Embracing the Playbook in Emergency Management

This morning I suggested to a client the possible use of a playbook as a training supplement for their duty officer program.  A playbook is a job aid, but more than just a check list or a chart.  Ideally, a playbook is a structured collection of job aids, broken down by situation for easy reference by whomever needs the information.

Playbooks are best known to be most extensively used in American football.  They contain a variety of strategies for accomplishing certain objectives (short yardage gain, long yardage gain, end zone scoring, kick return, etc.), with each strategy often accompanied by one or more diagrams of Xs (the opposition) and Os (your team), with lines showing movement and action by certain positions.  Playbooks are tested, practiced, and memorized by players before the season begins, but are constantly referenced every game by coaches and players alike.


Fundamentally, the play book exists because there are so many situations the team needs to respond to and several different ways in which they can respond.  While some of their plays are fairly routine, others are rarely, if ever, used.  Just like emergency management, however, it’s good to have the plan available if we need it.

Assembling a playbook for emergency management purposes doesn’t have any set standard, but as with any other tool or plan we assemble, we must first identify the purpose and the audience.  Play books can be assembled for elected officials and executives, duty officers and middle management, or dispatchers and first responders – it all depends on what is needed.  One thing that should be stressed, though… playbooks are NOT plans, nor should they be treated as a replacement for training.  Playbooks should be based upon established policy, plans, and procedures; and training still should be conducted on those policies, plans, and procedures.  A playbook is the collection of job aids which will help us to navigate the things people may not routinely do – which makes them excellent for emergency management applications.

Consider that the content of the playbook won’t (and probably shouldn’t) try to map out an incident from inception to completion.  The playbook is intended to address critical actions within an early timeframe of the incident.  Following this, a team should be assembled and striving to manage the incident using the planning process and referencing the foundational plans and policies.  There may be a few nuanced circumstances and activities within the playbook that are still relevant in the extended response, but these should be few.

The organization and content of the playbook should depend on the objectives and audience of the tool.  It should not be heavy in narrative and doesn’t require a lot of background as a plan might.  For emergency management purposes, most playbooks are organized by hazard and/or impact, with topics such as Mass Shooting, Severe Storm, or Power Outage.  For each topic, the essential elements of response can be identified, perhaps in check-list format.  Additional job aids such as decision tables, flow charts, and references can also be incorporated.  While I’m a big fan of keeping things digital, playbooks and similar references are better in hard copy, as this helps to ensure the information is always accessible.  Bind it (a three ring binder is best, so content can be updated as needed) and insert tabs for easy reference.  Be sure to give all users their own copy.

When creating the playbook, consider what information needs to be conveyed.  While some repetition may be necessary from topic to topic, reduce the amount of in-document references (i.e. See page 19 for additional information), as the purpose of the document is to help keep people organized.  Always keep the user in mind, ensuring that they understand each step and that they have the ability, resources, and authority to perform the identified actions.  Ensure that the playbook is a proper reflection of established policy and procedure and be sure to test it for effectiveness.  Train people in its content and use, and be sure to provide regular training and content updates and to incorporate its use into exercises.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on playbooks and if you have created and/or used them.  Of course, if your jurisdiction or organization is looking for assistance in developing a playbook for your critical activities, let us know!

© 2016 – Timothy M. Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness


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


Training EOC Personnel – ICS is not Enough!

A consistent misconception is that if an emergency operations plan calls for an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to utilize the Incident Command System (ICS), then EOC personnel only require ICS training to be successful in their jobs.  ICS training, however, only gets personnel part way to success.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a big advocate of conducting needs assessments.  Often times, agencies don’t know how to conduct a needs assessment, don’t think it’s important enough to conduct one, don’t think that conducting one is necessary, or simply don’t even consider conducting a needs assessment.  The result is creating training or using existing training that does not meet the real needs.  Certainly if an EOC is using the foundations of ICS to define its organizational structure and processes, then ICS training is absolutely important.  Consider, however, the multitude of other processes that take place in an operational EOC that are not included (in whole or in part) in ICS training.  Processes including financial management and procurement, situation reporting, and use of EOC management and resource tracking software are so diverse and can very from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The unique application of Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS), an element of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), just like ICS, by each jurisdiction also has to be considered.  While there are numerous best practices in MACS, their interface with ICS – often implemented through an EOC – is influenced significantly by governmental structure, statutory responsibilities, and politics more than can be addressed by any training curriculum. Consider simply the differences between a state EOC, a county EOC, and a local government EOC and their unique roles and needs. For as much standardization NIMS encourages, there will still be different ways of implementing these systems.  In the end, the challenge remains the same – how do we train people to function in EOCs?

First, do conduct that needs assessment.  What do people have to know and what skills must they have to be successful in an EOC?  At this point, I speak foundationally, as additional and more in-depth training can be explored based on position and responsibility.  Certainly ICS – with sufficient detail in positions of the organization and the planning process.    What else do they need to know?  ICS training does not address in detail what an EOC is or does – an important understand for people to have.  What processes must they be familiar with?  What tools or methodologies does the EOC use that must be trained on?  Are there specific organizational elements that require unique interactions with the greater organization (such as emergency support functions <ESFs>)?  Look through your jurisdiction’s EOC Standard Operating Procedures/Guidelines (you do have one, right?) to help you identify some of these needs.

Second, identify how to address these training needs.  ICS organization and the planning process are covered in the ICS-300 course, so that will meet some of your needs.  Unfortunately, since so many of the other needs are unique to your jurisdiction, you will have to build custom training to meet these needs.  Yes, FEMA does have available a course called EOC Management and Operations (IS/G – 775).  While some material in this course may or may help meet your training needs, chances are the course in its entirety will not.  First, it dedicates time discussing ideal facilities for an EOC (not really necessary if you already have such a facility), and second, while it provides an outline for general EOC operations it still won’t address all of your specific needs, although course materials can be used as a resource to inform your instructional design.

Third, build staying power into your training.  Much of what is learned is quickly forgotten, especially when people don’t practice it often.  There are a few strategies to combat this knowledge loss… 1) offer refresher training, 2) conduct regular exercises, 3) create job aids.  ICS is big on job aids – that’s very simply what the ICS forms are.  There are a multitude of additional job aids that you can create for your EOC.  Practically every position and process can have checklists and flow charts which help remind staff of what they need to do and in what order to do it in.

This can all be a lot of work, but it will pay off next time you have to activate your EOC.  Remember, there is always help available.  My consulting firm, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, has a great deal of experience working in a variety of EOCs across the country.  We have developed plans, procedures, job aids, training, and exercises unique to each EOC.  We can help you!  Check out our website at www.epsllc.biz or contact us at consultants@epsllc.biz.  Be Proactive, Be Prepared!™

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker