Hurricane Harvey AAR – Lessons for Us All

Harris County, Texas has recently released their After Action Report (AAR) for Hurricane Harvey that devastated the area last year.  I applaud any AAR released, especially one for an incident of this magnitude.  It requires opening your doors to the world, showing some incredible transparency, and a willingness to discuss your mistakes.  Not only can stakeholders in Harris County learn from this AAR, but I think there are lessons to be learned by everyone in reviewing this document.

First, about making the sausage… The AAR includes an early section on the means and methods used to build the AAR, including some tools provided in the appendix.  Why is this important?  First, it helps build a better context for the AAR and lets you know what was studied, who was included, and how it was pulled together.  Second, it offers a great example for you to use for future incidents.  Developing an AAR for an incident has some significant differences from developing an AAR for an exercise.  Fundamentally, development of an AAR for an exercise begins with design of the exercise and is based upon the objectives identified for that exercise.  For an incident, the areas of evaluation are generally identified after the fact.  These areas of evaluation will focus the evaluation effort and help you cull through the volumes of documentation and stories people will want to tell.  The three focus areas covered in the AAR are Command and Control, Operations, and Mass Care and Sheltering.

Getting into the Harvey AAR itself… My own criticism in the formatting is that while areas for improvement in the AAR follow an Issue/Analysis/Recommendation format, identified strengths only have a sentence or two.  Many AAR writers (for incidents, events, or exercises) think this is adequate, but I do not.  Some measure of written analysis should be provided for each strength, giving it context and describing what worked and why.  I’m also in favor of providing recommendations for identified strengths.  I’m of the opinion that most things, even if done well and within acceptable standards, can be improved upon.  If you adopt this philosophy, however, don’t fall into the trap of simply recommending that practices should continue (i.e. keep doing this).  That’s not a meaningful recommendation.  Instead, consider how the practice can be improved upon or sustained.  Remember, always reflect upon practices of planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercises (POETE).

As for the identified areas for improvement in AAR, the following needs were outlined:

  • Developing a countywide Continuity of Operations Plan
  • Training non-traditional support personnel who may be involved in disaster response operations
  • Transitioning from response to recovery operations in the Emergency Operations Center
  • Working with the City of Houston to address the current Donations Management strategy

If anything, for these reasons alone, the AAR and the improvement planning matrix attached should be reviewed by every jurisdiction.  Many jurisdictions that I encounter simply don’t have the POETE in place to be successful in addressing these areas.

What is your biggest take away from this AAR?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC™

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Incident Management – Beyond ICS

The Incident Command System (ICS) provides an important foundation to incident management.  ICS grounds us in standards, providing structure and processes which help mitigate against the fact that all incidents themselves are unique.  While ICS may not be perfect, and I have been and continue to be highly critical of ICS training, the Incident Command System has proven to be effective – when properly implemented.  One of our biggest stumbling blocks with the implementation of ICS is the human factor – something else I’ve written about on a few occasions.  The other obstacle to effective incident management is relying too heavily on ICS.  ICS is not the solution to incident management – it’s a tool.  For incident management to be truly effective, we need to think beyond ICS.

So aside from ICS, what do incident managers need to know and do to be more effective? (Note that I’m not using the term ‘incident commander’ here, as incident management, fundamentally, is a team sport.  I’m using the term ‘incident managers’ as a collective term for all personnel involved in the higher echelons of incident management).

First, good incident managers should have proven leadership and management skills.  I’m not going to go at this one in length… there are no fewer than a gazillion books written on leadership and management and the importance of effectively leading organizations.  Just like any other organization, someone in a position of incident management who can’t properly lead is not only going to fail themselves, but also the organization.

Second, good incident managers need to have a grasp of emergency management.  Not just an application of public safety, such as the fire service or law enforcement, or whatever field they happen to be performing response in (i.e. public health, transportation, etc.).  They should have a solid awareness of what each major participant in emergency management does and the major processes of emergency management.

Next, incident managers should understand the fundamentals of project management.  This one is really important.  The tactics we execute in our response to an incident are really a series of projects.  Not that a Gantt chart needs to be developed for each incident (although I’ve actually done this for prolonged incidents – and it is seriously insightful), but an understanding of tactical timeframes, progress toward completion, and what activities can be done simultaneously versus those that should be done in sequence can be a huge help.  It’s a great visual tool that can be easily developed with the help of ICS 204s.  Progress toward completion (i.e. how much of a tactic have we accomplished as part of the whole) helps us to measure effectiveness, gauge how long we continue to need certain resources, and will answer the questions ‘how are we doing?’ and ‘are we there yet?’.  In larger incidents (NIMS Type 3 and larger) this is incredibly important.  What’s the progress on evacuation?  How much longer until all the boom is deployed?  How much debris has been cleared?  Etc.  These aren’t just pain the ass questions asked by elected officials and the media… these are questions you should be asking as well.

Continuing on with project management (that’s how important I think it is), I’ll make a few more notes here.  First of all, field observers are really important to monitoring progress.  Don’t rely on the tacticians to do this.  First of all, the tacticians are too busy.  They need to be focused on getting things done.  Also, they may be too close to the situation to give an objective assessment (or in the case of the use of contractors, it’s simply good contract management).  Digging into your ICS knowledge, recall that field observers are an actual position (although one not used often) within the Planning Section assigned to the Situation Unit.  Their job is to monitor and report on tactical progress and other situational information.  Also consider that if you see issues with a slower than expected progress toward completion, that means that either your initial estimates were wrong or something is slowing down the operation.  This may justify a root cause analysis to determine why things are not progressing as they should be.  Perhaps there was more to accomplish than anticipated, or the wrong resources are being applied?

Next, the highest members of incident management (i.e. incident command, unified command, EOC manager, etc.) need to have some separation from the rest of the incident management staff, agency representatives, and tactical operations.  They can’t be ‘in the pit’, ‘on the floor’, ‘in the trenches’, or whatever other lingo you might use in your command post, EOC, or field operations – at least not as their usual place to be.  Yes, some measure of ‘management by walking around’ is good, but I’ve been in plenty of command posts, EOCs, and departmental operations centers that have command right in the mix of everything.  These places get noisy and there are a lot of distractions.  You can’t hold a productive meeting in this environment, much less concentrate.  People are also inclined to go directly to command with issues and problems… issues and problems that are likely best solved by someone else.  Even in the field, an IC shouldn’t be too close to the tactics on a large incident.  Pull back and think about incident management, not tactics.

That’s the list that I have for now.  It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, so I plan on adding to it in the future.  I also expect to be doing some presentations in the near future as well.  What thoughts do you have on this?  What can we do to improve on incident management?

© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC ™

A New NFPA Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has recently published a new standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) programs.  NFPA 3000 is consistent with other standards we’ve seen published by the organization.  They don’t dictate means or methods, leaving those as local decisions and open for changes as we learn and evolve from incidents and exercises.  What they do provide, however, is a valuable roadmap to help ensure that communities address specific considerations within their programs.  It’s important to recognize that, similar to NFPA 1600: Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs, you aren’t getting a pre-made plan, rather you are getting guidance on developing a comprehensive program.  With that, NFPA 3000 provides information on conducting a community risk assessment, developing a plan, coordinating with the whole community, managing resources and the incident, preparing facilities, training, and competencies for first responders.

NFPA standards are developed by outstanding technical committees with representation from a variety of disciplines and agencies across the nation.  In the development of their standards, they try to consider all perspectives as they create a foundation of best practices.  While the NFPA’s original focus was fire protection, they have evolved into a great resource for all of public safety.

I urge everyone to take a look at this new standard and examine how you can integrate this guidance into your program.  The standard is available to view for free from the NFPA website, but is otherwise only available by purchase.  Also available on their website is a fact sheet and information on training for the new standard.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC