Operational Readiness in Emergency Management

Back in 2017 I wrote a piece on defining operational readiness.  It’s a topic, which, after some recent discussion with a colleague, I think bears revisiting and expanding upon.  Specifically, how we apply it in emergency management, or not.  Readiness is really a final comprehensive perspective of preparedness.  That is, once you have reached a certain level of preparedness, you can be ready, but being prepared doesn’t necessarily make you ready.  Preparedness is generally perceived as an ongoing process, though a state of readiness is typically a snapshot in time.

It struck me that the military tends to have more of a focus on readiness, while emergency management has a focus on preparedness.  While you will find both concepts within the doctrine of emergency management and military, the actual applications are considerably skewed.  After my discussion, I began to wonder why there this difference exists and what we can learn from it.

Having worked a considerable amount with various National Guard elements, I’ve come to highly respect their processes and their endeavor for readiness.  Not that we don’t have similar rigor in emergency management, but the focus seems to be more on the processes of preparedness rather than a state of operational readiness.  Sometimes the differences are so subtle that I have to sit back and think them through, but they are certainly there, and they are meaningful.  Given the military’s focus on operational readiness, they serve as a good source of information, though it needs to be properly filtered for application to emergency management.

As I’ve applied more thought to this, I’ve assembled a refined definition of readiness as it applies to emergency management, that being:

[Readiness is the nexus of benchmark outcomes of preparedness matched with the needs of a specific kind and type of response. A state of operational readiness is achieved when all applicable preparedness benchmarks are met and the organization is willing and able to adequately leverage the resulting capabilities against a corresponding threat or hazard.]

I’ve put together a graphic I think reasonably represents this relationship below.  Readiness is represented by a cloud because, as I explore further in this writing, it is itself rather amorphic and complex.

Readiness

To explain the components of my definition…  Readiness comes from a culmination of outcomes from preparedness activities, but only when each of these outcomes achieves a specific benchmark state.  The achievement of benchmarked preparedness activities define a measure of capability.  These capabilities are associated with a specific threat(s) or hazard(s).  As such, that state of readiness is only applicable to a specific kind (threat or hazard) and type (size and complexity) incident.  To help illustrate my points, here are a couple of examples using field response scenarios:

We can assume that a volunteer fire department is prepared to handle a room and contents fire.  They should have all the elements needed to do so, and in fact, these elements have standards (benchmarks) defined by the NFPA and state fire marshals.  Does this mean they have achieved readiness?  Hopefully yes, but perhaps not.  Given the rather extensive crisis of low membership in volunteer fire departments, the department in question may not have adequate staff to respond to this fire if it occurs, for example, in the middle of a week day.  This gives them a measure of degraded, or even negligible readiness.

Similarly, if we take the same fire department, having accomplished the benchmarks of preparedness for response to a room and contents fire, and even given adequate staff to do so, they may not have a state of readiness to fully address a hazardous materials incident.  While many of the elements of preparedness apply to both types of incidents, there are some critical differences which they would have to overcome to establish a state of readiness for a different type of incident.  Likewise, we could revert back to the room and contents fire and make it bigger – say a fully involved structure fire. While the department might have operational readiness to address the room and contents fire, they may not have the operational readiness to address a structure fire.

I think it’s fair to say that we can be prepared for something without having operational readiness for it.  Years ago, when there was a planetary ‘near miss’ by a meteor, a news outlet contacted our state OEM PIO.  They asked if we had a plan for a meteor strike.  The PIO acknowledged that we didn’t have a plan specific to that, but we did have a comprehensive emergency management plan, through which, and supported by various functional annexes, we were prepared to respond to such an incident and its effects should it occur.  Was the PIO wrong?  Not at all.  Assuming the other elements of preparedness were reasonably in place (and they were), it would be fair to say we were generally ‘prepared for anything’.  Were we ready, however?  Absolutely not.  The operational readiness needs for such an extraordinary, high impact incident are near-impossible to achieve.

When we examine this, it’s important to identify that a state of readiness can wax and wane, based on our ability to apply the identified preparedness measures to the incident in question. Considering the first example of the fire department and the room and contents fire, the department has a state of operational readiness when, as included in the definition I gave, all the preparedness benchmarks are met and they are willing and able to adequately leverage the resulting capabilities against a corresponding threat or hazard.  Changes in capability and/or the willingness or ability to apply those capabilities will result in degradation of readiness.  Depending on the factor in question, it may fully disqualify their readiness, or it may decrease their readiness by some measure.

So why is readiness important?  Readiness is the green light.  If we accomplish a state of operational readiness, we increase our chances of success in addressing the threat or hazard in question.  If we haven’t achieved readiness, we still can obviously be successful, but that success may come at a greater cost, longer period of time, and/or increased error.

How do we achieve readiness?  The current approach we have in emergency management certainly isn’t enough.  While some efforts may culminate in operational readiness, there is, as a whole, a significant lack of focus on operational readiness.  This seems to largely be a cultural issue to overcome.  In general, we seem to have the attitude that preparedness equates to readiness, and that preparedness itself is an end state. Even though we intuitively, and doctrinally, know that preparedness is a cycle, we seem to take comfort in ‘completing’ certain tasks among the preparedness elements – planning, organizing, equipping, training, exercises, and improvement – and then assuming readiness.  Readiness itself is actually the end state, though it is a dynamic end state; one that we can easily lose and must constantly strive to maintain.  To accomplish and maintain operational readiness, it is imperative that we aggressively and rigorously pursue activity in each of the elements of preparedness.  We must also continually monitor our ability to execute the capabilities we are preparing.  That ability, ultimately, is our measure of readiness.

The scale and unit of measuring readiness is something I’m not exploring in depth here (it really warrants its own deliberate effort), but expect to revisit in the future.  I surmise that the factors may be different based upon the various capabilities, and types and kinds of threats/hazards we are trying to address.  We need to examine capability requirements at a granular (task) level to truly assess our current state of readiness and identify what we need to address to increase our readiness.  I also assume that there is a somewhat intangible factor to readiness, one that likely revolves around the human factor. Things like leadership, decision-making, confidence, and ability to improvise. The measure of readiness may also involve certain external factors, such as weather.  The measurement of readiness certainly is complex and involves numerous factors.

I do know that practice is a significant factor in operational readiness.  Earlier I mentioned my experience with the National Guard.  Much of that revolves around exercises, which is one of the best (though not the only) measures of readiness.  Operational military units seem to constantly exercise.  Sometimes small scale, sometimes large.  They exercise different aspects, different scenarios, and different approaches.  It’s the regular repetition that builds competence and confidence, along with identifying shortfalls within the capability such as planning gaps, equipment failures, and the need to anticipate and prepare for certain contingencies.  While we exercise a fair amount in emergency management, we still don’t exercise enough.  I see a lot of people in emergency management leadership develop a complacency and virtually declare that ‘close enough is enough’.  It’s absolutely not enough to exercise a plan or capability once a year, which is something we often see (and often at best).

Preparedness is not something we achieve, it’s something we do; but through it we strive to achieve and maintain readiness.

It’s interesting to note that at the level of federal doctrine, we have a National Preparedness Goal.  We need to recognize that preparedness isn’t the goal – Readiness is.  A possible starting point for change would be the assembly of a blue-ribbon panel, likely by FEMA, to explore this topic and provide recommendations on a unified way ahead for emergency management to recognize the need for operational readiness, including purposeful changes in doctrine and culture to emphasize this desired end state.  We need a solid definition, means of measurement, guidelines for implementation, and an identification of the barriers to success with recommendations on how to overcome them (yep, I already know money and staff are the big ones).

I hope I’ve given some food for thought in regard to readiness.  The simple act of writing this and the bit of associated reading and thinking I’ve done on the topic certainly has me thinking about things differently.  As always, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on operational readiness, what it means to you, and what we can do to achieve it.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

 

 

 

Preparing for Ebola – and Whatever Else May Come

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you should be quite aware of the headlining threat in public health and public safety – Ebola hemorrhagic fever.  Ebola has been in existence for quite a while, but the current outbreak of this deadly virus in western Africa has garnered much attention.  Thus far, beyond western Africa, infected persons have been identified in Spain and the United States.  The ease and frequency of air travel, combined with the virulence of Ebola have led to a frenzied reaction by politicians, the media, and our health care system.  While we are at a stage in the US where only a handful of infected persons have been identified, this virus is quite dangerous and could easily and rapidly spread.

While I’m not a public health expert, preparedness is universal.  Public health is at the tip of the spear for this fight and must be supported by other professions within public safety and beyond – that’s what emergency management is all about.  That said, this is proving to be quite a test for our public health partners.  The consequences of failure could be devastating.

Considering the five mission areas, we are most strongly functioning within Prevention, Protection, and Response for Ebola.  Certainly the three common Core Capabilities of Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning are all fully engaged across the three mission areas.  Additionally, we are seeing a great deal of work within in the Intelligence and Information Sharing; Screening, Search, and Detection; Public Health and Medical; and Situational Assessment Core Capabilities; along with some work in other capabilities to a lesser degree.  Why is it important to recognize the mission areas and Core Capabilities?  It helps to keep us focused and prompts us to examine the critical activities for each.

In which mission areas and Core Capabilities does your agency fit in?

What are you responsible for?

Are you doing it?

Do you have all the information you need to do it safely and effectively or are you waiting for public health to call and tell you what to do?  I’m betting you haven’t gotten that phone call.

In a situation like this, we are seeing a lot of activity and emphasis at the Federal level through US Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control.  Their focus is on solving the problem in front of them.  While they have people engaged in getting messages out and engaging partners, they have a lot to accomplish and likely haven’t gotten to all the stakeholders.  We will hopefully see some more aggressive messaging given the circumstances that have been described at the Texas hospital where Ebola patients have been treated.  So what should you do?  Hopefully your agency is already in contact with your local health department to discuss both your role in the public safety system and the potential exposures and vulnerabilities you may have to Ebola.  If your local health department doesn’t seem to have much information, reach up to your state health department.  Don’t wait to get a call… by then it could be too late.

Very simply, we are looking at preparations for your agency’s role.  These preparations, although slightly different based on the agency, apply to all agencies; from first responder agencies, to local government, K-12 and higher education schools, hospitals, private sector, and not for profits.  Let’s break this down with the Preparedness Cycle:

The Preparedness Cycle - FEMA

The Preparedness Cycle – FEMA

Plans, policies, procedures – do you have them in place and up to date?  Depending on the role and function of your agency you can have several of the following – emergency operations plan, emergency procedures, infection control plan and procedures, public health plan, communicable disease or pandemic influenza plan.  You should engage with public health experts to ensure that your plans, policies, and procedures address everything known about Ebola.  You may need to create some procedures specifically addressing issues pertaining to Ebola and your agency’s role.  Do your plans, policies, and procedures link up to your agency’s critical activities for each Core Capability you are engaged in?  What agencies do you need to coordinate with to be effective?

Organizing – depending on your agency’s role, you may need to make some internal changes or designations within your organization to better streamline your activities.

Training – train everyone who has anything to do with any component of the plan in what they need to do.  This is a great opportunity to ensure that everyone is trained up in their role of the emergency operations plan.  If your agency has physical contact with the public, training in personal protective equipment (PPE), identification of signs and symptoms, and patient care are extremely important.  Given the detail of the activities and the just-in-time training, job aids will be a great help to your staff to ensure that they follow the procedures you provide for them.  Don’t get caught short… communicate to your staff in what is going on, what your agency is or may be responsible for, and what they will be called upon to do.

Equipping – your staff need the right equipment for the job.  Not only PPE, but the forms and databases used to record information, decontamination equipment, etc.  It is extremely important that staff are trained not only in how to use equipment but to prevent contamination of equipment and prevention of cross contamination.  Do you have all the equipment you need?  If not, who does?

Exercising – Conduct table top exercises to talk through policies and higher levels plans to validate and become familiar with them.  Identify shortfalls and correct them immediately.  Conduct drills to test the skills of staff for specific activities and larger exercises – functional or full scale – to test multiple functions and plans.

Evaluating – Evaluation is a constant throughout all of the preparedness cycle.  We need to evaluate every step within the preparedness cycle and make adjustments and improvements as needed.  Embrace best practices and fix shortfalls.  This leads directly to the next step…

Taking Corrective Action – Some corrective actions are quick and easy fixes while others can take a while or cost money above budget to address.  A corrective action plan (aka improvement plan) will help you keep track of what needs to be fixed, the priority it holds, who is responsible for making it happen, and a strategy to make it happen – it’s a living document.

The preparedness cycle can be applied to any hazard, be it Ebola or a flood.  With all this attention on Ebola, it’s a great opportunity to pull plans off the shelf and have discussions with internal and external stakeholders on these preparedness steps.

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker

Preparedness is a Marathon

Logo of the 2014 Utica Boilermaker

Logo of the 2014 Utica Boilermaker

Today marked the 37th running of the Boilermaker, a 15k road race hosted by the City of Utica (New York) for over 17,000 runners from around the world.  The race is a matter of pride for area residents, even those who do not run.

I considered this morning that there are many similarities between a marathon (yes, I’m aware the Boilermaker is in fact not a marathon at just over a third the distance of an actual marathon – work with me on this one) and what an organization, specifically a jurisdiction, must endure for preparedness.

First, preparedness is not a one-off activity, rather it is a culmination of activities.  While the Boilermaker highlights its 15k road race, they have a number of very successful related events including a 5k road race, a three-mile walk, a wheelchair race, and a health and fitness expo.

Preparedness has an ebb and flow of activities just as a marathon has a variety of stretches, turns, and hills.  Both marathons and preparedness should have a high degree of community engagement.  The Boilermaker has a variety of corporate and local business sponsors, engages all services of the City of Utica and many assisting/mutual aid agencies, has a high degree of media coordination, and sees hundreds of volunteers aiding in everything from registration, pre- and post- race clean up, to providing water to athletes along the course.  Our preparedness efforts should also follow this model of whole community engagement.

The most significant difference, however, is that marathons have an end while preparedness is cyclical.

The Preparedness Cycle - FEMA

The Preparedness Cycle – FEMA

The Preparedness Cycle must be worked on all the time and does not end.  To keep morale high and to keep the whole community interested remember to celebrate the accomplishment of each activity just as runners and the community celebrate the completion of their race.  That said, Utica is already preparing for next year’s race.

Congratulations to all of this year’s runners, and congratulations to jurisdictions and organizations beginning their marathon of preparedness.

© 2014 Timothy Riecker