Can it exist in a risk-averse culture?
I’ve been spending a lot of time considering how we manage emergencies and disasters, particularly on a large scale. As an Emergency Manager, and someone who aspires to be on the leading edge of information and practices, this is of particular concern to me. As the nature of disasters changes, and the ways in which we understand community, culture, and communication all change, we continue to manage emergencies in decades-old ways.
In North America, emergencies and disasters are handled using the Incident Command System (ICS), or some variation thereof. ICS was developed during a series of major wildfires in California during the early 70’s, the most notable being the notorious Laguna Fire. During after-action reviews (also a product of the military), problems were noted with communication and organization of resources. ICS, having been conceived of a couple years before, was seen as the ideal way to solve some of those issues.
The men who developed ICS were all products of either the US Military in World War Two or the Korean War, or of para-military firefighting organizations. These were men who were accustomed to giving and receiving orders in organizations that retained military-like command and control structures. For its time and its purpose, ICS was a beautiful and elegant solution.
In some circumstances, ICS continues to be an elegant solution, and one that should be readily understood by emergency managers and responders in many situations. ICS is at its strongest when dealing with one organization, one discipline, or one location. It also requires that everyone working within that structure be disciplined enough to remain within the structure.
For professional emergency responders such as firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and the military, ICS is an important tool in their emergency management toolbox. Just like any other tool, ICS must be used regularly – either at incidents or in exercises – to retain its usefulness and to be effective under the stress of a large-scale emergency or disaster.
ICS is built on the foundations of a society that existed fifty years ago. One where people were accustomed to large monolithic boxes in which community was contained. Denominational churches, community groups, service clubs, and even sports leagues were the heart of most towns and cities across North America. People were accustomed to living, working, and playing in top-down organizations that were built on military-like hierarchies.
If you wanted to help out during an emergency or disaster, you joined the local fire department. Or, you rallied your community group to take on a role within your city or town’s Civil Defense Organization (the precursor to today’s Emergency Management Organizations). Alternatively, you could join the Red Cross and be trained to help out, and that in itself became another service club.
It was also a much less risk-averse time in emergency response and management. If you showed up at a scene, they would just put you to work. If you showed up at the hospital after a bad car crash, they would find you something to do. If there was nothing to do, they’d send you home…but only if there was nothing to do. If there was work to be done, and you were capable of doing it, then you’d be put to work.
Lawsuits, liability claims, and lawyers have all changed the culture in emergency response and emergency management to a much more risk-averse culture. In general, this is a good thing. In most places in North America, it’s no longer necessary for the average person to be pulling people out of car wrecks (except in extraordinary circumstances). It’s also no longer appropriate to be pulling those people out of car wrecks without the appropriate training and support.
What has happened though, is that we have extended that risk aversion to all of the events that we manage, no matter how big or how small. Instead of welcoming people and the support that they bring to disaster response and recovery, we turned them away because they weren’t “in the plan”. If you want to be “in the plan” in most places, you have to be able to guarantee certain things, including that your volunteers and staff will be trained in, and follow ICS.
For what it’s worth, ICS is still a good tool, but it’s one that falls down in today’s world of larger and more catastrophic disasters. It’s also one that doesn’t cope well with self-organizing groups, multiple locations with different priorities, and extremely complex disasters that involve systems within systems within systems.
I want to take a look at a theoretical disaster and see just where ICS breaks down when dealing with large incidents and complex systems. A major wildfire has broken out close to a city, resulting in the evacuation of residents to other municipalities where they are being housed in congregate shelters. Under ICS, there is always an Incident Commander, or a Unified Command of more than one organization. In this scenario, who is the Incident Commander?
- Is it the wildfire manager from the Incident Management Team deployed to the fire?
- Is it the local Emergency Manager or Fire Chief?
- Is it the local Medical Health Officer who is monitoring the health of evacuees and people who remained in the municipality?
- Is it the Emergency Social Services Director who is responsible for the well-being of those who’ve been evacuated?
- Is it the Emergency Manager for the municipality that is hosting the evacuees?
- Is it the manager from the State or Federal Incident Management Team deployed to support the local municipality?
- Is it the head of the County, State, or Federal Emergency Management Organization?
Each of these people have a valid claim to being the “Incident Commander”, and we can start to see where ICS breaks down. In each of their own organizations and each of their locations, every one of those people is likely serving as an “Incident Commander”. That being said, who is ultimately responsible for this incident?
Truthfully? Every single one of them.
Each and every one of them has their own area of expertise and their own area of responsibility. Is it reasonable to ask a Fire Chief to be responsible for Emergency Social Services? Is it reasonable to expect a Medical Health Officer to be responsible for firefighting activities? I believe that it isn’t reasonable at all, and that we aren’t using their expertise in the best way when we take subject matter experts out of their area of expertise and put them into an ICS box.
The list above only includes “professional” organizations who are likely very familiar with ICS and have extensive experience using it. When you start bringing emergent organizations like self-organizing community members, it gets much more complex.
After the 2013 Bow River floods, the City of Calgary was faced with the challenge of organizing and managing thousands of volunteers. They figured it out, but the experience sent them to Defence and Research Development Canada to study how to do it better the next time. Calgary, and many other forward-thinking jurisdictions now plan for how to incorporate volunteers into their existing structures, but challenges remain.
Emergent and spontaneous volunteers don’t have a place within ICS. There is no box to put them in, and often, no desire to involve them if they aren’t willing to work within the system. No matter how skilled they are, no matter what they are doing, if they do not submit to ICS then there is no place for them in the structure.
In most situations, this isn’t a problem. Untrained volunteers, or people working outside of the command structure (aka freelancers) at a car crash or a house fire can be dangerous to themselves, bystanders, and trained responders. When you start getting into catastrophic incidents or wide-spread disasters like a hurricane, flood, or wildfire it becomes a very different situation.
In catastrophic incidents, there is far more work than can be handled by trained responders. In many cases, this work can be safely handled by untrained volunteers. The challenge for emergency managers becomes how to best use their resources. Should they send the fire department to clear downed trees on roads, or can it safely be handled by volunteers and save the fire department for what they’re trained for?
At the core of ICS is the concept of resource management, making sure that the right resources get assigned to the right tasks at the right times. When emergency managers and community leaders limit themselves to known resources, they miss out on the ability to harness the power of community to deal with an incident.
Social Media has changed how communities respond to emergencies and disasters. Instead of waiting for “official” information, people are looking to each other to find out information, and are expecting emergency management and response organizations to be active and engaged on social media.
Remember those thousands of people who showed up to volunteer in Calgary? The organization that ended up being responsible for volunteer management after the floods was a community that sprung up on Facebook specifically to volunteer after the floods. This was an emergent organic community, one that came together around a common idea.
While structured communities like churches and civic service clubs are slowly dying, it is much more common to see organic communities forming around a common idea or belief. At its core, an organic community is one that doesn’t come together because of a structure, but rather around shared beliefs and common goals.
The rise of organic communities is coming at a time when stability is no longer seen as a necessity. Nobody expects to work for the same company for their entire life, and companies generally treat their employees as commodities to be discarded when they are no longer productive or useful. Society in 2019 is incredibly dynamic, undergoing significant changes at the pace of technological development. Nothing is static anymore, and our communities aren’t either.
So, why is the way we deal with emergencies and disasters still essentially the same as it was fifty years ago?
It is time for Emergency Management to embrace the concept of dynamic and daring leadership. We have made minor adjustments and created slightly different iterations of the same system for fifty years now. We need to engage with the challenge of creating a new system, one that incorporates the best parts of ICS (and may incorporate all of ICS at some levels) but also leaves space for improvisation and grassroots movement.
Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.Brene Brown, PhD
I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s book “Dare to Lead” where she talks about rumbling with vulnerability and embracing the suck. We need to start being honest about the shortcomings with ICS and how it actually interferes with emergency management in some situations. We are all guilty of failing to provide dynamic and daring leadership, myself included.
But wait, there’s a good reason for this.
Our first priority, the top priority in all of our situations is the preservation of life and health. As a result, we are risk-averse, and for a very good reason. We have enough trouble getting time to train and exercise our plans. Our educational institutions are designed to teach people how to use the systems that exist, not to engage in daring leadership and change the paradigm. An emergency or disaster is not the time to be trying out new systems, we would be incredibly negligent to risk people’s lives on trying a new system.
We need to engage in some daring and dynamic leadership in order to find a new paradigm for emergency management. We need some people from all sorts of sectors to step up and help us figure this out, and a way to do it that won’t put people’s lives at risk.
I know that I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a possible solution. It’s one that will require us to engage with the challenge of admitting that our current systems restrict us, and to dare to fail once, twice, or a thousand times before we find a new solution.
We can do this. I’ll tell you how in a future post…