Teaching ICS – We’re not there yet

Over the past week I’ve been neck deep in the updated ICS-300 and ICS-400 curriculum as I prepare to deliver these courses for a client.  While these courses, especially the ICS-300, have made some significant improvements from past versions, I’ve found what I perceive to be another challenge, perhaps a gap, in our collective approach to teaching incident management.

While ICS training should obviously focus on ICS, it seems we are missing an opportunity to provide some critical knowledge on emergency management (at least the response functions of EM) and incident management as an overall concept, especially when we get to the level of ICS-300.  I’m betting that most people taking the ICS-300 class know very little about emergency management and even less about the overall concepts of incident management.  While the ICS-300 is a good and worthwhile course for a great many supervisors within the ranks of public safety, it seems the requirement for ICS training puts a lot of this out of context.

While this might be fine for the ‘typical’ tactician, or even most unit leaders operating within an ICS organization, knowledge of what emergency management is and does, as well as the underlying concepts of incident management, will improve the ability of the response organization as a whole to function.  I echo this same sentiment for the EOC courses that have been developed.

While we strive to have the growth of many public safety professionals to include ICS position-specific training, we also have to be realistic in recognizing that most jurisdictions simply don’t have the capacity to make this happen.  Instead, they rely on a more ad-hoc incident management approach, which will generally serve them well.  Of course, the most challenging time is transitioning from the more ‘routine’ type 5 and 4 incidents into the larger extended response operations of a type 3 incident.  This is when people need to think beyond the normal approach of a largely tactics-focused response, to a system which still necessarily includes tactics, but builds a response organization meant to support and sustain those tactical operations.  What they learn from the ICS-300 may be the most amount of training they have outside of tactical applications.

In such an ad-hoc system, someone put into Logistics, or even more specifically the Supply Unit Leader, may be left wondering how to obtain resources when the answer to that question has always been dispatch.  It may not readily dawn on them to open the phone book (digitally or physically) or to contact the emergency management office to find the resources they need.  It seems silly, but in the context of incident management, dispatch may be all they know.  Similarly, someone assigned as the Situation Unit Leader may be re-creating the wheel when it comes to identifying what information is needed, where to get it from, what analysis needs to take place, and how to tie it all together.  Why?  Because they may not have been made aware of the greater system they function within. Their mental default is the job they usually do for the agency or department they work for.

On a whim, I did some key word searches within the new ICS-300 course student manual.  The term ‘incident management’ comes up with a few hits, mostly centered around NIMS-oriented content or included in the broader term of ‘incident management team’.  Very little explanation is really given on what incident management is.  Rather, the term is just put out there, seemingly with the expectation that the student knows what it is.   A search for the term ‘emergency management’ only comes up with two hits, one being part of ‘Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)’ (note: no context is given for what this is), and the other use is a rather throwaway use when discussing demobilization.  Emergency management as a function is actually never discussed.

The Reader’s Digest version of all this is that we aren’t including critical contextual information about the systems ICS functions within when we teach more advanced ICS courses.  This inadvertently can close people’s minds to opportunities to improve incident management by extending their thinking beyond tactics and beyond the scope of their home agency.  A podiatrist must still learn about the systems of the whole body before they focus on the foot.  Teaching people, especially at the threshold of ICS-300, about the system of emergency management and the concepts of incident management are critical before we start teaching them the specifics of a particular tool.  Doing so will make their understanding and use of this tool far more effective.

Some may wonder if I will ever be happy with how we teach ICS (really, incident management as a whole).  That day may yet come, but to get there I think we first need to reassess the actual learning needs of practitioners, and do so with fresh eyes instead of trying to mark up the same materials.  I know over the years of my criticisms of ICS training I’ve stimulated a lot of discussion, not only nationally, but internationally.  Many have been hugely supportive of the ideas I’ve put forward, and some have contributed to the dialogue.  Of course, there are some who have been resistant and defensive.  I’m thankful to those who have been receptive and I’m happy to have contributed to the energy behind changes that have been made, and will continue to do so until we, as a collective, are satisfied that the best possible training is being made available.  Change is often times progressive and incremental. It doesn’t happen overnight.

As usual, I’m happy to receive any comments and feedback you might have on these ideas.  Please spread the word and encourage feedback from those who might not be aware.  Emergency management is an ever-evolving practice.  Though we may not have answers, we must continue asking questions.

©2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

 

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Improv in Emergency Management

In emergency management we put a lot of emphasis on planning and training, and rightfully so.  Deliberate planning establishes a foundation for our actions, thought out well ahead of any incident or disaster we might deal with.  Further, most training we receive is necessarily sterile.  We are trained how to respond to, organize, and manage incidents and the various facets of them.  To learn the elements and procedures being taught, we must first learn them in their most raw form, free of other distractions.  We also know that in reality, our plans and training only get us so far.

I’ve recently been reading American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11 by James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf.  This is an incredible book, the story of which I only knew small pieces of.  It tells of boat operators and waterfront workers who supported the mass evacuation of people from Manhattan as well as the delivery of responders, equipment, relief supplies, and services proximate to ground zero.  This book is well researched and supported by a multitude of interviews and other accounts of the heroism and actions taken following the attacks.

One of the themes that struck me early in the book was that of improvisation.  For over a year now, I’ve been taking improv classes and doing some performances.  We have an outstanding group of people and I’ve learned a lot, not only on the stage, but skills that I can apply across various aspects of my life, from work and podcasting to social situations.  While I’ve always intuitively known that our emergency plans only get us so far and then we basically have to make things up, I never actually labeled it as ‘improv’.

Kendra and Wachtendorf state “Since it is difficult to anticipate everything, communities need to be able to improvise as well as plan ahead.” They further elaborate that “Theatrical improvisers exercise skills that allow them to perform skits and routines spontaneously.  They are making things up as they go, but they know which principles to pull together.  They know how to make use of props and cues and the environment closest to them.  Instead of following a scripted plan, improv performers match what they know and what they have at hand.”  Consider this in the context of emergency management.  Does it sound familiar?  It certainly should.

We use our plans as a foundation.  We should continue to endeavor to make those plans as solid as possible without being unwieldy, while still recognizing that for a period of time, certainly early in the incident and very likely at other periodic times throughout, chaos rules.  Circumstances take us away from the pages of the plan, but that doesn’t mean that we have lost control, it simply means that we need to improvise to bring the incident back into line with our assumptions, or, if it’s not possible, we are developing a new plan in the moment.  Even if we have deviated from the plan, the principles contained within the plan still hold incredible value.  They become touchstones for us, reminding us what must be accomplished and what our principles for managing the disaster are.

Collectively, I challenge everyone to flex some improv muscles.  This can tie to several things.  First, take some improv classes.  Many larger urban areas have them available.  Don’t be afraid to try something different.  Next, find opportunities where you can use your plans as a foundation, but with scenarios that may deviate from the plan.  Even if it’s a zombie attack scenario, which may sound silly, but when you break it down to many of the fundamental impacts (infrastructure, public health, mass care, civil unrest, etc.) many jurisdictions already have a lot of the planning in place.  Some creativity with a scenario like this or another, forces people to think outside the box and work together to solve problems, which is what improv is all about.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the topic.

© 2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC ℠®

The Multi-Agency Resource Center

A disaster doesn’t end when the lights and sirens go away.  Communities are left dealing with clean up and rebuilding for weeks, months, or even years.  But we aren’t yet talking about recovery.  We are still talking about addressing early impacts of a disaster that have real implications on people’s lives and stability immediately following a disaster.

When a disaster is federally declared FEMA may open a Disaster Recovery Center in or near an impacted community.  These centers are helpful in getting survivors registered with FEMA and other agencies which might be able to provide some assistance, depending on the type of declaration in place and the specific impacts suffered by individuals and businesses.  While these centers do often integrate state agencies and non-governmental organizations, their primary purpose is to facilitate federal support, and, given the time that can pass before a federal declaration is in place, these centers may not open for days or even weeks following a disaster.  Clearly a gap exists.

Enter the concept of the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC).  MARC is a more global term, similar to emergency operations center (EOC), which encompasses a variety of facilities which different but related functions, based upon the agencies involved and the needs of communities.  MARCs aren’t anything new, but they are under-utilized.  Recent work with a client has brought the concept back to the forefront of my mind, thinking that planning for a MARC should be included as an annex to a great many emergency operations plans.

In searching Multi-Agency Resource Center, there are a number of references you will come across on the internet.  Fundamentally, a MARC is a facility established in a community in the aftermath of a disaster through which services are made available to individuals and businesses seeking assistance.  Absent a federal declaration, assistance can come from local, county, and state agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  Of course, don’t count out the private sector, as they may be willing and able to provide material resources and volunteers as well.  Also, consider that even if a presidential disaster declaration isn’t in place, some agencies, such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) can declare disasters independently and would likely be willing to send a representative to a MARC, if established.

Certainly, a MARC is convenient, as it offers ‘one stop shopping’ for those seeking assistance, rather than having to contact a multitude of agencies and organizations.  Better yet, it brings the agencies and organizations to the people, who, in all likelihood, aren’t aware are the vast amount of resources and services available to them.

What can be provided at a MARC?  In actuality, anything.  It can be co-located with a commodity point of distribution (CPOD), providing tarps, water, and other items to people.  Muck out kits and respiratory protection may be provided.  Guidance on removing water or mold, or on safe operations of generators can be obtained.  Perhaps people are displaced and need temporary housing, or have a question about the safety of their homes or businesses.  People may need food, unemployment assistance, legal aid, or disability services.  Even mental health and spiritual counseling can be offered at a MARC.  If the disaster involved a lot of green debris, the MARC could be a great location to offer a class on safe chain saw operation, in the hopes of decreasing injuries from the inevitable activity of community members.

As with any activity, a MARC should be planned.  Follow the tried and true planning process in CPG 101 and pull together a team of stakeholder agencies and organizations to discuss what assistance might be provided, how it would be organized, and ideal locations to host it.  There is some great information available from the National Mass Care Strategy.  Of course, once you have a plan in place, don’t forget to train and exercise!

I’ve worked in a variety of MARC-type facilities, but one in particular stands out in my career.  Following the Haiti earthquake in early 2010, NYC Mayor Bloomberg and NYS Governor Paterson created a Haitian Earthquake Family Resource center in Brooklyn, which has the largest Haitian population outside of Haiti itself.  There were quite a number of members of the NYC Haitian community who were directly impacted by this disaster so many miles away, with family members missing or killed, the loss of income coming from family members in Haiti, and services related to these issues.  Through this this facility, we coordinated the efforts of a number of local, state, and federal agencies, as well as NGOs.  Services included interpreters, legal information, grief counseling, and facilitated access to certain US and Haitian offices to obtain information and support.  This was a unique and meaningful application of the MARC to meet an identified need.

Has your jurisdiction ever used a MARC?  Do you have a plan in place?

© 2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®℠