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 ℠®

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Reviewing FEMA’s New ELG 2300 EOC Intermediate Course

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the new EOC training courses released by FEMA.  Last week I acquired some additional information on these through a webinar conducted by the course managers from FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI).  In this webinar, they covered the updated ELG 191 (ICS EOC Interface), G 402 (NIMS Overview for Officials), IS 2200 (Basic EOC Operations), and ELG 2300 (Intermediate EOC Operations).  Similar to the rollouts for the new ICS courses, they walked us through comparisons for these new/updated courses (where they exist) and gave some information on the course structure and general content areas.  They also provided plans of instruction, which, for those of you who aren’t instructional designers, are documents foundational to the instructional design process, laying out everything from course objectives, target audience, and materials needed, as well as outlining the content areas for each unit within the course.

First, it’s important to note that EMI stressed these courses being part of a new EOC training track, intended as an analog to the foundational ICS courses, with the vision being that, depending on what the assignment of personnel might be, they may be better suited to take one or the other.  Of course there are some staff that would certainly benefit from both.  I think this is a great move by EMI.  For decades we have been using ICS courses supplemented by home grown courses to produce meaningful training.  Depending on the structure and processes of the EOC, we often had to tell people to ignore parts of the ICS training they had because of how differently the EOC operates.  That said, while these new courses build a much better foundation for EOC training, there will still be a need for some locally developed training to address the specifics of your own EOC.  This is incredibly important… don’t be lazy about this.

The course I had greatest interest in during this webinar was the ELG 2300 – EOC Intermediate course.  This course actually replaces the G 775 EOC course, which I wouldn’t say is equivalent to the new course, but in creating these new courses, the old courses are being fully demobilized.  The course runs for three full days in the classroom, covering EOC skillsets, incident planning, situational awareness, resource management, and the ever-awkward transition to recovery.  Pilot offerings of the course have demonstrated it to be a very full three days, with didactic material reinforced by activities.

From reviewing the Plan of Instruction, here are the items I appreciate in this course:

  • They address an EOC as a nexus of activity within the greater context of emergency management, covering topics such as incident management teams, potential roles, multi-agency coordination, preparedness, and maintaining readiness.
  • Developing EOC plans and standard operating procedures
  • A lot of emphasis on situational awareness
  • They accept the challenge of discussing the different possible EOC organizational models within major topic areas
  • The importance of structured recovery operations and the role of the EOC in these

There are two things I see through the lens of the plan of instruction that I’m not a fan of.  First of all, the first few units seem to have reiterative content.  While it may be with a different focus, topics such as the ICS/EOC interface don’t need to be explained over and over again in each unit.

The second item is a big one, and this brings me back a few years to my first critical piece on ICS training.  This issue is that the course objectives simply don’t line up with what the course needs to be.  Each of the terminal learning objectives of the course center on explain or identify, which reflect a low domain of learning in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Yet the ‘overall course objective’ as stated in the plan of instruction is for students to ‘demonstrate the managerial and operational roles of the modern-day EOC’.  Demonstrate is a higher, application-level domain within the taxonomy, which is absolutely where we should be for a three-day intermediate level course.  The course terminal objectives, however, don’t reflect this higher domain.  Not seeing the actual course material, I’m not able to ascertain if this is a reflection of poor instructional design (not properly aligning the objectives with appropriate course content) or if the content is actually written in accordance with the terminal objectives, thus not meeting the intent of the ‘overall course objective’.

I’m a big proponent of the need for the courses in series to be developmental; with foundational, rote information provided in a basic or awareness level course and a progression to more practical learning occurring at intermediate and advanced levels.  While this course, as I see it, certainly comes a long way to improve our collective preparedness for emergency operations centers, most jurisdictions are not going to commit to sending their staff to three days of training just so they can do a better job of talking about what an EOC is and should do.  They should be coming back with an increased ability to perform.   Given the range of skills and ideal learning outcomes we are really striving for, perhaps we need to transcend the basic-intermediate-advanced training levels and examine the role-based model of awareness-operations-technician-management/command-planning.  This allows for better targeting of learning outcomes based upon what people need.  Just a thought.

Despite my misgivings, we needed to start somewhere with a jumpstarted EOC training program.  This is a great start and I’m sure as this course gets some exercise, there will be some identification of opportunities to improve and better meet the needs of the variety of audiences out there.  I’m looking forward to seeing the course material sometime in the near future.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.

©2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

New FEMA EOC Training Courses Announced

Last night FEMA issued a NIMS Alert (13-19) announcing the release of some new and revised Emergency Operations Center (EOC) training courses.  These include:

E/L/G 191 – Emergency Operations Center/Incident Command System Interface

IS 2200 – Basic Emergency Operations Center Functions

E/L/G 2300 – Intermediate Emergency Operations Center Functions

This is also including an updated G 402 NIMS Overview for Senior Officials.

FEMA is hosting a series of webinars on these courses next week.  Information can be found at the bottom of this post.

First, a bit of background on the nomenclature, for those who might not be familiar.

  • E-coded courses are those offered ‘in residence’ by FEMA, typically at the Emergency Management Institute (EMI)
  • L-coded courses are those delivered by FEMA at various locations, typically at the request of state and local governments
  • G-coded courses are those able to be delivered by state emergency management offices
  • IS-coded courses are independent study courses available from training.fema.gov

Providing a bit of context to these courses.  First, the E/L/G 191 course.  This course has been in dire need of a re-write for a very long time.  While FEMA/EMI certainly have a challenge of developing courses that are applicable to most jurisdictions, I’ve long found the 191 course to be inadequate for most.  Interestingly enough, I found the content of the new IS 2200 course alone to be far superior to any previous content of the 191 course.  That said, I’m interested in seeing what the redesign has brought for the 191 course, hopefully increasing the utility of this course to participants.

Speaking of the IS 2200 course, I just completed this course on EMI’s Independent Study website.  Overall, I found the course to be solid, addressing all the foundational information needed by stakeholders to understand what an EOC is a does, in general terms, how it might be organized, and what it’s primary tasks are.  The course has heavy reference to NIMS, as expected, and provides several hyperlinks to additional resources of relevant interest.  While the course does reflect much of the EOC content from the updated NIMS document, the materials were thoughtfully organized with a fair amount of supplement and context, examples, and even small scenario-driven activities to support a better understanding of EOCS.  As indicated previous, it has a fair amount of information on the concepts of the ICS/EOC interface, which I think are of significant value to people who are new to the world of EOCs.  The course also stresses the value of emergency operations plans, something that had been missing from ICS courses for years prior to an earlier update.

There are some areas where I find the IS 2200 course to be lacking.  First of all, there were some typos and grammatical errors in the product.  While this might not seem like a big deal to some, quality counts.  Similarly, many of the photos used in the course are recycled from many years back of training and are of poor quality and resolution.  Granted, photos from EOCs are generally not exciting or sexy, but higher quality and updated hair styles do contribute to quality.  The traditional Planning P was referenced quite a bit in the course, with the caveat that the EOC should develop its own planning cycle.  I found this to be a bit lazy and would have liked to see some guidance on an EOC-oriented Planning P.  Lastly, I would have liked to see some material on departmental EOCs (DOCs) as well as the interface between a dispatch/public safety answering point (PSAP) and a local EOC.  Perhaps we will see this latter topic addressed in either the 191 course or the Intermediate EOC course.

E/L/G 2300 is the Intermediate EOC course.  I’m very curious to learn more about this course when I sit in on one of next week’s webinars.  The biggest challenge that FEMA has in this course, as I see it, is that there are several organizational models which can be used by EOCs, including the ICS-based model, the incident support model, the departmental model, and the emergency support function model.  This variety, which I think is good to have to help jurisdictions and agencies manage in the way that is most comfortable for them, does create significant difficulty to teach how, in any significant detail, an EOC should function.  While I would love for this course to dive into the EOC’s planning process and key in on roles and responsibilities of positions similar to the ICS 300 course, I think that detail might need to be reserved for a customized course, which I’ve built for various entities through my career.  That said, I’ll be sure to report out following the webinars on my thoughts on the information we are provided.


Additional information is available on these offerings through a series of webinars hosted by FEMA.  The dates and times of the webinars:

  • May 28, 2019 at 11:00 am (EST)
  • May 28, 2019 at 3:00 pm (EST)
  • May 30, 2019 at 11:00 am (EST)
  • May 30, 2019 at 3:00 pm (EST)

 The webinars will be presented through their NIMS ICS Training Forum – Adobe Connect platform here:

The Adobe Connect platform is for displaying visuals and for chatroom only. Audio will be provided using the following conference call line and pin #:

  • Conference Telephone #: 800-320-4330
  • Pin #: 884976

© 2019 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®℠

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FEMA’s Forgotten Civil Defense Role

A recent article posted to the Homeland Security Affairs Journal of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security is quite thought provoking.  The author, Quin Lucie, an attorney with FEMA and former Marine Corps Judge Advocate, posits in his article, How FEMA Could Lose America’s Next Great War, that FEMA’s legal responsibilities for civil defense have been all but forgotten, potentially endangering the welfare of our citizens and our ability to sufficiently mobilize our industrial war complex in the event of a substantial war.

The article has a lot of great depth on the history of civil defense, FEMA, and its predecessor agencies, and the movement of FEMA away from that role, first in favor of work aligned to various mission areas associated with natural hazards, then eventually including human-caused disasters and terrorism.  The author certainly isn’t wrong that civil defense is a ‘hazard’ that we have left out of our all hazards lexicon.

There are arguments that can be made supporting FEMA’s persistence in their civil defense role, with much of the capability they have developed for their own mission and supported for others being truly applicable to all hazards, including civil defense.  We can name myriad programs and capabilities, such as continuity of operations/continuity of government, incident management teams, preparedness standards, and specialized response teams.  Each of these would absolutely have a role in supporting civil defense.  It seems one of the biggest gaps, however, is in planning, where there is little meaningful inclusion of specific civil defense missions, activities, and capabilities; as well as the association of established capabilities and authorities to civil defense missions.

I applaud the author for mentioning that our ways and means of conducting civil defense as we had in the 50s and 60s is not necessarily something to fall back on, as times, needs, and technology have changed.  These factors necessitate even more meaningful analysis, exploration, and deliberation of the role of emergency management as a whole (not just FEMA’s legal responsibilities) in civil defense, especially considering that most, if not all states, have laws on the books for civil defense activity and authority.

As FEMA goes, so does the rest of emergency management, so it’s not a stretch to ascertain that states and localities need to consider this inclusion as well.  At the federal level, laws and executive orders may need to be amended to change with the times and expectations of such activity, followed by frameworks, strategies, and plans, as well as other preparedness measures to support implementation.  Following federal changes, guidance will need to be formulated for states, suggesting any legislative changes they should make to appropriately update to the new vision and synchronize with any changes in federal laws, as well as guidance for state-level planning, which will likely be accompanied by grant funding for this and related activities.

The important perspective with all this is that we are not to be taking a step backwards, but instead re-assessing needs and associated capabilities of an obligation that seems to have been left in the wake of a seemingly forgotten era.  While many of our current capabilities can be leveraged to support civil defense activity, the arrangement and application of such capabilities, as well as the specific laws governing these capabilities, is unique enough to warrant plans exclusive to this function.  We need to look ahead at the challenges we might face in such a situation to ensure our preparedness.   Some have argued that homeland security is the new civil defense, and even I have mentioned that some of these concepts have come full-circle.  While some of that is true, there are also needs and capabilities we haven’t examined since the era of civil defense, which are largely not included in our terrorism preparedness/homeland security efforts.

As always, I’m interested in the thoughts of readers on this topic.  Also, please be sure to read Mr. Lucie’s article referenced at the beginning of this post.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

Preparedness: Integrating Community Lifeline Considerations

Much of preparedness is about getting us ready to conduct situational assessment and prioritization of actions.  We train people and develop resources, such as drones, field-deployed apps, and geographic information systems (GIS) to support situational assessment.  The information we obtain from these assessments help in the development and maintenance of situational awareness and, when shared across disciplines, agencies, and jurisdictions, a common operating picture.  Based upon this information, leaders at all levels make decisions.  These decisions often involve the prioritization of our response and recovery actions.  Ideally, we should have plans in place that establish standards for how we collect, analyze, and share information, and also to support the decision making we must do in prioritizing our actions.  Exercises, of course, help us to validate those plans and practice associated tasks.

One significant hurdle for us is how overwhelming disasters can be.  With just slight increases in the complexity of a disaster, we experience factors such as large geography, extensive damages, high numbers of lives at risk, hazardous materials, and others.  Certainly, we know from Incident Command System training that our broad priorities are life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation – but with all that’s happening, where do we start?

One thing that can help us both assessment and prioritization are community lifelines.  From FEMA: “Community lifelines reframe incident information to provide decision-makers with impact statements and root causes.”  By changing how we frame our data collection, analysis, thinking, and decision-making, we can maximize the effectiveness of our efforts.  This shouldn’t necessitate a change in our processes, but we should incorporate community lifelines into our preparedness activities.

The community lifelines, as identified by FEMA, are:

  • Safety and Security
  • Food, Water, and Sheltering
  • Health and Medical
  • Energy
  • Communications
  • Transportation
  • Hazardous Materials

If this is your first time looking at community lifelines, they certainly shouldn’t be so foreign to you.  In many ways, these are identified components of our critical infrastructure.  By focusing our attention on this list of items, we can affect a more concerted response and recovery.

FEMA guidance goes on to identify essential elements of information (EEI) we should be examining for each community lifeline.  For example, the lifeline of Health and Medical includes the EEIs of:

  • Medical Care
  • Patient Movement
  • Public Health
  • Fatality Management
  • Health Care Supply Chain

Of course, you can dig even deeper when analyzing any of these EEIs to identify the status and root cause of failure, which will then support the prioritization of actions to address the identified failures.  First we seek to stabilize, then restore.  For example, within just the EEI of Fatality Management, you can examine components such as:

  • Mortuary and post-mortuary services
  • Transportation, storage, and disposal resources
  • Body recovery and processing
  • Family assistance

The organization of situation reports, particularly those shared with the media, public, and other external partners might benefit from being organized by community lifelines.  These are concepts that are generally tangible to many people, and highlight many of the top factors we examine in emergency management.

Back in March of this year, FEMA released the Community Lifelines Implementation Toolkit, which provides some great information on the lifelines and some information on how to integrate them into your preparedness.  These can go a long way, but I’d also like to see some more direct application as an addendum to CPG-101 to demonstrate how community lifelines can be integrated into planning.  Further, while I understanding that FEMA is using the community lifeline concept for its own assessments and reporting, the community aspect of these should be better emphasized, and as such identifying some of the very FEMA- and IMAT-centric materials on this page as being mostly for federal application.

Has your jurisdiction already integrated community lifelines into your preparedness?  What best practices have you identified?

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

A FEMA Pilot Program? Maybe?

A few days ago, Homeland Security Today posted an article titled FEMA Creates Pilot Program for Long-term Emergency Management.  It seemed intriguing, so I took a look.  The article is pretty much verbatim (no fault of HS Today) from the press release posted by FEMA of the same title (linked to in the article).  Needless to say, I’m confused.

The press release states that FEMA has developed a pilot program to provide free training to local emergency managers across Puerto Rico to better prepare their disaster response capabilities.  There is an out of place name drop of sorts of the Incident Command System in the release, as well as a statement that the trainings ‘aim to improve capabilities of Puerto Rico Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Administration staff’, yet earlier the emphasis was on local emergency managers.

The training they are offering is certainly great and wholly appropriate, covering topics such as emergency planning, debris management planning, points of distribution, and threat and hazard identification and risk assessment (THIRA), as well as courses in American Sign Language.  The release also cites a train the trainer course to be delivered, but doesn’t indicate if it is specific to any of these courses or a general instructor development course.

Are you as confused as I am?  Perhaps it’s because the press release is incredibly poorly written, or maybe because this ‘pilot program’ is poorly conceived. A few thoughts…

  • I’m not sure what this is a pilot program of. Aside from the ASL training (which I think is a great addition, though I hope they realize that someone going through one ASL course still isn’t going to know squat, so hopefully it’s more than that) these courses are a regular part of FEMA’s training repertoire, which are typically provided at no charge.
  • While training certainly contributes to increased preparedness, I would have hoped that an area as vulnerable as Puerto Rico would get more than just training. Preparedness, comprehensively, is comprised of planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercises (POETE), with continued assessments throughout.  Training is absolutely important, and I agree with the premise of supporting activities by teaching people how to do them for themselves.  While I understand that other resources have been provided to PR, especially in the wake of 2017’s hurricane impacts, this release awkwardly isolates the training efforts.
  • I’m still stuck on the mention of ICS in this release. It’s completely out of context, especially since there is no indication of any ICS training being provided.

Perhaps I’m being a bit nit-picky with this, but if you are going to advertise an effort, there are a spectrum of right and wrong ways to do so.  While every organization is flawed, I’m a big fan of FEMA, including many of their training programs (ok… maybe with the exception of ICS training).  Further, as a former State Training Officer, I’m big on needs-driven training and training being part of a comprehensive preparedness program.  It’s certainly very appropriate that FEMA is helping to support and boost preparedness in PR, but this release is either misleading, misinformed, or poorly written.

I know that a lot of FEMA folks, including some from EMI, read my blog.  Can anyone provide some clarification on this?  I’ll be happy to post an update!

– Tim Riecker, CEDP

10 Strategies for Improving Emergency Management

I recently listened to an interview with author and professor Sean McFate.  In the interview he discusses the changing landscape of warfare and what the US must do to keep up, particularly since we are still largely stuck in a mindset of conventional warfare.  For those interested in this very insightful interview, it was on The Security Studies Podcast.

Obviously, a great deal has changed over the decades in warfare, but many philosophies and perspectives have remained the same.  As I listened to the interview, I found McFate’s words to ring true for emergency management as well.  We have had some changes in focus from civil defense, to natural hazards, to terrorism, and now toward what seems to be the most comprehensive all-hazards perspective we’ve ever had.  We’ve also had changes in technology and methodologies, but we still seem stuck in a lot of old ways of thinking.  Emergency management isn’t linear.  In fact the lines are blurred so much that it’s hardly cyclical (another old way of thinking).

McFate espoused that high-level warfare strategies should span administrations and leadership changes.  They should be durable and adaptable.  In the interview he discussed 10 new rule of war, which were summarized from his new book.  As such, I offer 10 strategies for improving emergency management.  You will see that most of these items aren’t radical.  The fundamentals of what we do in emergency management must certainly persist, but some perspectives do need to change.  Here’s what I have to offer:

  1. More incentivization for data-driven hazard mitigation and resilience

There are a few items to unpack in this one.  First of all, fully bringing the concept of resilience on board and marrying it up hazard mitigation.  Where there is some overlap in the two, there are also distinct differences.  Ultimately, however, the ideal end state for the two is the same: eliminate or significantly reduce hazards and impacts from those hazards.  The more we start discussing hazard mitigation and resilience together, the more we will see the linkages between the two.  Hazard mitigation funding, likewise, needs to be broadened to incorporate concepts of resilience.

Another key item here is making these projects data-driven.  Let’s do a better job of quantifying risk in relatable terms.  Risk needs to include not only immediate potential impacts, but also cascading effects.  Once we have that impact data, then root cause analysis is important.  Some of this is regulation, some engineering, some human behavior.  Also keep in mind that this needs to truly be all-hazards.

Lastly, incentivization.  Incentivization isn’t just funding, and gold stickers are not tangible incentives.  Make it meaningful.  Also make these incentives more immediate.  It’s great that mitigation measures can result in a locality paying a lower percentage in the event of a future public assistance declaration, but that could happen years from now, or it might not.  That’s still good to include, but let’s be real – tax payers and law makers don’t just want to dream about the reward, they want to enjoy it now.

  1. Ground preparedness in reality

I’ve seen a lot of preparedness activities (planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercises) based on someone’s “good ideas” instead of actual data and needs.  It’s no coincidence that I just mentioned data in the previous point.  How many jurisdictions actually use all that data from their hazard mitigation plan, generally synthesized at significant expense, for other emergency management needs?  It’s quite a rare occasion.  Why?  Most practitioners view hazard mitigation to be a totally different animal.  It’s not sexy response stuff, so they don’t see a need to pay attention to it.  Instead, they fully dismiss what was done for hazard mitigation planning and do their own hazard analysis.  It seems to be a no-brainer that we should do better at developing one system to meet both needs.

Needs assessments take time and that has a cost, but leadership should be making informed decisions about what preparedness needs exist.  Absent conducting a needs assessment, the wrong decisions can easily be made, which results in a waste of time and money.  Most every emergency management agency has a story of time and money wasted on knee-jerk reactions.

Needs assessments should be applied to every aspects of preparedness.  In planning, we want to minimize assumptions and maximize data.  If an incident of the type you are looking at has never happened in your jurisdiction, make comparisons other similar jurisdictions.  Training programs should be based on identified needs, and individual courses should be developed based upon identified needs.  Probably a good opportunity for me to mention that ICS Training Sucks (but a realistic training needs assessment would fix it).  Similarly, the objectives we identify for exercises should be grounded in recognizing what capabilities and plans we need to validate.

Observation: When we look at the 32 Core Capabilities from the National Preparedness Goal, Threat and Hazard Identification is a Core Capability sitting in the Mitigation mission area.  If threat and hazard identification is so fundamental to what we do across all of emergency management, why isn’t it a common capability along with Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning?  Perhaps that needs to change?

  1. Boost regional efforts and coalitions

It’s interesting that everyone talks about how emergency management is a collaborative effort, yet in practice so many are resistant, reluctant, or negligent in working collaboratively.  Sure, it’s often easier to write a plan yourself, but the end result likely isn’t as good as it would be from a group effort.  In healthcare preparedness (yep, that’s a part of emergency management, too), they have been using regional healthcare coalitions.  These coalitions cover all aspects of healthcare, from hospitals, to clinics, to private practices, nursing homes, and EMS, along with health departments.

There is certainly precedent in emergency management to work collaboratively.  There are required collaborations, such as Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), as well as those emphasized in practice, such as in plan development.  LEPCs are great, and often under-utilized in a lot of areas.  In some areas, especially those with heavy industry, they are large and busy, and can’t really take on any more than they already do, but in other areas they have much less to do and could certainly work with a dual purpose as a standing emergency management coordination or advisement entity.  Regardless of how it’s done, build a local or regional EM coalition.  The relationships and perspectives, if properly organized and tasked, will reap some great benefits.  Don’t forget to make them regional, if that makes sense for you.  Disasters don’t give a damn about the funny lines we draw on maps.  And don’t just make these groups about meetings… actually engage them in meaningful preparedness activities and other aspects of emergency management.

  1. Embrace scholar-practitioners

One of the items McFate mentioned in his interview was embracing scholar-practitioners. Now I’m not the kind of person to espouse that a practitioner is any better than a scholar, or vice versa.  They each have an important role, especially in a profession like emergency management, where there is a lot of theory (more than most people realize) and a lot of application.  That said, we don’t have to pick a side.  You can be whoever you want, in fact you can even do both.  Does being a practitioner mean that you have to be a full-time emergency manager? Nope.  Being a scholar doesn’t necessarily mean you must be a professor or a student pursuing an advanced degree, either.  I would absolutely argue that regularly reading some research papers or a book on related topics, or even this blog, makes you a scholar.  If you have interest beyond just direct application, and like to think or discuss broader ideas in emergency management, that makes you a scholar.

I think it is scholar-practitioners that have that capacity to advance our profession more than others.  Not only is this group doing, but they are thinking about how to do it better.  If they come up with an idea of how to do it better, they have the greatest chance of actually giving their idea a try.  They are also the ones most prone to share their lessons learned, both successes and otherwise.

  1. Understand emergency management as a social science

Speaking of theory, we need to recognize emergency management for what it is.  While specific applications of emergency management may be within niche areas of practice and academic disciplines, most of emergency management is really a social science.  Social science is fundamentally about the relationships of people.  That is what we do in emergency management.  There are aspects of social science that may apply more than others, such as sociology or public health, but we also need to embrace political science.

In application, emergency managers need to become more astute in politics.  Not the partisan running for office type of politics, but politics as an aspect of governance, policy, and relationship building.  As an emergency manager, it’s your job to understand what every agency and department does in your jurisdiction, and how they fit into the function of emergency management.  Yes, you can espouse the benefits of emergency management and business continuity to them, but how do they fit into emergency management?  Some connections are easy to make, especially the public safety ones or extensions of that such as transportation, public works, and public health.  But many are quick to dismiss administrative, support, and social welfare agencies.  The better you understand them and are able to champion their involvement in emergency management, the stronger coalition you will build.

  1. Mindset: always in the disaster space

I mentioned in the introduction that the lines between the phases of emergency management are blurred.  We used to teach (and some still do) of distinct phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.  Sure it’s easier to teach about these when we put them in their own box, but that gives the impression to many that we only do one at a time.  The reality is that most jurisdictions are certainly doing mitigation, preparedness, and recovery right now – and maybe even some element of response.

The main point here is that we need to change mindsets of people.  I’ve had plenty of people ask me what emergency managers do when there isn’t an active disaster.  I certainly have no problem satisfying this common curiosity, but the simple fact that they ask means that we aren’t promoting enough of what we do.  We need put ourselves and others in the mindset that are always operating in the disaster space.  It doesn’t need to mean that there is always a disaster response we are involved in, but we need to be very clear that we are active every single day in disaster-related work.

I’ll take this one step further, and that’s to suggest that the primary function of every government agency is emergency management.  Consider that we have roads not only for ease of everyone’s transportation, but so that we can more quickly and efficient respond to save lives and property.  Our public works departments provide potable water and sewage systems for public health purposes, which is part of the greater emergency management family.  I could give examples for every government agency.  The administrative departments support those agencies and the implementation of their missions.

It’s also worth mentioning here that since several of these agencies have involvement in our infrastructure that we need to seriously step up our investments in infrastructure, which not only make it better and more effective and efficient, but also more resilient (tying back to my first point)

  1. Step away from tactics

Far too many emergency managers still focus on tactics.  In defense of that, it’s easy to do, especially if you come from a public safety background.  I still think it’s important to understand tactics.  That said, an effective emergency manager needs to think less about implementation and more about strategy and relationships. There are plenty of tacticians out there.  One more isn’t needed.  What is needed is someone who can step back and see the forest for the trees, as they say.

  1. Private citizens won’t prepare, but volunteers can be engaged

We need to let citizen preparedness go.  I’m not saying we should give up on our message of individual and family preparedness, because it can make a difference, but we need to recognize that most citizens simply won’t do it.  This is a concept that has largely evolved out of society.  In the days of civil defense we were engaging a different generation of people.  We also presented them with a credible and scary threat that was being put in their face all the time.  Now is not that time.  Sure, there are models of citizen preparedness that still work to extraordinary lengths, such as in Cuba, but government oppression and a cold war mentality contribute significantly to that.  Our society has evolved to an extent of individuals not having the time, wherewithal, or interest in preparing themselves.  Sure there are exceptions to every rule, but largely, society has an expectation of being provided for by the government.

Citizen engagement, on the other hand, is still a great reserve that we can spend more effort tapping.  Trained, organized volunteers can accomplish an incredible extent of activity.  Volunteer management is no easy task, though.  Programs need to be developed and promoted, volunteers recruited and trained, and organizations sustained.  Volunteers must be given purpose and don’t forget about the critical link with government… how will this happen.  Religious institutions, corporate and union volunteer groups, and entities such as CERT are all great.  We just need to do a better job at incentivizing, managing, and engaging.

  1. Plan better for recovery

Ah, recovery.  Everyone talks about how we need to do it better, but too few resources are applied to making that happen.  Remember that preparedness starts with a needs assessment and planning.  We can identify estimates of disaster impacts from which we then extrapolate reasonable benchmarks of performance within the core capabilities of recovery.  The problem is that most recovery plans are written at too high a level and generally not followed through on.  Why? Maybe because the emphasis is always on the life safety aspect of response plans.  Certainly that’s important (and we can still do so much better with our response plans), but most recovery oriented plans fall incredibly short.  It seems that most governments that even bother to write recovery plans only do so to the extent of the plan being a framework.  They identify what the goals are, what agencies are involved, and provide some high-level objectives.  Typically no strategy is provided and the management of the recovery function is rarely mentioned, despite such a focus that we have on incident management.

I just recently had a discussion with a client about recovery exercises.  They were approached about the need to conduct more of them.  Smartly, they responded by putting the focus back on the requester by asking if the recovery plans were ready to be exercised.  Once the requestor took a moment to consider, their answer was no.  Remember that (in most cases) exercises validate plans.  We can conduct an exercise in the absence of a plan, but generally that only confirms the lack of a plan.  Plans establish the standards of performance that we use in exercises and in real life.

  1. Use technology to the greatest extent, but prepare for austerity

Ah, technology.  It’s a wonderful thing, until it doesn’t work.  I’m a big fan of the efficiencies that technology provide, especially when technology is developed to solve a specific problem, not to create new ones.  Processes should dictate technology needs, not the other way around.

Technology is mostly a data tool.  It helps us to communicate more quickly and efficiently; access, organize, and transmit data; visualize data; and collect data.  More specifically, we use technology platforms such as EOC management systems and GIS.  These have allowed us to make significant strides in what we do and how we do it.  I’ve used dashboards, databases, maps, 3D models, simulators, and more to do my job.

I’ve seen some emergency managers simply not embrace technology.  And I mean at all.  Not even a computer.  I understand how they are able to function, and though they may have brilliant minds for emergency management, they are simply not able to do much without an assistant to research, type, print, and even communicate for them.  While I’m seeing this less and less, there are still some of these folks out there, and it’s not just older generations, either.

There are many who have a reasonable literacy of technology, but still aren’t embracing inexpensive or even free resources that would make them more effective.  This is even more important for the majority of emergency managers, who are typically one-person offices with few resources.   Maybe listing some of these resources will occur in a future post of mine.

Despite the wonders of technology, I often advocate procedures for going dark (i.e. when your technology fails).  After all, we are emergency managers, are we not?  Every EOC that uses a technology tool to manage functions within their EOC should absolutely have a low tech back up, procedures and training in how to implement it, and an annual exercise to test those procedures and keep people in practice.  Carbon paper and gas station maps are your friends.

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Well there they are: 10 strategies for improving emergency management.  As I stated in the introduction, there really isn’t anything revolutionary here, although some concepts might be a bit controversial, which I am happy to embrace.  Perhaps I missed an important point or have a poor perspective on something.  I absolutely welcome your comments and feedback, as always.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®