mistake, an oversight, or a wrong decision.  It might be intentional, given the body of knowledge we have and other factors, like ego.  Or it might be due to a lack of information; sometimes we have to make a best guess.  Often times we don’t realize until afterwards, if ever, that these even occurred or that there were better choices.  Despite advanced analytics and diligent after action reports, where we are quick to criticize, we don’t often identify what choices individuals (not just the incident commander or other leadership) had available to them.

Back to the Domestic Preparedness Journal.  Last month’s issue had an article penned by Chief Charles Bailey, titled Where Incident Management Unravels.  Chief Bailey offers a thought provoking argument against the effectiveness of NIMS in certain incidents, particularly those that are highly dynamic.  He argues, particularly, that once a situational assessment is completed and accepted early in the ICS planning process, that the process enters a largely static state since plans are developed to address that snapshot of the situation and are unable to account for situational changes during the rest of that planning process.

Fundamentally, Chief Bailey isn’t wrong.  What he mentions is exactly what we are taught and these are criticisms of ICS I’ve heard many times through the years.  Remember, Incident Command System Training Sucks!  (if you aren’t familiar with my thoughts on the sad state of ICS training, click that link and read the few articles I’ve written on the topic).

Let’s examine the situation that Chief Bailey describes.  Most incidents, especially early on, have dynamic elements.  Does this mean we can’t use ICS?  No.  In fact we still need to.  If we don’t make efforts to proactively address the incident, we will continue reacting instead of getting ahead of it.  Our tactics will be purely reactionary and we’ll never have the resources we need when we need them.  We can’t allow the incident to be in charge, we need to manage it.  To do so, we need to acknowledge that new and changing situations will occur, and plan for them.  Just because we are taught to plan in a static situation, does that mean that’s our only option?  Nope.  What we learn little to nothing about in ICS training are concepts like contingency planning.  Interestingly enough, we regularly see first responders account for this.  When an incident occurs with unknown factors, we often hear fire departments call for additional resources to be sent to staging.  Sometimes this is in anticipation of needing them, sometimes this is a contingency plan.  A ‘just in case’.  While no one likes to be stuck in staging and never deployed, it’s better to have the resources immediately available and not need them then to need them right away and have to wait.

Not only can these resources in staging be identified in our incident action plans, we can also develop these resources and even identify tactics (roughly) in our IAPs to account for dynamic situations.  It’s easy enough to identify an objective for contingency planning and have efforts dedicated to it.  Resources in staging can be pulled together into task forces and strike teams for anticipated application.  Our IAPs can pre-identify these potential applications and give the resources tactical parameters, allowing task force and strike team leaders some latitude in their initial tactical response.  While the rest of the incident organization is addressing known issues and proactively managing the incident, we have elements in reserve to tackle pop-up situations.  At best, these reserve forces are able to fully address these emergent needs, at the very least, they can sustain life safety matters until additional resources can be deployed.

Further, if any incident management organization isn’t able to change based on a dynamic situation, I severely question their credentials.  Incidents and disasters are by nature unpredictable.  We must acknowledge that any situational assessment is only, at best, mostly accurate.  For any significant incident, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know when we need to know it.  Having reserve forces and contingency plans, and being able to quickly identify emergent situations and redeploy resources is simply smart incident management.

So while Chief Bailey makes great points about some book answers to ICS applications, I argue that any failures that exist, at least in these regards, are human ones and have little to nothing to do with shortfalls in NIMS/ICS.  First, there are tools available to us to address these situations; although most people aren’t aware of them because of issues with ICS training.  Second, even if direct applications of the system weren’t in place to address certain situations, we can’t be slaves to the system.  We need to be able to think ‘beyond NIMS’ (words used by Chief Bailey, himself).  Finally, I’m not being critical at all of Chief Bailey’s points.  He closes his article identifying a need for creating ‘nimble response paradigms’; I’m just pointing out that we have that ability within the NIMS construct.  It’s our (human) ability to apply these where we often get stuck.

As always, I’m highly interested in the thoughts of readers on the topics I write about.

In closing, a quick but heartfelt thanks to all the responders and organizations who have been working tirelessly as of recent to save lives and help communities stabilize after the impacts of far too many hurricanes and the earthquake in Mexico.  Every small action you take makes a world of difference to those you are helping.  Be safe.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC (ß have you checked out our new website????)

Customization of ICS

Even since before the National Incident Management System (NIMS), I’ve seen individuals and organizations have a desire to customize the Incident Command System (ICS).  This has always been troubling to me, as customization is fully contradictory to using a standardized system.

ICS offers an abundance of flexibility.  If you are familiar enough with the system, its foundational features, and the intent of the roles and responsibilities within the system, you can meet practically every need utilizing these functions and features.  Is ICS perfect?  No.  Is it the best we have?  Yep, it sure is.  Having many years as a practitioner, trainer, and evaluator of ICS, I’m confident that it can meet 95% of needs that an organization will have.

Generally, I find the argument that many organizations who insist on customization put forward is that the rigidity of ICS does not accommodate their needs, structure, and culture. On the occasion that I’ve had to sit down with the organization’s personnel and ask questions about what they are trying to accomplish, it becomes quite clear that they simply don’t have a good understanding of ICS.  Some can be fairly obvious, such as moving the Safety Officer position to Operations.  Others require a bit more analysis, such as creating an element in the Operations Section to address security needs of their own facility.  Security of your own facility is actually a responsibility of the Facilities Unit within Logistics, not an Operations responsibility.

Foundationally, let’s consider the main purpose of ICS – interagency coordination.  ICS is a standardized system which supports integration, cooperation, and unity of effort between and among multiple organizations.  One of the main reasons I see organizations struggling to fit elements into an ICS organization chart is because some simply don’t belong there.  If you have functions internal to your own agency, even if they are used during emergency operations, but don’t interact with others, I honestly couldn’t care if you organize them within ICS, so long as they are accounted for within your own organization’s own chain of command.  There is no doctrine or best practice that requires organizations to account for every internal function within an ICS org chart.

The other reason, which I eluded to earlier, for organizations trying to customize ICS for their purposes, is a lack of understanding of ICS.  While I’m aware that some people who have done this might only have taken ICS 100, giving them only a scratched surface of ICS knowledge, which they easily misapply since they don’t have a good understanding of the fundamental concepts of ICS.  However, I’m aware of plenty of individuals who have taken ICS 300 and possibly ICS 400 who still fall into this trap.  I feel this situation stems from a result of misapplied learning, which ultimately comes from poor ICS curriculum.  (If you want to read more on my opinions on how ICS Training Sucks ⇐visit here).

ICS training should not only provide learning to support operational implementation of ICS concepts, but also adequate preparedness activities, such as integrating ICS into plans, policy, and procedures.  Current training leaves many people feeling they know enough about ICS to integrate it into these important documents, but they feel compelled to be creative, when not only is creativity generally not required, it flies in the face of a standardized system.  ICS has an abundance of flexibility which can accommodate a multitude of functions; one just has to relate these to the fundamental features of ICS to identify where they might go.  I’m not opposed to creating a new organizational element, just make sure that it fits appropriately, without duplicating efforts, usurping responsibility from another standard element, or violating span of control.

Consider this: will your organization chart integrate with others?  If so, how?  Is there operational integration or is it through an agency representative?  If the answer is the latter, there is less concern, but if there is an expectation for operational integration or shared functions, such as Planning or Logistics, sticking to the standards is even more important.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on ICS customization, the reasons behind it, and the ramifications of it.  Fire away!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Incident Management & Proper Demobilization Planning

A fair amount of courses, especially those oriented toward the Incident Command System (ICS), mention demobilization, but that mention is usually fairly gratuitous.  Even the core ICS courses generally only offer a couple of paragraphs or a handful of bullet points.  The ICS 300, since it does focus more on incident planning, does contain some good additional material, but it’s still quite brief.  Demobilization is a best practice of incident management, along with staging areas, that are rarely done properly.  It’s not a surprise, though… there isn’t a lot of emphasis on them in ICS and related training, and generally what is out there is pretty poor quality.  This has been further emphasized through nine separate functional exercises I’ve conducted over the past couple of months where it was easily identified that most participants weren’t really familiar with what demobilization meant to them and their organizations. This is no slight on them… it comes down to training.

There is certainly room for improvement when it comes to the ICS National Training Curriculum.  In case you aren’t familiar, I’ve written pretty extensively on it in the past.  And yes, I still believe that ICS Training Sucks (click here to check out a few articles I’ve written on the topic).  In regard to demobilization, much of what is out there (including the ICS curriculum and otherwise), in addition to the couple of paragraphs or handful of bullet points, also puts a lot of emphasis on the Demobilization Check-Out (ICS form 221).  By all means, STOP THAT.  Throwing another form in front of people without proper context simply serves to confuse them further.  I’m not saying we need to train everyone to be a Demobilization Unit Leader (there is a specific course for that… and it’s less than great), but shoving another form in front of someone for seven seconds doesn’t do a damn bit of good… and in fact it probably does some measure of harm – especially for building the case made by some that ICS is nothing but a bunch of bureaucracy.  We need to actually show purpose.

Largely, those bits of prose contained in courses do a decent job in explaining why we need to demobilize.  Simply put, we don’t want people and other resources standing around for hours before they are told they can go home.  Along with this is usually the book answer of when we begin to plan for demobilization – that’s as soon as we order the resource.  In reality, I’ll give that a ‘kind of’ instead of a resounding agreement.  Most of the time, no, we’re not considering that, especially at the onset of an incident.  But we do need to start considering it early on, especially when we no longer need a lot of resources at the end of the first phase of an incident.  Further down the road, we also tend to have a lot of expensive resources and teams that need to be disengaged and dismantled from our incident organization and the operating area rather carefully before they can be sent home.  These deliberate actions are another good reason for proper demobilization planning.

Demobilization planning?  Yes, planning.  NOT the ICS 221.  That form is nothing more than an accountability sheet.  It is NOT a plan.  First off, demobilization planning is a team effort.  There needs to be involvement and input across much of the command and general staff of your incident management structure (be it a formal incident management team or otherwise).  It’s a planning effort, so it should be centered within your Planning Section.  For a larger incident, certainly designate a Demobilization Unit to do coordinate this.

How do we even make this happen?  First, the concept needs to be sold to command.  They will initially say no.  Expect it.  Many Incident Commanders not well practiced in formal demobilization think that even discussion of the term must be reserved for late in the game.  It might take a couple of attempts and a need to make your case.  Demob doesn’t signal an end to the entire operation, and in fact additional resources may be flowing into the incident as others are being demobilized.  Once command is sold on it, then it needs to be discussed with the entire command and general staff.  Everyone has input.  Most of the resources belong to ops, so they should be able to identify when certain resources will complete their operations and will no longer be needed.  The logistics organization may have a fair amount of resources in place largely to support operations, therefore, as certain operations are demobilized, logistics may also be able to demobilize some of their resources.  They may also want certain things returned and accounted for, such as radios.  And if any hazardous material was present, the Medical Unit within logistics may be arranging long-term medical monitoring, which needs to become part of demobilization.  The Liaison Officer may be getting pressured by outside agencies or organizations to release resources and/or may have to explain to certain assisting agencies why their resources are no longer needed.  Finance/Administration is aware of how much certain resources are costing the responsible party, both in direct costs as well as maintenance costs.  There may be others with input as well.

As this discussion occurs, Planning/Demobilization should be keeping good notes as these comments, concerns, and priorities may become part of the demobilization plan.  The plan itself consists of five standard sections:

  1. General information – what does this plan pertain to and generally, what’s it about (it’s an overview).
  2. Responsibilities – This identifies, within the ICS structure, who is responsible for what in regard to demobilization
  3. Release Priorities – These are the agreed upon priorities identified by command and general staff.
  4. Release Procedures – This should have the most detail, starting with identification, authorization, and notification of the resource of their impending demobilization status. How far ahead of the demobilization are they advised?  Who do they have to talk to along the way?  What equipment should be returned?  Do they need to submit any reports or paperwork?  Who do they actually sign out with?  How and when do they return home?  Based on the nature of the incident, consider a mandatory overnight before they can travel, medical monitoring, and a debrief.  And always require resources to confirm that they have arrived safely back to their home station.  This, by the way, is where you reference the ICS 221 form, which will maintain accountability of the demobilization process.  Certainly customize this form to match your procedures.
  5. Reference Information – This can include travel information, contact information for key personnel (such as the Demobilization Unit Leader), maps, schedules, reminders, and other info.

Like the majority of implementations of ICS, demobilization planning is generally accomplished in the head of the IC and perhaps other staff.  That’s likely fine for more routine type 5 incidents, and even some type 4 incidents.  There may be some type 4 incidents that have enough complexity and disparity of resources, that a written plan is a good idea.  Certainly anything more complex should have a written plan.  Just as we should be writing incident action plans for planned events, demobilization plans should also be used.  If anything, it makes for good practice.  For the same argument, it’s also great for exercises (not only for the players, but also for exercise management).

Looking for a demobilization plan template?  Here’s one.  I’m not familiar with the authors, but it’s a fairly standard template for such a plan.  I’m generally wary of templates, but this is pretty basic.  If you might find yourself in the position of organizing incident demobilization for your agency or jurisdiction, save it and start modifying it now.  There are likely a set of standard priorities and procedures which you can identify now that you can include in the plan.  Be sure to have an ICS 221 that you can modify for implementation as well.  Just be sure to not ‘finalize’ either one of these… just like an IAP, they are documents developed specifically for an incident, event, or exercise.

So there you have it, a bit of demobilization planning advice from someone who is trained and experienced in actually doing it.  I hope this was helpful.  Of course I’m happy to provide some direct advice as well as happy to hear from others who are experienced themselves in demobilization.  What best practices have you identified?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

Incident Action Planning

Hello readers!  It’s been a couple of months since I’ve last posted – along with the holidays, I’ve been fortunate to be busy with some great projects and a bit of travel.  While I’m still busy, I’ve been itching to get back to posting.

Over the past few months, I’ve had an opportunity to look at some different aspects of incident action planning.  Having worked as a Planning Section Chief for numerous state and federally declared disasters, I’ve created Incident Action Plans (IAPs), part and parcel, for a variety of incidents.  Teaching hundreds of course offerings of ICS and EOC management, I’ve also had a lot of opportunity to help others understand and appreciate the value of an IAP.

What is an IAP?

The Incident Action Plan is really the culmination of the planning process.  It documents our expected actions for the next operational period, which, through that planning process, should be ready to be supported through an identified organization and necessary resources.  It begins, foundationally, with an understanding of the situation and objectives built to solve the problems that situation imposes upon us.  IAPs identify some situational information, the incident objectives, and tactics – which specific resource assignments – to accomplish those objectives.  To support the tactics, additional elements are added to the IAP, such as the organizational structure, a medical plan (for responders), a communications plan, and specific safety messages.  Based upon the unique characteristics of each incident, additional material can be added.

The planning process, and thus IAPs, are a standard of practice within NIMS/ICS.

Issues with Teaching the Planning Process

For those coming up through the ranks, as it were, of ICS training, the forms integrated into ICS are often one of the most frustrating aspects.  Responders want to do the hands-on stuff, not fill out forms.  Most areas and systems, however, are able to find the responders who are interested in becoming involved in incident management aspects, and engage them in formal or ad-hoc incident management teams.

Often the only exposure that responders have to IAPs is from the ICS 300 course, where they are able to see some samples and are walked through the planning process and associated forms of the IAP.   Having taught hundreds of these, I know it’s a challenge*.  We inundate course participants with a pile of forms and expect them to leave the class to go out and do great things.  While it might be a reasonable initial exposure, this needs to be followed up on, practices, and reinforced if we expect anyone to be successful, much less use the system.

*note: if you aren’t familiar with my position on the current state of ICS training, here are a few other blog posts to orient you.  In short… ICS Training Sucks!

The planning process can be confusing – who does what?  When?  Based upon what information?  The Planning P is the best visual out there and incident management handbooks (aka Field Operations Guides or FOGs) are references that every IMT member should have in the utility pocket of their 5.11s.  While all based on the same system, I find the United States Coast Guard to have the best handbook out there.  These are great job aids for something we don’t go to work and do every day, no matter how proficient you might think you are.

planning P for Planning

Uses of IAPs

IAPs can be applied to anything we can/should apply the planning process to.  These include incidents, pre-planned events, and exercises.  Planned events and exercises provide a great opportunity to practice the planning process and development of IAPs.  It is certainly something that requires practice to be proficient.  Every member of the Command and General staff, as well as a number of support positions, have an important role to play and responsibilities to contribute to the planning process.  The forms themselves even require some practice to ensure that the right information is obtained.  Large incidents can also require a great deal of tactical planning, which means greater time for that and for documenting the tactics and necessary support.

One aspect that is often forgotten in the heat of battle is that our response should, ideally, be based on our emergency operations plans (EOPs).  These should be a regular reference to the Command and General staff, as they can, at the very least, provide some general guidance.  Good EOPs, and their associated annexes, should provide some detailed guidance on certain aspects of response, which can prevent the IMT from having to re-invent a plan in the midst of chaos.  The direction of EOPs, to the greatest extent possible, should be referenced in the planning process and reflected in the IAPs.  EOPs should serve as the foundation for the planning process – with that in mind, EOPs can be implementation-ready.  More thoughts on emergency plan development here.

As mentioned, exercises are a great opportunity for participants to practice the planning process and IAP development, along with other facets of ICS – especially those that we don’t get to apply so often.  Also consider, however, the use of an IAP for exercise management.  Our company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, worked with the State of Vermont this past summer providing exercise control and evaluation services for their Vigilant Guard exercise.  This week-long exercise spanned nearly 60 distinct venues across the state and involved thousands of participants.  We coordinated over 100 control and evaluation staff throughout the exercise.  While staffing decisions were made weeks in advance, we knew that with so many variables, needs and assignments were bound to change.  For each operational period of the exercise, venues had staff assigned, a point of contact they should coordinate with, a need to communicate with the simcell and exercise management staff, a need to be aware of weather and safety matters, and processes to follow in regard to exercise management and reporting.  We recognized the similarities to a tactical deployment and decided to develop incident action plans for exercise management.  We called these eXercise Action Plans (XAPs).  Within just a couple of operational periods, we were receiving great feedback on the documents from exercise staff.  Use of XAPs were identified as a best practice in exercise management for that project.

Final Thoughts

Incident Action Plans are great tools that can help us put our emergency plans in action.  They allow us to apply incident or event-specific ground-truths and the realities of incident needs and resources.  While it’s understanding that some are frustrated with the forms used, the forms are job aids, tested through decades, to help us navigate complex incident management.  When I walk into a command post or an EOC, the IAP is the first thing I look for.  Because the format and forms are relatively standardized, I can flip through it, and in a couple of minutes have a good sense of the activity and who is responsible for what.  Someone told me long ago that ICS is forms facilitated, not forms driven – and that’s very true.  The forms (and thus the IAP) are products of the planning process, which is another decades-old practice in incident management.

What best practices have you seen in the application of the planning process and incident action plans?

Need assistance with planning, training, or exercises?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!

Until next time.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP