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®

Building Local Incident Management Capability

Just over a year ago I wrote An Alternate Concept of Incident Management Support, identifying the gap that exists in most local communities and areas for improved incident management capability. While I still think that formal Incident Management Teams (IMTs) are the gold standard, not every community or even multi-county region can support a formal IMT, which requires dozens of personnel and rigorous qualification and maintenance. Over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of use of IMTs across the nation, supporting the COVID-19 response and myriad other incidents. Sitting in over the last few days on the All Hazard Incident Management Team Association (AHIMTA) virtual symposium, there is a lot of exciting evolution happening with IMTs as they continue to enhance their capabilities. And while this is great, I feel we are leaving a lot of areas behind. This isn’t on the AHIMTA, but rather on the emergency management community as a whole. That said, there are certainly some intersections, as a lot of the training available to IMT personnel may need to be made more accessible to those who would be part of the Incident Support Quick Response Teams (ISQRTs) as I came to call them in the article I mentioned from last year, and addressing a fundamental need I’ve been espousing for a long time.

As I’ve soaked in a lot of great information from the AHIMTA symposium about IMTs, the need to build local capability in the absence of IMTs is even more apparent. Some may argue that IMTs are available to deploy to any area if requested. Possibly. Obviously there are a lot of conditions… what are other teams dealing with? What’s the relative priority of the requesting area? EMAC is certainly an option, but States need to approve the local request if they are to put the request into the EMAC system. The state may not agree with the need, may not want to spend the funds for an incoming team for an incident that may not receive a federal declaration, or it may not be practical to wait a couple of days to get an IMT on the ground when the response phase of the incident may be resolved or near resolved by then.   

Fundamentally, every area should have its own organic incident management capability. As mentioned, most areas simply can’t support or sustain the rigors of a formal IMT, but they can support a short roster of people who are interested, able, and capable. This is a situation where a little help can go a long way in making a difference in a local response for a more complex Type 4 incident or the onset of a Type 3 incident – or simply to do what they can for a larger incident where additional help simply isn’t available. I mentioned in last year’s article that the focus should really be on incident planning support, with an Incident Management Advisor to support the IC and local elected officials, an Incident Planning Specialist to help the local response organization harness the Planning Process, a Planning Assistant to support the detailed activities involved in a Planning Section such as situational awareness and resource tracking, and an Operations and Logistics Planner to support local responders who may have great tactical knowledge, but not much experience on operational planning much less forecasting logistical needs associated with this. Largely these are all advisors, who are likely to integrate into the incident management organization, so we aren’t creating new ICS positions, though I still encourage some deeper and deliberate application of incident management advisors.

My big thought today is how do we make something like this happen? First, I think we need to sell FEMA and State IMT programs and or State Training Officers on the concept. That comes first from recognizing and agreeing on the gap that exists and that we must support the organic incident management capability of local jurisdictions with fewer resources, through something that is more than the ICS courses, but less than what is required for an IMT. Part of this is also the recognition that these ISQRTs are not IMTs and not intended to be IMTs but fill an important role in addressing this gap. This will go a long way toward getting this past ICS and IMT purists who might feel threatened by this or for some reason disagree with the premise.

Next is establishing standards, which first is defined by general expectations of activity for each of these roles, pre-requisites for credentialing, then training support. The existing position-specific training is likely not fully appropriate for these positions, but a lot can be drawn upon from the existing courses, especially those for Incident Commander and the Planning Section positions, but there are also some valuable pieces of information that would come from Operations Section and Logistics Section Courses. I’d suggest that we work toward a curriculum to address these specific ISQRT roles. There are then some administrative details to be developed in terms of local formation, protocols for notification and activation, etc. State recognition is important, but perhaps approval isn’t necessarily needed, though coordination and support from States may be critical to the success of ISQRTs, again considering that these are most likely to be serving areas with fewer resources. ISQRTs will also need to work with local emergency managers and local responders to gain support, to be included in local preparedness activities, and to be called upon when they should be. A lot of success can be gained from things such as local/county/regional/state meetings of fire chiefs and police chiefs.

Do you agree with the gap that exists for most communities? What do you think we need to get the ball rolling on such a concept?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

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®

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

~~

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®