The Inability to Apply NIMS is a Human One

With a busy month of travel and project work, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve had much opportunity to write.  While there are always a great number of topics to write about, I find myself regularly drawn to certain focus areas, such as NIMS or exercises, since these topics are regularly the emphasis of my work.

As many of my readers know, Domestic Preparedness Journal is one of my regular reads.  Each issue features a slate of excellent articles from practitioners in the field.  While I don’t always agree with all the articles in DomPrep, they are at least thought provoking and occasionally provide me with some ideas for my blog.

A quick note: Many students of emergency management, homeland security, and related fields reference this blog for research – something I greatly appreciate and am humbled by!  Be sure to search back issues of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, as well.  There is a lot of good stuff there!

I believe I’ve posted my thought in the past that emergency management is largely a sociological endeavor.  This is nothing new or revolutionary… if you care to consider this further, I suggest any of Thomas Drabek’s work.  While emergency management exists to protect and serve people, the actions are implemented by people.  I’ve also written in the past about the human factor of incident management, because that’s what truly makes or breaks our efforts.  Essentially, it’s humans that fail.  Not plans, not incident management systems, or any other excuses that can be contrived.  Human failure is our greatest enemy.

In discussing failure, it doesn’t have to be a total failure.  It can be a mistake, an oversight, or a wrong decision.  It might be intentional, given the body of knowledge we have and other factors, like ego.  Or it might be due to a lack of information; sometimes we have to make a best guess.  Often times we don’t realize until afterwards, if ever, that these even occurred or that there were better choices.  Despite advanced analytics and diligent after action reports, where we are quick to criticize, we don’t often identify what choices individuals (not just the incident commander or other leadership) had available to them.

Back to the Domestic Preparedness Journal.  Last month’s issue had an article penned by Chief Charles Bailey, titled Where Incident Management Unravels.  Chief Bailey offers a thought provoking argument against the effectiveness of NIMS in certain incidents, particularly those that are highly dynamic.  He argues, particularly, that once a situational assessment is completed and accepted early in the ICS planning process, that the process enters a largely static state since plans are developed to address that snapshot of the situation and are unable to account for situational changes during the rest of that planning process.

Fundamentally, Chief Bailey isn’t wrong.  What he mentions is exactly what we are taught and these are criticisms of ICS I’ve heard many times through the years.  Remember, Incident Command System Training Sucks!  (if you aren’t familiar with my thoughts on the sad state of ICS training, click that link and read the few articles I’ve written on the topic).

Let’s examine the situation that Chief Bailey describes.  Most incidents, especially early on, have dynamic elements.  Does this mean we can’t use ICS?  No.  In fact we still need to.  If we don’t make efforts to proactively address the incident, we will continue reacting instead of getting ahead of it.  Our tactics will be purely reactionary and we’ll never have the resources we need when we need them.  We can’t allow the incident to be in charge, we need to manage it.  To do so, we need to acknowledge that new and changing situations will occur, and plan for them.  Just because we are taught to plan in a static situation, does that mean that’s our only option?  Nope.  What we learn little to nothing about in ICS training are concepts like contingency planning.  Interestingly enough, we regularly see first responders account for this.  When an incident occurs with unknown factors, we often hear fire departments call for additional resources to be sent to staging.  Sometimes this is in anticipation of needing them, sometimes this is a contingency plan.  A ‘just in case’.  While no one likes to be stuck in staging and never deployed, it’s better to have the resources immediately available and not need them then to need them right away and have to wait.

Not only can these resources in staging be identified in our incident action plans, we can also develop these resources and even identify tactics (roughly) in our IAPs to account for dynamic situations.  It’s easy enough to identify an objective for contingency planning and have efforts dedicated to it.  Resources in staging can be pulled together into task forces and strike teams for anticipated application.  Our IAPs can pre-identify these potential applications and give the resources tactical parameters, allowing task force and strike team leaders some latitude in their initial tactical response.  While the rest of the incident organization is addressing known issues and proactively managing the incident, we have elements in reserve to tackle pop-up situations.  At best, these reserve forces are able to fully address these emergent needs, at the very least, they can sustain life safety matters until additional resources can be deployed.

Further, if any incident management organization isn’t able to change based on a dynamic situation, I severely question their credentials.  Incidents and disasters are by nature unpredictable.  We must acknowledge that any situational assessment is only, at best, mostly accurate.  For any significant incident, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know when we need to know it.  Having reserve forces and contingency plans, and being able to quickly identify emergent situations and redeploy resources is simply smart incident management.

So while Chief Bailey makes great points about some book answers to ICS applications, I argue that any failures that exist, at least in these regards, are human ones and have little to nothing to do with shortfalls in NIMS/ICS.  First, there are tools available to us to address these situations; although most people aren’t aware of them because of issues with ICS training.  Second, even if direct applications of the system weren’t in place to address certain situations, we can’t be slaves to the system.  We need to be able to think ‘beyond NIMS’ (words used by Chief Bailey, himself).  Finally, I’m not being critical at all of Chief Bailey’s points.  He closes his article identifying a need for creating ‘nimble response paradigms’; I’m just pointing out that we have that ability within the NIMS construct.  It’s our (human) ability to apply these where we often get stuck.

As always, I’m highly interested in the thoughts of readers on the topics I write about.

In closing, a quick but heartfelt thanks to all the responders and organizations who have been working tirelessly as of recent to save lives and help communities stabilize after the impacts of far too many hurricanes and the earthquake in Mexico.  Every small action you take makes a world of difference to those you are helping.  Be safe.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC (ß have you checked out our new website????)

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Nationwide EAS Test Scheduled

From FEMA~

Mandatory Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System to be Conducted September 27

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will conduct a mandatory nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on September 27, 2017 at 2:20 pm EDT. The test will assess the readiness for distribution of the national level test message, as well as verify its delivery.

The EAS test is made available to radio, television, cable, and direct broadcast satellite systems, and is scheduled to last approximately one minute. The test’s message will be similar to the regular monthly test message of the EAS with which the public is familiar, only inserting the word “national.” “This is a national test of the Emergency Alert System. This is only a test.”

Significant coordination and regional testing has been conducted with the broadcast community and emergency managers in preparation for this EAS national test. The test is intended to ensure public safety officials have the methods and systems that will deliver urgent alerts and warnings to the public in times of an emergency or disaster. Periodic testing of public alert and warning systems is also a way to assess the operational readiness of the infrastructure required for the distribution of a national message and determine whether technological improvements are needed.

Conducting the test following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria will provide insight into the resiliency of our national-level alerting capabilities in impacted areas. The test will also provide valuable data into how the Integrated Public Alerts and Warning System performs during and following a variety of conditions. With two major hurricanes already making landfall, and a potential for two more impacting our nation, we need to have the ability to maintain the continuity of critical infrastructure under various conditions.

Receiving preparedness tips and timely information about weather conditions or other emergency events can make all the difference in knowing when to take action to be safe. FEMA and our partners are working to ensure alerts and warnings are received quickly through several different technologies, no matter whether an individual is at home, at school, at work, or out in the community. The FEMA App, which can be downloaded on both Android and Apple devices, is one way to ensure receipt of both preparedness tips and weather alerts. The FEMA App can be downloaded at https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app.

The back-up date for the test is October 4, 2017, at 2:20 pm EDT, in case the September 27 test is cancelled. More information on the IPAWS and Wireless Emergency Alerts is available at https://www.ready.gov/alerts.

This is the third mandatory nationwide test of the EAS. The first test was conducted in November 2011, in collaboration with the FCC, broadcasters, and emergency management officials. The second mandatory test was conducted in September 2016. You can also access a video, FEMA Accessible Emergency Alert System IPAWS Test Message, in American Sign Language.

In 2007, FEMA began modernizing the nation’s public alert and warning system by integrating new technologies into the existing alert systems. The new system, known as IPAWS became operational in 2011. Today, IPAWS supports more than 900 local, state, tribal, and federal users through a standardized message format. IPAWS enables public safety alerting authorities such as emergency managers, police, and fire departments to send the same alert and warning message over multiple communication pathways at the same time to citizens in harm’s way, helping to save lives. For more information on FEMA’s IPAWS, go to: www.fema.gov/ipaws. For more preparedness information, go to www.ready.gov.

FEMA Request for Staff

From FEMA…

As you are all very much aware, our Nation has sustained severe flooding and damage as a result of Hurricane Harvey, and we are anticipating major impacts from Hurricanes Irma and possibly Jose. This is the peak of the hurricane season and it is far from over; to this end, we are reaching out to you to help in response and recovery efforts.  FEMA is looking to recruit personnel, with an expected deployment of 30 days, in the following areas:

Program Area: Skillset Required

Individual Assistance: Survivor outreach and communication, case management

Logistics: Load and unload trucks; coordinate and deliver resources; track inventory

IT: Establish connectivity for facilities; install, track, and manage equipment; configure communications equipment

Disaster Survivor Assistance: Engage directly with survivors; demonstrate understanding of available programs; case management

Hazard Mitigation: Floodplain management, mitigation strategies for the built environment, flood insurance, FEMA’s grant programs and authorities

Disaster Emergency Communications: Set up, operation, and shut down of communications vehicles; installation of voice and data cables; knowledge of radio protocols

External Affairs: Communications, Congressional and intergovernmental affairs, media analysis, media relations, tribal affairs, private sector relations

Environmental and Historic Preservation: Knowledge of environmental, historic, and floodplain management processes and regulations

Human Resources: Human resources specialists and managers

Finance: Travel arrangements and budget controls

Acquisitions: Contracting officers, purchasing specialists, and procurement specialists

If you are available to serve in one or more of these areas, please send your résumé to FEMA-CAREERS@fema.dhs.gov, and please put “Higher Ed” in the subject line.  Feel free to also share this request throughout your networks.  This is a great opportunity to serve the Nation and support our survivors in this time of need.