Reviewing The 2018 National Preparedness Report

The 2018 National Preparedness Report was released last week.  For the past few years, I’ve provided my own critical review of these annual reports (see 2017’s report here).  For those not familiar with the National Preparedness Report (NPR), it is mandated by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA).  The information is compiled by FEMA from the State Preparedness Reports (SPR), including the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) data submitted by states, territories, and Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) – funded regions.  The data presented is for the year prior.  The SPRs and NPR examine the condition of our preparedness relative to the 32 Core Capabilities identified in the National Preparedness Goal.

Overall, the NPR provides little information, certainly nothing that is really shocking if you pay attention to the top issues in emergency management.  Disappointingly, the report only covers those Core Capabilities identified for sustainment or improvement, with no more than a graphic summary of the other Core Capabilities.

Core Capabilities to Sustain

Operational Coordination was identified as the sole Core Capability to sustain in this year’s report.  I’ve got some issues with this right off.  First of all, they summarize their methodology for selecting Core Capabilities to sustain: ‘To be a capability to sustain, the Nation must show proficiency in executing that core capability, but there must also be indications of a potentially growing gap between the future demand for, and the performance of, that capability.’  To me, what this boils down to is ‘you do it well, but you are going to have to do it better’.  I think most EM professionals could add to this list significantly, with Core Capabilities such as Planning; Public Information and Warning; Public Health, Healthcare, and EMS; Situational Assessment; and others.  Distilling it down to only Operational Coordination shows to me, a severe lack of understanding in where we presently are and the demands that will be put on our systems in the future.

Further, the review provided in the report relative to Operational Coordination is pretty soft.  Part of it is self-congratulatory, highlighting advances in the Core Capability made last year, with the rest of the section identifying challenges but proving little analysis.  Statements such as ‘Local governments reported challenges with incident command and coordination during the 2017 hurricane season’ are put out there, yet their single paragraph on corrective actions for the section boils down to the statement of ‘we’re looking at it’.  Not acceptable.

Core Capabilities to Improve

The 2018 report identifies four Core Capabilities to improve:

  • Infrastructure Systems
  • Housing
  • Economic Recovery
  • Cybersecurity

These fall under the category of NO KIDDING.  The writeups within the NPR for each of these superficially identifies the need, but doesn’t have much depth of analysis.  I find it interesting that the Core Capability to sustain has a paragraph on corrective actions, yet the Core Capabilities to Improve doesn’t.  They do, instead, identify key findings, which outline some efforts to address the problems, but are very soft and offer little detail.  Some of these include programs which have been in place for quite some time which are clearly having limited impact on addressing the issues.

What really jumped out at me is the data provided on page 9, which charts the distribution of FEMA Preparedness grants by Core Capability for the past year.  The scale of their chart doesn’t allow for any exact amounts, but we can make some estimates.  Let’s look at four of these in particular:

  • Infrastructure Systems – scantly a few million dollars
  • Housing – None
  • Economic Recovery – Less than Infrastructure Systems
  • Cybersecurity – ~$25 million

With over $2.3 billion in preparedness funding provided in 2017 by FEMA, it’s no wonder these are Core Capabilities that need to be improved when so few funds were invested at the state/territory/UASI level.  The sad thing is that this isn’t news.  These Core Capabilities have been identified as needing improvement for years, and I’ll concede they are all challenging, but the lack of substantial movement should anger all emergency managers.

I will agree that Housing and Cybersecurity require a significant and consolidated national effort to address.  That doesn’t mean they are solely a federal responsibility, but there is clear need for significant assistance at the federal level to implement improvements, provide guidance to states and locals, and support local implementations.  That said, we can’t continue to say that these areas are priorities when little funding or activity is demonstrated to support improvement efforts.  While certain areas may certainly take years to make acceptable improvements, we are seeing a dangerous pattern relative to these four Core Capabilities, which continue to wallow at the bottom of the list for so many years.

The Path Forward

The report concludes with a two-paragraph section titled ‘The Path Forward’, which simply speaks to refining the THIRA and SPR methodology, while saying nothing of how the nation needs to address the identified shortcomings.  Clearly this is not acceptable.

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As for my own conclusion, while I saw last year’s NPR as an improvement from years previous, I see this one as a severe backslide.  It provides little useful information and shows negligible change in the state of our preparedness over the past year.  The recommendations provided, at least of those that do exist, are translucent at best, and this report leaves the reader with more questions and frustration.  We need more substance beginning with root cause analysis and including substantial, tangible, actionable recommendations.  While I suppose it’s not the fault of the report itself that little improvement is being made in these Core Capabilities, the content of the report shows a lack of priority to address these needs.

I’m actually surprised that a separate executive summary of this report was published, as the report itself holds so little substance, that it could serve as the executive summary.  Having been involved in the completion of THIRAs and SPRs, I know there is information generated that is simply not being analyzed for the NPR.  Particularly with each participating jurisdiction completing a POETE analysis of each Core Capability, I would like to see a more substantial NPR which does some examination of the capability elements in aggregate for each Core Capability, perhaps identifying trends and areas of focus to better support preparedness.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.  Was there anything you thought to be useful in the National Preparedness Report?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

2017 National Preparedness Report – A Review

With my travel schedule, I missed the (late) release of the 2017 National Preparedness Report (NPR) in mid-October.  Foundationally, the findings of the 2017 report show little change from the 2016 report.  If you are interested in comparing, you can find my review of the 2016 NPR here.

The 2017 NPR, on the positive side, provided more data and more meaningful data than its predecessor.  It appeared to me there was more time and effort spent in analysis of this data.  If you aren’t familiar with the premise of the NPR, the report is a compilation of data obtained from State Preparedness Reports (SPRs) submitted by states, territories, and UASI-funded regions; so the NPR, fundamentally, should be a reflection of what was submitted by these jurisdictions and regions – for the better or worse of it.  The SPR asks jurisdictions to provide an honest analysis of each of the core capabilities through the POETE capability elements (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising).

From the perspective of the jurisdictions, no one wants to look bad.  Not to say that any jurisdiction has lied, but certainly agendas can sway subjective assessments.  Jurisdictions want to show that grant money is being spent effectively (with the hopes of obtaining more), but not with such terrific results that anyone would think they don’t need more.  Over the past few years the SPRs, I believe, have started to normalize and better reflect reality.  I think the authors of the NPR have also come to look at the data they receive a little more carefully and word the NPR to reflect this reality.

The 2017 NPR (which evaluates 2016 data from jurisdictions) identified five core capabilities the nation needs to sustain.  These are:

  • Environmental Response/Health and Safety
  • Intelligence and Information Sharing
  • Operational Communications
  • Operational Coordination
  • Planning

I’m reasonably comfortable with the first two, although they both deal with hazards and details that change regularly, so keeping on top of them is critical.  Its interesting that Operational Communication is rated so high, yet is so commonly seen as a top area for improvement on after-action reports of exercises, events, and incidents.  To me, the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion in regard to this core capability.  Operational Coordination and Planning both give me some significant concern.

First, in regard to Operational Coordination, I continue to have a great deal of concern in the ability of responders (in the broadest definitions) to effectively implement the Incident Command System (ICS).  While the implementation of ICS doesn’t comprise all of this core capability, it certainly is a great deal of it.  I think there is more room for improvement than the NPR would indicate.  For example, in a recent exercise I supported, the local emergency manager determined there would be a unified command with him holding ‘overall command’.  Unfortunately, these false interpretations of ICS are endemic.

I believe the Planning core capability is in a similar state inadequacy.  Preparedness lies, fundamentally, on proper planning and the assessments that support it. While I’ve pontificated at length about the inadequacy of ICS training, I’ve seen far too many plans with gaps that you could drive a truck through.  I’ve recently exercised a college emergency response plan that provided no details or guidance on critical tasks, such as evacuation of a dormitory and support of the evacuated students.  The plan did a great job of identifying who should be in the EOC, but gave no information on what they should be doing or how they should do it.  The lack of plans that can be operationalized and implemented is staggering.

The NPR identified the top core capabilities to be improved.  There are no surprises in this list:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Economic Recovery
  • Housing
  • Infrastructure Systems
  • Natural and Cultural Resources
  • Supply Chain Integrity and Security

Fortunately, I’m seeing some (but not all) of these core capabilities getting some needed attention, but clearly not enough.  These don’t have simple solutions, so they will take some time.

Page 10 of the NPR provides a graph showing the distribution of FEMA preparedness (non-disaster) grants by core capability for fiscal year 2015.  Planning (approx. $350m) and Operational Coordination (approx. $280m) lead the pack by far.  I’m curious as to what specific activities these dollars are actually being spent on, because my experience shows that it’s not working as well as is being reported.  Certainly there has been some positive direction, but I’m guessing that dollars are being spent on activities that either have negligible impact or actually have a negative impact, such as funding the development of some of the bad plans we’re seeing out there.

I’m curious as to what readers are seeing out in real life.  What capabilities concern you the most?  What capabilities do you see successes in?  Overall, I think everyone agrees that we can do better.  We can also get better and more meaningful reports.  This NPR was a step in the right direction from last year’s, but we need to continue forward progress.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Exercising the Recovery Mission Area

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I get pretty excited about it – I got a blog request!  Last week, Darin, a LinkedIn connection, messaged me with a request to post my thoughts on exercising the recovery phase (or mission area) of emergency management.  His idea, as he expressed it to me, came from discussion at a Public Health Preparedness conference he was attending, where they were discussing ESF 8 (Public Health and Medical Services) continuity of operations and recovery exercises.  Challenge accepted!

When it comes to Recovery exercises, my first thought is that they are horribly underutilized.  We conduct a lot of exercises in the Response mission area, but it’s a rare occasion that we even mention Recovery.  The reasoning here is pretty easy – Response is sexy.  It’s the lights and sirens, saving lives, put out the fire, pull people from the wreckage kind of stuff that makes a big impact.  Recovery is often viewed as slow, tedious, bureaucratic, engineering kind of stuff.  Well… yeah… but there is a lot more to it.  Since when we plan exercises, one of the first things we do is to identify what Core Capabilities will be tested, let’s look at the Core Capabilities of the Recovery Mission Area.  Within each, I’ll mention some ideas you can incorporate into exercises.

The Big Three – Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning.  These Core Capabilities are found in every mission area and are sometimes applied differently.

  • Planning – Yeah, we should have recovery plans. I would argue that we have entered the recovery phase when all or most of the first two incident management priorities have been addressed – Life Safety and Incident Stabilization.  Sometimes these are resolved quickly, sometimes they take some time.  There are some fairly complex issues to be addressed in the recovery phase (many of which we will identify through the Core Capabilities), and we don’t do them often, therefore we should most certainly plan for them.  Remember, we exercise plans and capabilities – therefore our plans (and policies and procedures) are a significant focus when it comes to Recovery exercises.    This Core Capability is where continuity of operations plans will also fall.  Can your organization survive the lasting impacts of a disaster?
  • Operational Coordination – Recovery activities often involve organizations that had little to no activity during the Response phase. Most of these organizations are non-traditional responders who don’t usually operate under more strict command and control models, such as ICS, but in the Recovery phase of a disaster, I certainly advocate that they do.  Many of these agencies, typically the human services types of organizations, are very good at coordination and cooperation, as their daily priorities dictate that working with others is how needs are addressed.  The big challenge we often see here, though, is the introduction of some other organizations – typically those with regulatory responsibilities.  Regulation usually requires bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy usually requires time – lots of time – especially when exceptions are requested.  It’s really important to consider all stakeholders when planning an exercise to ensure that you get a chance to see how they interact, what the information flow and chain of authority looks like, what benefits they bring, and how they can work together in a timely fashion for the common good.
  • Public Information and Warning – We often take for granted the role of public information and warning in the Recovery phase. There are many benefits to keeping external stakeholders informed of what’s going on during Recovery.  Consider elected officials, business and industry, and special interest groups, along with the general public.  Your PIO and possibly your JIC should be just as involved in Recovery phase exercises as they are in those for the Response phase.

Aside from the ‘big three’, the Recovery mission area shares a Core Capability with the Response mission area – Infrastructure Systems.  Long-term restoration and rebuilding of infrastructure can lead to lengthy discussions in a Recovery-focused workshop or tabletop exercise.  What are the priorities for rebuilding?  Who will do it?  How will it be funded?  What are the completion timelines?  Will it be rebuilt the same or differently?  What are the impacts of doing it differently?  Who is impacted by this?  What do we do while we are waiting for it to be rebuilt?  Who makes decisions?  All important things to consider.

The first unique Core Capability in the Recovery mission area is Economic Recovery.  I was recently asked to present at a conference for a niche professional association comprised of professionals found in government, private sector, and non-profits.  While we will be covering topics in Hazard Mitigation and Preparedness, the biggest focus will fall within Economic Recovery.  Economic Recovery involves businesses reopening and people getting back to work to serve customers, make money, and become customers themselves.  After a disaster, it is absolutely vital for a community to get back on its feet, and the center of that is the local economy.  While many disaster impacts may be a relative drop in the bucket for larger companies, smaller businesses may have a hard time recovering – the central pieces of this are infrastructure restoration (see previous paragraph) and cash flow.  The SBA, USDA, and even IRS have mechanisms to assist with cash flow issues.  And don’t forget insurance!  Bring these and other stakeholders to the table to discuss economic recovery.  Consider priorities and mechanisms that must be in place to meet needs to support these priorities.  Your local chamber of commerce and other business associations will certainly want to be part of these exercises.  Does your jurisdiction have a business operations center (BOC)?  If not, consider it.  If you do, exercise it!

Health and Social Services.  This is the heart of all matters related to ESF 8 (Public Health and Medical Services), which Darin mentioned.  While this Core Capability is an extension of the Response mission area Core Capability of Public Health, Healthcare, and Emergency Medical Services; it is also so much more.  ESF 8 activity after disasters can last months or even years, particularly with ongoing issues such as medical monitoring and psychological impacts.  Eventually many of these services are absorbed into the system of regular service providers, but for a time the circumstances of the disaster may require some special coordination or monitoring.  The coordination needed involves an amalgamation of organizations at all levels of government, not for profits, and the private sector.  This can involve ongoing coordination with insurance companies, general practitioners and specialists; and must address the needs of everyone fairly and consistently, regardless of any differences, including their own financial resources or insurance coverage.  Tracking data related to the care and services provided is often important, but consideration must be given to HIPAA and other privacy laws.  Exercises can benefit from scenarios, such as exposures to radiological, biological, or chemical sources, which will drive discussion on the types of services to be provided, who will provide them, at whose cost, and for how long.  Many of these discussions should include topics of how to avoid social stigmatization of clients, sharing information between organizations, and the full range of social services that individuals and families may require.

Housing is typically the hardest nut to crack in all of disaster recovery.  Relative to need, there is little government owned housing stock available.  What is available may require waiting lists and relocation to access.  While many home owners are insured, we know that it takes some time for home owners to receive payment from insurance companies, and insurance is rarely at 100% coverage for losses.  Those that don’t own their own homes are often the left with the most dire situations.  While ‘FEMA trailers’ have provided some medium-term solutions, there are many issues to address.  I posit that plans at all levels are inadequate to address housing needs after a disaster.  If you have a plan, get a good exercise team to write a great scenario to test it.  If you don’t have a plan, conducting a workshop to identify and address major planning issues is the way to go.  A housing exercise is probably going to be one of the more eye opening yet depressing exercises you’ve ever done.

Lastly is the Core Capability of Natural and Cultural Resources, which focuses on the recovery of libraries and museums, documents and art, as well as helping to restore our own environment after a disaster.  Activities can range from restoring a historical landmark to major engineering projects to restore a wetland.  These activities can involve a great deal of technical expertise as well as regulation.  FEMA, the EPA, and the National Parks Service are often big players in these types of activities.

As for what types of exercises to conduct, that’s largely dependent upon the status of your plans and if you have conducted exercises on these plans before.  I always suggest starting with discussion-based exercises.  We often forget about seminars, which are more about conveying information than obtaining feedback, but are still valuable for discussing initiatives and new plans.  Workshops not only support the planning process to develop plans, they can also serve to facilitate a detailed review of a plan in its final draft stages.  Most Recovery exercises I have experience with have been tabletop exercises, which use a scenario to provide context to discussion questions for a group of stakeholders.  This is a great way to exercise decision making and to talk through the key tasks associated with plans.  Disaster recovery involves a lot of policy-level decision making, which is ideal for a tabletop.

Operations-based exercises for disaster recovery are found much less often.  Drills can certainly be conducted to test focused aspects of plans and procedures.  Drills in Recovery can help identify strengths and weaknesses of our processes, both for ourselves and for those we are trying to serve.  Functional exercises are broader and more encompassing than drills.  Much can be gained from a Recovery mission area functional exercise, but make sure that it’s grounded in reality.  Most jurisdictions don’t have an EOC activated for Recovery mission area activities. If you don’t, don’t try to run an exercise within that environment.  Some functions, however, may be run, at least for a time, from some sort of operations/coordination center, such as a health operations center (HOC).  With a good scenario focusing on addressing longer-term issues in the aftermath of a response, they can be done successfully.  Be sure to develop a pretty solid ‘ground truth’, however, to support the exercise, as much of Recovery is dependent upon what was done in Response, so players will need this context.  With a bit more complication, a functional exercise could be run virtually, with people participating from their own regular work stations as they often do during Recovery operations.  Testing Recovery plans in full scale exercises is significantly challenging based on the array and type of activities.  Because of the focus of activities, continuity of operations plans are likely among the most suited for full scale Recovery mission area exercises.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences exercising Recovery mission area plans and capabilities.  What ideas do you have?  What best practices have you found?

As always, thanks for reading!

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness!