Preparedness – ICS is Not Enough

Back in October I wrote a post about ICS training not being enough for EOC personnel.  You can give it a read to see my reasons, which essentially boil down to the specific role of the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) in the incident management structure and the unique processes which take place in an EOC both not being addressed in ICS (Incident Command System) training.

As I continue to work in various jurisdictions to enhance their preparedness, I am expanding my thoughts on ICS training not being enough – this time for all of preparedness.  In meeting with jurisdictions and discussing their current state of preparedness, many believe they are well prepared to respond to any incident simply because their personnel have received ICS training.  Why am I concerned by this?

Folks, in the grand scheme of things, ICS training alone does not teach you to do very much except how to function within a system.  First off, I’m a huge believer in ICS and the success it can help facilitate in incidents and events.  Not only have I seen it work, but I use it and advocate for it as a chief practice of emergency management.  I’ve been teaching ICS courses since 2001 and have led hundreds of course deliveries amongst the various levels.  That said, in seeing the faith that people are putting in ICS as their savior from disaster, I think that faith has become exaggerated and misplaced.  While ICS gives us guidance on structure, processes, and standards, it still doesn’t tell us HOW to manage the incident and its impacts – and it never well.

The structure, processes, and other standards that ICS provides – when properly applied – are greatly beneficial to our ability to manage a disaster.  Let’s not forget, though, everything else that is needed to be successful.  There is an abundance of training available for personnel to address identified needs to make them better at what they do and thus enhance the capabilities of the jurisdiction or entity.  Some of this may certainly include higher level and more functional training in ICS (i.e. position-specific and incident management team training), but we can’t forget that we must focus on our needs and developing to meet those needs.  More on identifying training needs here and here.

The best way of identifying those needs, comprehensively, is through our plans.  Planning is the cornerstone of preparedness and serves as the foundation of our response.  Planning to appropriate depth is not often performed and always needs to be enhanced (more training in the activities of planning is certainly an identified need!).  Once plans are in place, we need to train all stakeholders on the contents of those plans and of course exercise them.  The process of planning and the exercises we conduct will identify other gaps in preparedness efforts that the jurisdiction or entity should address.  These gaps are most easily analyzed through through five key elements – Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising (POETE).  More on POETE analysis here.

When a plan is being written or reviewed, we need to follow the bouncing ball for each of the identified activities.  Is it enough for the plan to say that certain stakeholders will be contacted when an incident occurs?  Of course not – we need to identify WHO will contact them, HOW they will be contacted, specifically WHEN they will contact and what is the trigger event, and WHAT they will be told.  Also, what happens if someone is unreachable?  What actions are they expected to take?  Do they then need to make any notifications?  If they are doing nothing with the information, WHY are we even contacting them?  This simple task requires planning (process and decision mapping as well as a specific procedure), organizing (identifying specific personnel and alternates to do this), equipping (the equipment needed for them to make contact; including access, maintenance, operation, and redundancies), training (training and job aids in the procedures and equipment), and exercising (to ensure that all the previous elements function appropriately).

The example above is simple, but shows how far-reaching and complex a seemingly simple activity can be.  ICS training won’t address this.  While ICS practices should be penetrating the deepest aspects of our incident response organization, ICS as a concept is fairly high-level and conceptual.  While it helps structure our tactical resources, ICS itself is not a tactical application – it is simply the structure we perform in.  The processes it provides are not tactical processes, they are incident management processes, but we still need to know about the incident and what to do – ICS will not provide those answers.  ICS is a great tool, but just like a carpenter we must have a variety of tools to do the job properly.

What needs have you identified?

If you need assistance with your preparedness – planning, training, exercising, or needs assessments – reach out to Emergency Preparedness Solutions!

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

www.epsllc.biz  

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H7N9 Bird Flu Confirmed in Canada

In another bit of news regarding bird flu (aka avian influenza), the H7N9 strain of the virus has infected a citizen of British Columbia who recently traveled to China.  This release comes just a few days after H5N1 had been confirmed in a duck in northern Washington.  Certainly coincidence, but the discovery of the presence of both strains in North America – both for the first time – is daunting.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

www.epsllc.biz

H5N1 Confirmed in the US

In news released by the media this morning, the presence of H5N1 (aka bird flu or avian influenza) has been confirmed in the US.  While many dusted off communicable disease plans with last year’s (and continuing) Ebola threat, we need to ensure that we take into account the wildlife and agricultural implications of H5N1 along with the threat to human life.  While one positive finding certainly does not make an epidemic, the confirmed presence should be putting certain actions into place for many public safety partners, including federal and state agricultural and fish and game offices.  Hunters, farmers, and veterinarians need to be aware of signs and symptoms just as much as our health care providers.

Be on the lookout for more information from authorities on this.  Consider the implications it can have within your area of responsibility and be sure to think broadly and consider cascading impacts.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

www.epsllc.biz 

Book Review – Next-Generation Homeland Security by John Fass Morton

I’m a firm believer that professionals need to keep current on trends and major discussions in their field of practice.  Homeland security and emergency management are no different, which is why I spend a great deal of time reading – books, blogs, newsletters, etc.

A book I finished in recent months was Next-Generation Homeland Security by John Fass Morton.  The book offers a great history of the roots of emergency management and homeland security, insights into the politics involved in the evolution of the two related fields, and thoughts on how preparedness agendas of the federal government and preparedness needs of local and state governments can be better merged moving forward.

Mr. Morton provides a highly detailed history of EM/HS – the most detail I’ve ever seen published anywhere.  This history doesn’t just cover new laws and changes in agency names, but also identifies key players and influencers, missteps, and practices along the way.  His detail of EM/HS over the past two decades is even greater as he has been able to obtain information and insights from his own experiences and those of his colleagues and contemporaries.  These details include all of our current programs such as NIMS, EMAC, and others – including many of the predecessors of those programs.  If you have interests in history or politics, much of the book will be very interesting to you simply based on this content.

Much of the book’s focus is on all-hazard preparedness, so you won’t find a great deal of information on DHS member agencies and their mission areas.  The book primarily follows the evolution of emergency management and its relationship with homeland security, while also providing some insight into the roots of homeland security which well predate 9/11.  Mr. Morton’s research certainly demonstrates how cyclic these evolutions have been.

Mr. Morton offers some interesting perspectives on our current state of preparedness and offers thoughts on organizational models which can enhance the coordination between the federal government and state and local authorities through strengthening of the FEMA/DHS regional offices, particularly the regional preparedness staff.  It’s apparent that there often conflicts between the federal government and state and local governments in regard to EM/HS priorities across all mission areas.  Mr. Morton’s perspectives offer a viable solution.

As I read I marked a lot of pages in the book for future reference, particularly in the second half (about 200 pages).  If you don’t have much interest in the histories Mr. Morton provides, as they are quite detailed, the second half of the book is where there will still be great value to you as this is where more contemporary practices, policies, and organizations are detailed as well as Mr. Morton’s thoughts on the further evolutions of our practice including the Federal regional approach and other topics such as professional development.  This is an excellent book for the dedicated practitioner who is looking for not only a detailed history but also thought provoking insight, not just a regurgitation of doctrine.  I believe it would also serve as an excellent book for graduate level academics, as it not only provides a great deal of information but can certainly stimulate quite a bit of discussion.  I hope to see some of Mr. Morton’s ideas get discussed broadly for the benefit of our profession.

Best Practices for the New Year – Situation Reporting

Situation reports or SitReps have a great deal of importance in conveying information on an incident or event to a variety of stakeholders.  Having worked for many years as a Planning Section Chief in a State EOC and county and local EOCs and command posts on a variety of incidents and events; well structured, well written, and relevant SitReps have become a bugaboo of mine.  SitReps are intended to provide a snapshot of a common operating picture for stakeholders involved in the incident or event.  Creation of a SitRep should be viewed as a process, similar to incident action planning.

The information contained in a SitRep provides them with the information they need to know to perform their duties in support of the incident.  Keep in mind that stakeholders may not be involved in the operations or support of an incident but still need to have awareness as they may be impacted.  A series of SitReps can also contribute greatly to the historical record of the incident or event.

Looking into the New Year and toward your next incident and event, I’ve provided some things I’ve learned along the way which can bake your situation reporting more effective and meaningful.

Defining the Audience

In the first step to building a benchmark SitRep, regular readers of my blog will recognize one of my common themes – identifying needs.  Just as we do in training, we need to be aware of who are audience is what their needs are.  The primary purpose of a SitRep is to meet the information needs of your audience.

Who are the stakeholders that see your SitReps?  Are they operators, decision makers, or executives?  Generally, based on these three categories, here is the information they need:

Operators.  These are the folks who are ‘boots on ground’ getting the work done.  While they might love to see detail of what is going on throughout the incident or event, they don’t NEED this information as it can, in fact, be simply distracting to them.  Very rarely are SitReps geared toward this audience as you want them tactically focused on the tasks they are assigned to. Usually a brief incident summary satisfies their limited need to have a bigger picture of what is occurring.  Those who are managing them should be providing them with the information they need to know.

Decision makers.  Decision makers are found at many levels throughout an incident structure.  They may be task force or strike team leaders, division or group supervisors, facility managers, branch directors, section chiefs, functional managers of agencies or departments, or others functioning in similar capacities.  Decision makers have the greatest functional information need.  The information being provided to this group strongly supports their role in the incident, the planning and management of the incident, and the safety of personnel.  The information provided to them should have some degree of operational detail and should include information on hazards and safety issues as well as potential problem areas.

Executives.  This category includes chief elected officials, high level appointed officials, and organizations with ancillary involvement.  Executives are of course decision makers in their own right, but aren’t often involved at the level of detail of the decision makers discussed above.  Generally executives don’t require a great degree of operational detail, but they do like numbers and statistics.  Like the decision makers, they also need to be aware of potential pitfalls on the horizon as they need the information to make high level decisions to address the problem or be prepared to deal with the outcomes politically.  You may have to be the most aware and response of the needs of this audience as they may have different information needs during an incident.

Where the Information Comes From

We know from communications training that information we convey must be timely, relevant, and accurate – this must be the litmus test by which you judge all SitRep content.  The Planning Section should be obtaining information from all relevant stakeholders.  They need an overview of what has, is, and will be happening operationally (and the outcomes/impacts of these operations) as well as all support activities and external influences (such as weather, crowd activities, etc.).  Information from field operations should come, ideally, from individuals functioning in the field for the sole purpose of obtaining and providing information (field observers).  Often times, however, we don’t have this luxury and have to obtain information directly from field-level managers themselves.  Caution should be exercised with the information you receive from them, or anyone really, as some will alter information based upon their own agendas or bias.  Information should also be obtained from support services, usually found through your Logistics section.

In an EOC environment we will also usually obtain information from the agencies and functions represented there.  These agencies are also audiences for the SitRep so they get to see first-hand how their situational awareness contributes to a common operating picture.  You may also be obtaining a lot of raw data.  If it’s relevant, track this data and report on it, ensuring that it is meaningful to your audience.  Leverage the talents of GIS to display this information in usable and meaningful formats.  As the years have progressed, I’ve seen SitReps with less narrative and more GIS.

In obtaining information, I’ve found that a form or script can be of the greatest help.  It ensures not only consistency in the information being gathered but it also ensures that nothing is missed.  Often those reporting information will have a particular perspective which will be the focus of their reporting.  Asking additional questions encourages them to think more broadly.  Be sure to get your information sources on a firm schedule so you are not waiting on their information.  Late information from your sources will result in a late or incomplete SitRep.  Personnel may need regular reminders to compile and submit their situational information.  Also be sure to give GIS plenty of time to do their work.  Set a publication time and work backwards to establish reporting and work schedules for everyone involved.

Remember – timely, relevant, and accurate.  While a short summary of previous actions may be important to provide context, it is not necessary to provide a long historical narrative.  Be sure to report on the outcomes or effectiveness of actions.  This detail of progress is important for a situation report.  As far as accuracy, work to verify information to the greatest practical extent, especially any information that is speculative.  Inaccurate information can be career ending.

Organizing the Information

Typically you only have time to assemble one SitRep, despite having to serve multiple audiences.  Inclusion of an executive summary is then a very appropriate means of providing an area within the SitRep for those audiences which need a shorter overview.  After the executive summary you have a great deal of flexibility on the structure and formatting of the document, but keep things organized and largely consistent from report to report.  Often times SitReps are organized the way we organize the incident – have you organized functionally or geographically?  It may be a mix of the two, so organize your SitRep based upon that.  Simply find a format that makes sense.  I like to arrange information that applies to everyone first, such as a weather forecast.  You may have information such as statistical tables or GIS products which are best provided as attachments so they don’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Keep in mind that this is NOT a document providing operational direction – that comes from an Incident Action Plan (IAP).  Therefore, all associated operational information such as safety matters, communication plans, etc. should be included in the IAP and generally not replicated in the SitRep.  Those who need access to that operational information should be also receiving copies of the IAP.  A short synapsis of the SitRep can be provided in the IAP to add context and to provide information for operators but should not be replicated to any great extent.

Conclusion

Creating a situation report takes a lot of time and patience and is not something to be hurried, but their publication is something counted on so they must adhere to a schedule.  It is very much a ‘garbage in – garbage out’ activity, so the quality of the information coming in is extremely important.  A large incident or event may require a largely staffed Situation Unit to collect and organize information.  SitReps should always be reviewed before being finalized.  It is a professional report so attention should be paid to things like grammar and spelling.

So what have you learned from your experiences in assembling situation reports?

Need help building SitRep templates and standard operating guidelines?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!  www.epsllc.biz

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Best Practices for the New Year – Resolve to be Responsible, Realistic, and Resourceful

As I work with jurisdictions and discuss their capabilities I find a broad range of perception among emergency managers about their jurisdictions’ capabilities and limitations.  Some overestimate their capability, thinking that they can handle anything and don’t need any outside assistance.  Others underestimate their capabilities, with their emergency plans defaulting to calling for help or making someone else responsible for nearly every scenario.  Fortunately some jurisdictions are spot on and have an informed and realistic perception of their capabilities.  Having the wrong awareness of what your jurisdiction can and cannot do can be dangerous.

Be Responsible

First of all, jurisdictions need to be responsible for their people.  Far too often I see an automatic assumption that someone else will handle an incident or a certain aspect of an incident, apparently abrogating the jurisdiction of all responsibility.  One of the more common occurrences of this is with sheltering where I rather often hear ‘The Red Cross will take care of that.’ with no further discussion even considered on the subject.  With no slight intended toward the Red Cross, relying on one entity to provide an absolutely critical capability is simply foolish.  If the Red Cross or any other outside entity is for some reason unable to provide these services for the jurisdiction, the jurisdiction is still left with the responsibility to provide this care for its citizens.  A jurisdiction without a plan to address this need is not being responsible for the welfare of its citizens.

The primary goal of a jurisdiction is to provide for its citizens.  Take this seriously and remember that you can’t assign this responsibility to others.

Be Realistic

Know your capabilities and your capacity.  In other words, know what you can and can’t do; and for what you can do, know how well and how long you can do it for.  Know what your limitations and dependencies are.  If your jurisdiction’s ability to provide advanced life support (ALS) care is dependent upon the only paramedic you have as a member of your ambulance service, you have very little capacity and quite a bit of vulnerability.

A good start to having a realistic view of your jurisdiction’s capabilities is conducting and regularly updating a comprehensive threat and hazard identification and risk assessment (THIRA).  THIRA is an in depth assessment which combines a traditional hazard analysis with a reference to DHS’ 31 Core Capabilities in the context of the threats specific to a jurisdiction.  I strongly suggest that a jurisdiction conducting a THIRA extend this assessment into an analysis of five key elements (Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising – POETE) for each of their capabilities.  Go here for my post on the POETE analysis which explains the benefits and the process a little more.

A good THIRA helps jurisdictions identify not only their hazards but also the potential worst-case scenario impacts of these hazards.  It then provides an opportunity for the stakeholders of the jurisdiction to take an honest look at their capabilities and their ability to leverage these capabilities against those impacts.  Being honest in this assessment will help jurisdictions see what can hurt them most and identify the gaps and limitations they have in their capabilities.

Bottom line – be realistic in what you can do, how well, and how long you can do it.

Be Resourceful

The ability to endure the impacts of a disaster and, at a minimum, address the critical objectives of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation can require a jurisdiction to be creative and resourceful.  This is a key aspect of resiliency.  While assistance may still be needed from outside sources, a jurisdiction’s ability to survive and provide lifeline services for its citizens in the interim is extremely important.  Being resourceful can help a jurisdiction shore up its capabilities in times of need.  Key to being resourceful are good contacts and connections within the whole community.  Religious groups and social organizations, private companies, and even individual citizens can all provide services which can aid a jurisdiction in shoring up capabilities – at least in the short term.  Incorporate these as options within your emergency plans.  While these entities may have issues and commitments of their own during a disaster, they may also be able to help.

Use all available resources to get the job done and to sustain for as long as you can.  It can absolutely be the difference between life and death.