Preparedness in the Pandemic Age

Planning, training, and exercises, as the foundational activities of preparedness, shouldn’t be stopping because of the pandemic. Preparedness is an ongoing activity which needs to forge ahead with little disruption – and there is always plenty to do! What must we do, though, to accommodate necessary precautions in the age of the Pandemic?

Let’s talk about planning first. The biggest relevant issue for planning is the conduct of stakeholder meetings. These may be larger group meetings to discuss and get buy-in on broader topics, or detailed small-group meetings to discuss very specific topics. Information, sometimes sensitive, is exchanged, presentations are given, and documents are reviewed. I’ve mentioned in various posts through the years the importance of properly preparing for meetings. Even for traditional in-person meetings, there are important things to consider, such as:

  1. Do you really need a meeting?
  2. Developing an agenda
  3. Having the right people in attendance
  4. Ensuring that all speakers and presenters are prepared
  5. Ensuring that all attendees are prepared to discuss the subject matter
  6. An adequate meeting space and support (technology, dry erase boards, etc)

All of these rules still apply in a virtual world, perhaps with even more emphasis. While we’ve obviously had video meeting technology for a long time, we’ve discovered this year that many people haven’t used it much or at all until earlier this year. The surge in use has also brought attention to the plethora of tools which can be facilitated through video conference platforms. While the simple sharing of video supports most of our meeting needs, we can share screens, conduct presentations, and use collaborative tools such as whiteboards and shared documents. Pretty much everything we do in an in-person meeting can be accomplished through video conference platforms – but those who arrange the calls need to take the time to become familiar with the tools and functionality; and if there is anything that needs to be done by participants (some of which are likely to be less tech-savvy) you need to be able to coach them through it. Some of these tools require integrations of other technology, such as cloud document storage or various apps. Remember that meetings should be interactive, so encourage people to use chatrooms to help queue up questions for presenters. If any documents or information are sensitive, be sure you are taking the appropriate precautions with how the meeting is set up, how participants are invited, and how documents are shared.

My tip… read reviews to determine which platform will best suit your needs and watch some tutorials on YouTube.

When it comes to remote training, so much of what I mentioned for stakeholder meetings will apply here. Being interactive is still incredibly important, as is the ability to integrate other technologies, such as videos, PowerPoint, and shared documents. When designing training that will be delivered remotely, if it helps, don’t think about the platform first – think about how you would do the training in person. Would you have breakout sessions for group work? That can be easily accomplished on video conference platforms, but it takes some preparation. Would you put things on a white board or chart paper? That can also be accomplished. Giving an exam? Having participants complete a survey or feedback form? Yes and yes. It can all be done, but preparation is key. Some instructors, especially in public safety, have gotten too used to simply showing up and delivering their material – not because they are lazy, but because they have done it dozens or hundreds of times. They have a routine. If you want participants to get a similar, or perhaps even better learning experience, some deliberate thought and preparation is required. Also, make sure you simply don’t become a talking head. Break things up and be dynamic. It’s easy for our own demeanor to elevate disinterest. I often stand (using a variable height standing desk) when giving presentations and conducting training. Being on my feet helps me push more energy into what I’m doing.

Tip… remember to give people breaks, just as you would in face-to-face training.

Lastly, exercises. A lot of this is a combination of the information I gave for planning and training. Exercise planning meetings need to be conducted, and every exercise has some extent of presentations, with discussion-based exercises having more emphasis on this obviously. To answer the big question – yes, most exercise can be conducted remotely! Obviously, discussion-based exercises are generally the lower-hanging fruit, so they can and should be happening remotely. Remember that exercises are supposed to be interactive experiences, so your exercise design absolutely must account for identifying the means and methods of engagement in the virtual environment. All the things I’ve mentioned already are prime options for this, such as breakout groups, shared documents, live polling, etc. Facilitators and evaluators can be assigned to specific breakout rooms or have access to all of them, allowing them to float from room to room.

What about operations-based exercises? Yes, there are options for conducting operations-based exercises remotely. First, we do need to acknowledge the obvious challenges associated with conducting drills and full-scale exercises via remote environments. Is it impossible? No, but it depends on what the focus of the exercise is. Something like a cyber-security or intelligence exercise may be more naturally brought into a virtual environment, depending on the exercise objectives or tasks. Games may be fully integrated into digital platforms already, which helps, but if they aren’t, these may need to be re-imagined and developed in a virtual environment. This can get expensive, so it really needs to be a properly thought through. Functional exercises, such as the typical command post exercise or emergency operations center (EOC) exercise, can absolutely be performed virtually. Many jurisdictions successfully ran their EOCs virtually during the height of the pandemic (many still are). If the actual activity can be performed virtually, it can (and should!) be exercised virtually. Again, preparation is key to ensuring that participants can do what they would normally do, while controllers and evaluators still have full access and visibility. Simulation Cells can be virtually integrated and most EOC management platforms are web-based. With some thought, we can bring most exercises into a virtual environment and still make them effective experiences while also meeting all HSEEP requirements.

Tip… For a virtual functional exercise, unless the time period of your exercise is set after the initial response, consider including an objective for the participants (and the tech support of their agencies, as needed) to set up everything that is needed in real time during the exercise – just like they would in real life. This would include all their video, file share, data tracking, etc. That set up is a considerable challenge of running a virtual EOC. If you didn’t want that activity to distract from your exercise, it’s also a great drill. Don’t let it just be tech support personnel, though, as EOC personnel should be expressing their needs.

Remote work environments have helped many organizations overcome challenges associated with the pandemic. Some organizations were better prepared than others to make it happen, but most seem to have achieved effective operational continuity. Hopefully your preparedness programs haven’t stalled out because people feel these activities can’t be done in a virtual environment. We also can’t use the excuse that we’re too busy because of the pandemic to not be preparing. While some niche organizations might still be quite busy, the pandemic response, for most, has become an integrated job duty for the medium term. We can’t let things fall to the wayside or we will never get back on track. The time is now!

I’d love to hear how you are using tech platforms to support preparedness efforts.

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Convening and Operating an EOC Remotely

I typically refrain from writing about disasters in the midst of those disasters.  It’s very easy to be critical of things as they are happening, without an appreciation for the circumstances and information that decision-makers are in.  There are also often plenty of critics out there between the media, politicians, and social media.  There is one thing, however, that has jumped out at me in this Coronavirus/COVID19 incident that is so egregious that it absolutely needs to be addressed, and that is the traditional convening of face-to-face EOCs by many jurisdictions, agencies, and organizations.  Much of the messaging we have seen in this incident promotes social distancing, yet so many are not practicing this.

It’s one thing to have a handful of people physically in your EOC.  While I acknowledge there are absolutely advantages to operating an EOC face-to-face, by doing so in the event of a pandemic, we are endangering these critical staff, other co-workers, and their families.  At this point, I have serious concerns with the leadership of any agency or organization that is substantially staffing an EOC in-person in the midst of this incident.  I’m tremendously disappointed in this.  Is it hubris?  Ignorance?  I don’t know what the cause is, but I do know that it’s simply irresponsible to endanger people and your operations, and it’s pretty much against everything we work for.

A virtual EOC is the answer to this.  Hopefully you have a plan for implementing one, though we know that many do not. Web-based EOC management platforms, of which there are many (and of varying capability and quality) can support facilitation of this, but aren’t necessary.  Through use of other technology, most of it free or potentially already owned by your agency or organization, you can still accomplish the things you need to.  Preparation obviously plays off, but you can make this happen on the fly, if needed, but it will still take some work to set up. 

What’s needed?  In all likelihood, most people will be working from home.  As such, reliable internet and a computer are essential, as are a phone, even if you are planning on doing most of your audio (and even video) through your computer.  We have a lot of collaboration tools available to us.  Below are a few (non endorsed) collaboration apps that, depending on the app, cover a range of capability from document sharing and live collaboration, chat, voice, video, project management, and more.  Some are practically full service, while others specialize in one or a few features.  Many of them integrate with each other for even more benefits.  They do have varying security capability, so be sure to read up on that if security is a concern (it should be to at least some extent):

  • Microsoft Teams – broad capability (available free from Microsoft)
  • Crisis Communications (this is an add-on to Microsoft Teams, also currently free from Microsoft)
  • Skype/Skype for Business – voice and video, some document sharing (available free from Microsoft)
  • OneDrive/SharePoint – document sharing (pay for more storage)
  • OneNote – document collaboration (Microsoft)
  • Dropbox – document sharing (free for limited data storage, pay for more)
  • Google Drive/Docs/Calendar/Hangouts – broad capability (free for limited data storage, pay for more)
  • Slack – broad capability, especially with add on apps (free for smaller-scale use)
  • Discord – broad capability, especially with add on apps (free)
  • WebEx – voice and audio, some document sharing (basic is free, pay for more capability)
  • HipChat – broad capability (basic is free, there is a cost for additional capability)
  • Zoom – voice and video, some document sharing (basic is free, pay for additional capability)
  • Yammer – broad capability (free with Office 365, pay for additional capability)

Working remotely may not be as convenient as face-to-face interaction, but it’s certainly possible and better for the safety of your staff and your own operational continuity.  Through use of these tools, we can still conduct all the necessary activities in an EOC.  We can communicate with people as a group or one-on-one.  We can conduct collaborative meetings.  We can develop documents, share drafts, and even work collectively on the same document in real time.  We can view videos, take calls, write reports, manage information, and track resources. 

Aside from EOC operations, I’d suggest that organizations look to these or similar tools to support remote work for their staff where possible.  I have some recent tips on continuity here.  For those of you in government, I suggest looking into what needs to be done to conduct public meetings in a virtual environment as well, while still ensuring they are open and accessible to the public.  Tools like Skype, WebEx, or Zoom can help support this.  States have varying requirements for public meetings, so these of course should be examined before making any changes.  I’d also encourage courts, especially lower ones such as traffic court, to consider postponing their proceedings or looking to alternate means of conducting their proceedings that don’t require individuals to be there in person.  I obviously appreciate that these are complex matters with a lot of legality, and as such may not have ideal solutions in the near-term, but good solutions absolutely need to be considered for future implementation. 

The bottom line here is that social distancing applies to you, whether you like it or not.  Some professions, such as public health and hospitals, first responders, and others have no choice but to continue engaging face-to-face and hands-on with people.  They are provided with PPE and safety procedures to minimize their exposures while they continue providing these critical services.  In emergency management, however, we do not need to be face-to-face.  It’s an unnecessary risk to take and there is plenty of availability of technology tools to help us do what we need to do. 

What collaboration tools do you use to support remote/virtual operations? 

Be smart, be safe, be well. 

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC