Emergency Managers Need to be More Like Engineers and Less Like Shopkeepers

I was inspired by this short (~1 minute) video from TrainingJournal.com.  In the presenter’s brief but pointed message, he describes many trainers as being akin to shopkeepers, providing organizations often times with rote solutions just as a shopkeeper will pull a product off their shelves. He goes on to say that this these solutions are usually effective, but only for a limited duration.  He offers, instead, that trainers need to be more like engineers, examining every facet of a problem and constructing lasting solutions.  As an experienced trainer and proponent of a detailed root cause analysis, I couldn’t agree more, but as I readied myself to write a post about the implications of this on training, my mind carried this metaphor to many of our practices in emergency management.

Consider how often we quickly dismiss identified gaps with an assumed solution.  Write a plan, conduct a training, install a bigger culvert.  Those are usually our solutions to an identified problem.  Are they wrong?  No – we’re correct more often than not.  Are these lasting solutions?  Rarely!  How often does the problem rear its head again within a relatively short span of time?  How do we address the re-occurrence?  As shop keepers we simply pull another solution off the shelf.  Can we do better?

The things we do in emergency management are often based upon best and current practices.  We address problems through the prevalent way of dealing with such things industry-wide.  Emergency management has a great community of practice.  I’ve mentioned in several previous blog posts the spirit of sharing we have and the benefits we see come of that.  It doesn’t seem often, though, that we engage in an industry-wide groupthink to solve various problems.  We use and adapt ideas of individuals and small groups, we see a steady and determined progression of the practices within our progression, but we rarely see ‘game changing’ ideas that revolutionize how prevent, prepare for, respond to, or recover from disasters.  Why is this?

Perhaps we need a greater collective voice locally, where practitioners are dealing with the problems directly?  Our methods of practice in emergency management are generally driven by the federal government (THIRA, NIMS, HSEEP, etc.).  I’m not saying any of these are bad – in fact they are excellent standards that we need to continue to refine and apply, but it’s generally not the federal government that is dealing directly with the constant flow of issues being dealt with at a state, and even more so, a local level.  We need to follow that metaphor of being engineers to apply more permanent solutions to these problems.  We need to create, innovate, and problem solve. Or do we?

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.  We often miss the necessity of improving because we have current, functional solutions – we have things that work.  So why fix it if it’s not broken?  I say we can do better.  The realization of the need for lasting solutions is the necessity we need.  If the solutions we have on the shelf don’t work for us 100%, let’s figure out a better way.

I don’t know what or how, but I’m sure that as a community we can identify needs and prioritize what must be addressed.  Given the right people, time, and maybe a bit of money, we can be innovative and effect some lasting change.

I’d love to hear what others think on this topic.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

www.epsllc.biz

What’s the (next) Big Idea in Emergency Management?

Innovation.  It seems to be what everyone clamors for.  In emergency management we see people striving for it across the board: in government and in education we try to build the better emergency management mouse trap.  We establish think tanks to find new solutions and the private sector looks for better ways to protect their investments.  But what is it that we are looking for?  What systemic problems do we still face in emergency management that require change? 

There is plenty out there that needs to be improved upon.  There always will be.  Until we can prepare for, prevent, and mitigate disasters to the point that little to no response is ever needed and no loss of life occurs we will continue to strive for better ways of doing things.  I’m guessing that day is a long way off, so we have plenty of work to do.  Before we can innovate, however, we must find cause.  Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.  So what needs exist that must be corrected? 

Certainly our after action reports (AARs) identify areas of needed change.  But those generally only show us gaps in local systems.  Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Analysis (THIRA) likewise shows gaps in local systems.  Does this information ever get fed to higher levels?  Of course it does… in some measure but only some of the time.  States assemble State Preparedness Reports (SPRs) which, in current practice, conduct an analysis of each core capability through each of the POETE elements (planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercising).  These in turn inform the National Preparedness Report (NPR).  The 2014 NPR was released by FEMA earlier this month, identifying areas for improvement in several of the core capabilities.  This is certainly a resource to help us identify needs, but none of these resources or mechanisms are perfect.  What is missing?  How do we improve them?

Interestingly enough, some opine that we aren’t examining the right data.  The Congressional Research Service suggests that we might need better measures of preparedness, according to their report and this article from FierceHomelandSecurity.com.  The report gives no answers, but poses several questions.  Overall, what can we do better?

Returning to innovation, where do the gaps truly exist?  How do we validate those gaps?  Can we address those gaps with current systems or do we need to create new systems (innovations)?  If it is with current systems, what are the barriers to getting the gaps addressed in the short term?  If it is not with current systems where does the innovation come from? 

Despite having worked in Emergency Management for over fifteen years and having seen, felt, and experienced the myriad changes which have occurred – especially since 9/11 – and with every administration subsequent to the attacks I really hadn’t sat and considered the changes that have occurred.  I’m about half way through an amazing book by John Fass Morton called Next-Generation Homeland Security: Network Federalism and the Course to National Preparedness.  The first 200 pages or so of the book provide a thorough review of civil defense/emergency management/homeland security through decades and over a dozen presidential administrations.  The gravity of it all has left my head spinning.  So many changes – and most simply for the sake of politics.  Much of it seems like wasted effort, but Mr. Morton connects the dots so brilliantly and identifies that D certainly could not have happened if not for A, B, and C… even though C and A were essentially the same.  IT seems that through these years so much has occurred, but so little has actually changed.  I would argue that the practice of emergency management is in a better place now than ever, but what will emergency management look like tomorrow?  Will our continued evolution be through measured change or through innovation?  What makes that determination? 

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker