Learning From a 10-Year-Old Report

I’ll admit that I’m often dismissive of information, especially in the field of emergency management and homeland security, if it’s over 10 years old.  There is a lot that’s changed in the past 10 years, after all.  But, realistically, for as much as we’ve changed, things have stayed the same.  Arguably, the first decade of this millennium saw much more change in EM/HS than the second decade has, at least so far.  The first decade saw events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.  Yes, there certainly have been major events in this second decade, but none, it seems, were as influential to our field of practice than those in the first decade.

It’s important to reflect upon lessons observed and to examine what lessons we’ve actually learned.  How far have we come in implementing improvements from the 9/11 Report?  What still needs to be accomplished to meet the intent of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA)?  Perhaps when I have some time to devote I’ll review those documents again and look on them reflectively and provide my thoughts here.

Yesterday I received the latest email from DomesticPreparedness.com.  I refer often to their work in my articles.  This weekly brief included an article from one of my favorite authors in this field, John Morton.  I’ve referenced his work in a few of my past articles.  This article, titled The What If Possibility: A Chilling Report, talks about planning for a rogue nuclear attack, the likely lead role the federal government would have to take in response to such an attack (versus a locally-led response), and what the situation would be the day after.  With the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons capability looming, this article was an interesting read and spot-on.  I noticed a problem, though… It referenced Ash Carter as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration.  While this was true, Carter’s highest office was SecDef under President Obama.  Surely John Morton, with his incredible attention to detail that I’ve come to recognize couldn’t have made this error.

Nope.  No error on his part.  I looked at the date of the article.  June 27, 2007 – over a decade old.  Incredibly, this article is still highly relevant today.  The article does reference the drafting of certain federal plans for nuclear attack.  Plans which I am not privy to, but that must assuredly exist today.  I’m curious as to the model these plans follow, what has been learned from exercising them, and how we might be able to apply elements of these plans to other catastrophic occurrences.

Despite change, so much seems to stay the same. Of course a decade isn’t that long.  Given that emergency management and homeland security are primarily government roles, we have to acknowledge that the (usually necessary) bureaucracy simply doesn’t move that quickly.  Unfortunately, there are things we are far too slow to adopt, not just from a government perspective, but socially.  As a lover of history and sociology, I see lessons observed from the 1900 Galveston hurricane as well as the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 CE.  There is much that history can teach us, if we are willing to listen. Lessons observed, but not learned.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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The NIMS Refresh, aka NIMS 3.0

This morning my inbox was inundated with notices from FEMA and from colleagues about the release of the ‘refreshed’ NIMS, which has finally occurred at almost exactly 18 months after the draft of this document was released.  You can find the new document here. 

As I’m reading through the updated document, there are a few things catching my eye:

  • The term ‘center management system’ has apparently been scrapped, thankfully. First of all, there should not be a separate system for managing emergency operations centers (EOCs) and similar facilities.  I’ve seen the greatest success come from an organization model that mirrors ICS.  Second, the acronym CMS is most commonly related to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, particularly in regard to the CMS rules for healthcare facility preparedness.  (Want to know more about this?  See my article here)
  • Multi-Agency Coordination as a concept is briefly defined and referenced often without being described enough. It’s such an essential concept of incident management, yet it’s being paid very little heed. There is material on a MAC Group, which, while an implementer of multi-agency coordination at a policy level, is not the only multi-agency coordination that takes places within incident management.
  • The final version still uses the term ‘EOC Director’.  This is a term that is fundamentally incorrect when held to ICS doctrine.  Those in charge of facilities in ICS are called managers.  An EOC, even a virtual one, functions as a facility.  Similarly, the EOC analogs to the command staff, should be referred to as ‘management staff’ in an EOC, not command staff.
  • In the draft there were nearly two pages of references to federal EOC-like facilities. It was unnecessary and irrelevant to the document.  Thankfully those references and descriptions were removed.
  • One of my favorite graphics continues to be used! Figure 10 on page 48 is, to me, one of the most meaningful graphics in all of emergency management.  It pays heed to all critical elements in a response and shows the flow of requests and assistance.
  • I’m a big fan of the Essential Elements of Information (EEI) concept included in the Incident Information section of the document. This should serve as a foundation to all situation assessment and size up documents in all public safety disciplines, moving forward.
  • The appendices offer some additional information, but are largely redundant of the core document.

Overall, NIMS 3.0 is a good document to move forward with.  While there are some elements that I don’t necessarily agree with, none of them are damaging to our field of practice.  While NIMS remains our core doctrine for response, what is missing from this document that we saw heavily included in earlier versions was the concept of integrating NIMS into other aspects of emergency management.  Primarily, it is something that must be prepared for.  It simply isn’t enough to include a one-liner in your emergency plans saying that you are using NIMS.  The elements of NIMS, and not just ICS, but things like EOC management, multi-agency coordination, resource management, and joint information management, need to be fully engrained in your plans.  Plans serve as the foundation for preparedness, so what is in our plans must be trained on and exercised in a continuous cycle.  I would have liked to have seen some very apparent reference to the National Preparedness Goal in this document.  Otherwise, it appears to many that these doctrine are unrelated.

Now that the center management system is gone and they were less heavy handed with EOC management concepts, I wonder what that means for training related to EOC management.  The current FEMA curriculum on EOC management is simply horrible (thus why I’ve created EOC management courses for various jurisdictions).

What are your thoughts on the NIMS refresh?  What did they do well?  What did they miss? Was it too safe with too few changes?  Were there other changes needed to improve our coordination of incident management?

As always, thanks for reading!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Private Sector Logistics Support for Disasters, aka. To Stockpile or Not to Stockpile

I recently had an article brought to my attention by my friend Keri.  The article is titled Home Depot or Homeland Security and is written by Max Brooks. Before I dive into some commentary on the article and related matters, I want to give a bit of an introduction of Max Brooks.  While many of you may not know of him, you might know of his work; and I’m quite sure you know of his father and his father’s work.  What seems so unlikely is that this article, and others, have been written by Max for West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Max Brooks is the author of, among other books, the New York Times best seller World War Z.  His father is Mel Brooks, who, in my opinion, is the greatest comedic writer and director of all cinema.  Max is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute (MWI).  He has published three zombie-themed books: World War Z, the Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.  I’ve written in the past about the perspective that unorthodox scenarios can bring to homeland security and emergency management.  Max’s writings inspire just that, bringing him to be recognized by the MWI and Naval War College.  You can check out his biography and other information about him here.

As a fellow of the MWI, Max Brooks has been working on a series of lectures and papers.  The one I’m discussing here was posted about a year ago by the MWI.  In his paper, he briefly outlines the role of the Defense Logistics Agency and the importance of the private sector in supporting disaster response and recovery as well as the military.  He smartly identifies this as a potential vulnerability, but I’ve also seen first-hand the reality behind it.

During the 9/11 response, a representative from Grainger sat in the Logistics Section of the NYS Emergency Operations Center.  While the State of New York owns a lot of resources, the availability of those resources, the practicality of moving those resources, and the timeliness of getting those resources to where they were needed (generally the metro-NYC area) sometimes wasn’t workable, despite the nature of the emergency – especially when those resources are more in the nature of supplies and small equipment, and needed in mass quantity.  With several warehouses in and around the metro-NYC area, Grainger could have orders processed and delivered quickly and efficiently.  The same holds true for other companies, which were also leveraged during this response.

Stockpiling is a smart practice, but it needs to be looked at from a practical and fiscal perspective.  The Civil Defense era saw a lot of stockpiling.  Food, water, cots, blankets, radiological detection equipment, fuel, and other supplies.  Most of this went unused for years until officials saw the utility of drawing on these stockpiles in times of natural disaster.  Still, food and water have a shelf life, as does fuel.  Stocks had to be rotated to ensure viability.  Rodents, insects, and water damage goods like cots and blankets.  Mechanical equipment needs to be maintained, even in dis-use.  The physical space, money, and people needed to manage these rarely used stockpiles have a limited return.

Still, stockpiling is a good thing.  You just have to be smart about what you stockpile and where you position it.  Many states maintain several emergency equipment stockpiles.  The purpose of the stockpiles is to support local governments in extended life-safety activities.  Generators, chain saws, and potable water distribution are among the equipment available.  These do, indeed take up space and require regular maintenance.  The prevalence of floods and storms in the northeast, however, make these high demand items by local governments.  The positioning of the stockpiles helps ensure a timely delivery, often with the support of other state agencies.

There are limits, though, to the ability of a government agency to store, maintain, and distribute supplies and equipment.  Some aren’t often requested, so don’t make sense to stockpile.  Others have such a short shelf life or require expensive maintenance that don’t make financial sense.  Still others may very often be available locally, albeit by the private sector.

Emergency management agencies in recent years have not only looked to private vendors to support supply needs, they have also looked to the private sector to model the management of logistics and resource tracking.  Companies like FedEx or UPS, despite leaving my packages at the wrong door, do an unparalleled job of moving and tracking goods.  Companies like WalMart and Target, who are often victims of local disaster impacts themselves, have a presence in disaster areas to not only restore their own operations, but to also provide as much as they can to communities in need.  Lowes and Home Depot have been better able to meet demands prior to and following disasters with tarps, building materials, generators, and sump pumps.  Despite improvements, the bureaucracy of government simply doesn’t have the capability or capacity to move the quantity of goods needed.

While I acknowledge that there is some vulnerability, as Max Brooks points out, in having a third party as a critical component of your supply chain, we also have strength and efficiency through these partnerships.  Emergency management must continue working with private sector partners, locally, nationally, and internationally to strengthen these partnerships and support the private sector in supporting response and recovery endeavors.

What are your thoughts on the depth of involvement of the private sector in supporting response and recovery?  Do we rely on them too much?  If so, what’s our alternative?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

Taking Care of Your Staff After a Disaster

We are slowly seeing Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plans becoming more popular for organizations ranging from government, private sector, and not for profit.  There are numerous lessons learned that promote the benefits of these efforts to reduce the impacts from an incident on your organization, decrease down time, and increase the overall chances of your organization surviving a disaster.  Most COOP plans, however, are focused on organizational operations and mission essential functions, which is great, but organizations must remember that none of these can be performed without staff.

The ability of an organization to care for its staff, to the greatest extent possible, will not only support the organization’s recovery, it’s also the right thing to do.  Consider that taking care of staff also includes taking care of their families.  It’s difficult for a staff member to come to work focused on your mission when they have family members endangered by a disaster.

What can you do?  I don’t think anyone expects their employer to take care of all needs, but a bit of support and understanding go a long way.  If your organization has a direct role in emergency or disaster response or recovery, the support you provide your staff is even more critical.  While I have a number of tips and lessons learned from my own experiences on this, I came across a paper recently published by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).  While ASPR’s mission is to support hospitals and other healthcare facilities, this four-page document provides great information for all organizations.

Remember – the time to prepare is now!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Congressional Primer on Responding to Major Disasters and Emergencies

I believe the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is a research arm of the Library of Congress, publishes an updated version of this document for each Congress.  While the primary audience is Congressional representatives, it provides a good overview of disaster response fundamentals and the relationship between the federal and state/territorial/tribal governments which can be a good reference for many, including practitioners, students, state and local officials, and members of the media.

Give it a look and pass it on to others.

https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=804217

– TR

Defining Terrorism

It seems odd that in 2017 we still need to be clear about what constitutes an act of terrorism.  For context, last night, the horrible shooting in Las Vegas occurred.  At the time of writing this, it’s already been the most fatal shooting in US history.  This is a horrible incident that, as usual, I’m not going to Monday morning quarter-back, as so much is still developing in the aftermath.

What I will comment on are statements by media outlets and ‘experts’, many of which proclaimed once it was released that the perpetrator of this crime was an older white guy local to the Las Vegas area, that this was not an act of terrorism.  So let’s clarify against stupidity, ignorance, and general bullshit.  While there are a variety of definitions of terrorism that can be found, no definition worth its salt includes any pre-determined profile based upon race, age, gender, religion, sexuality, nationality, or skin color.  Those factors alone have nothing to do with determining if an act was or was not terrorism.

The most common definition referenced in the US is what is known as the ‘FBI definition’.  This definition actually comes from a section of the US Code of Federal Regulations (28 CFR 0.85) which outlines the general functions of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  In the Code, terrorism is defined as ‘the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives’.

It seems easy in these times to decry any act of violence as terrorism or, similarly, to dismiss certain acts because they are perpetrated by some old white guy with no known agenda.  Both of these actions would be wrong without further evidence.  The FBI definition focuses on motive and intent.  While the results of the incident may certainly be intimidating or coercive, the motivation may not have been to accomplish that – it may have been, not to understate any act of violence, simply to kill people.  It may not have necessarily been motivated by any specific social, political, or religious extremism.  At this moment, there has been no publicly-released information indicating that this person acted to ‘intimidate or coerce a government, civilian population, or segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.’  But that could change at any moment.

In the hours and days ahead, more details will be uncovered on the perpetrator of this crime and their possible motives.  Some people simply want to call it terrorism so they have a label for it or because they think that the crime is somehow elevated by calling it terrorism.  Over 50 were killed and over 500 were injured.  Whatever label you apply doesn’t make the crime any better or worse.  It’s still horribly tragic.  Some people, particularly those with pre-conceived notions of what is or is not terrorism, will hold that this couldn’t possibly be terrorism because it was committed by an older, local, white guy; and not a radicalized individual from the middle east.  Assumptions either way are dangerous.

Regardless of how the investigation shakes out and what labels may be applied to this act, the loss of life and impact to families and loved ones is horrific.  Let us all take some time to consider that and what must be done to prepare for and prevent further mass shootings such as this.

No matter what the disaster is, be informed!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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????)