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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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℠®

Changing The Lexicon on Terrorism Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

A couple months ago I posted about NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response Program.  Soon after posting, I ended up purchasing a copy of the standard and, combined with other readings and discussions, am fully bought into not only this standard but a change in our lexicon for this type of incident.

NFPA3000

First off, in regard to NFPA 3000, it’s not rocket science.  There is nothing in this standard that is earth shattering or itself wholly changing to what we do or how we do it.  But that’s not the intent of NFPA standards.  NFPA technical committees compile standards based upon best practices in the field. The standards they create are just that – standards.  They are a benchmark for reference as we apply the principles contained therein.  NFPA 3000 provides solid guidance that everyone in EM/HS should be paying attention to.

What NFPA 3000 has helped me realize is that our focus has been wrong for a while.  Terrorism isn’t necessarily the thing we need to be preparing for.  Why?

First, let’s look at what is generally referenced definition of terrorism in the United States.  This comes from Title 22 Chapter 38 US Code § 2656f.  It states that terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’.  Note that the definition focuses on motive more than action or consequence.  While motive is very important in prevention/intelligence and prosecution, it is far less important to most preparedness, response, and recovery activities.

The term ‘active shooter’ has been used quite a bit, yet it’s not a good description of what communities and responders can face when we consider that perpetrators could use means and methods instead of or in addition to firearms.  We’ve seen a wide variety of these instances that involve knives, vehicles, improvised explosives, and more.

This is why I prefer the term ‘active shooter/hostile event response’ or ASHER.  While the term has been around for a bit (a quick internet search shows references going back to at least 2013), NFPA 3000 has essentially canonized it in our lexicon.  The definition provided in NFPA 3000 is focused on the incident, rather than the motivation, and is comprehensive of any means or methods which could be used.  That definition is – Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER): An incident where one or more individuals are or have been active engaged in harming, killing, or attempting to kill people in a populated area by means such as firearms, explosives, toxic substances, vehicles, edged weapons, fire, or a combination thereof.

When it comes to preparedness, response, and recovery ASHER is the focus we need to have.  Motivations generally make little difference in how we should respond.  We should always be looking for secondary devices or other attackers – these are not features unique to terrorist attacks.  As we do with any crime scene, we should always be mindful of evidence that can lead us to the motives and potential co-conspirators of an attacker.  That’s important for investigation, prosecution, and the prevention of further attacks.  Does the term ‘terrorism’ still have a place?  Of course it does.  In our legal system, that’s an important definition.  Philosophically, we can argue that all attacks are acts of terror, but because of the legal definition that exists of terrorism, we can’t – at least in the US.

I encourage everyone to start making the move to changing the lexicon to ASHER where appropriate.  It makes sense and gives us the proper perspective.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC ™

Course Review: AWR-147 Rail Car Incident Response

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend AWR-147 Rail Car Incident Response conducted by the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium (RDPC) and Findlay University.  This is a one day awareness level course that focused on response to incidents involving freight rail cars and hazardous materials.

AWR-147 Participant Manual

AWR-147 Participant Manual

All in all this was a good course which I recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to attend it.  For those not familiar with the RDPC you can find their website at https://www.ruraltraining.org/.  Although only an awareness level course, it is suitable for any responder or emergency manager who has a jurisdiction with freight rail lines.  It’s also quite suitable as additional training for HazMat teams, as the information provided relative to the identification of the different types of rail cars and potential hazards associated with them is excellent.

The course construction follows the usual DHS format, including a pre and post test, plenty of student materials, and a mix of instruction, videos, and participant interaction and discussion.  Given the variety of rail cars which can be encountered and rail incidents do dissect, there are plenty of visuals and case studies to drive the program.

I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of a unit to discuss current topics, particularly Bakken crude and even a bit on HazMat associated with passenger train incidents.  Also, while the course focused on response, there was little mention of community preparedness measures which can/should be taken.  Of course I had a small ulcer form with one of the final units which was on NIMS/ICS.  I see little value in rehashing the primary components of NIMS and showing an ICS org chart, particularly when there is little/no discussion on the nuances of applicability relative to a rail incident.  It was all rather gratuitous.

There were some great activities which reinforced use of the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook as well as other sources of information which can be referenced during a rail response, including a worksheet which could easily be used as a job aid for real life application.  Along with the participant manual, all students received a copy of the current DOT Guidebook as well as the Association of American Railroads Field Guide to Tank Cars, which is a handy reference to help you identify the specific type of tank car you are dealing with and where key infrastructure on each (brakes, vents, valves, etc.) can be located.

This was the first course I had taken from the RDPC, although I have been aware of their course selection for quite some time and have referred others to their great array of courses.  Don’t let the term ‘rural’ fool you – the material they teach is relevant to rural, suburban, and urban responders alike.  I had taken CSX’s rail response course several years ago and this course blows it away.  Overall well done and highly recommended.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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