Emergency Management and Public Safety Should Prepare Like a Sports Team

When and how did a once-annual exercise become the standard for preparedness?  I suppose that’s fine for a whole plan, but most plans can be carved into logical components that can be not only exercised to various degrees, but training can also be provided to support and compliment each of those components.  There are a lot of elements and activities associated with preparedness.  Consider how sports teams prepare. They are in a constant yet dynamic state of readiness.

Sports teams will review footage of their opponents playing as well as their own games.  We can equate those to reviews of after-action reports, not only of their own performance, but also of others – and with high frequency.  How well does your organization do with this quiz?

  • Do you develop after action reports from incidents, events, and exercises?
  • Are they reviewed with all staff and stakeholders or just key individuals?
  • Are they reviewed more than once or simply archived?
  • Are improvements tracked and reviewed with staff and stakeholders?
  • Do your staff and stakeholders review after action reports from other incidents around the nation?

Planning is obviously important – it’s the cornerstone of preparedness.  Coaches look at standards of practice in the sport, best practices, and maybe come up with their own innovations.  They examine the capabilities of their players and balance those with the capabilities of the opposing team.  They have a standard play book (plan), but that may be modified based upon the specific opponent they are facing.  Their plans are constantly revisited based upon the results of practices, drills, and games.  Plans let everyone know what their role is.

  • Do your plans consider the capabilities of your organization or jurisdiction?
  • Do they truly include the activities needed to address all hazards?
  • Are your plans examined and updated based upon after action reports from incidents, events, and exercises?
  • Are your plans flexible enough for leadership to call an audible and deviate from the plan if needed?
  • Is your organization agile enough to adapt to changes in plans and audibles? How are ad-hoc changes communicated?

Training is a tool for communicating the plan and specific roles, as well as giving people the knowledge and skills needed to execute those roles with precision.  Sports players study their playbooks.  They may spend time in a classroom environment being trained by coaches on the essential components of plays.  Training needs are identified not only from the playbook, but also from after action reviews.

  • Is your training needs-based?
  • How do you train staff and stakeholders to the plan?
  • What training do you provide to help people staffing each key role to improve their performance?

Lastly, exercises are essential.  In sports there are drills and practices.  Drills are used to hone key skill sets (passing, catching, hitting, and shooting) while practices put those skill sets together.  The frequency of drills and practices for sports teams is astounding.  They recognize that guided repetition builds familiarity with plans and hones the skills they learned.  How well do you think a sports team would perform if they only exercised once a year?  So why do you?

  • What are the essential skill sets your staff and stakeholders should be honing?
  • What is your frequency of exercises?
  • Do your exercises build on each other?

I also want to throw in a nod to communication.  Even if you aren’t a sports fan, go attend a local game.  It could be anything… hockey, baseball, soccer, basketball, football… whatever.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be pro.  Varsity, college, or semi-pro would certainly suffice.  Even if you don’t stay for the whole game, there is a lot you can pick up.  Focus on the communication between and amongst players and coaches.  Depending on where you are sitting, you might not be able to hear or understand what they are saying, but what you will notice is constant communication.  Before plays, between plays, and during plays.  Sometimes that communication isn’t just verbal – it might be the tapping of a hockey stick on the ice, clapping of hands, finger pointing, or a hand wave or other silent signal.  Coaches are constantly talking to each other on the bench and with players, giving direction and encouragement.  There is a lot going on… strategy, tactics, offense, defense.  What lessons can you apply to your organization?

Lastly, accomplishments should be celebrated.  In public safety, we tend to ignore a lot of best practices not only of sports teams, but also in general employee relations.  Because of the nature of emergency management and other public safety endeavors, it’s easy to excuse getting stuck in the same rut… we get ready for the next incident, we respond to that incident, and we barely have time to clean up from that incident before the next one comes.  Take a moment to breathe and to celebrate accomplishments.  It’s not only people that need it, but also organizations as a whole.

What lessons can you apply from sports teams to your organization?

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠

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EOC Skillsets and Position Task Books Finalized

Back in April, FEMA released the drafts of EOC skillset documents and position task books for public comment.  A few days ago, the final versions of these documents were released on FEMA’s National Qualification System (NQS) website: www.fema.gov/national-qualification-system.

While the hub of emergency response is the incident command post, the hub of emergency coordination is the Emergency Operations Center.  While life saving tactics, directed from the ICP, are absolutely essential, a comprehensive and long-term response can’t be sustained without the activities of an EOC.  We have gone far too long in emergency management without having good national guidance on the organization and qualification of personnel in the EOC.

When you crack into the website you may be a bit overwhelmed by all the documents you find.  Don’t look to this as something that must be implemented 100% right away.  Take a deep breath and remember that most things done well in emergency management, ironically enough, are an evolution and take time.  Also remember that while this has been established as guidance, it’s not a requirement.  Implement what you can, when you can.  Focus on establishing a foundation you can build from and do what makes sense for your jurisdiction or organization.

The foundation of everything in emergency management is planning, so whatever you do decide to implement should find its way into plans, which may need to be supported by policy.  While implementing a qualification system with task books can be cumbersome, it can also solve some problems when it comes to having less than qualified personnel working in your EOC.  The position task books are a great way for individuals to see what standards they are being held to and allows them to track progress.  If you don’t feel that the use of position task books will work for your jurisdiction or you are on a slower track to implementation, it’s still worthwhile to examine the skillset documents for each position you have identified in your EOC.  These can support your own developed standards, expectations, and plans; serve as a foundation for training course development; and support exercise evaluation.

Lastly, talk about these with your committees and your peers.  It’s easy to forget about them so keep these visible.  These documents offer an abundance of solid guidance which can strongly support your operational coordination.

What are your thoughts on the EOC skillsets? Do you plan on implementing them in your system?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠

NIMS is Worthless, Unless You Put it into Action

It’s so often that I hear people proclaim in response to a problem that NIMS will fix it.  I’ve written in the past that many organizations reference the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) in their plans, as they should, but it’s often a reference with no substance.  The devil is in the details, as the saying goes; and the details of implementation are necessary to ensure that difficulties can be overcome.

The premise is simple… NIMS is a doctrine, only as valuable as the paper you print it on.  So fundamentally, NIMS has no value – unless it is implemented.  This human factor is the biggest hurdle organizations and jurisdictions must face, yet so many are lulled into a false sense of security because they cite it in their plans and they’ve taken some ICS courses.  I encourage every organization to review the NIMS doctrine and give your organization an honest assessment of how you are actually following it.  It’s bound to be pretty eye opening for many.

nims_document

We also have to keep in mind that NIMS isn’t just for your own organization.  While there are plenty of great practices in NIMS for your own organization, the greatest value in it is for multi-agency responses.  These don’t have to be to the extent of Hurricane Katrina or a massive wildfire, either.  Multi-agency responses occur in most jurisdictions every day – even what we regard as some of the most simple or routine incidents require multiple agencies to respond.  While the actions and responsibilities of these agencies are fairly rote and well-practiced, a slight increase in complexity can cause significant changes.

Consider that different agencies, even those within the same discipline have some different ways of doing things.  These can be simply in the mechanics of what they do, or they can be driven by procedures, equipment, or personality.  Some of this may be in writing, some may not.  Where this matters is in tactics.  NIMS won’t solve differences in tactical application or ensuring interoperability.  Only preparedness can accomplish that.  Before an incident occurs, we need to be having regular conversations with other agencies within our jurisdiction and outside of it.  How often do you exercise with your mutual aid partners?  I mean really exercise with them…  It’s great that you all arrive to the exercise site and set up your own stuff, but how about mixing and matching equipment?  What will work?  What won’t?  How will it impact tactical application?  These are some of the most meaningful lessons learned.

Bottom line – don’t try to pencil-whip NIMS as the solution to your problems.  It’s meaningless unless it’s actually put into action – and the way to proactively do that is through preparedness efforts.   Work together through POETE activities – Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercises.  Once you put the concepts of NIMS into action, then it will work for you!

How has your organization implemented NIMS concepts?

© 2017 –  Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Supporting a Public Safety Training Program

Today happens to be National Teacher’s Day.  Be sure to show some appreciation for the teachers and professors who have influenced you and provide quality experiences for your kids.  Also consider expanding the definition of ‘teacher’.  In the public safety professions, we do a lot of training.  Some of us have structured academies, and while others may not, there are a lot of training opportunities provided locally, state-wide, and nationally.  Depending on the size and scope of your agency, you may run your own training program for internal, and potentially external stakeholders.

For a few years, I ran the training and exercise program of a state emergency management agency.  We delivered training programs state-wide to a variety of stakeholders.  We also developed some training programs to address needs which curricula from FEMA or other national providers could not meet.  Fundamentally, delivering training is easy, but properly managing a training program can have challenges.  Some thoughts…

  • Find the right people for the job. While we hired some personnel full time to be trainers, we also used people from elsewhere in the agency, as well as personnel from partner agencies, and hired some as 1099 employees.  There are a lot of highly qualified individuals in public safety – if you don’t know any, just ask, and they will be sure to tell you!  Assuming their qualifications are valid, are the most experienced and knowledgeable people always the best instructors?  Absolutely not.  While they may be subject matter experts, it doesn’t mean they have good presentation skills, much less comfort in doing so.  On the flip side, you might also have someone with little experience who has great delivery skills.  That might be a person to develop.
  • Quality control. When people are delivering training, peek in once in a while.  I traveled around the state regularly, and once in a while would see if one of our courses was being held somewhere along my route.  If I had the time, I would stop in and see how things were going.  While the visit was a surprise, our instructors knew this is something that might happen.  There are a few things this accomplishes.  First of all, it gives you an opportunity to observe and provide feedback.  Everyone can improve, and hopefully they can handle some constructive feedback.  Evaluation, formal or informal, is positive for the instructor and the program.  Look for consistency of practice (see the next bullet point) and professionalism.  On one of my surprise visits, I found an instructor wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.  When I discussed it with him, his response was that he was ‘retired’ (teaching for the agency was a retirement job for him) and that he could do whatever he wanted to.  After that discussion was happy to retire him further. Stopping in also shows support for your instructors and for the program as a whole.  Weather traveling across the state or down the hall, instructors want to know they are being supported.  A big part of support is simply being present.
  • Consistency counts. Training programs should be consistent.  While we might change around some examples or in-class scenarios, training delivered in one location by instructor a should largely match the training delivered another day, in a different location by instructor b.  Coming up through the ranks as a field trainer, I was part of a group that wanted to heavily modify the courses we delivered.  As I rose to management, I realized how detrimental this was.  If improvements are warranted, work with your instructors to integrate those improvements into the course.  Make sure that improvements are in line with best practices, not only in instructional design (remember: content must match objectives), but also with the subject matter.  Consistency not only ensures that all your learners are provided the same information, but also makes your curriculum and instructors more legally sound.  Too often we see instructors ‘going rogue’, thinking that they know a better way.
  • Programs need systems. A big part of building and maintaining a program is having adequate systems in place.  Systems require policies, procedures, and tools.  This is largely the behind the scenes stuff of a training program.  This includes annual curriculum reviews, performance reviews of instructors, selection/hiring and firing of instructors, maintaining instructors (see the next bullet), ordering course materials, maintaining training records, posting a course, course registrations, course cancellations, and so much more.  While it sounds bureaucratic, there should be a piece of paper that covers every major activity, identifying how it’s done, by who, with what approvals, and at what time.  Systems make sure that things aren’t missed, give you a basis of performance to evaluate the system and to train new staff, and help ensure consistency.  Systems contribute to your professionalism and are also good practices for business continuity.  Lots of credit to Cindy who was highly dedicated to establishing systems!
  • Keep instructors engaged. With either a large or small training shop, it’s important to maintain contact with your instructors.  Not just in handing them assignments and shuffling paperwork, but to really engage them.  We established twice a year ‘instructor workshops’, bringing our instructors together for two days.  From a management and administrative perspective, we used some of this time to express appreciation for their work, and provide information on curriculum updates and other information.  We encouraged much of the workshop agenda to be developed by the instructors themselves, with professional development provided by their peers.  This could include instructor development, after action reviews of incidents, case studies, and a variety of other activities and information.

Those are just a few tips and lessons learned.  I’m sure you may also have some to add to the list – and please do!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Measuring Preparedness – An Executive Academy Perspective

A recent class of FEMA’s Emergency Management Executive Academy published a paper titled Are We Prepared Yet? in the latest issue of the Domestic Preparedness Journal.  It’s a solid read, and I encourage everyone to look it over.

First off, I wasn’t aware of the scope of work conducted in the Executive Academy.  I think that having groups publish papers is an extremely important element.  Given that the participants of the Executive Academy function, presently or in the near future, at the executive level in emergency management and/or homeland security, giving others the opportunity to learn from their insight on topics discussed in their sessions is quite valuable.  I need to do some poking around to see if papers written by other groups can be found.

As most of my readers are familiar, the emphasis of my career has always been in the realm of preparedness.  As such, it’s an important topic to me and I tend to gravitate to publications and ideas I can find on the topic.  The authors of this paper bring up some excellent points, many of which I’ve covered in articles past.  They indicate a variety of sources, including literature reviews and interviews, which I wish they would have cited more completely.

Some points of discussion…

THIRA

The authors discuss the THIRA and SPR – two related processes/products which I find to be extremely valuable.  They indicate that many believe the THIRA to be complex and challenging.  This I would fully agree with, however I posit that there are few things in the world that are both simple and comprehensive in nature.  In particular regard to emergency management and homeland security, the inputs that inform and influence our decisions and actions are so varied, yet so relevant, that to ignore most of them would put us at a significant disadvantage.  While I believe that anything can be improved upon, THIRA and SPR included, this is something we can’t afford to overly simplify.

What was most disappointing in this topic area was their finding that only a scant majority of people they surveyed felt that THIRA provided useful or actionable information.  This leaves me scratching my head.  A properly done THIRA provides a plethora of useful information – especially when coupled with the SPR (POETE) process.  Regardless, the findings of the authors suggest that we need to take another look at THIRA and SPR to see what can be improved upon, both in process and result.

Moving forward within the discussion of THIRA and SPR, the authors include discussion of something they highlight as a best practice, that being New York State’s County Emergency Preparedness Assessment (CEPA).  The intent behind the CEPA is sound – a simplified version of the THIRA which is faster and easier to do for local governments throughout the state.  The CEPA includes foundational information, such as a factual overview of the jurisdiction, and a hazard analysis which ranks hazards based upon likelihood and consequence.  It then analyses a set of capabilities based upon the POETE elements.  While I love their inclusion of POETE (you all know I’m a huge fan), the capabilities they use are a mix of the current Core Capabilities (ref: National Preparedness Goal) and the old Target Capabilities, along with a few not consistent with either and a number of Core Capabilities left out.  This is where the CEPA falls apart for me.  It is this inconsistency with the National Preparedness Goal that turns me off.  Any local governments looking to do work in accordance with the NPG and related elements, including grants, then need to cross walk this data, as does the state in their roll-up of this information to their THIRA and SPR.

The CEPA continues with an examination of response capacity, along the lines of their response-oriented capabilities.  This is a valuable analysis and I expect it becomes quite a reality check for many jurisdictions.  This is coupled with information not only on immediate response, but also sustained response over longer periods of time.  Overall, while I think the CEPA is a great effort to make the THIRA and POETE analysis more palatable for local jurisdictions, it leaves me with some concerns in regard to the capabilities they use.  It’s certainly a step in the right direction, though.  Important to note, the CEPA was largely developed by one of the authors of the paper, who was a former colleague of mine working with the State of New York.

The Process of Preparedness

There are a few topic areas within their paper that I’m lumping together under this discussion topic.  The authors make some excellent points about our collective work in preparedness that I think all readers will nod their heads about, because we know when intuitively, but sometimes they need to be reinforced – not only to us as practitioners, but also to other stakeholders, including the public.  First off, preparedness is never complete.  The cycle of preparedness – largely involving assessment, planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercising – is just that – a cycle.  It’s endless.  While we do a great deal of work in each of these, our accomplishments are really only temporary.

The authors also mention that our information is not always precise.  We base a lot of what we do in preparedness on information, such as a hazard analysis.  While there are some inputs that are factual and supported by science, there are many that are based on speculation and anecdote.  This is a reality of our work that we must always acknowledge.  As is other of their points – there is no silver bullet.  There is no universal solution to all our woes.  We must constantly have our head in the game and consider actions that we may not have ever considered before.

ICS Improvement Officer

The authors briefly discuss a conceptual position within the ICS Command Staff they call the ICS Improvement Officer.  The concept of this fascinating, if not a bit out of place in this paper given other topics of discussion.  Essentially, as they describe this position, it is someone at the Command Staff level who is responsible for providing quality control to the incident management processes and implementations of the organization.  While I’ve just recently read this paper and haven’t had a lot of time to digest the concept, I really can’t find any fault with the concept.  While the planning process itself is supposed to provide some measure of a feedback loop, there isn’t anyone designated in the organization to shepherd that process beginning to end and ultimately provide the quality control measures necessary.  In practice, I’ve seen this happen collaboratively, among members of the Command and General Staff of a well-staffed structure, as well as by the individual who has the best overall ICS insight and experience in an organization – often the Planning Section Chief.  The authors elude to this position also feeding an AAR process, which contributes to overall preparedness.  I like this idea and I hope it is explored more, either formally or informally.

Conclusion

There are a number of other topic areas of this paper which I haven’t covered here, but I encourage everyone to read on their own.  As mentioned earlier, I’d like to see more of the research papers that come from FEMA’s Emergency Management Executive Academy available for public review.  Agree or disagree with their perspectives, I think their discussions on various topics are absolutely worth looking at.  It’s these discussions like these which will ultimately drive bigger discussions which will continue to advance public safety.

I’m always interested in the perspectives of my readers.  Have you read the paper?  What do you think of the discussion topics they presented?

© 2017 – Timothy M Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

 

In a POETE State of Mind

One of the searches that has most often brought people to my blog over the last couple of years has been POETE.  In case you forgot, POETE stands for Planning, Organizing, Equipping, Training, and Exercising.  If you conduct an internet search for POETE, there are very few relevant results.  Along with a few of my blog posts, there are a couple of articles published by others, and a few FEMA documents that include obscure references to POETE.  Sadly, there is nothing available that provides (official) guidance, much less doctrine.

Why is it that such a great tool has so few tangible references?  Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that.  I hope that will soon change.

POETE was most widely indoctrinated several years ago as an analysis step within the State Preparedness Reports (SPRs), which are annual submissions completed by every state, UASI (Urban Area Security Initiative-funded program), and territory.  Note: The SPR templates and guidance are generally not publicly posted, as they are sent directly to the points of contact for each jurisdiction – thus they generally don’t come up in internet search results.

The SPR is a step beyond the THIRA (Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Analysis), which is a very in-depth hazard analysis.  The SPR examines each jurisdiction’s level of preparedness for hazards, referencing the 32 Core Capabilities.  Each Core Capability is then analyzed through the lens of POETE.

As a conceptual example, let’s use the Operational Communications Core Capability.  The POETE analysis will examine the jurisdiction’s preparedness by examining:

  • Planning (are plans adequate? Have they been tested?  What improvements need to be made?);
  • Organizing (are there organizational barriers to success? What human operational communications resources are available?  Are there gaps?  Have teams been exercised? What improvements need to be made?);
  • Equipment (does the jurisdiction have equipment necessary for operational communications? What needs are there relative to the resource management cycle?);
  • Training (what training has been provided? What training gaps exist?  When/how will they be addressed?);
  • Exercises (what exercises have been conducted that include the operational communications Core Capability? What were the findings of the AAR/IPs?  What future exercises are scheduled that include this Core Capability?).

Along with answering a few questions on each element, jurisdictions are asked to rate their status for each POETE element for each Core Capability.  If they look at their reports submitted historically, they can see the measure of progress (or lack thereof) with each.  They also have a tracking of identified action items to help them improve their measure of preparedness.

While this analysis can be quite tedious, it’s extremely insightful and informative.  Often, stakeholders have conceptual ideas about the state of preparedness for each Core Capability, but absent conducting this type of in-depth analysis, they rarely see the details, much less have them written down.  Documenting these helps with recognition, awareness, tasking, tracking, and accountability.  It’s a valuable activity that I would encourage all jurisdictions and organizations to conduct.

What else can POETE be applied to?  In the past few years, POETE is being included in DHS preparedness grants.  They often want applicants to identify key tasks within the POETE structure, and awardees to chart progress along the same lines.

I’ve advocated in the past to use the POETE structure in improvement plans, which are a step beyond after action reports from exercises, events, and even incidents.  Having key activities identified across each POETE element for the Core Capabilities analyzed is extremely helpful, and ensures that issues are being identified comprehensively.

Using the POETE concept across all preparedness efforts helps to tie them together.  By documenting each element for each Core Capability, you will have full visibility and reference to your current status and what needs to be improved upon.  It helps drive accountability, a comprehensive approach, and reduces duplication of efforts – especially in larger organizations.  While implementing such a program will take some investment up front to begin to identify, organize, and chart progress and establish an organizational system to do so, I feel it’s an investment that will pay off.

I’m hopeful that the use of POETE continues to see adoption across all of emergency management and homeland security, and that it is further reinforced as a standard through DHS, FEMA, NFPA, and other organizations which hold sway for settings standards and/or requirements.

How does your organization, agency, or jurisdiction use POETE?

© 2017 – Timothy M Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC