Do We Need Different Systems for Catastrophic Incidents?

We’ve long heard, albeit in small pockets, people proclaiming that emergency management and public safety need different systems for larger incidents vs smaller incidents.  For years, the Incident Command System (ICS) fought that stigma, with many saying that ICS is only used for hazardous materials incidents (specifically because of OSHA requirements) or for large incidents that required such a high degree of organization.  Following the release of HSPD-5 and the resultant requirements for everyone to use the National Incident Management System (NIMS), we finally seemed to transcend that mentality – although we are still seeing people apply ICS poorly, and often with the thought that it will all work out fine when a large incident occurs.

Since the mid-2000s, coupled with the push for ‘catastrophic planning’, I’ve been hearing people proclaiming that catastrophic incidents require different systems – be it for planning or management.  Recently, I’m hearing this mentioned again.  Yet, interestingly enough, none of the arguments identify specifically what it is about our current systems of preparedness or incident management that fail at the sight of a catastrophic incident.

While I’m a critic of various aspects of our current systems, I’m a believer in them overall.  Do we need a new system of planning?  No, we just need to do it better.  When we plan for a catastrophic level event, we must consider that NOTHING will work in the aftermath of such an incident.  I’m shocked that some people are still counting on the existence and functionality of critical infrastructure following a catastrophic event.  No roads, no communications, no life lines.  These surprised disclosures are revealed in the After Action Reports (AARs) of incidents and exercises that test catastrophic incidents, such as the recent Cascadia Rising exercise.

Fundamentally, are these losses all that different than what we experience in smaller disasters?  Not so much.  Smaller disasters still take out our roads and disable our communications systems – but such disasters are small enough that we can work around these issues.  So how is it a surprise that a large hurricane or earthquake will do even more damage?  It really shouldn’t be.  It’s essentially a matter of scale.

That said, I certainly acknowledge the difficulties that come with the combined impacts of a catastrophic disaster, coupled with the sheer magnitude of it all.  There are challenges offered that we don’t normally see, but a new system of planning is not the answer.  The current frameworks and standards, such as CPG-101 and NFPA 1600 are absolutely substantial.  The processes are not flawed.  The issue is a human one.  We can’t blame the standards.  We can’t blame the plans.  The responsibility lies with the people at the table crafting the plan.  The responsibility lies with them to fully understand the hazards and the potential impacts of those hazards.  Conducting a hazard analysis is the first step for a planning team to accomplish, and I think this is often taken for granted.  While the traditional hazard analysis has value, the current standard is the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA).  It is an exhausting and detailed process, but it is highly effective, with engaged teams, to reveal the nature and impacts of disasters that can impact a community.  Without a solid and realistic understanding of hazards, including those that can attain catastrophic levels, WE WILL FAIL.  It’s that simple.

As we progress through the planning process and identify strategies to accomplish objectives, alternate strategies must be developed to address full failures of infrastructure and lack of resources.  Assumptions are often made in plans that we will be able to apply the resources we have to fix problems; and if those resources are exhausted, we will ask for more, which will magically appear, thus solving our problems.  Yes, this works most of the time, but in a catastrophic incident, this is pure bullshit.  This assumption needs to be taken off the table when catastrophic incidents are concerned.  The scarcity of resources is an immediate factor that we need to address along with acknowledging that a severely damaged infrastructure forces us out of many of the technological and logistical comforts we have become accustomed to.  It doesn’t require a new system of planning – just a realistic mentality.

This all logically ties to our incident management system – ICS.  ICS is fully able to accommodate a catastrophic-level incident.  The difficulties we face are with how we apply it (another human factor) and integration of multiple ICS organizations and other incident management entities, such as EOCs.  The tenant in ICS is that one incident gets one incident command system structure.  This is obviously not a geo-political or practical reality for a catastrophic incident that can have a large footprint.  This, however, doesn’t mean that we throw ICS out the window.  This is a reality that we deal with even on smaller disasters, where different jurisdictions, agencies, organizations, and levels of government all have their own management system established during a disaster.  Through implementations such as unified command, multi-agency coordination, agency representatives and liaison officers, and good lines of communication we are able to make effective coordination happen.  (Side note: this is absolutely something I think we need to plan for and tighten up conceptually.  It’s often pulled together a bit too ad-hoc for my comfort).

While some time and effort needs to be applied to develop some solid solutions to the issues that exist, I’m confident that we DO NOT need to create alternate preparedness or response systems for addressing catastrophic incidents – we simply need to apply what we have better and with a more realistic perspective.  The answers won’t come easy and the solutions might be less than ideal, but that’s the nature of a catastrophic event.  We can’t expect it to be easy or convenient.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

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EMS is in Trouble

If you’ve worked in or with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) over the past couple of decades, you probably know it’s in trouble in many areas around the nation.  As with many organizations, finances are the culprit.  Many EMS organizations simply can’t make ends meet.  Costs for equipment, insurance, fuel, training, and facilities often can’t be balanced in the black against recovered income.  It’s not to say it can’t be done – some are doing it, and successfully.  But many are having a difficult time.  Staffing is another problem.  Volunteer services must constantly recruit and work to retain staff.  Volunteer fire services are experiencing similar recruitment and retention problems.  Even with diligent efforts, day time coverage in some areas is a challenge while many of these volunteers are working at their primary jobs.  Paid services struggle with staffing as well.  It’s no mystery that EMTs and Paramedics don’t get into this business to make good money.  According to a study posted by Monster, the highest paid states provide pay in the $20-$35/hour range, but it slides quickly, with not only the lowest paying states paying in the teens, but the average also sitting in the teens.  Yep, you could be out saving lives and someone working at McDonald’s makes more money than you do.  It’s a rather depressing valuation.

When you couple these two big factors – volunteer staffing and finances – it gets even more difficult.  Paid and volunteer services alike are kicking calls over to mutual aid providers because of being short staffed, which means they miss revenue, which continues to make matters worse.  Many volunteer EMS services, as well as volunteer fire services, are hiring day-shift staff so they can continue to meet needs in their communities during these more difficult timeframes.  For those of you keeping score at home, that’s more cash out.  It might pay off for a busier provider, but certainly not for a provider whose call volume doesn’t balance the checkbook.  Yes, it continues to provide a service to the community, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.

How are the private paid services doing?  Many aren’t doing so well, either.  We see service areas shrinking all around the nation, with paid services seeing diminishing revenues from less dense population areas.  Quite a few paid services make ends meet from interfacility transfers, which are low cost but require volume to make reasonable revenue.

Municipal services are another category which generally have a poor income statement.  I think it’s great that some municipalities provide EMS transport services.  Financially, these services are underwritten by tax payers, with some cost recovery possible through billing insurance companies.  The costs of most municipal services, however, are generally higher, as EMTs and paramedics are government employees, often unionized, and with benefits.  It’s great for them, but not good for the municipal comptroller.  That said, it’s one of the most sustainable models since the underlying financing is spread across all the jurisdiction’s tax payers.  Still a challenge, though, when you consider the tough financial constraints many jurisdictions are facing.

So what’s to be done?  We will eventually need to see a shift in how EMS is provided across the nation.  It is an absolutely necessary service, just as important as roads, fire protection, or law enforcement.  While we won’t see a sudden change, I believe the way forward will be municipal services, or municipally-funded services (those being private or volunteer, but under contract with one or more municipalities).  EMS, similar to other disciplines in public safety, is a public service, and foundationally will need to be publicly funded in order to sustain.  This is nothing new, as there are a number of EMS providers already following this model – that being the maintenance of a contract with one or more municipalities to provide EMS services, for a fee, while also gaining revenue from third party billing, as well as fees for stand-by services for sporting events and other mass gatherings.

What trends do you see in EMS organizational models where you are?  Are the current models sustainable?  Do you view EMS as a public safety endeavor similar to law enforcement and the fire service?

© 2016 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

 

 

Embracing the Playbook in Emergency Management

This morning I suggested to a client the possible use of a playbook as a training supplement for their duty officer program.  A playbook is a job aid, but more than just a check list or a chart.  Ideally, a playbook is a structured collection of job aids, broken down by situation for easy reference by whomever needs the information.

Playbooks are best known to be most extensively used in American football.  They contain a variety of strategies for accomplishing certain objectives (short yardage gain, long yardage gain, end zone scoring, kick return, etc.), with each strategy often accompanied by one or more diagrams of Xs (the opposition) and Os (your team), with lines showing movement and action by certain positions.  Playbooks are tested, practiced, and memorized by players before the season begins, but are constantly referenced every game by coaches and players alike.

playbook-diagram

Fundamentally, the play book exists because there are so many situations the team needs to respond to and several different ways in which they can respond.  While some of their plays are fairly routine, others are rarely, if ever, used.  Just like emergency management, however, it’s good to have the plan available if we need it.

Assembling a playbook for emergency management purposes doesn’t have any set standard, but as with any other tool or plan we assemble, we must first identify the purpose and the audience.  Play books can be assembled for elected officials and executives, duty officers and middle management, or dispatchers and first responders – it all depends on what is needed.  One thing that should be stressed, though… playbooks are NOT plans, nor should they be treated as a replacement for training.  Playbooks should be based upon established policy, plans, and procedures; and training still should be conducted on those policies, plans, and procedures.  A playbook is the collection of job aids which will help us to navigate the things people may not routinely do – which makes them excellent for emergency management applications.

Consider that the content of the playbook won’t (and probably shouldn’t) try to map out an incident from inception to completion.  The playbook is intended to address critical actions within an early timeframe of the incident.  Following this, a team should be assembled and striving to manage the incident using the planning process and referencing the foundational plans and policies.  There may be a few nuanced circumstances and activities within the playbook that are still relevant in the extended response, but these should be few.

The organization and content of the playbook should depend on the objectives and audience of the tool.  It should not be heavy in narrative and doesn’t require a lot of background as a plan might.  For emergency management purposes, most playbooks are organized by hazard and/or impact, with topics such as Mass Shooting, Severe Storm, or Power Outage.  For each topic, the essential elements of response can be identified, perhaps in check-list format.  Additional job aids such as decision tables, flow charts, and references can also be incorporated.  While I’m a big fan of keeping things digital, playbooks and similar references are better in hard copy, as this helps to ensure the information is always accessible.  Bind it (a three ring binder is best, so content can be updated as needed) and insert tabs for easy reference.  Be sure to give all users their own copy.

When creating the playbook, consider what information needs to be conveyed.  While some repetition may be necessary from topic to topic, reduce the amount of in-document references (i.e. See page 19 for additional information), as the purpose of the document is to help keep people organized.  Always keep the user in mind, ensuring that they understand each step and that they have the ability, resources, and authority to perform the identified actions.  Ensure that the playbook is a proper reflection of established policy and procedure and be sure to test it for effectiveness.  Train people in its content and use, and be sure to provide regular training and content updates and to incorporate its use into exercises.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on playbooks and if you have created and/or used them.  Of course, if your jurisdiction or organization is looking for assistance in developing a playbook for your critical activities, let us know!

© 2016 – Timothy M. Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

 

New and Timely Cyber Security Information

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.  With it, the DHS Private Sector Office has provided a number of resources to help organizations get involved in cyber security awareness.  These include weekly themes, such as Stop. Think. Connect., information on a weekly Twitter Chat series, and other information.

Perhaps released intentionally during National Cyber Security Awareness Month is the call for public comment on the National Cyber Incident Response Plan.  From their website, DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate and FEMA’s National Integration Center are leading the development of this document in coordination with the US Department of Justice, the Secretary of Defense, and other partners.  This plan is intended to provide a nation-wide approach to cyber incidents, incorporating roles for the private sector and all levels of government (TR – similar to the National Planning Frameworks, which this document rather heavily references).  The National Engagement Period ends on October 31, so be sure to review the document and provide feedback.  There are also a series of webinars referenced on the website.

In my initial and very cursory review of the plan, I was pleased to see the references to the National Preparedness Goal and National Planning Frameworks.  I’ve mentioned before that we need to strive to align and integrate all preparedness efforts along these lines and I’m thrilled to see it happening.  It’s even more encouraging to see this occurring with something that could be considered a bit fringe to traditional emergency management.  The plan directly references a number of Core Capabilities.  They take an interesting approach with this.  Instead of identifying which Core Capabilities the plan organizes under, they instead align certain Core Capabilities within what they call Lines of Effort.  These Lines of Effort include Threat Response, Asset Response, and Intelligence Support.  For each Core Capability they define the Core Capability, a la the National Preparedness Goal, and describe how that Core Capability applies to Line of Effort, along with listing associated critical tasks. (inserted is Table 2 from the plan which shows this alignment)

cyber-cc-by-loe

What I find even more interesting is the array of Core Capabilities they identified for their Lines of Effort.  While this plan is oriented toward response, the Core Capabilities they identify come from the Mission Areas of Prevention, Protection, Response, and Mitigation, along with including the three common Core Capabilities.  This further reinforces the thought that the Cyber Security Core Capability should also be included as a common Core Capability.  This is an interesting document which I look forward to reviewing in more detail.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness