Incident Action Planning

Hello readers!  It’s been a couple of months since I’ve last posted – along with the holidays, I’ve been fortunate to be busy with some great projects and a bit of travel.  While I’m still busy, I’ve been itching to get back to posting.

Over the past few months, I’ve had an opportunity to look at some different aspects of incident action planning.  Having worked as a Planning Section Chief for numerous state and federally declared disasters, I’ve created Incident Action Plans (IAPs), part and parcel, for a variety of incidents.  Teaching hundreds of course offerings of ICS and EOC management, I’ve also had a lot of opportunity to help others understand and appreciate the value of an IAP.

What is an IAP?

The Incident Action Plan is really the culmination of the planning process.  It documents our expected actions for the next operational period, which, through that planning process, should be ready to be supported through an identified organization and necessary resources.  It begins, foundationally, with an understanding of the situation and objectives built to solve the problems that situation imposes upon us.  IAPs identify some situational information, the incident objectives, and tactics – which specific resource assignments – to accomplish those objectives.  To support the tactics, additional elements are added to the IAP, such as the organizational structure, a medical plan (for responders), a communications plan, and specific safety messages.  Based upon the unique characteristics of each incident, additional material can be added.

The planning process, and thus IAPs, are a standard of practice within NIMS/ICS.

Issues with Teaching the Planning Process

For those coming up through the ranks, as it were, of ICS training, the forms integrated into ICS are often one of the most frustrating aspects.  Responders want to do the hands-on stuff, not fill out forms.  Most areas and systems, however, are able to find the responders who are interested in becoming involved in incident management aspects, and engage them in formal or ad-hoc incident management teams.

Often the only exposure that responders have to IAPs is from the ICS 300 course, where they are able to see some samples and are walked through the planning process and associated forms of the IAP.   Having taught hundreds of these, I know it’s a challenge*.  We inundate course participants with a pile of forms and expect them to leave the class to go out and do great things.  While it might be a reasonable initial exposure, this needs to be followed up on, practices, and reinforced if we expect anyone to be successful, much less use the system.

*note: if you aren’t familiar with my position on the current state of ICS training, here are a few other blog posts to orient you.  In short… ICS Training Sucks!

The planning process can be confusing – who does what?  When?  Based upon what information?  The Planning P is the best visual out there and incident management handbooks (aka Field Operations Guides or FOGs) are references that every IMT member should have in the utility pocket of their 5.11s.  While all based on the same system, I find the United States Coast Guard to have the best handbook out there.  These are great job aids for something we don’t go to work and do every day, no matter how proficient you might think you are.

planning P for Planning

Uses of IAPs

IAPs can be applied to anything we can/should apply the planning process to.  These include incidents, pre-planned events, and exercises.  Planned events and exercises provide a great opportunity to practice the planning process and development of IAPs.  It is certainly something that requires practice to be proficient.  Every member of the Command and General staff, as well as a number of support positions, have an important role to play and responsibilities to contribute to the planning process.  The forms themselves even require some practice to ensure that the right information is obtained.  Large incidents can also require a great deal of tactical planning, which means greater time for that and for documenting the tactics and necessary support.

One aspect that is often forgotten in the heat of battle is that our response should, ideally, be based on our emergency operations plans (EOPs).  These should be a regular reference to the Command and General staff, as they can, at the very least, provide some general guidance.  Good EOPs, and their associated annexes, should provide some detailed guidance on certain aspects of response, which can prevent the IMT from having to re-invent a plan in the midst of chaos.  The direction of EOPs, to the greatest extent possible, should be referenced in the planning process and reflected in the IAPs.  EOPs should serve as the foundation for the planning process – with that in mind, EOPs can be implementation-ready.  More thoughts on emergency plan development here.

As mentioned, exercises are a great opportunity for participants to practice the planning process and IAP development, along with other facets of ICS – especially those that we don’t get to apply so often.  Also consider, however, the use of an IAP for exercise management.  Our company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, worked with the State of Vermont this past summer providing exercise control and evaluation services for their Vigilant Guard exercise.  This week-long exercise spanned nearly 60 distinct venues across the state and involved thousands of participants.  We coordinated over 100 control and evaluation staff throughout the exercise.  While staffing decisions were made weeks in advance, we knew that with so many variables, needs and assignments were bound to change.  For each operational period of the exercise, venues had staff assigned, a point of contact they should coordinate with, a need to communicate with the simcell and exercise management staff, a need to be aware of weather and safety matters, and processes to follow in regard to exercise management and reporting.  We recognized the similarities to a tactical deployment and decided to develop incident action plans for exercise management.  We called these eXercise Action Plans (XAPs).  Within just a couple of operational periods, we were receiving great feedback on the documents from exercise staff.  Use of XAPs were identified as a best practice in exercise management for that project.

Final Thoughts

Incident Action Plans are great tools that can help us put our emergency plans in action.  They allow us to apply incident or event-specific ground-truths and the realities of incident needs and resources.  While it’s understanding that some are frustrated with the forms used, the forms are job aids, tested through decades, to help us navigate complex incident management.  When I walk into a command post or an EOC, the IAP is the first thing I look for.  Because the format and forms are relatively standardized, I can flip through it, and in a couple of minutes have a good sense of the activity and who is responsible for what.  Someone told me long ago that ICS is forms facilitated, not forms driven – and that’s very true.  The forms (and thus the IAP) are products of the planning process, which is another decades-old practice in incident management.

What best practices have you seen in the application of the planning process and incident action plans?

Need assistance with planning, training, or exercises?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!

Until next time.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

 

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

This post is part of a 10-part series on Managing an Exercise Program. In this series I provide some of my own lessons learned in the program and project management aspects of managing, designing, conducting, and evaluating Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) exercises. Your feedback is appreciated!

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 10: Evaluation and Improvement Planning

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Since writing Part 8, the new HSEEP guidance (April 2013) was published. Thankfully this update didn’t dictate wholesale changes in the process we’ve all come to be familiar with. There were some subtle changes, such as changing ‘planning conferences’ to ‘planning meetings’, and stressing the involvement of elected officials in the exercise planning process. Similarly, I’m thankful that certain changes weren’t made – one of which was the proposed elimination of terminology of ‘discussion based exercises’ and ‘operations based exercises’. These general identifiers have become commonplace amongst exercise designers for decades. Upon having the opportunity to review a draft version of the new HSEEP guidance, I was quite opposed to that change.

Obviously conducting the exercise is the most exciting part of the process. It’s where all of your hard work comes together. That said, this is where it can all fall apart if you haven’t prepared property in the first eight parts and if you don’t pay attention to detail. I’m breaking exercise conduct down into four smaller parts: Set up, briefings, play, debrief. Remember that my intent with these postings is not to be fully comprehensive, but to emphasize areas where I have learned or have seen others struggle. In all facets of emergency management we need to continue a culture of sharing if we are to be successful.

Set up

The preparations for your exercise should have been finalized in Part 8 where you addressed logistical requirements. You should know where your exercise venue is, how people will be seated/where they will be working, the location and support for a SimCell (if you’re having one), and even matters such as parking, food, restrooms, and audiovisual equipment. Additionally, set up includes having print material available for all participants. When setting up, consider the flow of people, quite literally from the road to the parking lot, from the parking lot to the facility, into the facility through security, sign in, and to their first location for the exercise (this may be their only destination or it may be a large briefing room). Having conducted exercises in locations not familiar to some participants as well as these exercises being larger than the facility’s parking lot can handle, you must ensure that invitation packages have specific directions on how to get to the parking area and how to get from the parking area to the venue. Be sure that signage is prominently displayed. It may even help to have staff directing people. Be sure to also let them know what manner of identification is required to enter the facility. Again, signage is often necessary to get people from the building entrance to check in location and then to the meeting location. Signage for the refreshment area and restrooms may also be needed.

Have everything set up for people before they arrive. Use table tents, if needed, to help identify seating, and have copies of all necessary materials at their seating location. Materials like SitMans and ExPlans have a lot of content, so it’s nice to have these materials available for the early-comers to being reading through.

Be sure to set up early and test EVERYTHING. Make sure AV equipment and communications equipment are tested.

Briefings

Depending on the type of exercise you are conducting, there can be a number of briefings needed to take place before the exercise begins. Some of these briefings may need to take place well in advance, even a day or more before the exercise, depending on availability of audiences for each of them.

The new HSEEP guidance includes a specific briefing for elected and appointed officials. This is something to usually conduct well in advance of the actual exercise to outline the agenda/timeline of the exercise and what will be expected of them. They will likely want to interface with any media and should know what to say about the exercise. They may also want to ‘kick off’ the exercise at the player briefing.

Controllers, evaluators, and SimCell personnel should receive a briefing to ensure they are familiar with the exercise and their rolls. They all need to know what is expected of them and of the players, how and when to interact with the players, and what may need to be reported to their respective leaders and/or to the exercise director. Evaluators will need to become familiar with their assigned EEGs and what the expectations are for evaluating. Additional time will need to be spent with SimCell personnel to familiarize them with the equipment being used, how the MSEL is structured, and how injects will be delivered. If any actors are being used, they will also need to be briefed on their rolls and what their expectations are. Ensure that everyone is familiar with the safety word in the event of the necessity to immediately stop the exercise.

If observers are expected at the exercise, have a briefing ready for them. I suggest treating them like VIPs when possible (most of them usually are). Don’t just let them walk around to figure things out for themselves. Give them tour guides who can take them throughout the venue and talk about what is happening. Schedule their arrival when possible, and consider having an elected or appointed official there to greet them. Keep in mind that some observers will be very high tier VIPs. Vigilant Guard exercises are often visited by the head of the National Guard Bureau – a four star General. These visits are fantastic and very much emphasize the importance of the exercise, but they can also be a little disruptive. These high-tier VIPs will often come with their own entourage and/or security. They will want a brief tour and will stop often to shake hands and have pictures taken. They may even want a break in the exercise to speak. Try to be aware of these expectations up front if at all possible. If not, just go with the flow and be flexible.

The media is another form of observer. All media should be scheduled. Be sure to make it worth their while, where they can catch some video/picture footage of interesting activities. Maps and wall displays make for great footage as well. Remember operational security! If something is sensitive or classified, it should not be anywhere where it can be seen. The media should also be provided a tour and an opportunity to get a statement from the elected and/or appointed officials. They may also want to interview players. I generally don’t allow this without preparation of the specific player to ensure that the right messages are delivered. Also, be sure to let players know during the player brief that there will be observers and media coming through and what is expected of them.

Lastly, the player briefing. This briefing will introduce players to the purpose of the exercise, the ground rules, the facility, timeline, controllers and evaluators, and expectations. Players should be briefed on how and when to interact with the SimCell if you have one. It should always be reinforced that the exercise is ‘no fault’, and that they, individually, are not being evaluated, rather it is the plans, policies, and procedures they are using that are being evaluated. Lastly, players are briefed on the scenario. Be sure that the ExPlan/SitMan has the detailed scenario for their reference.

Exercise Play

Finally the moment of truth arrives! Remember that the purpose of the exercise is to accomplish the objectives, however, know that you may not accomplish all the objectives in the timeframe you have. Being flexible, and knowing you have to be flexible, are two very important aspects of running an exercise. Regardless of how well we think we’ve written an exercise, the responses to our prompts are entirely up to the players. They may accomplish the objectives faster or slower than you expected. Likewise, they may struggle a bit. This is where good exercise control comes in. Controllers/facilitators should observe the tempo of the exercise. Is everyone engaged? Are they needlessly overwhelmed and frustrated? Are they bored? Are they not following through on activities? All these observations should be reported back to the exercise director and SimCell so the tempo can be moderated.

Be sure to have contingencies in the event that players do or request the unexpected. Additional injects that are held back are always a good idea. You may need them to prompt certain activities in the event that players do not take the initiative to do so. Players may also ask questions or make requests of the SimCell that aren’t expected. While we can’t anticipate every need, we can be prepared for them. Have copies of plans, policies, procedures, and maps available to the SimCell. They may have to take some time to research and come up with an answer then get back to the individual. The SimCell manager should be smart when situations like this arise, however. They should always consider if a potentially inaccurate but reasonable answer is acceptable or if the answer must be completely accurate… or even if the answer is required for exercise play at all. There is no sense having SimCell personnel research an answer if the answer doesn’t much matter within the scope of the exercise.

Multi-day exercises may require the exercise staff to meet at the end of every day for a mini hotwash and to evaluate how the exercise is progressing. Where are the players in respect to where you expected them to be in your design of the exercise? Do you need to retool anything in the MSEL?

On large exercises, it helps for the exercise director to have an aide-de-camp, or assistant. Just like any individual in charge of a large operation, the exercise director is having their attention pulled in many directions and may simply not have the time to address everything, especially in large or multi-venue exercises. Having an assistant is also a great way to train up and coming exercise staff. Certainly consider the use of portable radios to help facilitate communication as well. The exercise director will spend most of their time managing and trouble shooting. They may also have to address some VIP concerns. Be sure to walk around to get a good sense for the exercise as a whole. Are evaluators properly positioned? Are controllers present and visible? Is the SimCell responding to questions adequately? Are players engaged and challenged? Perhaps most importantly, is the boss (the elected/appointed official) happy?

Evaluation is such an important aspect of exercise that I will cover it in its own section – Part 10.

Debriefs

Two significant debriefing activities should take place immediately following the exercise: 1) a player hotwash, 2) an exercise staff debriefing. Players should be led through a facilitated hotwash, reviewing the objectives of the exercise, with evaluators capturing their responses to if/how the objectives were accomplished. Encourage and capture responses both in the positive and the negative: i.e. what did we do well and what do we need to improve upon?

After the player hotwash, a similar process should take place with all exercise staff – controllers, evaluators, and SimCell. I like to not only capture their impressions of if/how objectives were accomplished, but I also like to discuss the conduct of the exercise, again capturing what went well and what needed to be improved upon.

 

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

This post is part of a 10-part series on Managing an Exercise Program. In this series I provide some of my own lessons learned in the program and project management aspects of managing, designing, conducting, and evaluating Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) exercises. Your feedback is appreciated!

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 10: Evaluation and Improvement Planning

As I forge ahead in this series on Managing an Exercise Program (thank you all for reading!!), I expect the revised Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) foundation document to be released soon from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Once that document is released, I’ll be sure to include a summary update in my blog.  Having been a reviewer of the draft document about a year ago, I don’t expect a lot of changes, but what does change will have some bits of significance on how we do business in the design, conduct, and evaluation of preparedness exercises.

This installment of Managing an Exercise Program gets us two steps away from actually conducting the exercise.  As you can see, putting an exercise together is no small feat.  I find that this particular step: Preparing Support, Personnel, and Logistical Requirements, is the one most often glossed over in documents and training.  As an example, HSEEP Volume I dedicates only one paragraph to exercise logistical support.  As Volume I states in its single paragraph, logistical elements ‘can make the difference between a smooth, seamless exercise and one that is confusing and ineffective.’  Let’s break down our considerations:

The location of the exercise is of significant concern.  Often times we are examining facilities, but some exercises are conducted outdoors with no use of facilities at all.  If outdoors, you still need to ensure the proper environment and support services, such as restrooms, being available.  If your exercise requires water for fire suppression, then proximity to hydrants is essential, unless you are looking to incorporate tanker operations into your exercise.  We’re looking for a location that is minimally disruptive to the surrounding area, including traffic and ensuring citizen safety.  Consider the need for public messaging, such as static displays, variable message signs (you can get these from your public works connections), and media releases to inform the public of the exercise.  Doing so will help satisfy their curiosity, will give you some positive media exposure, and will help you minimize disruption.  As an example, I’ll cite an urban search and rescue (USAR) component of the Vigilant Guard New York exercise which I led.

Working with local officials, our USAR specialist and a representative of the New York National Guard exercise team were able to select an appropriate cite for their activities.  Set up was extensive, involving multiple loads of building demolition debris and a few cars to be hauled in and specifically placed with the use of heavy equipment.  On one side of this lot were a number of three-story apartment buildings, which we sought to minimize impact to.  All hauling and set up operations took place during the day while exercise activities, which were 24 hour operations for several days, were minimized during the night.  USAR folks come with a lot of equipment… and I’m not just talking a few boxes of stuff, either.  Many have tractor trailers and cargo containers to transport their gear.  They set up tents where they can unload and unpack much of their gear and provide areas for briefing and down time for personnel.  This exercise brought in first responder and National Guard USAR assets from around the state, other states, and Canada.  An eating area needed to be on site as well as sanitation.  Obviously all these areas needed to be well out-of-the-way of operational areas of the exercise to ensure safety and allow room for the rescue activities.  Portable diesel-generated light towers were set up to support night-time operations.  A media time was scheduled to allow media to catch some of the action during the week as well.  Since some teams were only coming in to exercise for a day, a schedule needed to be established to ensure that they could be accommodated and a traffic plan had to be established to get them to the site.  The exercise, which included multiple venues, covered a period of time which included Election Day.  With caravans of first responder and National Guard equipment rolling through the area during this time period, we were sure to schedule movements off rush hour and I even had a conversation with the County Board of Elections.  In this conversation I briefed them on the locations and activity of the exercise to ensure that it didn’t interfere with their polling locations and provided them with my cell number which I told them to call if there was even the slightest hint of a problem or complaint.

Indoor exercises require the same measure of preparation.  You have to ensure that the spaces you use are safe and large enough to accommodate participants.  You may have a need for one or more break out rooms or meeting rooms, both for exercise management staff and for players.  Unless players are responsible for setting everything up themselves, ensure that power, internet, and telephonic communications are available for them… and can support their needs.  Back to Vigilant Guard, the EOC component of the exercise was significant.  Based on anticipated use, we actually brought in state emergency management capability for satellite digital communications to support the simcell with internet with phone so we wouldn’t draw on and degrade the in-house capability for players in the EOC.  Similar to an outdoor venue, you need to pay heed to needs for parking, restrooms, and food service.  It’s also a good media opportunity, so be sure to schedule that well in advance with the media and some VIPs.

In regard to personnel, we’ve touched upon the need for controllers, evaluators, and simulators in previous posts, mostly in regard to planning these needs and ensuring that they are covered with the necessary documents to help with their tasks, such as exercise evaluation guides (EEGs), controller/ evaluator plan, master scenario events list (MSEL), and Exercise Plan.  Identify the exercise leadership early – the exercise director, simcell and MSEL managers, and lead controller and evaluator.  These individuals, and the supporting staff for them, including simulators, controllers, and evaluators, are likely to come from your exercise planning team.  Some may have experience in these tasks, while others may not… something to keep in mind for development of the documents as well as the briefings you conduct for them just prior to the start of the exercise (that’ll be the next part of this series).  Don’t just assign folks randomly to positions, draw on their experience.  If someone has a strong EMS background, assign them to be controllers, simulators, or evaluators for that area of practice.  Be sure that your simulators also have some local experience as well if you are conducting this exercise for an area outside your own.  Local flavor brings realism and context to an exercise for the players.  Consider radios for controllers and evaluators, especially in large exercise areas.  This will allow the exercise director to speak with them and for them to interact with the simcell, letting them know if they need to speed up or slow down.  Also consider providing the exercise director with an assistant on large exercises.  Often times I’ve found the need for someone to aid me directly in resolving problems, gathering people, and handling miscellaneous tasks that are too much for any one person to handle.  It’s also a great learning experience for someone who wants to advance.

Overall, be sure to plan early for all logistical, support, and personnel needs.  Plan early for food contracts, ensure that all participants have the necessary supplies to conduct their jobs.  Plan ahead for safety as well, ensuring a safe work environment proactively and a good plan and personnel who can react to situations should they arise.  Be ready on-the-fly for changes and little or no-notice occurrences, as they almost always happen!  Make sure the players have everything they need for the exercise – if not, that lack of preparedness will be what they remember.

What experiences or ideas do you have with supporting an exercise?