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®

NIMS Alert: NQS Qualifications and Task Books for Recovery, Mitigation, and Incident Evaluation

The National Integration Center (NIC) has been busy with developing more National Qualification System (NQS) tools for incident management.  Here are the titles for the latest release open to public comment:

  • Damage Assessment Coordinator
  • HM Community Education and Outreach Specialist
  • HM Community Planner Specialist
  • HM Engineering and Architect Specialist
  • HM Floodplain Management Specialist
  • EHP Environmental Specialist
  • EHP Historic Preservation Specialist
  • Incident/Exercise Evaluator
  • Public Assistance
  • State Disaster Recovery Coordinator

There may be some incident management and response purists out there wondering why they should care about these particular titles.  I’ll agree that most of them aren’t used in a life-saving response capacity, but these are the people you want to have backing you up – otherwise you may never get away from the incident and you will find yourself in a very foreign land where complex requirements from FEMA and other federal agencies are the rules of play.

Having worked disaster recovery for some massive incidents, such as Hurricane Sandy, I can personally attest to the value so many of these people bring to the table.  It’s great to see qualification standards being established for them, just as they are for core incident management team personnel and resources.  While my experience with most of these is ancillary, however, I’ll leave specific commentary on them to those functional experts.

There is one role in here that I’m particularly pleased to see and will comment on, and that’s the Incident/Exercise Evaluator.  I wrote last year on this topic specifically and have reflected on its importance in other posts.  I see the inclusion of an Incident Evaluator in the NQS as being a huge success and the beginning of a conscious and deliberate shift toward evaluation and improvement in what we do.  Looking at the resource typing definition, I’m pretty pleased with what the NIC has put together.

What I like… I appreciate that they include a note indicating that personnel may need additional training based upon the nature or specialization of the incident or exercise.  They include a decent foundation of NIMS/ICS, exercise, and fundamental emergency management training across the various position types (although most of these are FEMA Independent Study courses -which I think are great for introductory and supplemental matter, but shouldn’t be the only exposure personnel have), including a requirement of completion of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) for a Type 1.

What I feel needs to be improved…  Considering that the Type 1 Incident/Exercise Evaluator is expected to lead the evaluation effort, I’d like to see more than just HSEEP training being the primary discerning factor.  Just because someone has completed HSEEP doesn’t mean they can plan a project, lead a team, or extrapolate HSEEP exercise evaluation practices to be effective for incident evaluation.  I suggest HSEEP should be the requirement for the Type 2 position (which would correlate well to the position description), with additional training on project management and leadership supporting the Type 1 position.  While the note is included re: the potential need for additional training, there is nothing in this about operational experience, which I think is rather important.  Lastly, this seems to identify a need for course and/or guidance specific to incident evaluation, which can and should use the principals of HSEEP as its foundation, but identify the differences, best practices, and approaches to applying them to an incident or event.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on incident evaluation as well as the other positions being identified in the NQS. Do you participate in the national engagements and provide feedback?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™

 

 

Effectiveness and Efficiency in Incident Management – Resource Tracking

Incident Check In

Incident Check In

I recently took part in the management of an exercise in which a Type 3 incident management team (IMT) was among the players.  As part of their initial set up they immediately recognized the importance of checking in and tracking resources.  This is an activity which is often overlooked at the onset of an incident and is a royal pain to catch up on once the need is realized.  There were a few things which they could have improved upon, though, which seriously impacted their effectiveness and efficiency.

  1. They spent time checking in each vehicle as equipment. Not every vehicle needs to be tracked in an incident.  Generally, the sedan, pick up, or SUV you come in on isn’t special enough that it requires tracking.  Huge waste of time, people, and effort.  Consider the nature and capability of the equipment that is coming through your access point.  Is it a specialized resource?  Will it be applied tactically?  Will it be supporting logistical needs?  Is it rented or leased?  These are the conditions that should be considered when deciding what equipment to track.
  2. They marked equipment using bottled shoe polish. Not a bad idea, except it rained all week, and within hours of application most of the markings couldn’t be read.  Windshield markers, similar to what car dealerships use, are cost effective, waterproof, and clean off easily with mild window cleaners.
  3. Equipment that was checked in was never logged in detail. What’s the difference between E-01234 and E-01235?  We will never know as no descriptions were entered into their tracking system.
  4. As vehicles flowed in to the staging area, people will directed to check in at the command post. This is obviously excellent, except to get to the command post people had to pass by the main access to the incident site.  This meant that many people did not check in as directed.  They got distracted by the incident and associated response activity and never made it to the command post to check in.  This severely impacted the effectiveness of accountability.

Sometimes people would try to explain these things away by saying “It’s just an exercise”, but exercises are an opportunity to do things the right way, not skimp and cut corners.  While their intent was good, their process and results were quite poor.  If we are supposed to train the way we fight, as they say, this team has a ways to go to be more effective with resource accountability.  On the surface resource tracking looks easy… but it’s not.  There is a lot of complexity, variables, and attention to detail that must all work together well in order to be successful.  The Resource Unit Leader has one of the hardest jobs in the Incident Command System.

Being who I am, I’m left wondering why this all happened.  I have little choice but to blame poor planning and training.  Planning is to blame for a lack of clear procedures, guidance, and decision models.  The training which people receive tends to be just as vague.  By now, most, if not all of you are familiar with my opinions on the current ICS training.  While the referenced article does not go into the IMT/position training curricula, from what I recall of the courses I’ve taken, there are certain things taken for granted.  It’s easy to put an item on a checklist that says ‘Establish check in’.  OK… how?  Where?  When?  What?  Why?  The answer to those questions, or guidance to help answer those questions, should be provided through training.  Let’s tell people not only why check in is important, but what people and resources should be checked in, where to establish check in (what to look for and what to avoid), etc.  Once we’ve trained people on it, let’s provide job aids… not just the ICS forms, but job aids that will actually help people do their jobs.  While it may seem like minutia and unnecessary detail, keep in mind that we are training people to operate in austere and chaotic environments which they are trying to establish order over and only do these activities on rare occasion.  Those conditions signal the need for detailed training and job aids to support sustained performance and limit the degradation of the training they received.

Bottom line – let’s take a step back, fix what we have to based upon what we’ve learned, and proceed forward so we can operate more effectively and efficiently.

Thoughts and comments are always appreciated.  What have you learned or observed from incidents or exercises that needs to be addressed foundationally?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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