Last week I had the honor of being invited to guest on the EM Weekly podcast. We had a great discussion there talking about incident management structures and some of the continued challenges of emergency management.
Check it out here:
Last week I had the honor of being invited to guest on the EM Weekly podcast. We had a great discussion there talking about incident management structures and some of the continued challenges of emergency management.
Check it out here:
Just yesterday, the Canadian province of Ontario released an update of its Incident Management System (IMS) document. I gave it a read and have some observations, which I’ve provided below. I will say that it is frustrating that there is no Canadian national model for incident management, rather the provinces determine their own. Having a number of friends and colleagues from across Canada, they have long espoused this frustration as well. That said, this document warrants an examination.
The document cites the Elliot Lake Inquiry from 2014 as a prompt for several of the changes in their system from the previous iteration of their IMS document. One statement from the Inquiry recommended changes to ‘put in place strategies that will increase the acceptance and actual use of the Incident Management System – including simplifying language’. Oddly enough, this document doesn’t seem to overtly identify any strategies to increase acceptance or use; in fact there is scant mention of preparedness activities to support the IMS or incident management as a whole. I think they missed the mark with this, but I will say the recommendation from the Inquiry absolutely falls in line with what we see in the US regarding acceptance and use.
The authors reinforce that ICS is part of their IMS (similar to ICS being a component of NIMS) and that their ICS model is compatible with ICS Canada and the US NIMS. I’ll note that there are some differences (many of which are identified below) that impact that compatibility, though don’t outright break it. They also indicate that this document isn’t complete and that they already identified future additions to the document including site-specific roles and responsibilities, EOC roles and responsibilities, and guidance on resource management. In regard to the roles and responsibilities, there is virtually no content in this document on organizations below the Section Chief level, other than general descriptions of priority activity. I’m not sure why they held off of including this information, especially since the ICS-specific info is reasonably universal.
I greatly appreciate some statements they make on the application of Unified Command, saying that it should only be used when single command cannot be established. They give some clarifying points within the document with some specific considerations, but make the statement that “Single command is generally the preferred form of incident management except in rare circumstances where unified command is more effective” and reinforce that regular assessment of Unified Command should be performed if implemented. It’s quite a refreshing perspective opposed to what we so often see in the US which practically espouses that Unified Command should be the go-to option. Unified Command is hard, folks. It adds a lot of complexity to incident management. While it can solve some problems, it can also create some.
There are several observations I have on ICS-related organizational matters:
The document has some considerable content using some different terminology in regard to incidents and incident complexity. First off, they introduce a classification of incidents, using the following terminology:
Among these, Major incidents and Local/Provincial/National Emergencies can be classified as ‘Complex Incidents’. What’s a complex incident? They define that as an incident that involves many factors which cannot be easily analyzed or understood; they may be prolonged, large scale, and/or involve multiple jurisdictions. While I understand that perhaps they wanted to simplify the language associated with Incident Types, but even with the very brief descriptions the document provided on each classification, these are very vague. Then laying the term of ‘complex incident’ over the top of this, it’s considerably confusing.
**Edit – I realized that the differentiator between small incident and large incident is the number of responding organizations. They define a small incident as a single organization response, and a large incident as a multi agency response. So the ‘typical’ two car motor vehicle accident that occurs in communities everywhere, requiring fire, EMS, law enforcement, and tow is a LARGE INCIDENT????? Stop!
Another note on complex incidents… the document states that complex incidents involving multiple response organizations, common objectives will usually be high level, such as ‘save lives’ or ‘preserve property’, with each response organization developing their own objectives, strategies, and tactics. I can’t buy into this. Life safety and property preservation are priorities, not objectives. And allowing individual organizations to develop their own objectives, strategies, and tactics pretty much breaks the incident management organization and any unity of effort that could possibly exist. You are either part of the response organization or you are not.
Speaking of objectives, the document provides a list of ‘common response objectives’ such as ‘save lives’ and ‘treat the sick and injured’. These are not good objectives by any measure (in fact they can’t be measured) and should not be included in the document as they only serve as very poor examples.
So in the end there was a lot in this document that is consistent with incident management practices, along with some good additions, some things that warrant further consideration, and some things which I strongly recommend against. There are certainly some things in here that I’d like to see recognized as best practices and adopted into NIMS. I recognize the bias I have coming from the NIMS world, and I tried to be fair in my assessment of Ontario’s model, examining it for what it is and on its own merit. Of course anyone who has been reading my posts for a while knows that I’m just as critical of NIMS and related documents out of the US, so please understand that my (hopefully) constructive comments are not intended to create an international incident. I’m a big fan of hockey and poutine – please don’t take those away from me!
I’m always interested in the perspectives of others. And certainly if you were part of the group that developed this document, I’d love to hear about some of your discussions and how you reached certain conclusions, as well as what you envision for the continued evolution for the Provincial IMS.
© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP
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
I recently read an interesting piece in Psychology Today by Dr. Christopher Dwyer titled ‘How Experience Can Hinder Critical Thinking’. Do check it out. There is application to pretty much everything, but of course I tend to think of things in the context of emergency management.
The article starts with the age long argument of education vs experience, but with a particular slant toward critical thinking. My personal take is that the education vs experience argument, in its totality, can’t have a blanket resolution. I think a lot of it is dependent on the topic at hand, and obviously it’s rarely a dichotomy, rather a blending of education and experience is often best. In regard to education, certainly the actual education received holds value, but there are tasks intrinsic to academia which also hold value, perhaps even more than what was learned in the classroom; the rigors of research in an academic environment often being most valuable among them. With that, in many regards, we often see employment announcements with a range of degree majors, or just simply a stated minimum of education, regardless of major. This is in recognition of the intrinsic value of education. And while some professions absolutely require a specific degree, those which don’t, can and should hold less rigidly to those requirements.
While I certainly advocate a minimum extent of education for most positions, I’ve also worked with a considerable number of people with a high school diploma or associate’s degree that can intellectually run circles around those with advanced degrees, at least in certain applications of work and life. Experience is often indicative of exposure to certain situations, often with repetition. The comparing and contrasting of those experiences with what is being experienced in the moment is what supports the argument for the value of experience. It’s also why many advanced degree programs actually require some term of actual work experience before they will accept applicants into their programs. Consider academic programs such as criminal justice. Sure, there are a lot of philosophical topics that are taught, but any courses that speak to practical application should probably be taught by those with actual experience doing those things. Though Dr. Dwyer gives wise advice, stating that we shouldn’t confuse experience with expertise.
All that said, Dr. Dwyer’s article focuses on the application of critical thinking in this argument. He cites some insightful data and studies, but most interesting to me is his mention of experience being personalized. While several people may have ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt’, they each may have experienced the event differently or left with different impressions, even if exposed to some of the same situations. We all bring a bias with us, and this bias in the lens through which we view the events of our lives. That bias is then influenced by our perception of each event, fundamentally snowballing and compounding with the more experiences we have. This shows how our experiences can bias our own critical thinking skills. Dr. Dwyer states that critical thinking stemming from someone with more education than experience is likely to be more objective and based on knowledge, which certainly makes sense. That said, individuals basing their critical thinking solely on education may miss insight provided experiences, which can provide considerable context to the thought exercise.
I think the conclusion to be drawn in all this is that critical thinking, in most regards, is optimized by those with a blend of education and experience. It’s also extremely important for us to recognize our own limitations and biases when we approach a decision or other relevant situation. Specific to emergency management, we can leverage a lot from our experiences, but we also know that no two incidents are the same. Therefore, while our experiences can support us in a new event, they can also derail us if not applied thoughtfully and in recognition of our own biases.
This all comes around to my advocacy for emergency management broadly, and incident management in particular, being team sports. Even the first step of the CPG 101 planning process is to form a planning team. We each bring different approaches and perspectives. We also need to advocate for diversity in our teams, regardless of what tasks those teams are charged with. This should be diversity in the broadest sense – diversity of experience, diversity of discipline, diversity in education, diversity in gender, diversity in race, creed, culture, etc. The broader the better. We must do better opening ourselves to the perspectives of others. We all have bias – every one of us. Some bias, obviously depending on the focus, is OK, but it is best for us to balance our individual bias with those of a diverse group. A diverse team approach will bring us better results time and again.
How does experience bias impact you?
© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP
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:
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
I’m going to wrap up 2020 by discussing contingency planning, which is a practice not seen often enough. Before I get started, I should contextualize my use of the term ‘contingency plan’. My general use of the term, at least in emergency management applications, is intended to refer to a plan which may be needed to address the disruption of current event management, incident response, or recovery operations. Essentially, it’s the emergency plan to use while dealing with an emergency, in the event that something bad occurs.
When might you need a contingency plan? Contingency plans should be developed for the kind of situations that have you looking over your shoulder or asking ‘what if…’. Weather events are often good examples, such as a response taking place during some very active tornado weather. You might be responding to the impacts of an earlier tornado, or something completely unrelated, but a tornado warning is in effect, meaning that one could materialize at any time. This could also be a response taking place in a low-lying area during a flash flood warning. We sometimes build contingency plans into our standard operating guidelines or procedures (SOPs/SOGs) by having back-up teams, such as rapid intervention teams (RITs) in the fire service, which are standing by to rescue firefighters in trouble during an interior firefighting operation. Assessing risks on an ongoing basis and developing contingency plans should be part of your incident management battle rhythm.
Where to start with contingency planning? Let’s fall back to the CPG 101 planning process. Yep, that works here, too. The first step is to build your planning team. Contingency planning is a responsibility of the Planning Section, but others need to be involved. Working from a traditional ICS structure, I’d certainly suggest involving Safety and Operations, at a minimum, but depending on circumstances, you may wish to expand this, such as considerations for failures in the supply chain (thus Logistics and Finance/Admin), which may be less of a life safety matter, but can heavily impact operational continuity.
With consideration to the Safety Officer, I’d argue that tactical safety is the primary focus of the Safety Officer; while things that can have much broader impact to the incident, while still a concern of the Safety Officer, may require more in-depth and coordinated planning, thus why I tag the Planning Section to lead contingency planning efforts. My experience has always had the Planning Section taking the lead in this. That said, your incident management organization may decide to assign this to the Safety Officer or an assistant Safety Officer. That’s totally fine in my book, so long as it’s being addressed.
Step two of the planning process is to understand the situation. Some of your risks might be really apparent, such as the tornado warning, but others may require a bit more assessment and discussion. If you need to dig deeper, or are looking at a potential need for a variety of contingency plans, I’d recommend using a risk assessment matrix to help assess the likelihood and impacts of the risks you are examining. Here’s an example of a risk assessment matrix from the United States Marine Corps. Sadly, the risk assessment matrix is not yet a common tool in our incident management doctrine and practices in the US, though I do see it referenced elsewhere. In looking at the tool, obviously those with higher probabilities and severity of impact are the priorities on which to focus. Be sure to consider cascading impacts! Keep in mind that this risk assessment, depending on the duration and kinetics of your response and the dynamics of the environment, may need to be performed more than once throughout your operations. It should at least be considered every operational period.
Step three is to identify goals and objectives. Of course, in the broadest sense, our operational priority is always life safety, but we need to refine this a bit based on the specific hazard we are planning for. Second to life safety, we should also be considering operational continuity, ensuring that we can return to current operations with the least disruption possible OR be able to immediately respond to emergent needs created by the hazard in the event of the hazard creating a more kinetic environment. Your plan may also need to address impacts to the public at large (essentially anyone not part of your incident management organization). Depending on your operational scope and the area of responsibility, this may actually exceed the capacity and mandate of your incident management organization. You will need to determine how to ‘right size’ the scope of your planning efforts. This is perhaps a good opportunity to consult the local emergency manager. Don’t lose focus, though. The contingency plan is not intended to save the world. Remember, responder safety is our number one priority.
Step four is developing the plan. This is largely an outline of the essential elements. There are a number of components to consider for your plan. First, with consideration of cascading impacts, we should identify what aspects of the hazard we can mitigate and how. If there are hasty mitigation steps we can take, those may help limit the risk to life, resources, and operations. Next, consider your concept of operations for the life safety aspect of this plan. As with any other emergency operations type of plan, we need to maintain situational awareness and have protocols for notification and warning. Using the tornado warning (during an active response) as an example, who is responsible for maintaining a watchful eye on the skies and keeping tabs on dynamic weather products? If they see something of concern, who do they notify and how? Is there an emergency radio frequency that everyone’s radio will automatically go to if used? Perhaps three blasts of an air horn? Identify what will work for your operating environment. Keep in mind that if the matter is of urgent life safety, you want to minimize the number of steps and the amount of time taken between awareness and notification to responders. Next, upon notification, what is the emergency action plan – i.e., what needs to take place? Evacuation? Shelter in place? Some other action? A great reference for this from the wildfire incident management community is Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES), which is part of their incident safety analysis.
What happens after those protective actions? Ideally some kind of status check-in of the impacted personnel for accountability and continued situational awareness. Who is responsible for communicating that and to whom is it communicated? Is it wise to have some sort of rescue team standing by incase anyone is in trouble? If so, what resources need to be tasked to it, what is its organization, and what are their operating protocols? Can you reasonably keep the rescue team out of harm’s way to help ensure continuity of their capability?
You may also have a continuity of operations (COOP) aspect to this plan, to address how the incident management organization will minimize down time, restore prior operations, and possibly even identify alternate methods of operations. Depending on the hazard, a reassessment of the operation may need to take place to see if objectives will change to address a new situation created by impacts from this secondary incident.
Consider the current operational environment that every jurisdiction is facing at this moment. Jurisdictions, EOCs, and others should certainly have a contingency plan in place right now that addresses things like potential Coronavirus exposures, symptomatic personnel, and personnel that test positive. Many have been dealing with it, but do they have their protocols in writing? Most do not. In New York State, all public employers are now required to develop a plan to address these and other factors for public health emergencies.
Step 5 is plan preparation, review, and approval. This is the actual writing of the plan. Of course, you are in the middle of an incident, and it’s likely that the contingency(ies) you are planning for is breathing down your neck. Depending on how much haste is needed, your plan might be a few bullet points, or it could be a few pages long with more detail. Obviously do whatever is appropriate. Have the planning team members review the plan to ensure that it addresses all critical points and accurately reflects the necessary steps. Have you identified what will trigger the plan? Who is responsible for monitoring the situation? Who is responsible or activating the plan? How will they activate it and notify others? What are the responsibilities of others once they are notified? Once you and the planning team are satisfied that you’ve addressed all the important points, the plan should be forwarded to the appropriate authority for approval, such as the incident commander, EOC manager, agency administrator, etc.
I’ll also note here that if you have multiple threats and/or hazards for which you are developing contingency plans, try to keep your contingency operations as similar as possible. The more complexity you have, especially to deal with different hazards, the more problems can occur during implementation. For example, your means and methods for notifying personnel of a tornado and a flash flood can likely be the same if their protective actions are also the same.
Lastly, step 6 is implementation of the plan. This is where someone should be working on any mitigation actions that you identified and personnel should be briefed on the plan, so they know what they are responsible for and what they need to do, when, and how.
It seems like a long process, but it can be done in a few minutes for urgent hazards. Some contingency plans may certainly be longer and more complex, especially if you are preparing for something that has a lower risk factor or something that isn’t yet a hazard, like a distant weather front. Several years back, I was part of the overhead team for a state-wide months-long debris removal initiative in the aftermath of a late season hurricane. As operations went on, we eventually entered the next hurricane season, and with that we identified the threat of future tropical storms to our area of operations (an entire state) and the operations we were responsible for. We needed to identify who and how systems would be monitored, trigger points for activation of the plan, and how to communicate emergency actions to several debris removal and debris monitoring contractors. We had time leading into hurricane season and were able to develop a well-crafted plan to meet this need. Fortunately, we didn’t have to use it.
Have you written contingency plans for incidents and events? What lessons have you learned from contingency planning?
As a final bit on 2020, we are all certainly happy to see it pass. Keep in mind that while the new year offers a mental benchmark, we still have months ahead of us continuing to manage the consequences of the pandemic and our response to it. We have learned a lot of lessons from this response, which every organization should be capturing, if you haven’t already. As we go into the new year, resolve to do something meaningful with those lessons learned. Don’t just let them languish in yet another after-action report. Implement those corrective actions!
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP
I think we’re all pretty familiar with and confident in the ability of typical emergency services organizations to properly and appropriately address ‘routine’ responses – that is, those that last a few minutes to a few hours. It’s the extended operations, those that last many hours, or even into days, weeks, and months that traditional response organizations have difficulty with.
The incidents – generally categorized as Type 3 or higher – have very different dynamics. The requirements of these incidents are different. We can’t just roll our usual response, or even throw everything we have at it at one time. We need to rotate resources. We often need resources which are not used to using. We need to provide close support to our resources. Typical emergency services are practically all Command and Operations. Planning and Logistics, much less Finance, are virtually non-existent in the first responder world. Of course, this applies to not just response, but emergency management activities comprehensively.
A true integration of emergency management is absolutely necessary at the local level. Every jurisdiction should identify, and with the approval of the chief executive, how this will happen. What will the triggers be for this? There should be a recognition that this isn’t about taking anything away from the fire chief or police chief – in fact this is about giving them access to greater resources. These chief officers and the leaders beneath them are expected to be experts at the things they deal with 97% of the time. It needs to be accepted that someone else can help guide them through the other three percent.
Again, this is just within the realm of response. Most agencies have little to no active role in mitigation, recovery, or other emergency management tasks – much less the knowledge to take them on. Granted, some don’t explicitly have those activities as part of their agency’s charter, but all do go beyond response to some extent. Emergency management needs to permeate the activities of every agency. Someone should be thinking about it, coordinating with the jurisdiction’s emergency manager, and advising their own agency’s leadership. Of course, this transcends response; it applies to all phases and mission areas of emergency management, with focal points appropriate to the mission of each respective agency.
This is one of our biggest gaps in preparedness at the local government level. Sure, some first responder organizations have plans for extended and complex incidents – but how well are the plans written? Are they up to date with contemporary practices? Are leaders at every level familiar with them and ready to implement them? Are these activities exercised? The answers to these questions tend to lean toward the negative.
<This point is really the crux of my thoughts on this topic. Properly staffing emergency management functions is a considerable path to success.>
Deliberate planning efforts need to include emergency managers, who must be given proper authority by the chief executive to take action and access needed resources. This also means that to be most effective, an emergency manager should absolutely not be placed within another organization. Absent good and confident leadership from that organization, their actions will almost always result in bias filtered through the leadership of the home organization. The emergency manager, during an extended response, becomes a considerable asset to Command and to the jurisdiction as a whole. While they are not there to assume Command, they are there to coordinate internal and external resources to support Command, as well as being familiar with the plans to an extent Command may not be and to support thinking beyond the initial response.
As mentioned earlier, I also believe that most government agencies should have someone responsible for emergency management in their own agency. For smaller jurisdictions this is likely not going to be a full time job, but with an individual tasked and responsible for emergency management at the agency or department level, that helps ensure proper attention to the matter – across all phases and mission areas. Certainly, mid-sized towns and larger should have less difficulty with this, beyond establishing protocol and incentivizing. We already have common practice in various agencies for personnel that hold certain qualifications, such as fire department personnel becoming paramedics. This is often incentivized with a stipend or an altogether higher rate of pay, along with time being given for maintaining the certification and other related professional development. Think about how effective agencies would be if each had someone responsible for emergency management. As well as benefits to the jurisdiction. And yes, even volunteer EMS and fire departments can do this (I served as the designated ‘crisis and emergency manager’ for a volunteer EMS organization for a period of time).
This needs to cover a broad span of things we might consider training. The softest is more at an awareness level – socializing the plan. Making sure that people are familiar with it to the extent necessary. This isn’t just chief officers and department heads, either. Often, they aren’t the ones who need to have early recognition of a situation’s applicability to plan. This socialization needs to take place all levels of leadership.
Being familiar with a plan isn’t enough, though. Being able to implement the plan is largely contingent on targeted, effective, and persistent training – and certainly beyond the awareness level. What training is needed to implement the plan? Who needs to be trained? To what extent of proficiency?
If you follow my blog, you know I’ve written on the benefits, ways, and means of exercising to a considerable extent. ‘nuff said. If not: lots of information here.
Let’s be honest, nothing here is a novel approach. A good number of local jurisdictions (I’ll also include counties and parishes in this definition) already implement some version of this. It certainly is a best practice that a lot of jurisdictions are missing out on. Sure, it takes some work, and proper authority, and meetings, and buy in, and training, and more meetings… but what in our world doesn’t require these things? I think one disaster should clearly show the benefits of this to any jurisdiction. It’s interesting though, that despite being aware of other practices, so many jurisdictions are stuck doing the same thing they’ve always done. In many ways we are hurt by tradition, apathy, and indifference as much as any disaster. If jurisdictions aren’t prepared to effectively deal with disasters, how well do you think they will do? This doesn’t even require that much structure change or direct cost – just deliberate action.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP
You’ve heard of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), right? If not, the nitty gritty of it is that they are an independent federal accident investigation agency. They determine probable cause of the full range of major transportation incidents, typically putting forward safety recommendations. They are granted some specific authorities related to these investigations, such as being the lead federal agency to investigate them (absent criminal aspects) and they maintain a schedule of deployment-ready teams for this purpose. They can conduct investigative hearings (ever see the film Sully?) and publish public reports on these matters. Overall, I’ve had positive interactions with NTSB representatives and have found their work to be highly effective.
While certainly related to emergency management, the main purpose for my quick review of the NTSB in this post is to provide a starting point of understanding for Congressional legislation urging the formation of a National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB). The draft bill for discussion can be found here. This bill has been put forth with bi-partisan sponsors in both the US Senate and the House of Representatives.
The purpose of the NDSB, per this bill, is:
To execute this mission, the bill provides that the NDSB will have the authority to review incidents with 10 or more fatalities; may self-determine the need for board review of an incident; and shall have the full ability to investigate, review, and report on incidents.
The bill directs the NDSB to coordinate with all levels of government to identify and adopt standard methods of measuring impacts of disasters to provide for consistent trend analysis and comparisons, and to ensure that these standards are uniformly applied. The bill requires the NDSB to coordinate with all levels of government in their investigations during incident responses, and to participate in the incident command system for coordination of efforts as well as investigative purposes. Affected authorities shall have an opportunity to review the NDSB report 30 days prior to publication.
The NDSB will be comprised of seven board members, selected by the President from a slate of candidates provided by both houses of Congress, with no more than four board members having affiliation with the same political party, and with all members having technical and/or professional qualifications in emergency management, fire management, EMS, public health, engineering, or social and behavioral sciences.
There is a lot of other legalese and detail in the bill, but I’m happy to find that the language supports coordination among and with federal agencies, including FEMA, NIST, NTSB, and others; and also has an emphasis on investigating impacts to disproportionately impacted communities. The bill also charges the NDSB with conducting special studies as they see fit and providing technical support for the implementation of recommendations.
I’m thrilled with this effort and I’m hopeful the bill progresses to law. We have had a history of outstanding research from academic institutions and after action reports from government entities, which should all still continue, but it’s incredibly substantial that the NDSB will establish standards and consistency in how we examine disasters over time. We’ve seen how impactful the NTSB has been since its inception in 1967, and I feel the NDSB could have an even greater impact examining a broader spectrum of disasters. This is an effort which has been long encouraged by various emergency management related groups. The NDSB, I suspect, will also support a stronger and more defined FEMA, as well as strengthening all aspects of emergency management at all levels.
What thoughts do you have on the NDSB? What do you hope will come of it?
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP
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:
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
I’ve been wrong. I used to teach and otherwise espouse that emergency operations centers didn’t actually do operations. I was bought in to the traditional perspective that EOCs ONLY provided resource support and information coordination. I’m not sure how or why I bought into this when on incidents I was actually involved in planning and directing certain operations. This mentality goes back, for me, about 15 years. It’s important to break this myth and acknowledge the role that EOCs can and should play in incident management.
EOCs being involved in directing field operations is certainly nothing new. If you don’t want to take my word for it, it’s also doctrinal. Check out the EOC section of the NIMS document. “EOC staff may share the load with on-scene incident personnel by managing certain operations, such as emergency shelters or points of distribution. When on-scene incident command is not established, such as in a snow emergency, staff in EOCs may direct tactical operations.”
This post has been in the works for a while. Several months ago, I was developing structured guidance on EOC mission planning for a client and realized it would be a good topic to write about. I recently made some social media posts on the topic, with responses encouraging me to write more. So, it was clearly time to do so.
As I had posted on social media, if you don’t think an EOC actually does operations, I’d suggest that the EOCs you are familiar with either haven’t had the opportunity to properly apply mission support or they are doing something wrong. Certainly not every incident will require an EOC to provide mission support, but EOCs should be ready to do so.
EOC missions are typically initiated one of three ways:
As the NIMS doctrine states, operations that are prime candidates for EOC-directed missions could be emergency shelters or points of distribution. Other operations, such as debris management, or (something recently experienced by many jurisdictions) isolation and quarantine operations are also often EOC-directed.
What makes these EOC-directed missions? Typically, they are planned, executed, and managed by an EOC. This could be a multi-agency EOC or a departmental operations center. Of course, there are ‘field’ personnel involved to execute the missions, but unlike tactical activity under the command of an Incident Commander, the chain of command for EOC-directed missions goes to the EOC (typically the EOC’s Operations Section or equivalent).
Ideally, jurisdictions or agencies should be developing deliberate plans for EOC-directed missions. Many do, yet still don’t realize that execution of the plans is managed from the EOC. These are often functional or specifically emergency support function (ESF) plans or components of those plans. For context, consider a debris management plan. As with many deliberate plans, those plans typically need to be operationalized, meaning that the specific circumstances of the incident they are being applied to must be accounted for, typically through what I refer to as a mission plan. In developing a mission plan, with or without the existence of a deliberate plan, I encourage EOCs to use the 6-step planning process outlined in CPG-101. As a refresher:
The planning team for an EOC-driven mission should consist, at the very least, of personnel in the EOC with responsibility for planning and operations. If several mission plans are expected to be developed, the EOC’s Planning Section may consider developing a ‘Mission Planning Unit’ or something similar. Depending on the technical aspects of the mission, technical specialists may be brought into the planning team, and it’s likely that personnel with responsibility for logistics, finance, and safety, may need to be consulted as well.
If a deliberate plan is already in place, that plan should help support the intent, goals, and objectives of the mission plan, with a need to apply specific situational information and context to develop the mission plan.
Developing the plan must be comprehensive to account for all personnel, facilities, resources, operational parameters, safety, support, reporting, documentation, and chain of command. These may need to be highly detailed to support implementation. The mission may be organized at whatever organizational level is appropriate to the incident. This is likely to be a group within EOC Operations (or equivalent). Obviously having a deliberate plan in place can help address a fair amount of this proactively. Outlining processes and position descriptions, and providing job aids will support implementation considerably.
Plan review often seems an easy thing to do, but this needs to be more than an editorial review. The review should be comprehensive, considering the operations from every possible perspective. Consider various scenarios, notionally walking through processes, and even using a red team concept to validate the plan. While this is likely going into immediate implementation, it’s best to spend some time validating it in the review stages instead of having it fail in implementation. Approval will come at whatever level is appropriate within your organization.
Plan implementation should certainly include an operational briefing for the staff executing the plan, and it should ideally be supported through an incident action plan (IAP) or EOC action plan, or a part thereof. As with any implementation, it needs to be properly managed, meaning that progress must be monitored and feedback provided to ensure that the mission is being executed according to plan and that the plan itself is effective. Understand that complex missions, especially those of longer duration, may need to be adjusted as lessons are learned during implementation.
As is typically said in ICS courses, we should begin demobilization planning as early as possible. Missions may have a completion in whole, where the entire mission is demobilized at once, or there may be a phased demobilization. Many EOCs aren’t used to developing tactical-level demobilization plans, so they need to be prepared for this.
As with any operation, identifying and documenting lessons learned is important. Deliberate plans should be updated to reflect lessons learned (and even a copy of the mission plan as a template or sample), or if a deliberate plan didn’t exist prior to the mission, one should be developed based upon the implementation.
EOCs can, in fact, run operations. I’m sure a lot of you have seen this if you have been involved in responses such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, a hurricane response, and more. Sometimes in emergency management we aren’t good at actually acknowledging what’s going on, for better or for worse. We get stuck with old definitions and don’t realize that we need to evolve, or even already have evolved; or we don’t recognize that current ways of doing things simply don’t work as intended. We seem, sometimes, to be our own worst enemy.
How does your EOC execute mission planning?
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP