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

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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

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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.

Using PPOST to Address Incident Priorities

In incident management we talk a lot about objectives, strategies, and tactics. Objectives being an identification of what needs to be accomplished; strategies outlining our approaches in how to achieve any given objective; and tactics providing the details of who, what, when, and where along with specific applications to support a specific strategy. With most responses being reasonably routine, many experienced responders go from objectives to tactics in the snap of a synapse. This is based on experience, training, standards, and lessons learned that are so practiced and ingrained in what we do, it’s practically an automatic response. But what of more complex incidents which challenge us with anything but the routine?

An extraordinary response often requires us to step back, take a breath, and think things through. The challenges are complex and necessitate that we approach things with deliberate procedure, and certainly documenting our outcomes, if not our entire thought process. While the formula of objectives, strategies, and tactics still inherently works, some are understandably so overwhelmed with what they face, that even developing objectives can seem to be too much in the weeds at the onset. For the solution, I turn to my northern neighbors – Canada.

While I’m not sure who to actually credit with the PPOST acronym, I know it’s most commonly cited in incident management practices, plans, and training in Canada. PPOST stands for:

  • Priorities
  • Problems
  • Objectives
  • Strategies
  • Tactics

Using PPOST in your approach can better help you to focus on what needs to be done. We know from ICS training and other courses that our immediate incident management priorities are:

  • Life safety
  • Incident stabilization
  • Property conservation

While additional priorities can be added later in the timeline of the incident these are the principle three we need to address. These priorities are fairly straightforward and help us to identify and classify our problems, placing them into the buckets of each of these priorities.

When we open our senses to a complex incident, we are often overwhelmed with problems. It can be difficult to figure out where to start brining order to the chaos. Fundamentally, list out every problem you identify. As you identify each problem, figure out which bucket (priority) it belongs in. Particularly at the onset of an incident, if it doesn’t relate to one of these three priorities, it’s not a problem that needs to be addressed (at least right now).

Now take a look at the problems you identified as being life safety issues. These are your first priority to address. It doesn’t mean you can’t also work on the problems identified in other priorities… that of course comes down to the resources you have available, though the second priority should of course be incident stabilization, followed by property conservation.

Even within these priority buckets, there are some problems which will have higher priority. A simple example: It may not be possible to affect a rescue of people until a fire is suppressed. So once we have a priority assigned to each of our problems, we still need to identify those problems which hold the greatest urgency within each of the priority areas.

To tackle the problems, we now develop objectives, strategies, and tactics for each, addressing them in order of priority and urgency.

If you are looking for additional information on PPOST, be sure to make ICS Canada your first stop.

Be smart and stay safe.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Properly Leveraging the EOC Safety Officer

One of my Twitter connections tweeted over the weekend about the importance of the Safety Officer in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during the pandemic response.  This is absolutely true, but it’s not the only time the EOC Safety Officer should be engaged.  There is a significant role for them in many EOC activations, but they are historically underutilized, often relegated to monitoring for trip hazards in the EOC and making sure that no one hits their head on the desk when they fall asleep on those long wind-down shifts. 

While the Safety Officer in an Incident Command Post has a great deal of work to do, monitoring tactical hazards and implementing mitigative measures, we often think that with the EOC’s hands-off approach to tactics (something else that is also a myth in incident management) that there is little for an EOC Safety Officer to do.  Obviously, the potential of an EOC Safety Officer depends on the specific circumstances of the incident and the scope of support being provided by the EOC, especially if it’s staffed with the proper personnel. 

Remember that the Safety Officer is a member of the Command (or EOC Management) staff, and therefore can have assistants to support technical needs as well as a volume of work.  While ideally we want people trained as Safety Officers (in accordance with the NIMS position-specific curriculum), let’s face it – most of pool of position-trained personnel come from the fire service.  While on the surface there is obviously nothing wrong with that – fireground safety applications are incredibly detailed and require a very specific know-how – we need to leverage people with the proper background based on the incident we are dealing with.  That could be someone with a fire background, but, for example, a public health incident likely requires a Safety Officer (or advising assistant Safety Officer) to have a public health background; just as an emergency bridge replacement likely requires someone with an engineering background to be the Safety Officer. 

Through my experience, I’ve found that occupational health and safety personnel (either OSHA-proper from the US Dept of Labor or State/Local Occupational Health and Safety personnel) are great for this position, and even better if they have the proper ICS training.  On one hand, I’d call them generalists, because you can utilize them for darn near any incident, but calling them generalists almost feels insulting, as their knowledge of laws, regulations, and guidelines is often very extensive, and if they don’t know, they know where to find the information.  They also work well with hazard-specific specialists who can be integrated as assistants.  They can also call upon a small army of other OSHA-types to support field monitoring of safety matters. 

I will mention a word on using ‘regulators’ as Safety Officers.  Some may be reluctant to do so.  Reflecting again on my experience, I’ll say that Federal/State/Local OSHA-types are great to work with in this regard.  They are often willing to be flexible, developing and implementing an incident safety plan that can be phased, with safety personnel initially providing guidance and correction (when appropriate) and enforcing later. 

In looking at the scope of responsibility for an EOC Safety Officer, we do need to consider the scope of responsibility for any Safety Officers working from Incident Command Posts to ensure the work is complimentary, with minimal duplication of effort, but enough overlap for continuity.  The Safety Officers in an ICP will be primarily focused on the operating area of their ICP.  They are less likely to be concerned with safety matters off-site. 

For an ‘intangible’ incident, such as the current pandemic, we are more apt to find EOCs running the show vs incident command posts.  Obviously, this greatly expands the responsibility of the Safety Officer – in a jurisdiction’s primary EOC, as well as the Safety Officers in departmental operations centers (DOCs) – as many tactical operations are truly being managed from the EOC.  Considerations such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and operating guidelines for all areas of operation and all tactics are likely to be coming from the EOC Safety Officer.  If DOCs or other incident management facilities are involved, the Safety Officer of the jurisdiction’s primary EOC may be collaborating with the Safety Officers from these other facilities to ensure a common operating picture in regard to safety, a unified safety plan, and consistent monitoring and enforcement.  A Safety Officer operating in this capacity needs to be comprehensive in their scope, not just looking at the hazards associated with the primary issue (i.e. an infectious disease), but examining all tactics and considerations, ranging from people operating equipment, to emerging weather hazards.

For an incident with more traditional EOC involvement, a Safety Officer still has a full range of responsibilities, though the actual range of these are still dictated by the scope of the incident.  If an EOC is primarily serving as a resource ordering point, the EOC Safety Officer should be communicating with the Safety Officer at the ICP to ensure an understanding of the hazards in general operating area as well as the specific hazards and PPE needs of the application each resource will be assigned to.  The EOC Safety Officer should be ensuring that responding resources are aware of these safety requirements, as well as potential safety concerns while in transit.  The EOC Safety Officer may be providing the ICP Safety Officer with specialized safety support, analysis, and resources, including supplies and equipment (in coordination with EOC Logistics). 

An EOC supporting multiple ICPs (and even coordinating with several DOCs) should have a more involved and proactive Safety Officer, as they need to be coordinating safety matters across each of these incident management structures.  This includes ensuring a common operating picture in regard to safety, a unified safety plan, and consistent monitoring and enforcement.  They are also likely to be involved in working with EOC Logistics to ensure the proper supplies and equipment.  They should be watching for tactical applications or resource movements of each incident management structure to ensure there are no conflicts or impacts in regard to safety. 

An EOC more significantly engaged is likely to be providing mission support (a topic I’ll be writing about in the near future).  In summary, EOC mission support are generally tactical applications which are developed and managed by an EOC to address matters that are beyond the scope of the ICP or those which the Incident Commander can’t presently deal with.  EOC mission support could include things like sheltering, points of distribution, or a family assistance center.  Once up and running, each of these examples should have their own management structure including a Safety Officer to address their specific needs, but the EOC Safety Officer should be heavily involved in the planning and development stages of these missions, as well as coordinating and supporting safety matters to each of them, similar to what has been mentioned previously. 

Lastly, I’ll suggest that an EOC Safety Officer may also be working with third parties, to include non-government organizations, the private sector, and the public.  Depending on the activity of any of these, the EOC Safety Officer should be keeping tabs on what the safety issues are and communicating with these parties.  The role of the EOC Safety Officer could even include public education.  A great example of this was the October 2006 snowstorm in Erie County, NY.  The Safety Officer from the County EOC (staffed by US DOL/OSHA) coordinated several chainsaw safety courses for the public, knowing that despite the number of safety messages distributed via the Public Information Officer, homeowners, who perhaps never used a chainsaw or hadn’t used one in years, would be out in their yards clearing debris from fallen trees.  These courses were incredibly effective and appreciated by the public. 

To be honest, I’m in favor of breaking tradition within EOCs and designating EOC safety matters, such as trip hazards and signage for mopped floors, to those who are managing EOC facility needs (i.e. the Center Support Section if you are using the Incident Support Model).  This assignment more appropriately corresponds with the focus of the Center Support Section and allows the EOC Safety Officer to maintain focus on what’s going on outside the EOC. 

So there is some food for thought on how to properly use an EOC Safety Officer.  Don’t continue to let it be a lame position as so many have in the past.  It has incredible importance when properly utilized and staffed.  I’m interested in hearing about how you have leveraged EOC Safety Officers, or if you are a Safety Officer, what activities you have performed from an EOC. 

Be safe out there. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

ICS Training Sucks: A Revival

It’s sad to say that in the past four and a half years of stumping for changes in ICS training, we have seen little progress.  I was recently sent a response org chart developed by an agency that completely tore apart ICS and rebuilt it in a fundamentally different image.  ICS is a standard.  It shouldn’t be changed.  Once you change it, especially at fundamental levels, you no longer have a standard.  It has innate flexibility, but those are applied without changing the fundamentals.  I vented some of my frustration about this last night on Twitter, to a mix of celebration and naysayers, as expected.  Some of those naysayers think the system simply doesn’t work. Others think the system simply can’t accommodate their type of agency.

(note that I’m using the word ‘agency’ here to mean any type of government, non-government, or private sector organization.  I decided to use it since I’m also heavily using the term ‘organization’ in regard to the structure we apply for a response)

So let’s back up a bit.  Why is this happening?  It starts with people having some knowledge of ICS and, with good intentions, wanting to adapt it to their agency and their circumstances.  But there is simply no reason to do any adaptation.  The functions outlined in ICS are all you need in a field-level response.  I’ve heard all the excuses – “We need to make it work for us.”  “FEMA needs to build an ICS for our type of agency.”  “It’s not you, it’s me.” I’ve worked with a lot of stakeholders across a lot of sectors across the whole country, and I have yet to find a field-level response that I can’t organize without violating the fundamentals of ICS.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but adhering to the standard is important because if we don’t adhere to a standard, we are out of the loop.  If enough people don’t adhere to a standard, it’s no longer a standard.  Either way, the benefits of having a standard are crumpled up and thrown away.

One problem is that a lot of entities, particularly large agencies with multiple components, like to ensure that every function or department within their static structure is represented in an ICS model.  This isn’t what ICS is built for.  If you are seeking specific representation, you can assign agency representatives to the ICP or the EOC, or use a department-based EOC model, but the foundational ICS structure itself isn’t intended to reflect your static organization.  You have an animal control officer.  Do they need to be represented in your pre-planned ICS org chart?  No, they are brought in as a resource if needed, likely in Operations.  You have an IT department.  Do they need to be represented in your pre-planned ICS org chart?  Not as a department. But their capability is identified, likely for assignment within Logistics.  It’s not about recreating ICS to fit your static organization.  It’s about knowing the capabilities of your static organization and applying them within the established ICS structure when and how they are needed. 

Let’s put this out there… ICS isn’t just for you, it’s for everyone.  What I mean is that the greatest benefit of ICS (the prime reason it was actually devised) is for multi-agency operations.  In a local incident of any significance, your agency is likely to be part of a multi-agency response.  Depending on the type of incident, scope, location, and other factors, certain positions will be staffed with personnel selected from the agencies with primary responsibility and, hopefully, with qualified staff.  So that carefully crafted org chart you have developed for your agency’s response is largely irrelevant in a multi-agency operation.  Yes, your agency certainly should have a go-to model for single-agency responses, but consider that a single-agency response probably isn’t going to need a full-blown org chart.

There is a difference, though… and that’s for EOCs, or more specifically departmental emergency operations centers.  These are, by definition, not multi-agency, and established to support your own agency’s needs for deployment, sustainment, internal coordination, and matters that may not be addressed at the field-level.  EOCs have a variety of organizational models available to them, which don’t necessarily need to be ICS.   A problem I often see is agencies trying to accomplish everything in one org chart.  They are trying to fit executive level positions in with field response.  Stop.  Take a breath and figure out what you are trying to accomplish.  It’s OK (and perhaps necessary) for your agency to have two organizational models to accomplish what you need, depending, of course, on your agency’s role, responsibilities, and capabilities.  You may need a field-level organization that addresses a tactical response (this is ICS-based) and an EOC organization that supports that response and the needs of your agency as a whole in regard to the incident (again, lots of options for the EOC organization).  Also consider, depending on your agency, that a policy group may be necessary to guide things.  A policy group is non-operational and they essentially exist to make the broad-reaching decisions on behalf of the organization.

Why are we seeing such extensive mis-applications of ICS?  First, people still don’t understand ICS.  Second, they aren’t truly considering the needs of their agencies.  The irony is that many of the people doing this DO think they understand ICS and that they are making changes to it to better serve the needs of their agencies.  So… we’re still maintaining that ICS Training Sucks.  Do I have a total solution to that problem?  No. But in the articles you find in that link, I certainly have some ideas.  I’ve also found a great many kindred spirits in this whole crusade that agree with the need for change in how we train people in ICS.

What I do know is that the solution isn’t as straight forward as we would like it to be.  Considerations:

First, we are considerably tainted by our knowledge of current and past ICS curricula.  When talking with people about how to fix ICS training, I have to regularly remind myself to push that knowledge aside and look at the problem with fresh eyes.  Lessons learned aside; we can’t move forward when we are still planting ourselves in what is in use now.

Second, we need to consider that there may not be a single solution that fits all needs.  I still think we may need a curriculum structure similar to that used for HazMat training, which addresses the needs of different user groups (i.e. Awareness, Operations, Technician, Planner, Commander).

Third, we need to actually teach people how to apply ICS.  At present, with only a bit of exception, true application of ICS isn’t deliberately instructed until someone takes position-specific and incident management team training.  This in no way meets the needs of most agencies, many of which are volunteer, and have limited availability to go away for several weeks to get the training they need.

Fourth, recognize that if you aren’t using ICS regularly (and I mean at a large scale), your knowledge and skill degrades.  Refresher training should be required and scenario-based learning should be incorporated across the curriculum.

Fifth, stop trying to re-develop ICS.  Trust me, all the needed capabilities of your agency for a field-level response fit within an ICS org chart.  It’s not about your static organization, it’s about capabilities.  Identify and assign capabilities.

I love the continued dialog and attention this topic gets.  The only way we will see positive change is by continuing that dialog.  Please share these blogs and your ideas with colleagues.  Let’s keep spreading this and striving for change.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEPD

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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In memoriam: I humbly dedicate this post to a friend and colleague who recently lost a battle with cancer.  Phil Politano is known by many for his good nature, his gregarious laugh, and his incredible knowledge as a Public Information Officer.  I’ve known Phil since about 2002, and had worked with him on incidents, taught classes with him, and learned a lot from him.  Phil eventually left Central NY and moved his family a bit south, taking a job with FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.  There, his talents were applied to their greatest extent.  He reshaped PIO training, spread that gospel to people from all around the world, and supported large scale responses with his knowledge, skills, and abilities.  He was a master in his craft and shared his mastery with anyone who wanted to learn.  He was an incredible practitioner, a great friend, and a wonderful person.  He made us all better simply by knowing him.   He is missed by so many.  Rest well.

 

 

An Updated Community Lifelines Toolkit and Relationships to Incident Management

Earlier this year, FEMA released guidance on the Community Lifelines.  I wrote a piece in the spring about integrating the concept into our preparedness and response activities.  Last month, FEMA issued updated guidance for Community Lifeline Implementation through Toolkit 2.0.  In this update, FEMA cites some lessons learned in actually applying the Lifeline concept in multiple exercises across the nation, as well as from feedback received by stakeholders. Based on these lessons learned and feedback, they have made some adjustments to their toolkit to reflect how they understand, prioritize, and communicate incident impacts; the structure and format for decision-making support products. And planning for these impacts and stabilization prior to and during incidents.  They have also made some changes based upon the updated National Response Framework.  The documents associated with the updated Community Lifelines all seem to reflect an inclusion in the efforts of the National Response Framework.  It’s great to see FEMA actually tying various efforts together and seeking to provide grounded guidance on application of concepts mentioned in doctrine-level documents.

The biggest addition to the Community Lifelines update is the inclusion of the FEMA Incident Stabilization Guide.  The ‘operational draft’ is intended to serve as a reference to FEMA staff and a resource to state, local, and tribal governments on how “FEMA approaches and conducts response operations”.  It’s a 77-page document the obviously leans heavily into the Community Lifelines as a standard for assessing the impacts to critical infrastructure and progress toward restoration, not only in response, but also into recovery operations.  It even reflects on bolstering Community Lifelines in resilience efforts, and ties in the THIRA and capability analysis efforts that states, UASIs, and other governments conduct.  I’m not sure the document is really a review of how FEMA conducts operations, as they say, but it does review the ideology of a portion of those operations.  Overall, there is some very useful information and references contained in the document, but this brings me to a couple of important thoughts:

  1. The utility of this document, as with the entire Community Lifelines concept, at the state and local level is only realized through integration of these concepts at the state and local levels.
  2. We finally have guidance on what ‘incident stabilization’ really entails.

To address the first item… In my first piece on Community Lifelines, I had already mentioned that if states or communities are interested in adopting the concept of Community Lifelines, that all starts with planning.  An important early step of planning is conducting assessments, and the most pertinent assessment relative to this initiative would be to identify and catalog the lifelines in your community.  From there the assessment furthers to examine their present condition, vulnerabilities, and align standards for determining their operational condition aligned with the Community Lifelines guidelines.  I would also suggest identifying resiliency efforts (hopefully these are already identified in your hazard mitigation plan) which can help prevent damages or limit impacts.  As part of your response and short-term recovery lexicon, procedures should be developed to outline how lifeline assessments will be performed, when, and by who, as well as where that information will be collected during an incident.

As for my second item, the concept of incident stabilization has an interesting intersection with a meeting I was invited to last week.  I was afforded the opportunity to provide input to an ICS curriculum update (not in the US – more on this at a later time), and as part of this we discussed the standard three incident priorities (Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, and Property Conservation).  We identified in our discussions that incident stabilization is incredibly broad and can ultimately mean different things to different communities, even though the fundamental premise of it is to prevent further impacts.  This Incident Stabilization Guide is focused exclusively on that topic.  In our endeavor to make ICS training better, more grounded, less conceptual, and more applicable; there is a great deal of foundational information that could be distilled from this new document for inclusion in ICS training to discuss HOW we actually accomplish incident stabilization instead of making a one-off mention of it.

Going a bit into my continued crusade against the current state of ICS training… I acknowledge that any inclusion of this subject matter in ICS training would still be generally brief, and really more of a framework, as implementation still needs to be grounded in community-level plans, but this document is a great resource.  This also underscores that “learning ICS” isn’t just about taking classes.  It’s about being a professional and studying up on how to be a more effective incident manager.  ICS is simply a tool we use to organize our response… ICS is NOT inclusive of incident management.  Not only are we teaching ICS poorly, we are barely teaching incident management.

While I’ve been away for a while working on some large client projects, I’m looking forward to ending the year with a bang, and getting in a few more posts.  It’s great that in my travels and interactions with colleagues, they regularly mention my articles, which often bring about some great discussion.  I’m always interested in hearing the thoughts of other professionals on these topics.

© 2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

A New Vision for ICS Training

Yep, I’m still at it.  It seems with every post about the condition of Incident Command System training as we know it, I’m able to draw more people into our cause (aka the Crusade).  While I’ve never espoused there to be an easy solution, the training that we currently provide for ICS falls well short of doing us any favors.  People walk out of each subsequent training course with a marginally increased understanding of the system and how to use it.  And that’s really the fundamental problem, isn’t it?

Perhaps at some point, someone had the idea of developing ICS 100-400 to be knowledge-based courses, with position-specific training to be more about application.  Unfortunately, that’s a significant disservice to responders and the populations they serve, which was further exacerbated by the NIMS training requirements, creating a type of a false sense of security in which people believed that they have ‘been trained in ICS’, therefore all is well in the world.  Responders, in the broadest sense, at supervisory levels within every community should be trained not only in what ICS is but also how to implement it.  Not every community, for a variety of reasons, has reasonable access to position-specific training, so the core ICS curriculum absolutely MUST do a better job in teaching them how to implement the system.

This also goes further than just training.  ICS, like so many other things, is a knowledgebase that tends to degrade over time.  Without practice, you tend to lose the skills.  This is how people who are on Incident Management Teams or those who work regularly in an ICS-based Emergency Operations Center are so well practiced in the system.  In the absence (hopefully!) of actual incidents, planned events and exercises go a long way to keeping skills sharp.  Even those, however, can get costly and time-consuming to design and conduct.  Enter the hybridization of scenario-based training, which is something I’ve written on in the past.  Not only do we need to include more scenario-based training in everything, we need to include a scenario-based ICS skills refresher course as part of the core ICS curriculum.

While I continue to have various thoughts on what there is to be done with the ICS curriculum as a whole, here is my current vision…

ICS-100: (What is ICS?)  Pretty much keep this as is, with options for on-line and classroom delivery.  The purpose of this course is to serve as an introduction to ICS concepts for those who are likely to come into contact with it and work in lower levels within the system.  This is levels one (knowledge) and two (comprehension) of Bloom’s taxonomy.  It shall serve as a prerequisite to further ICS classes as it provides much of the fundamental terminology.

ICS-200: (How do I work within the system?)  Tear down/burn down/nuke the on-line version and never look back.  Simply making it ‘more accessible’ doesn’t mean that it’s good (it’s not).  The purpose of this course is to expand on knowledge and begin to approach functionality.  I expect content to reach deeper than what is currently within the course.  Without looking at specific content areas, I envision this course to be mostly level two (comprehension) of Bloom’s taxonomy with some touches on level three (application).  Perhaps the only level one content that should be introduced in this course are some fundamentals of emergency management.  Some of the content areas currently in the ICS 300 absolutely need to be moved into the ICS 200 to not only make the ICS 200 more impactful, but to also set up the ICS 300 as being fully focused on implementation of the system.  Expanded content may mean taking this course to a duration of up to three days (it even feels taboo writing it!). ICS 100 (taken within six months) is a prerequisite.

ICS-300: (How do I manage the system?) The most recent update of the ICS 300 course begins to approach the vision for what we need, but more work needs to be done.  This course needs to be much less about the system and more about how to IMPLEMENT and MANAGE the system.  This course is firmly rooted in level three (application) of Bloom’s taxonomy, with perhaps some level four objectives, which gets into analysis (troubleshooting and creative solutions… because that’s what emergency management is really all about!).  Much of this course is scenario-based learning centered on implementation and management of an incident through the use of ICS.  Less instruction, more guidance.  And because, at this point, ICS isn’t the only thing at play in real life, concepts of broader incident management are also applied.  ICS 200 is naturally a prerequisite, and should have been taken within a year.

ICS Implementation Refresher Course: This would be designed as a post- ICS 300 course, taken every year or two.  Reasonably, this can be accomplished in a day of intensive scenario-based training.

ICS-400: (A prerequisite for position-specific training).  Eliminate this from the core curriculum.  Seriously.  Most of the current content of this course is not needed in the core ICS curriculum.  Time is better spent in a more intensive ICS 300 course than teaching people about some (largely) obscure applications of ICS which are usually only ever performed by incident management teams.  The current content is largely fine, it just has such little impact on local implementation of ICS and is really rather awkward within the continuity of the curriculum.

Thoughts and feedback are always appreciated.  If we are to succeed and build a better mouse trap, it will be through dialogue and sharing of ideas.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Conduct of the New ICS 300 and 400 Courses

Last month a colleague and I delivered the new ICS 300 and 400 courses for a client.  If you’ve missed them, I have some early review notes and overall thoughts posted.  Nothing gets you into the curriculum like teaching it, though.

First, some credit to our course participants, who were extremely supportive in this delivery.  They were patient with our occasional need to double check the instructor guide and even helped to point out some inconsistencies.  While we each have about fifteen years of experience in teaching the courses, the first few times out with a new flow and format, along with new activities takes a bit of getting used to.  The courses also offered some challenges that had to be overcome in our course prep and delivery.

Leading off with the good foot, both courses reflect a positive direction of change.  It’s not the wholesale change that I’ve been stumping for, so expect to continue to see me championing more changes, but we are seeing positive movement in the right direction, at least with the ICS 300 course.  (I still hold out that most of the content of the ICS 400 course isn’t necessary for most who take it.  Time would be far better spent with grounding the concepts of ICS and supporting implementation of the aspects that are most likely to be used.)

Both courses continue a trend of scenario-based learning reinforcement, with the ability to utilize a progressive scenario threaded throughout the ICS 300 course and scenarios within the ICS 400 that help demonstrate when and how these concepts might be used.  While the ICS 300 materials provide several new scenarios for use, we actually didn’t use their progressive scenarios as our client had some specific needs, requiring us to build a localized scenario for them.  That said, the scenarios provided in the ICS 300 are easily adaptable to meet your needs.  Just be aware of the intent of each phase of the scenario and don’t alter the overall concept.

The endeavor to ground ICS as an operational tool is emphasized in Unit 4 of the ICS 300, Implementing an Operational Process.  This unit really seems to pull together the whole reason for being for ICS, especially in an extended operation, and is a good introduction to the Planning Process.  This unit was very well designed and is one of the most progressive changes in the course.

Not a lot was substantially changed in the ICS 400.  Aside from my earlier comment on the questionable necessity for most of the content, the course, as designed, is good enough to address what is intended, even if that intent seems misguided.  Much of the course was kept the same as the previous version, but there were a few tweaks and adjustments throughout.  The activity in Unit 2, the Fundamentals Review is multi-tiered and is very effective.  Unit 5 provides a lot of content on EOCs which wasn’t previously included as much, as well as introducing disaster recovery topics, which at this level incident the leadership of organizations (i.e. those taking this course) need to be aware of.  This is largely ‘bonus content’ which I had provided in the course off script in the past, as it wasn’t included.  I’m very happy to see this as part of the course now. The capstone exercise is the same as the previous version of ICS 400 and is still very well structured and produces great outcomes for participants.

On the down side… well, there is some substantial down side. I provided a fairly detailed list (of both positives and areas for improvement) to EMI.  Taking the course at face value – that is looking at what we have, not what I think it should be, most of the issues I had with this course have to do with faulty instructional design.  There is no way around saying that it was done very poorly.  There was significant lack of attention to detail… so many mis-spellings (spell check is a free feature included in every word processing program – FYI), inconsistencies between the Student Manual and Instructor Guide, problems with scenarios which are not part of the progressive scenario, graphics so small they are not visible for participants in the student manual, and some issues of course flow and organization.

Unit 3 in the ICS 300 course is titled Initial Actions for Unified Command.  So much of the unit is built on the premise that a unified command is formed in the initial response of an incident, practically exclusive of even the possibility of a single command.  This is insanely misleading and required some significant extended explanation on the part of our instructional team to temper that content.

Earlier I complemented unit 5 of the ICS 400, particularly for the additional material provided on various types of EOCs and extending the discussion into recovery.  While these are great, the unit should be organized earlier in the material, especially with several earlier references to EOCs without explanation of what they are.  Practically speaking, the concept of the EOC has far more actual use than any of the other concepts discussed in the course.  There is also way too much material on federal-level EOCs, most of which are so far removed from incident management that most emergency managers have no interaction at all with them.  I think this content should speak about EOCs in general terms.

I think Central City needs to be erased from all memory, and a new fictional jurisdiction developed.  The maps for Central City, et al, keep getting recycled and are small in print, confusing in design, and clearly dated.

The final exams for both courses were very bad.  They each had questions that our instructional team agreed to throw out, as they were poorly worded or ambiguous and nearly every participant got them wrong.  Even most of the valid questions and answers simply aren’t suitable for short-duration training, and certainly not with a closed book exam.

In all, I provided three pages of comments back to EMI. I’m appreciative of EMI being so receptive to the feedback and candid about certain issues they had in the development of these courses.  In respecting their candor, I’m not going to get into some of the points brought up, but it certainly appears as though they are disappointed with the condition in which these courses went out the door and they have a desire to improve them.  Hopefully it won’t be too long until you see another update of the course materials with most of these issues addressed.

I look forward to hearing from others about their experiences with delivering these updated courses.  As such a central topic to the greater public safety and emergency management community, we need to do better with teaching incident management and ICS as the primary tool we use for incident management.  As a community of practice, we need to get behind this initiative and support the need for significant improvement.  Of course if you aren’t familiar with my crusade on the matter, check out the series of ICS Training Sucks articles I’ve posted over the past few years.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Teaching ICS – We’re not there yet

Over the past week I’ve been neck deep in the updated ICS-300 and ICS-400 curriculum as I prepare to deliver these courses for a client.  While these courses, especially the ICS-300, have made some significant improvements from past versions, I’ve found what I perceive to be another challenge, perhaps a gap, in our collective approach to teaching incident management.

While ICS training should obviously focus on ICS, it seems we are missing an opportunity to provide some critical knowledge on emergency management (at least the response functions of EM) and incident management as an overall concept, especially when we get to the level of ICS-300.  I’m betting that most people taking the ICS-300 class know very little about emergency management and even less about the overall concepts of incident management.  While the ICS-300 is a good and worthwhile course for a great many supervisors within the ranks of public safety, it seems the requirement for ICS training puts a lot of this out of context.

While this might be fine for the ‘typical’ tactician, or even most unit leaders operating within an ICS organization, knowledge of what emergency management is and does, as well as the underlying concepts of incident management, will improve the ability of the response organization as a whole to function.  I echo this same sentiment for the EOC courses that have been developed.

While we strive to have the growth of many public safety professionals to include ICS position-specific training, we also have to be realistic in recognizing that most jurisdictions simply don’t have the capacity to make this happen.  Instead, they rely on a more ad-hoc incident management approach, which will generally serve them well.  Of course, the most challenging time is transitioning from the more ‘routine’ type 5 and 4 incidents into the larger extended response operations of a type 3 incident.  This is when people need to think beyond the normal approach of a largely tactics-focused response, to a system which still necessarily includes tactics, but builds a response organization meant to support and sustain those tactical operations.  What they learn from the ICS-300 may be the most amount of training they have outside of tactical applications.

In such an ad-hoc system, someone put into Logistics, or even more specifically the Supply Unit Leader, may be left wondering how to obtain resources when the answer to that question has always been dispatch.  It may not readily dawn on them to open the phone book (digitally or physically) or to contact the emergency management office to find the resources they need.  It seems silly, but in the context of incident management, dispatch may be all they know.  Similarly, someone assigned as the Situation Unit Leader may be re-creating the wheel when it comes to identifying what information is needed, where to get it from, what analysis needs to take place, and how to tie it all together.  Why?  Because they may not have been made aware of the greater system they function within. Their mental default is the job they usually do for the agency or department they work for.

On a whim, I did some key word searches within the new ICS-300 course student manual.  The term ‘incident management’ comes up with a few hits, mostly centered around NIMS-oriented content or included in the broader term of ‘incident management team’.  Very little explanation is really given on what incident management is.  Rather, the term is just put out there, seemingly with the expectation that the student knows what it is.   A search for the term ‘emergency management’ only comes up with two hits, one being part of ‘Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)’ (note: no context is given for what this is), and the other use is a rather throwaway use when discussing demobilization.  Emergency management as a function is actually never discussed.

The Reader’s Digest version of all this is that we aren’t including critical contextual information about the systems ICS functions within when we teach more advanced ICS courses.  This inadvertently can close people’s minds to opportunities to improve incident management by extending their thinking beyond tactics and beyond the scope of their home agency.  A podiatrist must still learn about the systems of the whole body before they focus on the foot.  Teaching people, especially at the threshold of ICS-300, about the system of emergency management and the concepts of incident management are critical before we start teaching them the specifics of a particular tool.  Doing so will make their understanding and use of this tool far more effective.

Some may wonder if I will ever be happy with how we teach ICS (really, incident management as a whole).  That day may yet come, but to get there I think we first need to reassess the actual learning needs of practitioners, and do so with fresh eyes instead of trying to mark up the same materials.  I know over the years of my criticisms of ICS training I’ve stimulated a lot of discussion, not only nationally, but internationally.  Many have been hugely supportive of the ideas I’ve put forward, and some have contributed to the dialogue.  Of course, there are some who have been resistant and defensive.  I’m thankful to those who have been receptive and I’m happy to have contributed to the energy behind changes that have been made, and will continue to do so until we, as a collective, are satisfied that the best possible training is being made available.  Change is often times progressive and incremental. It doesn’t happen overnight.

As usual, I’m happy to receive any comments and feedback you might have on these ideas.  Please spread the word and encourage feedback from those who might not be aware.  Emergency management is an ever-evolving practice.  Though we may not have answers, we must continue asking questions.

©2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®