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Public safety first

Written by Gregory W Solecki
August 2013

Gregory W Solecki looks at how effective disaster response can be achieved through a number of different, but equally effective, emergency management systems

The history of a number of well-practiced incident management systems can be traced back through the respective countries of origin. These systems are commonly recognised as having surfaced after the cold war era and have been based upon intentional or natural risks and hazards. The UK has the Gold, Silver, Bronze (GSB) system, developed in part due to various security incidents and threats. Canada has incident site management (ISM) that was first practiced in the late 1960s as an all-hazards approach to major events and emergencies, and the US has the incident command system (ICS), which was borne out of the deadly urban interface wildfires in California that occurred in the 1970s. Commonalities between these systems exist that include a hierarchy of command, the use of plain language to communicate and coordinated issues management.

Command structures and standard operating procedures allow for the safe and successful deployment of resources to almost any emergency. Although scalable to the size of incident, it is the overwhelming event or disaster that requires much more than tactical operations.

Plain language is paramount when you have a multitude of services working towards overarching goals. Having the emergency services interacting with municipal service providers or private business could be problematic if there was an expectation of the intimate knowledge of police codes, medical service vernacular, or fire service abbreviations. Managing issues occurs concurrently at various levels due to the intensity, duration, and cascading impacts of the event. The tactical operations require quick decisions usually based on immediate life safety issues, while strategic decisions may be looking farther ahead at the impacts to property and the environment that (given enough time) could have a secondary impact to health and safety if not acted upon. The governance of events ensures policy, procedure, and legislation is communicated appropriately.

It is no coincidence that these systems were developed through the emergency services, since these groups are the frontline response to the parallel pillar of emergency management. All responding agencies – not just the emergency services – need to have some sort of incident management system in place and be well practiced, competent, and capable. The US, for instance, has determined that all sectors, including public works and business, will be familiar with the ICS so that a more structured, safer response can be made possible. Further, the ICS allows for expansion and contraction of resources related to the growing or diminishing intensity of an incident.

Command structure

Incident management systems and the tactical operations for single entities are comprised of a certain level of command, control and rank structure. The leader or commander in charge of the scene is providing a required response and ensuring coordination and communication amongst all the responders that are on scene.

At a certain point of the expanding incident there is a greater need for strategic, long-term decision making which constitutes the opening of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). Emergency managers need to be able to ensure that all three functions of response (governance, strategy, tactics) are able to command, coordinate, and communicate during any level of crisis or disaster.

Furthermore, emergency managers must be able to ensure that an incident management system, or EOC opening does not replace autonomy of command for any single service or entity. For example, once a perimeter has been set at an emergency site and objectives prioritised, a fire commander may identity the need for a security checkpoint that is primarily a tactical police function. At this point, there is an agreement on what to do, but not how to do it. The police service’s command structure will work within its own parameters to ensure the task is completed.

What defines a disaster?

The definition of a disaster continues to be debated, but is usually based upon consequences such as multiple deaths or widespread damage. Mitigating factors are largely the domain of engineers and urban planners. Infrastructure can be built to withstand a 1:100 year flood, a category 5 hurricane, or a 7.9 magnitude earthquake with the guiding principles to protect a population base, property, and the environment. For instance, in 2002 the Alaska pipeline withstood the largest North American earthquake in 150 years through malleable Teflon coated liners that were able to shift and move during the vibrations.

Considering the horrific events throughout the world of the previous two decades, the term disaster is commonly used when there is a failure of infrastructure relative to the population it serves. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Alaska that had little or moderate effect on the sparse population and surrounding environment, was mirrored in strength along the Japanese coastline in 2011 that resulted in devastating effects.
Cities have grown and flourished because of resources that were available to sustain a population base that tend to live near areas of identified hazards such as fault lines, flood plains, transportation routes, and industry. And when disaster hits, there is a need for a far greater strategic and coordinated response that is commonly carried out at an EOC.

Most EOCs are opened and staffed in order to support an incident site or Tactical Operations Centre (TOC) while also ensuring continuity of operations for the corporation that it exists for, whether that entity is public or private. Further to this philosophy, if a population and infrastructure have been damaged from disaster, long-term recovery, rehabilitation, and restoration of the community must take place.

Recent disasters such as the Christchurch earthquakes and Hurricane Sandy have instituted the need to create new policy, legislation, and extensive recovery organisations. Included in these plans are the development of recovery operations centres (ROC) or departments that will need to be staffed for years or even decades.

It is when the disaster is too emergent or intense, or the incident site too vast, that the Holistic Emergency Management System (HEMS) must come into play to deal to with the multiple sites, TOCs, entities, jurisdictions, and influx of information.

The EOC is where strategic decisions are made and tasked to support the sites and incident management systems, as well as the long-term decisions to ensure the continued service delivery to maintain corporate operations as best as possible during the response and recovery phase. It is also the single focal point to vet, coordinate, and disseminate information to and from traditional and new media while providing a thorough overview of situational awareness.

During a crisis or disaster, the HEMS requires that governance, strategy, and tactics occur at the site, TOC, EOC, and ROC, while ensuring communication, coordination, and a command structure is in place and used within, and encompassing all levels of the organisational response. This is not a rigid structure with strict, defined parameters but instead a nebulous and fluid concept that is able to fluctuate with the size and scope of the overall incident, crisis, or disaster, as outlined in the diagram above.

Embedded in the HEMS are three basic tenets to follow to ensure a crisis or disaster is managed well:
1. An overarching coordinating body must be agreed upon.
2. Authority of command does not replace autonomy of command.
3. Clear communication of policy and governance is paramount.

New social media paradigms

Further insight into holistic emergency management raises issues about the global usage of social media and the advent of virtual volunteers and crisis mappers that is influencing the current state of emergency management
The latest surveys from the Red Cross in North America provide enlightening insight into the expectation from the public on the use of new media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. At this time more than 60 per cent believe that the emergency services are monitoring social media, and more than half of those believe and expect an emergency response is imminent when posted on these sites.

It should be no surprise then, that when disaster strikes there is an expectation that emergency managers are prepared to respond; locally and globally. Implementing the HEMS will not only provide a concept of operations for emergency management agencies, but also solidify methodologies of current and varied incident management systems already in use, regardless of the type or size of the organisation.

Gregory W Solecki is business continuity and recovery manager, Calgary Emergency Management Agency



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