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


2 thoughts on “Do We Need Different Systems for Catastrophic Incidents?

  1. Tim:

    Here’s my humble take on the challenge. A catastrophe is not a single incident. A catastrophe is a constellation of incidents that, when aggregated, completely overwhelm the capability and capacity of immediately available resources to respond.

    This is where the concept of establishing an Unified Area Command, or multiple Unified Area Commands, comes to play. The complication resulting from the creation of a Unified Area Command comes from the misconception than an EOC, RRCC, MACC, or any of the other alphabet organizations are “Command” organizations vs. management and coordination points. ICS and the broader NIMS are both appropriate for application during a catastrophe – we just have to remember the difference between command and management.

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