We know that good emergency plans are the cornerstone of preparedness. Often times it is local governments that have difficulty putting quality plans in place because they don’t have knowledgeable personnel or funds available to make this happen. This gap is critical since we know that all disasters begin and end locally, so quality local plans are an imperative.
States provide financial assistance to local governments through a local allocation of the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG), which is an annual grant program through FEMA/DHS as a component of the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP). While there is always some variance in the goals or focus of EMPG, the overall concept and allowable costs are fairly static and the emphasis is always on preparedness.
Preparedness, however, encompasses a lot of activities. The best breakdown is POETE – Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising. Just from this we can see a lot of opportunity to spend money on a lot of needed activities. Planning, however, regularly needs to be revisited. While funding the other activities may be important, they mean very little without a quality, up to date plan. All preparedness activities should relate somehow back to the plan, such as equipment and training efforts to shore up capabilities identified for need through the planning process. This applies to everyone by the way – federal, state, and local governments; private sector; and not for profits.
How can states (or any other grant or budget managers) continue to emphasize the importance of planning? I’ve recently seen a best practice by the State of New Hampshire which is similar to the federal administration of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs. First, they make funds available for, and only for, planning. This includes new plans and plan updates. Once plans have been developed that meet their standards, then additional funds can be requested for supporting preparedness activities. This building block preparedness approach helps provide targeted funds solely for plan improvements while helping to ensure that subsequent funds are provided for activities that associate with the plan and addressing or identifying (by way of exercises) gaps. While it can be a bit cumbersome, I think it’s a great model for promoting preparedness the right way.
©2014 – Timothy Riecker
An old boss of mine once told me that to find the real root of any problem you should ask ‘Why?’ five times. This sage Yoda-like advice has served me well ever since. Of course it’s not always necessary to ask it the full five times; in fact you often find the foundational cause sooner. Nonetheless, this approach will inevitably guide you toward discovering what needs to be fixed.
Those who follow my blog know that I post mostly within two thematic areas – emergency management or training. The ‘ask why’ methodology applies to both of these areas and darn near anything else I can think of. My thoughts are below on both themes. Of course training in the field of emergency management is a combination of the two!
In Emergency Management
I’ve posted numerous times on topics such as hazard analysis, Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA), and other similar topics in emergency management. It is so incredibly necessary for us to identify needs and vulnerabilities, and to understand our community’s capabilities in order to properly prepare for future disasters and emergencies. I’ve learned that in public safety, when asking a question, you often get a story and that story is often related to a past incident. While the story may be elaborate, it usually gives you little substance. Anecdotes aren’t enough. You need to dig deeper.
As a culture within public safety we are still trying to drive practitioners to be more analytical. Quality after action reports are a big step in the right direction. The benefits of after action reports for incidents, not just exercises, are huge. After action reports should lead to improvement plans, but without identifying the real reason behind what went wrong we can’t fix the problems. After action reports require an analysis to dig deeper into the observed action to discover what really needs to be addressed.
In November I published an article in Training Magazine titled The Importance of Analysis to Identify Root Cause. While I didn’t reference the ‘ask why’ methodology directly, the subject matter of the article lends itself to this approach. As a trainer, when a problem is presented to you to ‘fix with training’, you need to figure out what the real issues are so that 1) you can confirm that it is in fact a training issue, and 2) you can determine what the objectives and methodologies of the training need to be. Without properly identifying and defining the needs you are doomed to fail and will likely be putting forth a lot of effort with little gain. While the results may put some people on the defensive, they can point the organization in the right direction to address inefficiencies and performance problems.
In any needs assessment, don’t simply accept the first answer given to you – dig deeper! It’s amazing what you will find!
© 2014 – Timothy Riecker
The National Red Cross announced last month another restructuring effort taking place across the country. It seems every few years the Red Cross attempts to streamline their operations through a similar effort. What is missing with every restructuring activity is a local perspective, which I think hurts them greatly. Consider that the Red Cross’ service delivery is mostly local. Their volunteer base is local. Their fundraising requests are local. Yet with each reorganization they draw back further and further from those local roots.
I heard a rather compelling example just this past week of how the Red Cross’ organization has changed in the state of Vermont. From what I was told, Vermont used to be covered by three chapters. Reorganization several years ago consolidated those three chapters to one. This current reorganization effort is now consolidating the Red Cross into one chapter which has responsibility for both Vermont and New Hampshire! Additionally, they have sold their mobile canteens and have contracted to a restaurant food provider to handle emergency food services. While this contract does provide for a more sustainable and large scale operation, all these efforts continue to draw the Red Cross out of the community.
I first heard of this most recent reorganization through the blog Disaster Gestalt, written by Joseph Martin who has a long history serving as a Red Cross volunteer. I shared some of my insights in his blog as I reacted initially to the news he brought me. Upon hearing more and more about this reorganization and its impacts across the country, I’m really left wondering what happened to my Red Cross.
My involvement with the Red Cross started in high school where our government class required some measure of civic service. My best friend had gotten some info on the Red Cross and they took us in as volunteer Health and Safety Instructors. They trained us to teach courses in First Aid and CPR to the community. We both took to it quickly, finding quite a passion for teaching. In many ways it began both our careers as instructors and in emergency services. With this passion, we continued volunteering for our local chapter well beyond our high school requirement.
The staff at the chapter was wonderful and not only helped us grow, but encouraged us to further our involvement. While we continued to do mostly volunteer work, we also became paid instructors, helping the chapter serve corporate clients and eventually instructor trainers conducting train-the-trainer courses. I attended community college locally after high school so was able to continue my work for the chapter while also working nearly full time, taking classes full time, and receiving my initial training as a firefighter, EMT, and diver. I honestly have no idea where that energy came from!
When I left the area to complete my bachelor’s degree and subsequently moved around a bit, I continued teaching for Red Cross chapters around the northeast. My experience with each of those chapters was very similar to that of my home chapter. They were all welcoming and thrilled to have help. Eventually, once I settled into my career I became a board member. Despite the three hour round trip drive, I served on the board of my home town, where my Red Cross service started. It was a rewarding experience. My work and family obligations eventually pulled me away, but I continued to donate and always had a place in my heart for the Red Cross.
In the years since my board service there have been several reorganizations nationally. Each of these reorganizations worked to centralize chapter activities to regional offices, resulting in layoffs at the chapter level. While I understand that consolidation can be a cost savings, it decreases the local reach of the chapter. Additionally, the responsibilities of the chapter executive continued to decrease. With true management and direction coming from regional offices, there is little left to manage at the chapter level. Job postings for chapter executives seem to stress fund development more than anything else. The footprints of chapters continue to expand as chapter consolidations occur. No longer are chapters community-based as their territories cover many jurisdictions. It’s all rather impersonal.
In researching this article I was not able to find anything that discussed the national picture of this reorganization. I found quite a number of stories from local media talking about the impacts of the reorganization on their local chapters, though. Nearly every article mentioned expanded territory and staff layoffs. Many also, interestingly enough, mentioned new chapter executives coming on board. I reached out to the Red Cross to find out more about their current reorganization effort and sent an email through their Public Inquiry function on their website. I did receive a response back within a few hours. What they wrote back provided some high level goals but little data on the impacts of the reorganization, which I did request. Here are some snippets:
The American Red Cross is transforming its operations to meet the growing demand for our services while making the best use of donor dollars.
- In the past few years, the demand for our services has grown. To meet this demand, we continue to look for ways to touch more lives while keeping our costs low.
- We have outlined a three year plan to lower the cost of operations by finding more efficient ways to do our work and expanding volunteers in every community.
- Our goal is to help more people at less cost. We will be even better stewards of our donor dollars because we are an even more cost-conscious organization.
Guided by recommendations from representatives of local paid and volunteer leadership, we are consolidating Red Cross chapters and putting these savings into serving more people in need.
- With a consolidated regional structure, we can provide more robust and consistent services across a wider geography. These consolidations enable us to shift donor dollars from costs associated with delivering service to the actual services themselves, enabling us to serve more clients with more direct assistance.
- We aim to increase both the number of clients served and the resources made available to them – not through the addition of more paid staff – but by adding more volunteer leaders and involving them in more ways.
- Volunteers have always been and continue to be the backbone of the Red Cross. Their importance will increase as we look to deliver services in more communities across the country. We want to make Red Cross the best place in America to work and volunteer.
The public can continue to count on the Red Cross to be there to serve the needs of their communities.
Our goal is to:
- Increase the number of home fires we respond to. Home fires impact more people across the county each year than all other natural disasters combined.
- Increase by 10 percent the financial support we give to individual disaster clients. The average amount we give to families affected by home fires has not changed in 10 years.
- Develop a local structure that allows us to deliver services more efficiently and be in even more local communities. Currently, Red Cross is present in more than 2,000 U.S. communities and military facilities worldwide.
I am still left with many questions about their implementation. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to expect higher donations and increased service delivery when their physical presence in communities has decreased. They want to do more with less by increasing chapter territories but decreasing staff. They say they can fill the gap cost effectively through volunteers. While the Red Cross has a long history of service delivery through volunteers, the foundation of that is staff who manages and coordinates the activities of volunteers. While volunteer leaders can certainly help meet needs, paid staff are still the ones ultimately accountable. Volunteers also like to have connections to paid staff and with the decrease in paid staff and the larger territories it feels more and more impersonal. Given the operations of the Red Cross, while volunteers are important and certainly critical to the success of the organization, the important role of paid staff and a physical presence in the communities they serve is extremely important.
I’m sure that many folks at national headquarters work very hard on trying to determine how to maximize their funding and the services they provide. Nearly every organization, be it non-profit, for profit, or government, strives to strike the right balance. In my opinion, however, this continued trend of regionalization will only continue to hurt the Red Cross. Their community presence decreases more and more. When community members don’t see and feel that presence they are less compelled to donate much less volunteer.
To be clear, I still support the mission of the Red Cross. I am very much a proponent of the Red Cross and the services they provide. They provide important services to communities and are a critical partner in preparedness and emergency management. While there is always room for improvement, however, their serial reorganization efforts through the last 15 years or so have achieved a level that is sadly comical. There must be a better way. The organization has become so impersonal I no longer feel that they are my Red Cross.
I’m very interested in the opinions of others on this matter. Do you feel the Red Cross is improving through these reorganization efforts? If so, how? Do you feel more or less compelled to donate or volunteer? Am I missing something?
© 2014 – Timothy Riecker
Originally posted on ITS A DISASTER blog:
Most people will gain an hour this weekend when they “fall back” early Sunday morning. While you are changing your clocks, it’s also a great time to change the batteries in detectors … and check and rotate items in disaster supplies kits since cooler weather is coming.
Use the following tips to make this a family project and include the kids so they can help choose items for kits and learn where things are, and it’s a good opportunity to discuss your Family Plan.
- Change the batteries in smoke alarms and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors around your home. Officials suggest you test them at least once a month and completely replace detectors every 10 years.
- Also test and change batteries in your Weather Radios.
- Pull out your home and vehicle kits and rotate stored water, food, medications and other items, and test and/or replace batteries if you stashed some in kits. Remember to pack items for all your pets…
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A consistent misconception is that if an emergency operations plan calls for an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to utilize the Incident Command System (ICS), then EOC personnel only require ICS training to be successful in their jobs. ICS training, however, only gets personnel part way to success.
Regular readers of my blog know that I am a big advocate of conducting needs assessments. Often times, agencies don’t know how to conduct a needs assessment, don’t think it’s important enough to conduct one, don’t think that conducting one is necessary, or simply don’t even consider conducting a needs assessment. The result is creating training or using existing training that does not meet the real needs. Certainly if an EOC is using the foundations of ICS to define its organizational structure and processes, then ICS training is absolutely important. Consider, however, the multitude of other processes that take place in an operational EOC that are not included (in whole or in part) in ICS training. Processes including financial management and procurement, situation reporting, and use of EOC management and resource tracking software are so diverse and can very from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The unique application of Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS), an element of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), just like ICS, by each jurisdiction also has to be considered. While there are numerous best practices in MACS, their interface with ICS – often implemented through an EOC – is influenced significantly by governmental structure, statutory responsibilities, and politics more than can be addressed by any training curriculum. Consider simply the differences between a state EOC, a county EOC, and a local government EOC and their unique roles and needs. For as much standardization NIMS encourages, there will still be different ways of implementing these systems. In the end, the challenge remains the same – how do we train people to function in EOCs?
First, do conduct that needs assessment. What do people have to know and what skills must they have to be successful in an EOC? At this point, I speak foundationally, as additional and more in-depth training can be explored based on position and responsibility. Certainly ICS – with sufficient detail in positions of the organization and the planning process. What else do they need to know? ICS training does not address in detail what an EOC is or does – an important understand for people to have. What processes must they be familiar with? What tools or methodologies does the EOC use that must be trained on? Are there specific organizational elements that require unique interactions with the greater organization (such as emergency support functions <ESFs>)? Look through your jurisdiction’s EOC Standard Operating Procedures/Guidelines (you do have one, right?) to help you identify some of these needs.
Second, identify how to address these training needs. ICS organization and the planning process are covered in the ICS-300 course, so that will meet some of your needs. Unfortunately, since so many of the other needs are unique to your jurisdiction, you will have to build custom training to meet these needs. Yes, FEMA does have available a course called EOC Management and Operations (IS/G – 775). While some material in this course may or may help meet your training needs, chances are the course in its entirety will not. First, it dedicates time discussing ideal facilities for an EOC (not really necessary if you already have such a facility), and second, while it provides an outline for general EOC operations it still won’t address all of your specific needs, although course materials can be used as a resource to inform your instructional design.
Third, build staying power into your training. Much of what is learned is quickly forgotten, especially when people don’t practice it often. There are a few strategies to combat this knowledge loss… 1) offer refresher training, 2) conduct regular exercises, 3) create job aids. ICS is big on job aids – that’s very simply what the ICS forms are. There are a multitude of additional job aids that you can create for your EOC. Practically every position and process can have checklists and flow charts which help remind staff of what they need to do and in what order to do it in.
This can all be a lot of work, but it will pay off next time you have to activate your EOC. Remember, there is always help available. My consulting firm, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, has a great deal of experience working in a variety of EOCs across the country. We have developed plans, procedures, job aids, training, and exercises unique to each EOC. We can help you! Check out our website at www.epsllc.biz or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be Proactive, Be Prepared!™
© 2014 – Timothy Riecker
One of the greatest aspects about the field of emergency management is the community of practice we share. It’s recognized throughout the entire profession that we improve as a practice not only through our own lessons learned buy by sharing and learning from everyone.
The following website provides links to a multitude of manuals on various emergency management related topics from Australia. http://www.em.gov.au/Publications/Australianemergencymanualseries/Pages/default.aspx The Aussies deal with all the same hazards we do – with wild fire, flood, and typhoon topping off the list for much of the continent. Take a few minutes to look through what they have shared – you just might learn something, I know I did!
© 2014 – Timothy Riecker