Keeping the C in CERT

I’m a big fan of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). For several years I was, in addition to other duties, New York State’s CERT program coordinator. I had interactions with most CERT programs in the state, conducted many CERT train-the-trainer courses, and managed federal CERT and Citizen Corps grant programs. CERT programs, when properly organized, managed, and maintained hold incredible value to their communities.

For those not fully aware of what CERT is, it is a construct that arose from high earthquake hazard communities in California a few decades ago. It is founded on the recognition that the true first responders to a disaster are in fact community members who will tend to themselves, their families, and their neighbors. The core CERT training provides information and skills practice on team organization, first aid, light search and rescue, hazard recognition, and more. Fundamentally, CERT organizations will self-activate in the event of a sudden disaster to care for those immediately around them. CERT programs have evolved in a positive fashion through the years, spreading around the nation and the world. Ideally, they should be formed with a linkage to local emergency responders, and can be leveraged to support community preparedness and mitigation efforts as well. CERT programs are organized around the needs of their communities, with their operational protocols and training rooted in that local need. The C in CERT is for COMMUNITY.

For many years, FEMA has been developing the National Qualification System (NQS), which supports resource typing as a key component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The primary purpose of the NQS is to establish standards for positions and functions utilized in emergency management, with the greatest benefit being the requesting, processing, deployment, and utilization of resources to disaster areas. These efforts strongly support effective resource management by providing consistent definitions of capability for various kinds and types of resources, backed up by a means for resources to track and even certify progress toward meeting those qualifications.

Yesterday, FEMA released a NIMS Alert for NQS information for several CERT positions. To be honest, this frustrates the hell out of me. CERT is a community-level resource. Not one that is intended to be deployed. Yes, FEMA has called for and deployed CERT personnel in the past, but this is not a consistent practice, has not happened often, and as far as I know was deemed a less than effective utilization. The draft position task books provided by the NQS for comment for CERT indicate roles in support of the CERTs in the jurisdictions in which they are being deployed. While some jurisdictions have prepared CERT members for roles beyond the core tasks associated with CERT, such as EOC support or field data collection, CERT is not fundamentally expected to be a long-term function in the aftermath of a disaster, so to be deploying personnel to support sustained ‘normal’ CERT operations is largely a misutilization and clearly a misunderstanding of what CERT is fundamentally about, especially when most external resources requests occur days or even weeks after a disaster.

CERT members and CERT programs are and should be focused on their own neighborhoods and communities. As individuals and as organizations they are generally not trained, equipped, or otherwise prepared to be deployable resources. They are also not being deployed to a disaster in a professional capacity, many of which have their own NQS documents. While it may sound like a great opportunity for people who want to make a difference, there are a lot of pitfalls – many of which I saw when FEMA requested CERT volunteers from around the nation to deploy for Gulf coast hurricanes about 15 years ago.

The NQS documents identify several trainings in addition to the Basic CERT course, most of which are FEMA Independent Study courses which only provide a general baseline of knowledge; and none of which specifically address issues associated with actually deploying to a disaster area. If CERT personnel wish to be deployable resources, they should do so through organizations such as the Red Cross, Team Rubicon, World Central Kitchen, or the myriad faith-based groups who are established and reputed providers of various disaster-essential services. These are entities that are also organizationally capable of managing personnel and the logistical and procedural requirements of a deployment, of which there are many. These organizations train and prepare personnel for deployments, have experienced personnel that manage and coordinate deployments, they ensure they are managed and cared for on site, they support supply chains, and are experienced in addressing liability matters.

The bottom line here is that we are expecting too much from people signed up to support a disaster response in or even near their own communities, but not to be deployed around the country. I’m sure I’ll get some responses from people espousing some specific successes in deploying CERT personnel outside their jurisdiction, of which I’m sure there are; however that is the exception and not the rule. It’s not what CERT is or ever was intended to be. I’m a big fan and supporter of CERT, and believe in the extraordinary abilities of trained, organized volunteers, but I strongly feel that CERT is not a deployable asset. Personnel who are interested in such endeavors should be steered towards organizations that have the expertise in doing so.

Your thoughts, of course, are welcome.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Incident Management Advisors

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:

  1. Little mention of incident management beyond the obligatory statement of using NIMS/ICS.
  2. No identification of how the system is activated and/or maintained.
  3. As an extension of #2, no inclusion of guidance or job aids on establishing a battle rhythm, incident management priorities, etc.
  4. An obvious mis-understanding or mis-application of incident management concepts/ICS, such as creating unnecessary or redundant organizational elements or titles, or trying to force concepts that simply don’t apply or make sense.
  5. No thought toward implementation and how the plan will actually be operationalized, not only in practice, but also the training and guidance needed to support it.

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

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

EOC Skillsets and Position Task Books Finalized

Back in April, FEMA released the drafts of EOC skillset documents and position task books for public comment.  A few days ago, the final versions of these documents were released on FEMA’s National Qualification System (NQS) website: https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/nims/components#nqs

While the hub of emergency response is the incident command post, the hub of emergency coordination is the Emergency Operations Center.  While life saving tactics, directed from the ICP, are absolutely essential, a comprehensive and long-term response can’t be sustained without the activities of an EOC.  We have gone far too long in emergency management without having good national guidance on the organization and qualification of personnel in the EOC.

When you crack into the website you may be a bit overwhelmed by all the documents you find.  Don’t look to this as something that must be implemented 100% right away.  Take a deep breath and remember that most things done well in emergency management, ironically enough, are an evolution and take time.  Also remember that while this has been established as guidance, it’s not a requirement.  Implement what you can, when you can.  Focus on establishing a foundation you can build from and do what makes sense for your jurisdiction or organization.

The foundation of everything in emergency management is planning, so whatever you do decide to implement should find its way into plans, which may need to be supported by policy.  While implementing a qualification system with task books can be cumbersome, it can also solve some problems when it comes to having less than qualified personnel working in your EOC.  The position task books are a great way for individuals to see what standards they are being held to and allows them to track progress.  If you don’t feel that the use of position task books will work for your jurisdiction or you are on a slower track to implementation, it’s still worthwhile to examine the skillset documents for each position you have identified in your EOC.  These can support your own developed standards, expectations, and plans; serve as a foundation for training course development; and support exercise evaluation.

Lastly, talk about these with your committees and your peers.  It’s easy to forget about them so keep these visible.  These documents offer an abundance of solid guidance which can strongly support your operational coordination.

What are your thoughts on the EOC skillsets? Do you plan on implementing them in your system?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™