ICS 400 Training – Who Really Needs It?

A few days ago I had a bit of discussion with others on Twitter in regard to who actually has a need for ICS 400 training. I think a lot of people are taking the ICS 400 (Advanced ICS for Command and General Staff) course for the wrong reasons. While I’d never dissuade anyone from learning above and beyond what is required, we also, as a general statement, can’t be packing course offerings with people who don’t actually need the training. There is also an organizational expense to sending people to training, and the return on that investment decreases when they don’t need it and won’t apply it. Overall, if you are a new reader, I have a lot of thoughts on why our approach to ICS Training Sucks, which can be found here.

Before we dig any deeper into the topic, let’s have a common understanding of what is covered in the ICS 400 course. The course objectives identified in the National Preparedness Course Catalog for some reason differ from those actually included in the current 2019 version of the course, so instead I’ll list the major topics covered by the two-day course:

  • Incident Complex
  • Dividing into multiple incidents
  • Expanding the Planning Capability
  • Adding a second Operations or Logistics Section
  • Placement options for the Intel/Investigations function
  • Area Command
  • Multi-Agency Coordination
  • Emergency Operations Centers
  • Emergency Support Functions

For this discussion, it’s also important to reference the NIMS Training Program document, released in the summer of 2020. This document states many times over that it includes training recommendations and that the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) determines which personnel are to take which courses. This document indicates the ICS 400 is recommended for:

  1. ICS personnel in leadership/supervisor roles
  2. IMT command, section, branch, division, or group leaders preparing for complex incidents

Note that while #1 above seems to fully capture anyone in a leadership/supervisor role, the document also says that IMT unit, strike team, resource team, or task force leaders preparing for complex incidents do NOT need the training. I’d say this certainly conflicts with #1 above.

With that information provided, let’s talk about who really needs to take the ICS 400 from a practical, functional perspective. First of all, looking at recommendation #1 above, that’s a ridiculously broad statement, which includes personnel that don’t need to have knowledge of the course topics. The second recommendation, specific to IMTs, I’ll agree is reasonably accurate.

Having managed a state training program and taught many dozen deliveries of the ICS 400 course, I’ll tell you that the vast majority of people taking the course don’t need to be in it. I’d suggest that some deliveries may have had absolutely no one that actually needed it, while most had a scant few. Much of this perspective comes from a relative determination of need of personnel that fit within recommendation #1 above. Just because someone may be an incident commander or a member of command and general staff, doesn’t necessarily mean they need to take ICS 400. It’s very likely that through their entire career all of the incidents they respond to and participate in the management of can be organized using standard ICS approaches.

Interface with an EOC does not mean you need to take ICS 400. There is, in fact, a better course for that, aptly named ‘ICS/EOC Interface’. More people need to take this course than the ICS 400. I’m also aware that some jurisdictions require ICS 400 for their EOC staff. The ICS 400 course doesn’t teach you how to function in or manage an EOC. Again, the ICS/EOC Interface course is the better solution, along with whatever custom EOC training is developed (note that none of the FEMA EOC courses will actually teach you how to manage or work in YOUR EOC). If you feel that people in your EOC need to know about some of the concepts within the ICS 400, such as Multi-Agency Coordination or Area Command, simply include the appropriate content in your EOC training. To be honest, I can tell most EOC personnel what they need to know about an Area Command in about three minutes. They don’t need to sit through a two-day course to learn what they need to know.

Cutting to who does need it (aside from IMT personnel), personnel who would be a member of Command and General Staff for a very large and complex incident (certainly a Type I incident, and MAYBE certain Type 2 incidents) are the candidates. Yes, I understand that any jurisdiction can make an argument for their fire chief or police chief, for example, being the IC for an incident of this size and complexity, though let’s consider this in a relative and realistic sense. Most incidents of this size and complexity are likely to span multiple jurisdictions. Particularly in a home rule state, that fire chief or police chief is typically only going to be in charge of that portion of the incident within their legal borders. Although that incident may be a Type I incident taken as a whole, it will likely be managed in large part by a higher AHJ, which may use some of the concepts outlined in the ICS 400. While local government is still responsible for managing the portion of the incident within their borders, they are much less likely to utilize any of the ICS 400 concepts themselves. Along a similar line of thought, most jurisdictions don’t have hazards that, if they become incidents, would be of such size or complexity within their jurisdiction that would require use of these concepts. This leaves larger, more populous jurisdictions generally having a greater need for this level of training.

At some point, every state and UASI was required, as part of their NIMS implementation, to develop a NIMS training plan. Most of the plans I’ve seen further perpetuate the idea that so many people must have ICS 400 training. As part of this, many states require that anyone holding the position of fire chief must have ICS 400. Considering my argument in the paragraphs above, you can see why this is tremendously unnecessary. We must also consider erosion of knowledge over time. As people do not use the knowledge, skills, and abilities they have learned, that knowledge erodes. This is highly likely with the concepts of ICS 400.

A lot of states and other jurisdictions need to take a more realistic look at who really needs ICS 400 training. I’d also like to see some clarification on the matter in FEMA’s NIMS Training Guidance. It’s not about making this training elite or restricting access, but it is about decreasing the perceived and artificially inflated demand for the course.

What’s your jurisdiction’s take on ICS 400 training?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Preparing for Disaster Deployments

I wrote last year about my trepidation over Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) being considered as a deployable resource. The problem is that even most professionally trained emergency personnel aren’t prepared for deployment. We need to do better.

One of the key aspects of a disaster is that it overwhelms local resources. This often requires help from outside the impacted jurisdiction(s). Working outward from the center, like the bullseye of a dartboard, we are usually able to get near-immediate assistance from our neighbors (aka mutual aid), with additional assistance from those at greater distances. When I use the word ‘deployment’, I’m referring to the movement of resources from well outside the area and usually for a period of time of several days or longer.

The US and other places around the world have great mutual aid systems, many supported by laws and administrative procedures, identifying how requests are made, discerning the liability for the requesting organization and the fulfilling organization(s), and more. Most of these are intended for response vs deployment, but may have the flexibility to be applicable to deployment. Some, such as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) are specifically written for deployments. While all this is certainly important, most organizations haven’t spent the time to prepare their people for deployment, which is a need that many organizations seem to take for granted. Those organizations which are, practically be definition, resources which are designed to deploy, such as Type 1 and 2 incident management teams (IMTs), often have at least some preparations in place and can be a good resource from which others can learn.

What goes into preparing for deployment? First, the sponsoring organization needs to recognize that their resources might be requested for deployment and agree to take part in this. That said, some organizations, such as volunteer fire departments, might have little control over their personnel deploying across the country when a call for help goes out publicly. These types of requests, in my opinion, can be harmful as large numbers of well-intentioned people may abandon their home organization to a lack of even basic response resources – but this is really a topic to be explored separately.

Once an organization has made a commitment to consider future requests, leadership needs to develop a policy and procedure on how they will review and approve requests. Will requests only be accepted from certain organizations? What are the acceptable parameters of a request for consideration? What are the thresholds for resources which must be kept at home? 

Supporting much of this decision making is the typing of resources. In the US, this is often done in accordance with defined typing from FEMA. Resource typing, fundamentally, helps us to identify the capabilities, qualifications, and eligibility of our resources. This is good not only for your own internal tracking, but is vitally important to most deployment requests. Organizations should do the work now to type their resources and personnel.

If an organization’s leadership decides they are willing to support a request, there then needs to be a canvass and determination of interest to deploy personnel. This is yet another procedure and the one that has most of my focus in this article. Personnel must be advised of exactly what they are getting into and what is expected of them (Each resource request received should give information specific to the deployment, such as deployment duration, lodging conditions, and duties.). The organization may also determine a need to deny someone the ability to deploy based on critical need with the home organization or other reasons, and having a policy already established for this makes the decision easier to communicate and defend.

These organization-level policies and procedures, along with staff-level training and policies should be developed to support the personnel in their decision and their readiness for an effective deployment.

Many things that should be determined and addressed would include:

  • Matters of pay, expenses, and insurance
  • Liability of personal actions
  • Code of conduct
  • What personnel are expected to provide vs what the organization will provide (equipment, supplies, uniform, etc.)
  • Physical fitness requirements and inoculations
  • Accountability to the home organization

Personnel also need to be prepared to work in austere conditions. They may not have a hotel room; instead they could be sleeping on a cot, a floor, or in a tent. This alone can break certain people, physically and psychologically. Access to showers and even restrooms might be limited. Days will be long, the times of day they work may not be what they are used to, and they will be away from home. They must be ready, willing, and able to be away from their lives – their families, pets, homes, jobs, routines, and comforts – for the duration of the deployment. Their deployment activity can subject them to physical and psychological stresses they must be prepared for. These are all things that personnel must take into consideration if they choose to be on a deployment roster.

This is stuff not taught in police academies, fire academies, or nursing schools. FEMA, the Red Cross, and other organizations have policy, procedures, training, and other resources available for their personnel because this is part of their mission and they make these deployments regularly. The big problem comes from personnel with organizations which don’t do this as part of their core mission. People who are well intentioned, even highly trained and skilled in what they do, but simply aren’t prepared for the terms and conditions of deployment can become a liability to the response and to themselves.

Of course, organizational policy and procedure continues from here in regard to their methods for actually approving, briefing, and deploying personnel; accounting for them during the deployment; and processing their return home. The conditions of their deployment may necessitate follow up physical and mental health evaluations (and care, as needed) upon their return. They should also be prepared to formally present lessons learned to the organization’s leadership and their peers.

I’ll say that any organization interested in the potential of deploying personnel during a disaster is responsible for making these preparations, but a broader standard can go a long way in this effort. I’d suggest that guidance should be established at the state level, by state emergency management agencies and their peers, such as state fire administrators; state departments of health, transportation, criminal justice, and others. These state agencies often contribute to and are even signatories of state-wide mutual aid plans which apply to the constituents of their areas of practice. Guidance developed at the state level should also dovetail into EMAC, as it’s states that are the signatories to these agreements and often rely on the resources of local organizations when requests are received.

There is clearly a lot to consider for organizations and individuals in regard to disaster deployments. It’s something often taken for granted, with the assumption that any responder can be sent to a location hundreds of miles away and be fully prepared to live and function in that environment. We can do better and we owe our people better.

Has your organization developed policies, procedures, and training for deploying personnel?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EOCs and IMTs

The world of incident management is foggy at best. There are rules, sometimes. There is some valuable training, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to all circumstances or environments. There are national models, a few of them in fact, which makes them models, not standards. Incident management is not as straight forward as some may think. Sure, on Type 4 and 5 incidents the management of the incident is largely taking place from an incident command post. As you add more complexity, however, you add more layers of incident management. Perhaps multiple command posts (a practical truth, regardless of the ‘book answer’), departmental operations centers, emergency operations centers at various levels of government, and an entire alphabet soup of federal operations centers at the regional and national levels with varying (and sometimes overlapping) focus. Add in operational facilities, such as shelters, warehouses, isolation and quarantine facilities, etc. and you have even more complexity. Trying to map out these incident management entities and their relationships is likely more akin to a tangle of yarn than an orderly spiderweb.

Incident Management Teams (IMTs) (of various fashion) are great resources to support the management of incidents, but I often see people confusing the application of an IMT. Most IMTs are adaptable, with well experienced personnel who can pretty much fit into any assignment and make it work. That said, IMTs are (generally) trained in the application of the incident command system (ICS). That is, they are trained in the management of complex, field-level, tactical operations. They (usually) aren’t specifically trained in managing an EOC or other type of operations center. While the principles of ICS can be applied to practically any aspect of incident management, even if ICS isn’t applied in the purest sense, it might not be the system established in a given operations center (in whatever form it may take). While IMTs can work in operations centers, operations centers don’t necessarily need an IMT, and while (formal) IMTs are great resources, they might not be the best solution.  

The issue here certainly isn’t with IMTs, though. Rather it’s with the varying nature of operations centers themselves. IMTs are largely a defined resource. Trying to fit them to your EOC may be a square peg/round hole situation. It’s important to note that there exists no single standard for the organization and management of an EOC. NIMS provides us with some optional models, and in practice much of what I’ve seen often has some similarity to those models, yet have deviations which largely prevent us from labeling what is in practice with any of the NIMS-defined models in the purist sense. The models utilized in EOCs are often practical reflections of the political, bureaucratic, and administrative realities of their host agencies and jurisdictions. They each have internal and external needs that drive how the operations center is organized and implemented. Can these needs be ultimately addressed if a single standard were required? Sure, but when governments, agencies, and organizations have well established systems and organizations, we’ll use finance as an example, it simply doesn’t make sense to reorganize. This is why we are so challenged with establishing a single standard or even adhering to a few models.

The first pathway to success for your operations center is to actually document your organization and processes. It seems simple, yet most EOCs don’t have a documented plan or operating guideline. It’s also not necessarily easy to document how the EOC will work if you haven’t or rarely have activated it at all. This is why we stick to the CPG-101 planning process, engaging a team of people to help determine what will or won’t work, examining each aspect from a different perspective. I also suggest enlisting the help of someone who has a good measure of experience with a variety of EOCs. This may be someone from a neighboring jurisdiction, state emergency management, or a consultant. Either way, start with the existing NIMS models and figure out what will work for you, with modifications as needed. Once you have a plan, you have a standard from which to work.

Once you have that plan, train people in the plan. Figure out who in your agency, organization, or jurisdiction has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to function within key positions. FEMA’s EOC Skillsets can help with this – even if the positions they use don’t totally map to yours, it’s not difficult to line up most of the common functions. Regardless of what model you are using, a foundation of ICS training is usually helpful, but DON’T STOP HERE. ICS training alone, even if your EOC is ICS-based, isn’t enough. I can practically guarantee your EOC uses systems, processes, or implementations unique to your EOC which aren’t part of ICS or the ICS training your personnel received. Plus, well… if you haven’t heard… ICS training sucks. It can be a hard truth for a lot of entities, but to prepare your personnel the best way possible, you will need to develop your own EOC training. And of course to complete the ‘preparedness trifecta’ you should then conduct exercises to validate your plans and support familiarity.

All that said, you may require help for a very large, long, and/or complex incident. This is where government entities and even some in the private sector request incident management support. Typically this incident management support comes from established IMTs or a collection of individuals providing the support you need. The tricky part is that they aren’t familiar with how you are organized or your way of doing things. There are a few ways to hedge against the obstacles this potentially poses. First, you can establish an agreement or contract with people or an organization that know your system. If this isn’t possible, you can at least (if you’ve followed the guidance above) send your plan to those coming to support your needs, allowing them at least a bit of time in transit to study up. Lastly, a deliberate transition, affording some overlap or shadowing time with the outgoing and incoming personnel will help tremendously, affording the incoming personnel to get a hands-on feel for things (I recommend this last one even if the incoming personnel are familiar with your model as it will give an opportunity to become familiar with how you are managing the incident). Of course all of these options will include formal briefings, sharing of documentation, etc.

Remember, though, that there are certain things your agency, organization, or jurisdiction will always own, especially the ultimate responsibility for your mission. Certain internal processes, such as purchasing, are still best handled by your own people. If your operations are technical and industry-specific, such as for a utility, they should still be managed by your own people. That doesn’t mean, however that your people can’t be supported by outside personnel (Ref my concept of an Incident Support Quick Response Team). The bottom line here is that IMTs or any other external incident support personnel are great resources, but don’t set them up for a slow start, or even failure, by not addressing your own preparedness needs for your EOC. In fact any external personnel supporting your EOC should be provided with a packet of information, including your EOC plan and procedures, your emergency operations plan (EOP), maps, a listing of capabilities, demographics, hazards, org charts for critical day-to-day operations, an internal map of the building they will be working in, and anything else that will help orient them to your jurisdiction and organization – and the earlier you can get it to them the better! Don’t forget to get your security personnel on board (building access cards and parking tags) and your IT personnel (access to your network, printers, and certain software platforms). Gather these packets beforehand or, at the very least, assemble a checklist to help your personnel quickly gather and address what’s needed.

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

An Update of Ontario’s Incident Management System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

FEMA’s First Lessons Learned From COVID-19

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

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

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

Here are some of my primary observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

The Contrarian Emergency Manager™

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

A Re-Framing of Incident Management Structures

I recently finished reading Team of Teams by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The General tells of the new perspective and strategy he needed to employ to better manage the Joint Special Operations Task Force in the 2000s hunting down Al Qaeda insurgents. The Task Force was being out paced by a decentralized organization with all the home team advantages. McChrystal and his team assessed where the Task Force was failing and applied new principles which brought them increased success. The book not only provides examples from the Task Force, but also goes through history and various applications of business and industry to illustrate how different perspectives on organizational management can bring better results. It was fascinating to read this with the constant thought of incident management on my mind and seeing how the early state of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, as well as many of the business and industry examples, had many of the same challenges of incident management today. Highly recommended reading!

Those of you who have been with me for a while know that I’m a big fan of the Incident Command System (ICS), even though I have a lot of issues with how we have been trying to train people to use it (ICS Training Sucks). Similarly, I have a lot of passion for Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and the various organizational models which can be used in these facilities, including those which have a lot of similarity to ICS. I’ll collectively refer to these as incident management.

The root of Gen. McChrystal’s book emphasizes the benefits of organizations that are flexible and collaborative, vs the traditional hierarchal organizations. It’s interesting that much of what we espouse as successful implementations in incident management focuses on flexibility and working together, yet the organizational models we use, and sometimes even just the way we depict them, impedes this success. The traditional org charts that we obsessively plaster up on every wall of every command post and EOC emphasize a chain of command, which is so often confused with lines of communication and the continued and necessary close coordination we need to have in an incident management organization. While chain of command is still necessary to understand, that’s really the only value of the hierarchal organization chart.

From Team of Teams, I’d like you to look at two sets of graphics which are found on this site. (these are important to look at… so click the link!) The first identifies complicated vs complex systems (or environments). Complicated systems may be multi-faceted, but largely have a linear progression. Complex systems are unpredictable. I’d offer that incident management can include both, being a complex system until such a point that we can stabilize the incident, then morphing into a more predictable though still complicated system. The primary argument of Team of Teams is to match the organizational structure to the environment, meaning that while a more linear, hierarchal organizational structure is fine for a complicated system, a more dynamic structure is needed for dealing with complex systems.

The second set of graphics depicts three organizational models from Team of Teams. The first is the familiar Command model. This model, as I mentioned earlier, emphasizes chain of command, though clearly also emphasizes stove-piping, which isn’t a reflection of best practices for being dynamic or having coordination across organizational elements. As argued in the book, the separation of organizational elements only works if their functions are not related or connected. We know in ICS that each function is strongly connected to others.  As such, the Command model really doesn’t represent the reality of ICS, even though it’s what we always depict.

The second model, labeled Command of Teams shows collaboration within each team. In consideration of ICS functionality, when I have managed a Planning Section, I expect my team to work together. Yes, they each have different roles and responsibilities, but they all contribute to the primary purpose of the Planning Section. As just a small example, the Demob Unit absolutely must work with the Resources Unit to have knowledge of what resources are on the incident and various data sets about each. They must also collaborate with the Situation Unit Leader who can provide not only information on the current state of things, but hopefully projections of the situation, helping the Demob Unit Leader to develop more accurate timelines for demobilization. This is all well and good, but this model still maintains separation of the major components of the organization (stove-piping).

Next, consider the Team of Teams model, the third in this graphic. At first glance, it looks messy and chaotic, but consider that the principles it tells us are what we should be doing. Again, as a Planning Section Chief, I expect my team members to not just work together, but to coordinate across the entire organization as needed to get their jobs done. Using the Demob Unit as a continued example, their job requires information from and coordination with Logistics, certainly Operations, and even Finance/Admin, and Safety. Their ability to coordinate with others has nothing at all to do with chain of command, and I know my team is more effective when they are interfacing across the organization. My team quickly learns that they don’t need my permission to coordinate with others.

There are several points emphasized in the Team of Teams book that support the Team of Teams model, particularly through the lens of incident management, including:

  1. Efficiency vs Adaptability. Certainly, in incident management we want both, but particularly in the earlier stages of response, adaptability is more important than efficiency. We need to be able to respond to a dynamic, changing environment in the best ways possible. The Team of Teams model maximizes our adaptability.
  2. Procedure vs Purpose. The structure of checklists and other depictions of rigid procedures, which largely serve to strengthen efficiency, can only get us so far in a complex environment. Leaning back into the efficiency vs adaptability argument, rigidity doesn’t serve us well in incident management. When we focus on purpose, we are more adaptable and resilient. When people are focusing exclusively on their own narrow set of tasks, they often lose the big picture that is the overall purpose. In the complexity of incident management, we need to see the forest, not just the trees, in order to understand needs, implications, priorities, dependencies, and options.
  3. Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE) (pronounced mee-see). MECE is used extensively in the business consulting world to depict clear delineation of tasks within one large activity. ICS likes to force us into a MECE environment, which is certainly great for efficiency and eliminating duplication of efforts. While those things are important, the MECE principal eliminates overlap and coordination. The book uses a great example of a sports team to drive this home. Using a sports analogy of my own, consider that in hockey each team has the broad player categories (positions) of forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders. While they each have very distinct purposes and playing strategies, they need to have some overlap to support teamwork, effectiveness, and contingencies. They can’t simply function in a bubble and expect success. ICS loves the rigidity of separating tasks to specific positions, but to be successful there needs to be coordination.
  4. Common Operating Picture. The book uses the term ‘collective intelligence’, but the principal is the same, being that members of the team at large are at least familiar with what is going on, can access more detailed information as needed, and have the information they need to best perform their jobs. The Team of Teams concept promotes this exchange of information and expanded situational awareness.
  5. Leadership at all Levels. While Team of Teams doesn’t explicitly say this, there are several references related to it. We know in any effective organization, especially incident management, the Incident Commander or EOC manager shouldn’t be the only leader. We need leadership practiced at all levels of the organization. We expect Section Chiefs to be leaders; Unit Leaders, Branch Directors, Group Supervisors, etc. Even individual resources can exhibit and practice leadership. This contributes to our adaptability.

After examining these models, I think most will agree that in incident management we really do use the Team of Teams model, but not to the fullest extent. Why is that? I think it’s primarily because we graphically depict our organizations using the Command model and so much of our mindset is fixated on that structure and a perceived rigidity of the positions and flow within that structure. Sure, the Command model is cleaner and less intimidating, but it psychologically predisposes us to silos. In ICS, for example, we do have people coordinating across sections, but aside from the ‘scripted’ activities (i.e. those within the Planning Process), it seems to not come easily.  

We have a lot of room for improvement, and I think we can do so without violating any of the tenets of ICS. We can open ourselves to a more dynamic environment while still maintaining chain of command, unity of command, and span of control. Safety is still emphasized. ICS espouses the free flow of information, but flow of information is different from collaboration – a term rarely found in ICS materials.  In many plans and training that I develop, when I’m referencing certain positions, I often identify the key interactions that position has both within and external to the organization. Interactions are a key to success and need to not just be acknowledged, but emphasized. There is an almost social aspect to the Team of Teams model, but not in the butterfly kind of way. It’s simply a socialization of the system. More people being familiar with what’s going on and what the priorities of others are. This type of environment encourages better communication, more ideas, and an ability to make course corrections on the fly. I think some will push back saying that they want people to ‘stay in their lanes’, but professionals who are well trained should still maintain a primary focus on their job.

Gen. McChrystal emphasizes that a big key to really implementing the Team of Teams model is the mindset of the ranking officer – the Incident Commander or EOC Manager in our case. They need to be willing to let go of what they might have traditionally controlled. They are still absolutely in command, but we need to consider what they should be directly in command of. What decisions REALLY need to be made by the IC or EOC Manager? I’ve seen too many people at that level want to be involved in every decision. I’ve heard all the excuses. Yes, they are the ones ultimately responsible. Yes, they need to justify actions to their boss. But that doesn’t mean they need to have their hands in everything. That’s often less than effective. (Funny enough, I’ve also experienced those who espoused these reasons for micromanaging, yet they were never available to the team to actually make decisions. That puts the team in a difficult position.)

If the ICs or EOC Managers are the ones who set objectives, we could go the extent of saying that any changes of activity within the scope of those objectives should be allowable without needing their approval. That might be a bit extreme for some (yes, I know that they are approving the incident action plan, which identifies things to the tactical level), but if we trust the people who are put in key positions throughout the organization – not only are they all leaders, but armed with a common operating picture and knowing what is called ‘the Commander’s intent’ in military lingo – we should trust that when urgency dictates, they are empowered to make decisions. Pushing decision-making to the lowest practical level can make us more responsive, perhaps saving lives or at least ‘stopping the bleeding’ until a definitive strategy can be developed.

Show the Team of Teams model around a bit. Talk about it. Sure, when people look at that org chart for the first time, I expect there will be some exasperated reactions. But when they read up on it and think it through, they will realize that we already practice it in part. What’s stopping us from full implementation? Two things… a little cultural shift and a varying degree of ego. Silly excuses for not doing things better. We are professionals, after all – right?

There is so much more gold to mine in the Team of Teams book. As mentioned before, I highly recommend this for those interested in organizational development, organizational psychology, incident management, and other related areas. It’s filled full of great examples and will likely prompt a lot of thought as it did for me.  

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and feedback on this.

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Contingency Planning

I’m going to wrap up 2020 by discussing contingency planning, which is a practice not seen often enough. Before I get started, I should contextualize my use of the term ‘contingency plan’. My general use of the term, at least in emergency management applications, is intended to refer to a plan which may be needed to address the disruption of current event management, incident response, or recovery operations. Essentially, it’s the emergency plan to use while dealing with an emergency, in the event that something bad occurs.

When might you need a contingency plan? Contingency plans should be developed for the kind of situations that have you looking over your shoulder or asking ‘what if…’. Weather events are often good examples, such as a response taking place during some very active tornado weather. You might be responding to the impacts of an earlier tornado, or something completely unrelated, but a tornado warning is in effect, meaning that one could materialize at any time. This could also be a response taking place in a low-lying area during a flash flood warning. We sometimes build contingency plans into our standard operating guidelines or procedures (SOPs/SOGs) by having back-up teams, such as rapid intervention teams (RITs) in the fire service, which are standing by to rescue firefighters in trouble during an interior firefighting operation. Assessing risks on an ongoing basis and developing contingency plans should be part of your incident management battle rhythm.

Where to start with contingency planning? Let’s fall back to the CPG 101 planning process. Yep, that works here, too. The first step is to build your planning team. Contingency planning is a responsibility of the Planning Section, but others need to be involved. Working from a traditional ICS structure, I’d certainly suggest involving Safety and Operations, at a minimum, but depending on circumstances, you may wish to expand this, such as considerations for failures in the supply chain (thus Logistics and Finance/Admin), which may be less of a life safety matter, but can heavily impact operational continuity.

With consideration to the Safety Officer, I’d argue that tactical safety is the primary focus of the Safety Officer; while things that can have much broader impact to the incident, while still a concern of the Safety Officer, may require more in-depth and coordinated planning, thus why I tag the Planning Section to lead contingency planning efforts. My experience has always had the Planning Section taking the lead in this. That said, your incident management organization may decide to assign this to the Safety Officer or an assistant Safety Officer. That’s totally fine in my book, so long as it’s being addressed.

Step two of the planning process is to understand the situation. Some of your risks might be really apparent, such as the tornado warning, but others may require a bit more assessment and discussion. If you need to dig deeper, or are looking at a potential need for a variety of contingency plans, I’d recommend using a risk assessment matrix to help assess the likelihood and impacts of the risks you are examining. Here’s an example of a risk assessment matrix from the United States Marine Corps. Sadly, the risk assessment matrix is not yet a common tool in our incident management doctrine and practices in the US, though I do see it referenced elsewhere. In looking at the tool, obviously those with higher probabilities and severity of impact are the priorities on which to focus. Be sure to consider cascading impacts! Keep in mind that this risk assessment, depending on the duration and kinetics of your response and the dynamics of the environment, may need to be performed more than once throughout your operations. It should at least be considered every operational period.

Step three is to identify goals and objectives. Of course, in the broadest sense, our operational priority is always life safety, but we need to refine this a bit based on the specific hazard we are planning for. Second to life safety, we should also be considering operational continuity, ensuring that we can return to current operations with the least disruption possible OR be able to immediately respond to emergent needs created by the hazard in the event of the hazard creating a more kinetic environment. Your plan may also need to address impacts to the public at large (essentially anyone not part of your incident management organization). Depending on your operational scope and the area of responsibility, this may actually exceed the capacity and mandate of your incident management organization. You will need to determine how to ‘right size’ the scope of your planning efforts. This is perhaps a good opportunity to consult the local emergency manager. Don’t lose focus, though. The contingency plan is not intended to save the world. Remember, responder safety is our number one priority.

Step four is developing the plan. This is largely an outline of the essential elements. There are a number of components to consider for your plan. First, with consideration of cascading impacts, we should identify what aspects of the hazard we can mitigate and how. If there are hasty mitigation steps we can take, those may help limit the risk to life, resources, and operations. Next, consider your concept of operations for the life safety aspect of this plan. As with any other emergency operations type of plan, we need to maintain situational awareness and have protocols for notification and warning. Using the tornado warning (during an active response) as an example, who is responsible for maintaining a watchful eye on the skies and keeping tabs on dynamic weather products? If they see something of concern, who do they notify and how? Is there an emergency radio frequency that everyone’s radio will automatically go to if used? Perhaps three blasts of an air horn? Identify what will work for your operating environment. Keep in mind that if the matter is of urgent life safety, you want to minimize the number of steps and the amount of time taken between awareness and notification to responders. Next, upon notification, what is the emergency action plan – i.e., what needs to take place? Evacuation? Shelter in place? Some other action? A great reference for this from the wildfire incident management community is Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES), which is part of their incident safety analysis.

What happens after those protective actions? Ideally some kind of status check-in of the impacted personnel for accountability and continued situational awareness. Who is responsible for communicating that and to whom is it communicated? Is it wise to have some sort of rescue team standing by incase anyone is in trouble? If so, what resources need to be tasked to it, what is its organization, and what are their operating protocols? Can you reasonably keep the rescue team out of harm’s way to help ensure continuity of their capability?

You may also have a continuity of operations (COOP) aspect to this plan, to address how the incident management organization will minimize down time, restore prior operations, and possibly even identify alternate methods of operations. Depending on the hazard, a reassessment of the operation may need to take place to see if objectives will change to address a new situation created by impacts from this secondary incident.

Consider the current operational environment that every jurisdiction is facing at this moment. Jurisdictions, EOCs, and others should certainly have a contingency plan in place right now that addresses things like potential Coronavirus exposures, symptomatic personnel, and personnel that test positive. Many have been dealing with it, but do they have their protocols in writing? Most do not. In New York State, all public employers are now required to develop a plan to address these and other factors for public health emergencies.

Step 5 is plan preparation, review, and approval. This is the actual writing of the plan. Of course, you are in the middle of an incident, and it’s likely that the contingency(ies) you are planning for is breathing down your neck. Depending on how much haste is needed, your plan might be a few bullet points, or it could be a few pages long with more detail. Obviously do whatever is appropriate. Have the planning team members review the plan to ensure that it addresses all critical points and accurately reflects the necessary steps. Have you identified what will trigger the plan? Who is responsible for monitoring the situation? Who is responsible or activating the plan? How will they activate it and notify others? What are the responsibilities of others once they are notified?  Once you and the planning team are satisfied that you’ve addressed all the important points, the plan should be forwarded to the appropriate authority for approval, such as the incident commander, EOC manager, agency administrator, etc.

I’ll also note here that if you have multiple threats and/or hazards for which you are developing contingency plans, try to keep your contingency operations as similar as possible. The more complexity you have, especially to deal with different hazards, the more problems can occur during implementation. For example, your means and methods for notifying personnel of a tornado and a flash flood can likely be the same if their protective actions are also the same.

Lastly, step 6 is implementation of the plan. This is where someone should be working on any mitigation actions that you identified and personnel should be briefed on the plan, so they know what they are responsible for and what they need to do, when, and how.

It seems like a long process, but it can be done in a few minutes for urgent hazards. Some contingency plans may certainly be longer and more complex, especially if you are preparing for something that has a lower risk factor or something that isn’t yet a hazard, like a distant weather front. Several years back, I was part of the overhead team for a state-wide months-long debris removal initiative in the aftermath of a late season hurricane. As operations went on, we eventually entered the next hurricane season, and with that we identified the threat of future tropical storms to our area of operations (an entire state) and the operations we were responsible for. We needed to identify who and how systems would be monitored, trigger points for activation of the plan, and how to communicate emergency actions to several debris removal and debris monitoring contractors. We had time leading into hurricane season and were able to develop a well-crafted plan to meet this need. Fortunately, we didn’t have to use it.

Have you written contingency plans for incidents and events? What lessons have you learned from contingency planning?

~~

As a final bit on 2020, we are all certainly happy to see it pass. Keep in mind that while the new year offers a mental benchmark, we still have months ahead of us continuing to manage the consequences of the pandemic and our response to it. We have learned a lot of lessons from this response, which every organization should be capturing, if you haven’t already. As we go into the new year, resolve to do something meaningful with those lessons learned. Don’t just let them languish in yet another after-action report. Implement those corrective actions!

Stay safe.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Incident Management Advisors

It’s frustrating to see poor incident management practices. For years I’ve reviewed plans that have wild org charts supposedly based on the Incident Command System (ICS); have conducted advanced-level training with seasoned professionals that still don’t grasp the basic concepts; have conducted and evaluated exercises and participated in incident responses in which people clearly don’t understand how to implement the most foundational aspects of ICS. On a regular basis, especially since people know my focus on the subject, I’m told of incident management practices that range from sad to ridiculous.

Certainly not everyone gets it wrong. I’ve seen plans, met people, and witnessed exercises and incidents in which people clearly understand the concepts of ICS and know how to put it into action. ICS is a machine, but it takes deliberate and constant action to make it work. It has no cruise control or auto pilot, either. Sometimes just getting the incident management organization to stay the course is a job unto itself.

If you are new here, I’ve written plenty on the topic. Here’s a few things to get you pointed in the right direction if you want to read more.

ICS Training Sucks. There are a series of related posts that serve as a key stone to so much that I write about.

The Human Factor of Incident Management. This bunch of related articles is about how ICS isn’t the problem, it’s how people try to implement it.  

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s unrealistic for us to expect most local jurisdictions to assemble and maintain anything close to a formal incident management team. We need, instead, to focus on improving implementation of foundational ICS concepts at the local level, which means we need to have better training and related preparedness activities to promote this. Further, we also know that from good management practices as well as long-standing practices of incident management teams, that mentoring is a highly effective means of guiding people down the right path. In many ways, I see that as an underlying responsibility of mine as a consultant. Sometimes clients don’t have the time to get a job done, but often they don’t have the in-house talent. While some consultants may baulk at the mere thought of building capability for a client (they are near sighted enough to think it will put them out of work), the better ones truly have the interests of their clients and the practice of emergency management as a whole in mind.

So what and how do we mentor in this capacity? First of all, relative to incident management, I’d encourage FEMA to develop a position in the National Qualification System for Incident Management Advisors. Not only should these people be knowledgeable in implementations of ICS and EOC management, but also practiced in broader incident management issues. Perhaps an incident doesn’t need a full incident management team, but instead just one or two people to help the local team get a system and battle rhythm established and maintained. One responsibility I had when recently supporting a jurisdiction for the pandemic was mentoring staff in their roles and advising the organization on incident management in a broader sense. They had some people who handled things quite well, but there was a lot of agreement in having someone focus on implementation. I also did this remotely, demonstrating that it doesn’t have to be in person.

In preparedness, I think there is similar room for an incident management advisor. Aside from training issues, which I’ve written at length about over the years (of course there will be more!), I think a lot of support is needed in the realm of planning. Perhaps a consultant isn’t needed to write an entire plan, but rather an advisor to ensure that the incident management practices identified in planning documents are sound and consistent with best practices, meet expectations, and can be actually implemented. So much of what I see in planning in regard to incident management has one or more of these errors:

  1. Little mention of incident management beyond the obligatory statement of using NIMS/ICS.
  2. No identification of how the system is activated and/or maintained.
  3. As an extension of #2, no inclusion of guidance or job aids on establishing a battle rhythm, incident management priorities, etc.
  4. An obvious mis-understanding or mis-application of incident management concepts/ICS, such as creating unnecessary or redundant organizational elements or titles, or trying to force concepts that simply don’t apply or make sense.
  5. No thought toward implementation and how the plan will actually be operationalized, not only in practice, but also the training and guidance needed to support it.

In addition to planning, we need to do better at identifying incident management issues during exercises, formulating remedies to address areas for improvement, and actually implementing and following up on those actions. I see far too many After Action Reports (AARs) that softball incident management shortfalls or don’t go into enough detail to actually identify the problem and root cause. The same can be said for many incident AARs.

When it comes to emergency management, and specifically incident management, we can’t expect to improve without being more direct about what needs to be addressed and committing to corrective actions. We can do better. We MUST do better.

New polling function in WordPress… Let’s give it a try.

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Learning from the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Response (Guest Post)

Another great article from Alison Poste. Please be sure to check out her blog – The Afterburn – at www.afterburnblog.com.

I’m looking forward to reading about the adaptations to ICS she references in this article.

-TR

~~

Learning from the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Response

The ICS model remains a universal command and control standard for crisis response. In contrast to traditional operations-based responses, the COVID-19 pandemic has required a ‘knowledge-based’ framework. 

A fundamental element of ICS is the rapid establishment of a single chain of command. Once established, a basic organization is put in place including the core functions of operations, planning, logistics and finance/administration. In the face of a major incident, there is potential for people and institutions to work at cross purposes. The ICS model avoids this by rapidly integrating people and institutions into a single, integrated response organization preserving the unity of command and span of control. Support to the Incident Commander (the Command Staff) includes a Public Information Officer (PIO), a Liaison Officer and a Safety Officer.

In a study done by Chris Ansell and Ann Keller for the IBM Center for the Business of Government in 2014, the response of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) to the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic was examined in depth. In examining the response, a number of prior outbreak responses were reviewed. Prior to the widespread adoption of ICS, “the CDCP viewed its emergency operations staff as filling an advisory role rather than a leadership role during the crisis” (Ansell and Keller, 2014). This advisory function was the operating principle of the 2003 SARS outbreak response.

ICS was created to coordinate responses that often extend beyond the boundaries of any individual organizations’ capacity to respond. Considering the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, the authors outline three features complicated the use of the traditional ICS paradigm:

  • The overall mission in a pandemic response is to create authoritative knowledge rather than the delivery of an operational response;
  • The use of specialized knowledge from a wide and dispersed range of sources; and 
  • The use of resources to manage external perceptions of the CDCP’s response.

In response to these unique features, the authors of the study have advocated seven adaptations to the ‘traditional’ ICS structure. These adaptations will be examined in depth in a future post.

Notwithstanding the unique challenges of a ‘knowledge-based’ response, the ‘traditional’ ICS structure is well-equipped to adapt and scale to the needs of any incident. While it is true that a ‘knowledge-based’ response differs from an operational one, this is not inconsistent with the two top priorities of the ICS model: #1: Life Safety and #2: Incident (Pandemic) Stabilization. The objectives of the incident will determine the size of the organization. Secondly, the modular ICS organization is able to rapidly incorporate specialized knowledge and expand/contract as the demands of the incident evolve. Finally, assigning resources to monitor external communications will remain the purview of the PIO as a member of Command Staff.

When the studies are written on the use of ICS in the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think will be the key take-aways? As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts and ideas for future topics.

Reference

Ansell, Chris and Ann Keller. 2014. Adapting the Incident Command Model for Knowledge-Based Crises: The Case of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. IBM Center for the Business of Government. Retrieved August 16, 2020 from http://www.businessofgovernment.org/sites/default/files/Adapting%20the%20Incident%20Command%20Model%20for%20Knowledge-Based%20Crises.pdf 

How BC is Acing the Pandemic Test (Guest Post)

I’m excited and honored to promote a new blog being written by Alison Poste. Alison has led major disaster response and recovery efforts in Alberta, Canada, including the 2013 floods and the Fort McMurray wildfires, and currently works as a consultant specializing in business continuity, emergency management, and crisis communications. Her new blog, The Afterburn – Emergency Management Lessons from Off the Shelf, takes a critical look at lessons learned and how they are applied.

I’ve pasted her first post below, but also be sure to click the link above to follow her blog. I’m really excited about the insight Alison will be providing!

– TR

~~

The pandemic has upended how those in the emergency management field have seen traditional response frameworks. Lessons learned from the pandemic response will be useful to governments and the private sector alike in the coming years.

The ICS framework for emergency response is well equipped to address the unique needs of any disaster, including a global pandemic. The rapid scalability of the structure allows the response to move faster than the speed of government. It provides the framework for standardized emergency response in British Columbia (B.C.).

The B.C. provincial government response to the coronavirus pandemic, led by Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer (PHO) has received international acclaim. It is useful therefore to learn from the best practises instituted early on in the pandemic to inform future events. 

In February 2020, the Province of B.C. published a comprehensive update to the British Columbia Pandemic Provincial Coordination Plan outlining the provincial strategy for cross-ministry coordination, communications and business continuity measures in place to address the pandemic. Based on ICS, the B.C. emergency response framework facilitates effective coordination by ensuring the information shared is consistent and effective. The Province of B.C. has provided a daily briefing by Dr. Henry and Adrian Dix, the B.C. Minister of Health as a way to ensure B.C. residents receive up to date information from an authoritative source.

While we may consider the COVID-19 pandemic to be a unique event, a number of studies have provided guidance to emergency response practitioners of today. The decisive action taken by the B.C. PHO on COVID-19, has focused on the twin pillars of containment and contact tracing. Early studies regarding the effect of contract tracing on transmission rates have seen promising results, however the tracing remains a logistical burden. As studies indicate, these logistical challenges have the potential to overwhelm the healthcare system should travel restrictions be relaxed, leading to the possible ‘importation’ of new infections. 

B.C. has instituted robust contract tracing mechanisms to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in alignment with best practises in other jurisdictions. When instituted methodically, contact tracing, consistent communication, and Dr. Henry’s mantra to “Be calm. Be kind. Be safe.” remain critical tools to ensure limited spread, a well-informed and socially cohesive population.

How has your organization helped to slow the spread of COVID-19?  As always, I welcome your feedback and suggestions for how to improve the blog.