Embracing the Playbook in Emergency Management

This morning I suggested to a client the possible use of a playbook as a training supplement for their duty officer program.  A playbook is a job aid, but more than just a check list or a chart.  Ideally, a playbook is a structured collection of job aids, broken down by situation for easy reference by whomever needs the information.

Playbooks are best known to be most extensively used in American football.  They contain a variety of strategies for accomplishing certain objectives (short yardage gain, long yardage gain, end zone scoring, kick return, etc.), with each strategy often accompanied by one or more diagrams of Xs (the opposition) and Os (your team), with lines showing movement and action by certain positions.  Playbooks are tested, practiced, and memorized by players before the season begins, but are constantly referenced every game by coaches and players alike.

playbook-diagram

Fundamentally, the play book exists because there are so many situations the team needs to respond to and several different ways in which they can respond.  While some of their plays are fairly routine, others are rarely, if ever, used.  Just like emergency management, however, it’s good to have the plan available if we need it.

Assembling a playbook for emergency management purposes doesn’t have any set standard, but as with any other tool or plan we assemble, we must first identify the purpose and the audience.  Play books can be assembled for elected officials and executives, duty officers and middle management, or dispatchers and first responders – it all depends on what is needed.  One thing that should be stressed, though… playbooks are NOT plans, nor should they be treated as a replacement for training.  Playbooks should be based upon established policy, plans, and procedures; and training still should be conducted on those policies, plans, and procedures.  A playbook is the collection of job aids which will help us to navigate the things people may not routinely do – which makes them excellent for emergency management applications.

Consider that the content of the playbook won’t (and probably shouldn’t) try to map out an incident from inception to completion.  The playbook is intended to address critical actions within an early timeframe of the incident.  Following this, a team should be assembled and striving to manage the incident using the planning process and referencing the foundational plans and policies.  There may be a few nuanced circumstances and activities within the playbook that are still relevant in the extended response, but these should be few.

The organization and content of the playbook should depend on the objectives and audience of the tool.  It should not be heavy in narrative and doesn’t require a lot of background as a plan might.  For emergency management purposes, most playbooks are organized by hazard and/or impact, with topics such as Mass Shooting, Severe Storm, or Power Outage.  For each topic, the essential elements of response can be identified, perhaps in check-list format.  Additional job aids such as decision tables, flow charts, and references can also be incorporated.  While I’m a big fan of keeping things digital, playbooks and similar references are better in hard copy, as this helps to ensure the information is always accessible.  Bind it (a three ring binder is best, so content can be updated as needed) and insert tabs for easy reference.  Be sure to give all users their own copy.

When creating the playbook, consider what information needs to be conveyed.  While some repetition may be necessary from topic to topic, reduce the amount of in-document references (i.e. See page 19 for additional information), as the purpose of the document is to help keep people organized.  Always keep the user in mind, ensuring that they understand each step and that they have the ability, resources, and authority to perform the identified actions.  Ensure that the playbook is a proper reflection of established policy and procedure and be sure to test it for effectiveness.  Train people in its content and use, and be sure to provide regular training and content updates and to incorporate its use into exercises.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on playbooks and if you have created and/or used them.  Of course, if your jurisdiction or organization is looking for assistance in developing a playbook for your critical activities, let us know!

© 2016 – Timothy M. Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

 

Must Read – Evaluating Preparedness at Different Levels of Analysis by Brandon Greenberg

In the past I’ve made references to the DisasterNet blog written by Brandon Greenberg.  If you aren’t reading his blog, you certainly should be, as he routinely posts great material.  Yesterday’s post was no exception.

Brandon has been doing some research on evaluating preparedness, which is a topic I’ve also written about in the past and I feel is of great importance to continued improvements in emergency management.  His article, Evaluating Preparedness at Different Levels of Analysis provides a number of insightful thoughts and information which are certainly going down the right path.  With all hope, Brandon’s continued work may help us find better ways to evaluate preparedness.

-TR

 

 

 

Emergency Management: Why Failure is Necessary

One of the many podcasts I listen to is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.  For the uninitiated, the TED Radio Hour is a compilation of highlights from several TED Talks (you know what these are, right?) arranged around certain topics.  I like the topical arrangement and the sampling they do of the presentations, as well as the inclusion of interviews with many of the presenters.  Yesterday I listed to one from July 29, 2016 titled Failure is an Option.  In it, I was most drawn to the points made by Tim Hartford, an economist, and began to think that this guy needs to speak at some emergency management conferences.  What can an economist tell emergency managers?  His TED Talk is titled Trial, Error, and the God ComplexIt’s worth checking out.

How often do you hear someone in public safety proclaim that they don’t know about a certain topic or how to handle a certain situation.  Not very often.  Certainly we have a lot of confident, Type A people (myself included) who will not be stopped by a problem, even if we don’t know right off how we will solve it.  At the extreme end of this are those who refuse to plan.  Why?  Maybe they don’t want to be constrained by a plan, or maybe they don’t want something put in writing.  Maybe they simply don’t know right now what they will do, either a) hoping that it never happens, or b) assuming they will figure it out when it does.  Determination and persistence is good, but we can’t become ignorant despite it.  As I often mention in my posts, this is public safety, not a pick-up game of kick ball.  To me, there is nothing more serious.

Our egos drive us to feel that everything is on the line all the time.  While some may refuse to plan, others do plan, but the approach may not be realistic.  We’ve all seen plans that begin with one, two, maybe even three pages of assumptions.  That’s a lot of assuming for an emergency or disaster situation, which we all know is uncertain and dynamic.  Those long lists make me uncomfortable, as they should you.  Why do we do it?  Sure there are some things we can expect, but otherwise we are trying to dictate terms to the disaster.  Trust me, the disaster doesn’t give a damn about the plan you wrote or the terms and conditions you try to lay out for it.  But it makes us feel better by putting the disaster in a very defined box.  I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Let’s remove the ego.  Let’s proclaim that maybe we have no idea, or we have a few ideas but we aren’t sure which one is best.  Preparedness should be collaborative.  Get lots of ideas from people.  Talk though them and figure out which ones are the most viable.  Get these ideas down on paper, even loosely, and try them out.  We need to take advantage of our preparedness work to figure out the things we don’t know.

A number of years ago, it was identified through feedback and after action reports of incidents that the flow of information and resource requests in a certain EOC simply wasn’t working the way it was intended.  While I’m a big fan of the application of ICS in an EOC, the specific role an EOC plays as a multi-agency coordination center, the cross functions of some staff, and the politics involved aren’t really accounted for in ICS, so the strictest applications of ICS sometimes don’t apply well.  A small group of us were tasked to fix it.  While we each had some theories, none of really knew why the current processes weren’t working.  So we set up a small exercise solely for this purpose.  Our observations helped us identify the root cause of the problem.  The members of our group, all experienced EOC personnel, had different theories on how to solve the problem.  We went again to exercises, this time a series of small ones.  We ushered some people into the EOC, each time giving them a flow chart and some narrative on what each person should be doing relative to the processes we devised.  The injects flowed and we observed the outcomes.  We saw what worked and what didn’t.  We then assembled an amalgamation of the best traits of each methodology into a new process.  Then guess what we did – we exercised that – and it worked.  Not only did we have a great scientific and structured approach, we also had validation of our final product – one that stood up to further exercises and actual incidents.

Does trial and error take time?  Sure it does.  Does it always yield results?  Yes – although not always positive ones – but those are still results.  It’s important to remember to collect data on each of our attempts.  Just like an exercise we want to evaluate and document.  Sometimes our ideas turn out to be epic failures, and that’s OK.  Had we not found this out during our trial and error, just like an exercise, it could have been devastating and costly in a real life application.  A severe mistake during an incident can be career ending for you, and life ending for those you are sworn to protect.

The bottom line is that it’s OK to fail – just try to control when and how you fail.  In order to accept that premise, however, we need to let go of the super Type A hero/god/ego thing.  Yes, we can learn from successes, but we learn more from failure, especially with a little root cause analysis.  Sometimes things look great on paper, but unless you actually try them out, you’ll never know.  In your trial and error, also consider different variables which may have influence on the outcomes.  It’s great to plan for a response and practice it on a sunny day, but what about pouring rain, freezing temperatures, or high winds?  How does this impact your plan?  Often we can make assumptions (remember those?), but we’ll never really know unless we try.

Do you buy into this?  Thoughts appreciated.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

An Open Letter to LinkedIn Discussion Group Moderators

For those of you tuning in for your (somewhat) regular fix on emergency management and homeland security commentary, I apologize for this quick detour.  I encourage you, however, to read on and provide your thoughts and feedback on a matter which relates to how you are able to view my posts.  There are a few inconvenient practices out there which I feel a need to address.

While I have a humbling and ever growing number of people who follow my blog directly at www.triecker.wordpress.com, many read my posts through a variety of LinkedIn discussion groups.  Some of these groups were created and simply exist publicly, while others are members-only and diligently maintained by moderators who do great work to keep certain posts out of their group, such as those that are largely irrelevant and those which blatantly serve no other purpose than to market products and services.  As a member of several of these discussion groups, I am greatly appreciative of the time and effort these moderators put in.  I do, however, have some important feedback.

As I have been blogging for a few years now and cross posting to several LinkedIn discussion groups, I’ve encountered some practices with moderators with which I disagree.  Most recently, a discussion thread which originated from one of my blog posts was, inexplicably, shut down and closed to further comment.  The discussion in the thread was lively, with several people contributing to an excellent dialogue.  There didn’t appear to be any nastiness or inappropriate behavior, and all comments were on topic.  The thread was shut down with no notice, publicly or privately.  I’m not aware of there being any automatic limits on replies, but if there are, I don’t see a reason why.  This was an unfortunate occurrence which limited productive dialogue of your members.

Second, there are several of these groups that have an anti-spam feature.  On the surface, this is excellent!  In practice, especially for someone who appreciates active dialogue with those who comment, it’s a royal pain in the ass.  Essentially, after I reach some magic number of replies within a discussion thread, my replies will then go off into the ether, awaiting approval by the moderators before they are posted.  This process severely stalls great dialogue.

Lastly, many of these groups have certain rules which disallow posts which include blatant marketing content.  This is a great rule, as many of us have received notice from open groups with posts which are 100% pure marketing – which is not a reason why most people join these groups.  That said, these rules have been applied a bit too strictly and without common sense.  I’ve had moderators contact me (and some who don’t), refusing to post an article, simply because I include the name of my company and a link to our webpage at the bottom of my blog.  I’ve had others refuse to post an article because I include a sentence or two at the end of my blog about the services my company provides.  Allow me to make a few points with this… 1) The vast majority of my blogs run from 500-800 words.  The inclusion of my company name/web address, or a sentence or two at the end of that post related to the services my company provides does not make my post an advertisement.  I’d like to think there is still plenty of intellectual value to what I’m writing about.  2) This is LinkedIn.  It’s a social media platform for professionals.  That means that a certain amount of professional promotion should be expected.  3) Having given plenty of presentations for trade shows and membership groups, their guidelines regularly allow the ‘soft sell’, which means that while the bulk of your presentation is not directly about marketing your business, they usually allow a minute or two at the end to mention what your company does.  This is a pretty fair courtesy which I think is quite reasonable for discussion groups to apply.

Final words – Moderators, I greatly appreciate the time you put in and what you do.  Seriously.  You help keep a lot of crap and spam away from our inboxes and notifications.  I implore you, however, to remember what the intent of LinkedIn is, and with that in mind apply the rules of your discussion groups to maximize dialogue for the benefit of your members.

  • Thank you.

<no marketing message posted here>

Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Seek First to Understand

‘Seek first to understand.’  It’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

This past weekend I came across a blog in a prominent industry magazine’s online edition which was highly critical of a recent response and the state of preparedness of a major metropolitan area.  I was quite set back by how outwardly critical this post was, particularly since the author is rather experienced in emergency management.

No matter what field we are in, we have a tendency to examine, critique, analyze, and criticize.  This is generally healthy and important, especially when there is something that can be learned and applied from the experience.  Things can easily go ugly, though.

The nitty gritty of this is that if you weren’t involved and aren’t providing a critique through something more or less official and reasonably objective, such as an after action report, you generally shouldn’t be commenting (at least publicly).  Why?  Primarily, you very likely don’t have all the information.  Second, what is the criticism gaining you aside from looking like an ass?

Seek first to understand.  That’s the main reason why we, particularly in emergency management, should be looking at other people’s incidents.  Yes, we can examine media reports and other sources of information, but be holistic and comprehensive.  If the people involved in managing the incident made mistakes, then learn from their mistakes.  Don’t criticize them for it – they very likely are already receiving that criticism internally.  They certainly don’t need you to Monday morning quarterback.  It does no one any good.

Pointing fingers at other people only makes them point fingers back and creates a culture of negativity.  In emergency management, we are fortunate enough to have a culture of collaboration, where we are generally willing to share our success and failures with others so that they may learn from them as well.  When we become critical, people become bitter, defensive, and isolationist.

It’s not to say that it’s inappropriate to use an incident as an example.  In December I wrote a post about how People Should Not Die in Exercises, in response to an article about an active shooter exercise in Kenya gone wrong. Was I harsh?  You bet your ass I was – and rightfully so.  The occurrence I wrote about was a great example of what not to do in exercises and an important lesson learned that a lot of people should know about to prevent further loss of life.

While I have as much a history of putting my foot in my mouth as the next person, all I’m saying is be careful how you spend your criticism credits.  When you start to criticize you are no longer seeking to understand.  If you aren’t seeking to understand, then no one learns.

-TR

Emergency Management – Who Knows About Your Plans?

In emergency management and homeland security we put a lot of emphasis on planning.  Plans are important, afterall.  We need to take the time to identify what our likely hazards are and how we will address them.  But what happens when the plan is complete?  We congratulate members of the planning team and send them final copies.  Those copies get filed electronically or end up on a shelf, a trophy of our accomplishment and hard work.  Congratulations!

So… that’s it?  Is that all?

NO!  Of course not!  People need to be trained to the plan.  “Trained?” you ask.  Yes – trained.  Not just sent a copy and told to review it.  Let’s be honest, here.  Even assuming the highest degree of dedication and professionalism, many people simply won’t give it the time and attention it needs.  Very quickly the plan will get buried on their desks or the email will become one of dozens or hundreds in the inbox.  Even if they do give it a look through, most will only give a quick pass through the pages between meetings (or during a meeting!), not giving much attention to the details in the plan.

How effective do you expect people to be?

Sports analogy – when a coach creates new plays, do they simply give them to the players to become familiar with and expect proficiency?  No.  Of course not.  We’re all familiar with the classic, if not cliché, setting of the coach reviewing plays on a chalk board with the players in a locker room.  That’s training.  Then after that training, they go out in the field and practice the plays.

Back to our reality… The first real step of making people familiar with the plan is to review it with them.  This usually doesn’t need to be a sleep inducing line-for-line review of the plan (unless it is a detailed procedure), but a review of the concepts and key roles and responsibilities.  In fact, that’s who you invite to the training – those who are identified in the plan.  This is likely to include people in your own agency as well as people in other agencies (emergency management, after all, is a collaborative effort).  In states with strong county governments, we often see county-level emergency management offices creating plans that dictate or describe the activities of local governments and departments.  Most often, the local departments have no awareness of these plans, much less receive any training on them.  I’m guessing that plan won’t work.

Once you’ve trained these key stakeholders, be sure to conduct exercises on various aspects of the plan.  Exercises serve not only to validate plans, but to also help further familiarize stakeholders with the plan, their roles, and expectations of others.  When we plan, we tend to make many assumptions which exercises help to work through.  Through exercising we also identify other needs we may have.

Need help with planning? Training? Exercises?  EPS can do it!  Link below.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC