ESFs Aren’t for Everyone

Through the years I’ve had numerous conversations with states, cities, and others about organizing their emergency operations plans (EOPs) around Emergency Support Functions (ESFs). In every conversation I’ve suggested against the use of ESFs. Why?

Let’s start with definitions. One definition of ESFs provided by FEMA states that ESFs ‘describe federal coordinating structures that group resources and capabilities into functional areas most frequently needed in a national response’.  Another states that ESFs are ‘a way to group functions that provide federal support to states and federal-to-federal support, both for Stafford Act declared disasters and emergencies and for non-Stafford Act incidents.’ The National Response Framework (NRF) states that ESFs are ‘response coordinating structures at the federal level’.

The key word in these definitions is ‘federal’. ESFs are a construct originally of the Federal Response Plan (FRP) which was in place from 1992 to 2004. The FRP was a signed agreement among 27 Federal departments and agencies as well as the America Red Cross that outlined how Federal assistance and resources would be provided to state and local governments during a disaster. The ESFs were carried into the National Response Plan in 2004 and the National Response Framework in 2008.

While the NRF, CPG 101, and other sources indicate that other levels of government may also organize their response structure utilizing ESFs, I think any attempts are awkward and confusing at best.

Jumping to present day, the following ESFs are identified in the NRF:

  1. Transportation
  2. Communications
  3. Public Works and Engineering
  4. Firefighting
  5. Information and Planning
  6. Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Temporary Housing, and Human Assistance
  7. Logistics
  8. Public Health and Medical Services
  9. Search and Rescue
  10. Oil and Hazardous Materials Response
  11. Agriculture and Natural Resources
  12. Energy
  13. Public Safety and Security
  14. Cross-Sector Business and Infrastructure
  15. External Affairs

The ESFs work for the Federal government by providing organizations to address the legal, regulatory, and bureaucratic coordination that must take place across various agencies. These organizations are utilized before (preparedness), during (response and recovery… though ultimately most of these transition to the Recovery Support Functions per the National Disaster Recovery Framework), and after (AAR) a disaster as a cohesive means of maintaining relationships, continuity, and operational readiness. Each of the ESFs maintains a lead agency and has several supporting agencies which also have capabilities and responsibilities within the mission of that ESF.

Where does this fall apart for states and other jurisdictions? First of all, I view Emergency Support Function/ESF as a branded name. The ESF is a standard. When someone refers to ESFs, it’s often inferred that they are speaking of the Federal constructs. ESFs are defined by the Federal government in their current plans (presently the NRF). When co-opted by states or other jurisdictions, this is where it first starts to fall apart. This creates a type of ‘brand confusion’. i.e. Which ESFs are we speaking of? This is further exacerbated if names and definitions of their ESFs aren’t consistent with what is established by the Federal government.

Further, the utilization of ESFs may simply not be the correct tool. It may be the same agencies responsible for transportation as well as public works and engineering. So why have two teams comprised of personnel from the same agencies – especially if bench depth is small in those agencies. Related to this, I’ll say that many jurisdictions (which may even include smaller states, territories, or tribes) simply don’t have the depth to staff 15 ESFs. This is why an organization should be developed for each jurisdiction by each jurisdiction based on their needs and capabilities. It’s simply silly to try to apply the construct utilized by our rather massive Federal government to a jurisdiction much smaller.

Next, I suggest that the integration of ESFs into a response structure is simply awkward. I think in many ways this holds true for the Federal government as well. Is ESF 7 (Logistics) an emergency support function or is it a section in our EOC? The same goes for any of the other ESFs which are actually organizational components often found in response or coordination structures inspired by the Incident Command System.

All that said, the spirit of ESFs is valuable and should be utilized by other jurisdictions in other levels of government. These are often referred to as Functional Branches. Similar to ESFs, they can be used before, during, and after a disaster. Your pre-disaster planning teams become the core group implementing the plans they developed and improving the plans and associated capabilities after a disaster. As functional branches, there is no name confusion with ESFs, even though there is considerable similarity. You aren’t constrained to the list of Federal ESFs and don’t have to worry about how they define or construct them. You can do your own thing without any confusion. You are also able to build the functional branches based on your own needs and capabilities, not artificially trying to fit your needs into someone else’s construct. I’ve seen a lot of states use the term State Support Function or SSF, which is certainly fine.

I will make a nod here though to a best practice inspired by the ESFs, and that is having certain standing working groups for incident management organizational elements (i.e. communications, logistics, information and planning, and external affairs) that may not be organized under the operations section or whatever is analogous in your EOC. Expand beyond these as needed. Recall that the first step in CPG 101 for emergency planning calls for developing a planning team. There is a great deal of benefit to be had by utilizing stakeholder teams to establish standard operating guidelines, job aids, etc. in these functions or others in your EOC or other emergency organizational structure. Often it’s the emergency manager or a staff member doing this, expecting others to simply walk in and accept what has been developed. If people want to work in a Planning Section for your jurisdiction, let them own it (obviously with some input and guidance as needed).

I think ESFs are a valuable means for the US Federal government to organize, but don’t confuse the matter or develop something unnecessary by trying to carbon copy them into your jurisdiction. Examine your own needs and capabilities and form steady state working groups that become functional entities during disaster operations.

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

An Updated Community Lifelines Toolkit and Relationships to Incident Management

Earlier this year, FEMA released guidance on the Community Lifelines.  I wrote a piece in the spring about integrating the concept into our preparedness and response activities.  Last month, FEMA issued updated guidance for Community Lifeline Implementation through Toolkit 2.0.  In this update, FEMA cites some lessons learned in actually applying the Lifeline concept in multiple exercises across the nation, as well as from feedback received by stakeholders. Based on these lessons learned and feedback, they have made some adjustments to their toolkit to reflect how they understand, prioritize, and communicate incident impacts; the structure and format for decision-making support products. And planning for these impacts and stabilization prior to and during incidents.  They have also made some changes based upon the updated National Response Framework.  The documents associated with the updated Community Lifelines all seem to reflect an inclusion in the efforts of the National Response Framework.  It’s great to see FEMA actually tying various efforts together and seeking to provide grounded guidance on application of concepts mentioned in doctrine-level documents.

The biggest addition to the Community Lifelines update is the inclusion of the FEMA Incident Stabilization Guide.  The ‘operational draft’ is intended to serve as a reference to FEMA staff and a resource to state, local, and tribal governments on how “FEMA approaches and conducts response operations”.  It’s a 77-page document the obviously leans heavily into the Community Lifelines as a standard for assessing the impacts to critical infrastructure and progress toward restoration, not only in response, but also into recovery operations.  It even reflects on bolstering Community Lifelines in resilience efforts, and ties in the THIRA and capability analysis efforts that states, UASIs, and other governments conduct.  I’m not sure the document is really a review of how FEMA conducts operations, as they say, but it does review the ideology of a portion of those operations.  Overall, there is some very useful information and references contained in the document, but this brings me to a couple of important thoughts:

  1. The utility of this document, as with the entire Community Lifelines concept, at the state and local level is only realized through integration of these concepts at the state and local levels.
  2. We finally have guidance on what ‘incident stabilization’ really entails.

To address the first item… In my first piece on Community Lifelines, I had already mentioned that if states or communities are interested in adopting the concept of Community Lifelines, that all starts with planning.  An important early step of planning is conducting assessments, and the most pertinent assessment relative to this initiative would be to identify and catalog the lifelines in your community.  From there the assessment furthers to examine their present condition, vulnerabilities, and align standards for determining their operational condition aligned with the Community Lifelines guidelines.  I would also suggest identifying resiliency efforts (hopefully these are already identified in your hazard mitigation plan) which can help prevent damages or limit impacts.  As part of your response and short-term recovery lexicon, procedures should be developed to outline how lifeline assessments will be performed, when, and by who, as well as where that information will be collected during an incident.

As for my second item, the concept of incident stabilization has an interesting intersection with a meeting I was invited to last week.  I was afforded the opportunity to provide input to an ICS curriculum update (not in the US – more on this at a later time), and as part of this we discussed the standard three incident priorities (Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, and Property Conservation).  We identified in our discussions that incident stabilization is incredibly broad and can ultimately mean different things to different communities, even though the fundamental premise of it is to prevent further impacts.  This Incident Stabilization Guide is focused exclusively on that topic.  In our endeavor to make ICS training better, more grounded, less conceptual, and more applicable; there is a great deal of foundational information that could be distilled from this new document for inclusion in ICS training to discuss HOW we actually accomplish incident stabilization instead of making a one-off mention of it.

Going a bit into my continued crusade against the current state of ICS training… I acknowledge that any inclusion of this subject matter in ICS training would still be generally brief, and really more of a framework, as implementation still needs to be grounded in community-level plans, but this document is a great resource.  This also underscores that “learning ICS” isn’t just about taking classes.  It’s about being a professional and studying up on how to be a more effective incident manager.  ICS is simply a tool we use to organize our response… ICS is NOT inclusive of incident management.  Not only are we teaching ICS poorly, we are barely teaching incident management.

While I’ve been away for a while working on some large client projects, I’m looking forward to ending the year with a bang, and getting in a few more posts.  It’s great that in my travels and interactions with colleagues, they regularly mention my articles, which often bring about some great discussion.  I’m always interested in hearing the thoughts of other professionals on these topics.

© 2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

A New National Response Framework

Yesterday FEMA announced the release of an updated National Response Framework (the fourth edition).  The most notable changes in this version of the NRF are the inclusion of Community Lifelines and a change to Emergency Support Function (ESF) #14.  Previously, ESF #14 was Long-Term Community Recovery.  With efforts to further engage and coordinate with the private sector in disaster response, ESF #14 has been changed to Cross-Sector Business and Infrastructure.

So what of Long-Term Community Recovery?  The National Disaster Recovery Framework (2016) outlines Recovery Support Functions (RSFs), which, at the federal level, are organized as coordinating structures along with the ESFs.  There are six RSFs, which generally align with the Core Capabilities for the Recovery Mission Area.  For anyone who has worked with FEMA in disaster recovery operations, you know these can be massive organizations, so why create an even large organization?  This structure should support the ESFs in focusing on immediate needs, while the RSFs can address long-term recovery.  When the Federal disaster response organization is initially set up for a disaster, the ESFs are immediately put to work to support state and local emergency needs.  In this phase, the RSFs are able to organize, gather data, and plan for eventually being the lead players as response transitions to recovery.  Recovery is very much a data-driven operation.  As this transition occurs, with the RSFs taking over, many of the ESF resources can be demobilized or tasked to the RSFs.

What does this mean for states and locals?  Fundamentally, nothing.  States simply need to have an appropriate interface with the new ESF #14.  Do states and locals need to mirror this organization?  No, and in fact most of the time when I see an organization centered around ESFs, I tend to cringe.  The ESF/RSF system works for the federal government because of the multitude of federal agencies that have responsibility or involvement in any given function.  Fundamentally, ESFs/RSFs are task forces.  Recall the ICS definition of a task force, being a combination of resources of varying kind and type.

Certainly, most local governments, aside from perhaps the largest of cities, simply don’t have this measure of complexity and bureaucracy.  It can work for some state governments, but for many it may not make sense.  Let’s consider ESF #1 – Transportation.  How many state agencies do you have that have responsibility and assets related to transportation?  In some states, like New York, there are many, ranging from State DOT, NYS Parks, the Thruway Authority, and the multitude of other bridge, road, and transit authorities in the State. Smaller states may only have a State DOT.  One agency doesn’t make a task force.  There are other options for how you organize your emergency operations plan and your EOC that can make more sense and be far more effective.  Essentially what I’m saying is to not mirror the way the feds organize because you think you have to.  All plans must be customized to YOUR needs.

On to the integration of community lifelines.  The goal of the new ESF #14 is to not only engage the private sector, but also coordinate cross-sector operations for stabilizing community lifelines.  I’m interested to see how this plays out, since the community lifelines are already addressed by other ESFs, so I suspect that once the new framework is tested, there may be some supplemental materials that come out to balance this.  That said, the integration of community lifelines is a good thing and I’m glad to see this gaining more traction and truly being integrated rather than existing as a good idea that’s never actually tasked.  Integration of community lifelines is something that every state and local government can at least track, if not take action on, depending on their capability and resources.  The updated NRF added some additional context to community lifelines, with information that supports integrating this concept into planning, response, and recovery.  I happen to appreciate this community lifeline focused timeline that is in the NRF.

While the focus of the NRF is on how the federal government will response, it is intended to be reflective of a whole community response.  It doesn’t necessarily provide guidance (nor should it) on planning, but it certainly serves as a reference.  Since it seems the feds are going all in on the community lifeline concept, I urge state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to examine how they can integrate them into your operations.  That all starts with planning.  It may begin as a function of situational awareness, but then what actions should a jurisdiction take when lifelines are impacted?  Even if a jurisdiction doesn’t have the capabilities to address the root cause, they still need to address the affects.

What thoughts do you have on the NRF update?

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Building a System of Response

On even relatively simple incidents, multiple agencies respond, each with their own priorities, objectives, and authorities.  Even on these small and fairly routine incidents, agencies will complain about one another, typically from a lack of understanding of their role and priorities at an incident scene.  On-scene conflict between police and fire departments is almost cliché, but if you’ve been in this business for a while, you’ve certainly seen it occur.

The number of agencies and interests often expands with great leaps and bounds as the size, duration, and complexity of an incident grows.  While we have incident management systems (such as the incident command system or ICS) which help us to organize and manage the multitude of resources and interests involved during an incident, it’s critical that we have a better understanding and accountability of these agencies and interests before a complex incident occurs.  How can this best be done?

Management Level

Establishing this mutual understanding and accountability is the foundation of a system of response.  From the broadest levels, this is established in the National Response Framework, which is a national-level document describing how the US Federal government organizes to response to large incidents, but also identifies, in general terms, the roles and responsibilities of state, local, tribal, private, nonprofit, faith-based, and community stakeholders; along with how they interrelate during a response.  In the US, states have their own emergency operations plans, which further narrow this perspective within their state, addressing their own unique hazards, resources, laws, and ways of operating.  County and local governments, individual agencies, organizations, and others can and often times do have their own plans with a continually refined focus.

It is through the creation and ongoing maintenance of these planning documents where our system of response is first built.  Dialogue and understanding among the stakeholders are essential.  We must learn who are partners are in emergency response (and mitigation, recovery, prevention, and protection, for that matter) and what their interests and objectives are.  Sometimes those partners are asked to participate, other times they simply arrive on scene, leaving local responders and the person in charge feeling insecure and frustrated.  In your planning efforts, try to anticipate who might be involved in a critical incident so you can better anticipate those needs.

Responder Level

To further this understanding, especially with those who may find themselves working directly with responders of other agencies, it is important to train and exercise together.  Joint training and exercises give responders an opportunity to navigate course and exercise objectives together, leveraging their own knowledge, experience, and capabilities along with those of others; increasing the value of the learning experience as well as their aptitude for joint operations.

Many training courses are well suited for mixed audiences – from the management and planning level to the tactical level.  Incident command system courses, which all responders should take to an appropriate level, are also ideal for this, especially since they should encourage discussion about operational priorities, objectives, and strategies.  Additionally, courses that are heavy in scenario-based training can greatly maximize this synergy, since they are a combination of training and structured exercises.  Courses that use simulation tables are excellent for cross-discipline integration.

Joint training and exercises might not always be practical, especially for those new to their field of practice.  Acknowledging that, consider including information on the other disciplines within the basic or academy-level training that is conducted.  A brief amount of time spent on the legal authorities, priorities, and operational objectives of partner disciplines can be valuable to creating understanding on a complex incident.

Keep it Going

As with all preparedness efforts, ‘one and done’ is not a mantra you want to follow.  To be effective, contemporary, and impactful; you have to build a legacy program.  As the program continues, strive to constantly improve.  Don’t only keep plans up to date, but create procedures on integration that lead to an effective system of response.  Use training to support these plans and procedures and use exercises as both an opportunity for practice as well as an opportunity to identify strengths and areas for improvement within the plans and procedures.  Joint exercises will help identify areas that need to be addressed, such as interoperable communications, conflicting protocols, and competing priorities.  It’s better to identify and address these matters now than during a critical incident.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC Your Partner in Preparedness

What Planning Format To Use?

Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 101 (CPG 101) describes three format options for your emergency operations plan (EOP): The traditional functional EOP format, the Emergency Support Function (ESF) format, and the agency/department focused format.  As mentioned in CPG 101 the traditional functional EOP format is the most popular and widely used.  It generally provides for three major sections – the basic plan, functional annexes, and hazard specific annexes.  The traditional format provides for the greatest flexibility and allows a jurisdiction or organization to easily evolve their plan as the need for addressing additional issues or hazards is recognized.  Continuity of Government/Continuity of Operations (COG/COOP) plans are easily integrated as annexes as our newer concepts such as resiliency plans and climate change plans. 

Agency/department focused EOP formats provide utility for those folks that like to crack open the book looking to answer the question ‘what is expected of me?’.  This format offers some flexibility, but under most occurrences where the need to address a new issue arises edits need to be made through much of the plan to identify and address each agency’s involvement in said issue.  It can also be awkward to include other associated plans, such as the afore mentioned COOP and COG plans.  It does work for smaller communities, though, whose hazards and other planning areas stay fairly static. 

The ESF EOP format is modeled after the National Response Framework (NRF) (originally the Federal Response Plan) which addresses functions by grouping agencies and organizations with responsibility and resources to address those functions.  This model has worked fairly well for the federal government given their structure and the general federalist approach of most agencies (aside from those agencies with direct authorities such as the US Coast Guard).   There is some flexibility in this model with the ability to include both support and hazard specific annexes, but one must be cautioned not to confuse the ESF annexes with the support annexes.  The key word in the format is ‘support’, which is largely what the federal government does in response to a disaster. 

Last week Lucien Canton posted an article Emergency Support Functions: Misunderstood and Misapplied.  Read this!  As usual, Lu states his point expertly as he discusses the pros, cons, and uses for the ESF structure.  Many jurisdictions, in an effort to mirror a system which seems to work for the federal government, create their EOP in an ESF format.  I’ve rarely ever seen it well applied – at least not in the form that the feds use.  Understanding that the feds structure their ESFs to address policy and coordination, these same needs may not exist at a state or local level.  Therefore states and locals change the ESF structure.  While there is certainly no requirement to use only those ESFs which are used in the NRF, using a different format can cause great confusion.  For example, what is ESF #12 (Energy) in the NRF may be an ESF for economic recovery for a city or county.  Now we have what we’ve been trying to avoid in incident management – a lack of common terminology. 

Each jurisdiction and organization should choose which format works best for them.  I would strongly recommend the traditional format which is the easiest to shape to meet your needs rather than trying to work within an awkward planning framework.  Remember that no plan is ever perfect, but requires regular attention to ensure that it evolves with and addresses your needs.  Don’t try to tackle it all at once, either, or on your own.  Proper planning is a team effort requiring input from multiple stakeholders in your jurisdiction or organization.  CPG 101 references ‘whole community’ planning which is a great idea to ensure that you capture multiple perspectives and that all stakeholders are bought into the process and the product.  Take on your planning work in small bites, one component at a time.  First work on the base plan – the most essential part.  Then identify those functional and hazard specific annexes which are most important – accomplish those next.  To help guide your work it will help to create a project chart for your planning efforts identifying timelines and benchmarks, stakeholders, and needed inputs.  Finally, don’t forget to exercise your plans to validate them! 

Lastly, my marketing plug – If you need help planning please contact Emergency Preparedness Solutions!  EPS is experienced in working with governments, private sector, and not for profits in all facets of preparedness including assessment, planning, training, and exercises.  We are happy to discuss your needs and determine the best way to meet them. 

What planning format do you prefer and why?

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker