I've devoted my last two columns to the issue of education for emergency managers. However, I don't want to give the impression that education alone is sufficient for success as an emergency manager. As several of my colleagues have pointed out, success is determined by a combination of education, training, and experience. The mix can change depending on the environment and the position but all three are essential.
The question, though, is what constitutes "training?" Where education teaches concepts, training provides the general and specific skills needed to do the job. Education tells us why we do something; training tells us how we do it.
Training can be formal. A good example is the numerous courses offered by the Emergency Management Institute, either as on-site classes or through distance learning. The advantage to these courses is that they bring a certain degree of standardization and uniformity to our training and provide a strategic direction for our profession.
The disadvantage to this type of training is that it is not experiential. That is, it can only substitute so far for practical experience. To remedy this, we turn to informal or "on-the-job" training. In theory, the new emergency manager learns by doing under the direction of an experienced teacher. In actual practice, on-the-job training is at best a sink-or-swim experience and at worst it replicates bad habits.
Following someone around on the job is not training. Handing someone a task without instruction and then correcting failure is not training. Telling someone "how we've always done it" is not training.
On-the-job training is like any other training: you need to identify learning objectives and metrics that demonstrate the accomplishment of objectives. One way I have found effective is to list the tasks that I want my trainee to learn and then have columns for dates when they learn the task, demonstrate the task, and actually perform the task successfully. I then formally assign another employee as a trainer and use this list to monitor the progress of the training. Note that such a formal process not only provides training but allows the trainee to gain experience under controlled conditions.
One last thought - education and training are not mutually exclusive or sequential. I and many other educators typically use the EMI distance learning courses to supplement lectures on concepts and theories with practical skills. Ultimately, we're all in the business of producing the next generation of professional emergency managers and we should seek to prepare them as best we can. And that means balancing training, education and experience in our curricula.
Are you a believer in serendipity, that magic moment when several disparate things come together to produce something marvelous that is greater than the sum of its parts? I am and I believe we could be on the cusp of such a moment if we can seize the opportunity.
Three things occurred this week that makes me feel this way. The first are the thoughtful comments of readers of last week's blog on emergency management education, particularly those that reminded me of the Emergency Management Institute's Emergency Management Professional Program. EMPP is intended to develop core competencies for emergency managers and does an excellent job of combining concepts and general and specific skills.
The second event was my finally catching up on some professional reading and coming across David Alexander's article, Approaches to emergency management teaching at the master's level, in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of the Journal of Emergency Management. Dr. Alexander points out that the significance of emergency management education and training is enhanced by the relationship between theory and practice, the potential for creating networks, and the use of courses to define a strategic direction in management processes. He also reminds us that there is no worldwide consensus on what we should be teaching in emergency management courses and the need to address not only concepts but general and specific skills as well in the curricula.
The third event was an email from a colleague and friend of many years at FEMA asking for ideas on how to increase the reach of the EMPP. FEMA recognizes the limitations of a residence-only course at EMI and is considering how to more broadly provide the program, possibly under the oversight of regional offices with EMI approved instructors.
The light came on.
The FEMA Higher Education Project in the past offered model curricula for various degree programs and offers a number of course materials on line. Using the EMPP as a model curriculum and making the course materials available online would achieve the goal of broadly distributing the program while bringing some welcome cohesiveness to our academic programs. I realize that asking two offices at EMI to work together could have its problems but I know the people in both offices and I both respect them professionally and believe that they are truly trying to do their best for our profession. Likewise, I know that my academic colleagues may not agree with everything in EMPP but offering it as a model rather than mandated curriculum would preserve academic freedom.
So here's a way to proceed:
- Make the EMPP course materials available for review by the academic community either by posting online or by providing on request. Since the curriculum was developed by members of the academic community and has been successfully pilot tested, I don't think this should generate too much negative feedback.
- Make the use of EMPP as a model curriculum an item of discussion on the upcoming Higher Education Symposium web conferences. This will build both awareness and provide feedback for the proposal.
- Garner support from the National Emergency Manager's Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers for the curriculum.
- Post the model curriculum and course materials on the Higher Education website.
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The word "professional" is often misused to refer to someone is good at their job, even when that job is a technical trade (e.g a professional plumber). Now I certainly agree than someone can act "professionally" no matter what their calling. However, there are qualitative differences between a trade and a profession and if emergency management is ever to be fully recognized as a profession we need to keep this in mind.
The three characteristics that are usually associated with a profession are:
- A code of ethics
- A certification program
- A specialized body of knowledge
The International Association of Emergency Managers offers both a code of ethics and the Certified Emergency Manager certification. Neither are perfect but they are good starts. The question that still hasn't been settled is, "what is the specialized body of knowledge that defines emergency management?"
To be sure, there is a body of technical knowledge that should be mastered by entry level emergency managers. These are the tasks we typical associate with the job, such as the ability to develop an emergency plan or conduct an exercise. There is also a considerable body of technical knowledge to absorb such as familiarity with the Stafford Act and Federal planning guidance. But these task are technical in nature; they address the "how" but not the "why".
Being a competent technician was sufficient in the past when the scope of emergency management was largely limited to response-oriented planning. However, I suggest that the true specialized body of knowledge for the modern emergency manager is the considerable social science research into disasters. Studying disaster research answers the question of "why?"
As we expand our role to truly address all hazards and phase of emergency management, we are dealing more and more with complex issues and concepts. The concept of social vulnerability, for example, that drives much of our planning is intricate, constantly evolving, and does not lend itself easily to simplistic solutions. While a technician can perform a rudimentary hazard analysis, risk is a complicated concept that, like vulnerability, relies on many interacting factors. To be truly effective, emergency managers need a solid education in the theoretical basis of our profession in addition to technical competence.
There is a second plus to this increased demand for education. To make progress in mitigation and recovery, emergency managers need to move outside their comfort zone of response-oriented tasks and work new actors and processes. We need to be seen as equals and trusted advisers. This is a role that is seldom accorded to technicians.
If we are ever to be thought of as a profession we need to accept that education will be as important to our future leaders as technical competence. Emergency managers of the future will need to be able to think in broad and strategic terms and interact as peers with executives from outside the response community. They will need to know more than just how to get something done - they must be able to articulate why something must be done and why it is important. And for that, they will need an education in addition to technical training.
FEMA has decided to cancel the Higher-Education Symposium at the Emergency Management Institute in favor of an online series of discussions. The Symposium brings together educators, researchers and practitioners annually to address the education issues I discussed above. I urge you to read my colleague Valerie Lucus-McEwen's recent blog on this issue for some background information and then let FEMA know if you disagree with this decision.
One of the stories yet to be told about the Boston bombing is the tremendous work done by the Boston Emergency Medical Services team. If one considers the nature of the event, it as astonishing that only three people died. It's easy to credit the poor quality of the explosive devices, the timing of the attack, or even luck with the low number of fatalities. But luck had nothing to do with it: Boston EMS was ready.
As do most large cities, Boston takes large civic events seriously and does considerable pre-planning. The Boston Marathon is certainly THE signature event for Boston and was no exception. What is different about the planning in Boston is that Boston EMS, as a matter of policy, treats the Boston Marathon and other large events as a mass casualty event. That means that all the equipment, facilities and staff required to respond to a mass casualty event were fully deployed at the time of the attack. Note that this does not mean they were "on alert" or "on standby" but were actually in the field with medical caches available, ambulances staged, and staff on scene.
The results speak for themselves. According to Boston EMS Chief James Hooley, his team was able to clear the scene of victims in 18 minutes. A medical tent for triage was already set up. Ambulances were available to transport the injured without the need for an uncoordinated evacuation by civilian vehicles. A well-practiced communications system with local hospitals ensured that no one hospital was overloaded. Mutual aid partners were in constant contact with the on-scene management team.
There is no question that such a heavy deployment of resources is expensive and can't be done for every event. However, the larger issue is Boston EMS commitment to training for mass casualty events. It is a task they take seriously. The deployment of resources would not have been so effective without a trained and experienced team of professionals to use them.
The Boston experience highlights the importance of both training and planning for mass casualty events. A small jurisdiction may not be able to pre-stage resources as Boston does but it can certainly plan for how it would handle a mass casualty event. It's all in the commitment.
April 18th is always a special day to San Franciscans. It's the day we pause to remember the great earthquake and fires that leveled the City in 1906. But for us, it's not just the commemoration of a historical event but a celebration of the spirit. It's not about destruction but about rebirth.
Imagine the situation - three-fourths of your city destroyed, half your population scattered, most of the rest homeless or housed in makeshift shelters. Water and food are in short supply. One can understand why people would want to leave and never come back.
Yet quite the opposite was true. In her remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit devotes an entire section of several chapters to the resilience of survivors housed in refugee camps and the process of rebuilding. People came together in a spirit of cooperation that transcended social barriers for a time. Within a matter of a few short years, the City was rebuilt and celebrated its rebirth by hosting the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915.
The story has its dark side as well. Whole forests in northern California were denuded to provide timber for reconstruction. Thousands of horses were worked to death hauling building materials up our steep hills. A campaign to downplay the effects of the earthquake was launched to attract Eastern investors. In Saving San Francisco Andrea Rees Davies argues that recovery and reconstruction did little to break down social barriers for marginalized populations, despite the spirit of community generated by the disaster.
But on April 18th we remember why our City seal is the Phoenix rising newborn from the ashes. The message from the survivors of 1906 still resonates today and, given the recent tragedy in Boston, is may be more relevant than ever: together we can overcome any adversity.
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For a number of years now the Federal government has been emphasizing the need to build disaster exercises around specific capabilities. We all agree that exercises are critical to effective response. The question is whether focusing on capabilities truly tests the skills we need to effectively respond.
Our current approach to capability assessment evolved in response to Congressional demands for demonstrating a return on investment for the billions of dollars being spent on preparedness. Congress wanted to be able to measure improvements and show progress towards defined goals. Focusing on discrete tasks (capabilities) that could be measured objectively provided a relatively easy way to measure the ability of a jurisdiction to respond to specific events.
It is important to understand that capability assessment is essential a quantitative measure. When you focus on discrete tasks, such as responding to an explosive device or evacuating an area, it's fairly easy to measure success. For this reason, capability assessment has been particularly effective in building response capacity at the tactical level.
However, as one moves to the operational level, quantitative assessment becomes more problematical. As one moves from the field to the emergency operations center, the emphasis switches from command and control to coordination and from a hierarchical to a more networked organizational structure. While there are still discrete tasks that can be measured quantitatively, many others can only be measured qualitatively. For example, how does one measure the effectiveness of inter-agency coordination? Do you consider the number of agencies in the EOC or the number of times two agency representatives talk to each other? Ultimately, the assessment is subjective and based on participants' comments and observed actions.
The problem is even greater at the strategic level where senior officials consider long-range issues with severe political and economic consequences. At this level, there are no discrete tasks that can be quantitatively measured and any assessment must, of necessity, be subjective.
What does this mean for us as we design exercises? It means we need to be sure that we are using the right tools to measure achievement of our exercise objectives. Overemphasizing quantitative and objective tools does not measure capabilities such as creative responsive or executive decision making. But neglecting the use of objective measures raises the potential for failing to meet acceptable standards. The answer is the correct balance of quantitative and qualitative tools for measuring exercise results.
One of the areas of disaster planning that seems to get very little attention is the handling of mass fatalities. I was reminded of this by a thoughtful presentation by my colleague James King at yesterday's Emergency Management Summit in San Francisco sponsored by EM Magazine.
What makes this problem so difficult is that no one really wants to talk about it and everyone assumes it's someone else's job. This is particularly true in the collection of remains where we assume that the coroner/medical examiner, local funeral homes or Disaster Mortuary Operations Teams (DMORTs) will handle collection. However, DMORTs support the processing of remains, not the collection, local morticians will be overwhelmed, and coroner/medical examiner offices lack the resources to collect, store, and process the large number of remains associated with mass fatality events.
Adding to this complexity is the need for cultural sensitivity. Various faiths have different beliefs and rituals regarding the deceased. For example, Islamic law requires burial as soon as possible and specifies a ritual cleansing, shrouding and prayers. Hindu custom calls for cremation of the dead, normally within 24 hours. Ignoring funeral customs in the interest of expediency can cause considerable pain to the victim's family and may have an impact on mortuary operations. In his paper Identifying the Dead in Thailand and Sri Lanka: Multi-national Emergency Organizations researcher Joseph Scanlon describes how a charge of not treating the dead with sufficient respect led to one country being ordered to stop processing bodies. There is even a bill, HR 6566 the Mass Fatality and Religious Considerations Act, currently in committee, which would require FEMA to provide guidance and coordination on mass fatalities in consultation with, among others, religious organizations.
Another common problem is the myth that bodies must be disposed of quickly to prevent the spread of disease. This has led in the past to mass burials without proper identification of the deceased and greatly added to the grief of survivors. While there are indeed risks where the deaths are the result of disease, there is no evidence that disaster victims who are the victim of trauma pose any greater risk of epidemic. Handling remains may be unpleasant but there is time to do things right.
One of the few books on this subject of which I am aware is Robert A. Jensen's Mass Fatality and Casualty Incidents: A Field Guide which offers a tactical level overview of mass fatality response. There are also a number of plans and guides available on the Internet. Don't wait for an incident before you check them out.
My colleague, Dan Stevens, wrote an interesting article last month, Redefining the Emergency Manager: A Proposal for Change, in which he highlights the lack of definition of the emergency manager's role and offers a proposed definition and core competencies. What caught my attention was the beginning of his definition: "an individual assigned with the role to manage risks..."
For years now, I have been arguing that we need to change how we view ourselves as emergency managers. Too many of us limit ourselves to the roles we are most comfortable with, preparedness and response, while paying only lip service to mitigation and recovery. An analysis of Emergency Management Accreditation Program results by my colleague Valerie Lucus-McEwen some years ago confirmed this.
It is easy to understand why. Most of us came to emergency management as a second career and were more comfortable working within hierarchical organizations. In addition, the work of response planning is never done, so there was always something to keep us busy. But we pay a steep price for remaining in our comfort zones - we have allowed ourselves to be viewed as technical experts, respected but not seen as trusted advisors.
This is significant. A technical expert is someone who is consulted when the need for their specific skill set arises. An advisor is a peer who can influence executive decision making. The first role is tactical, the latter is strategic.To look at it another way, a technical expert is generally viewed as an expense, something that can be limited or eliminated in times of lean budgets. A strategic advisor is perceived as adding value to the organization. Even if there is a cost associated with their services, it is considered outweighed by this value.
While I have different perspectives on Dan's definition and core competencies list, I fully agree that we must position ourselves as one of the mechanisms by which our communities and organizations manage risk. Merely positioning ourselves as responders relegates us to the role of fire extinguishers - something expensive that is rarely needed and generally ignored until that need arises. Unless we are perceived as adding value to the community, we will not be viewed as equals by senior officials and will not be consulted on strategic decisions.
So long as we continue to limit our role to emergency planning, we will always be considered technical experts. And so long as we are considered merely technical experts, we will be barred from influencing decision making on strategic issues related to mitigation and recovery. There will always be a role for technical experts and I certainly don't mean to denigrate that role. But emergency managers are charged with greater responsibilities than just emergency planning. If we intend to be truly all-hazards and all-phases, we need to accept our role as strategic advisors.
The Law of Unintended Consequences says that the actions of people always have unanticipated consequences, something the State of California is finding out as it considers the impact of its decision to furlough public employees. As many do, government decision makers failed to consider the impact of the human factor. If you give an employee an unpaid day off during the week, that employee will make use of the time and save their leave time. The result is that any current savings may well be exceeded by the long term costs as employees cash in unused leave upon retirement.
The State is, of course, not alone in falling victim to unintended consequences. During a series of floods in Southern California, I was told of a homeowner who had built a very effective barrier to divert flood waters from his home. It was effective all right - the flood waters flowed around his property and wiped out his neighbors' houses on either side.
We see the same issue on a much grander scale. The levee system in the Mississippi basin was favored over more effective methods of flood control because it increased the amount of arable land in the floodplain. The result was more infrastructure being built in at-risk areas and increased damage due to levee breaches. The Flood Insurance Program was designed to encourage mitigation planning. Instead it has subsidized construction in flood zones.
These examples have several things in common. The first is the driving factor of economics. In each case, the original intent was to reduce costs but the ultimate result was to increase costs. Closely associated with this is the human factor: if there's a way to make money, even at the cost of increase risk or future expense, someone will do it.
So how do you prevent unintended consequences? Well, by definition, you can't. Our actions, no matter how simple, always carry unintended consequences and they are not always negative. However, we can do a better job of identifying the potential consequences of our decisions. Here are a few ideas:
- Question your cost-benefit analysis. There's something about numbers, even made up ones, that imbue even the wackiest projects with reality. Numbers equal reality in our minds. Avoid this trap by looking closely at the assumptions that drive the analysis. Also recognize that the cost-benefit analysis is one data set - it should not drive the decision making process.
- Consider intangible consequences. The results of bad decision making are not always tangible. This why the cost-benefit analysis cannot be the sole determinant of decisions. Loss of reputation is not easy to quantify but it can destroy an organization. Demographic shifts as the result of disaster can destroy communities. Look beyond just the costs that are easily-quantifiable.
- Don't forget human nature. People are their own worst enemies sometimes. Understand the community affected by your decisions and how they will react is critical part of the decision making process. Studies on mitigation have shown that what works in one community won't work in others if the community culture is different. You need to consider whether people will support your decision and how the may try to circumvent it.
The Law of Unintended Consequences is unavoidable. But that doesn't mean we can't make better decisions by expanding our thinking and not taking things for granted.
It's been interesting watching the reaction to the recent announcement that the Transportation Security Agency will be relaxing its prohibition on certain types of knives on April 25th. Citing its risk-based approach to security, TSA has announced that certain sporting items (golf clubs, lacrosse sticks, novelty bats, etc.) and knives no longer than 2.36 inches or wider than 1/2 inch will now be permitted in carry on luggage.
The controversy seems to revolve around the issue of "knives on the plane". The US Air Marshals and organizations representing flight attendants have come out strongly against the changes, citing increase risk to flight personnel. TSA counters with the argument that pose minimal risk and the efforts of security personnel are better applied to detecting items more destructive to the aircraft. As with most arguments, there is a certain amount of truth on both sides.
It comes back to the concept of actual versus perceived risk and the prioritization of risk. There is certainly an small increase in risk to airline personnel. The scenario goes something like this: terrorist seizes hostage and threatens to harm them if airline personnel don't surrender control of the aircraft. This is why the idea of "knives on the plane!" holds such concern.
But let's think this through a bit more. Prior to 9-11, we told passengers to submit quietly to aircraft hijackings. The paradigm then was that the hijacked aircraft would be flown to an non-US destination where the passengers would eventually be released or rescued. The attacks on the World Trade Center changed that paradigm and we have scene numerous instances where passengers have accepted responsibility for their own safety and subdued not only terrorists but out-of-control drunk, disoriented, or abusive passengers.
Secondly, the "knives" we're talking about about are less then 2.5 inches in length (what's with TSA anyway - how do you come up with 2.36 inches versus something even like 2.5 inches?). While you can certainly do some damage with a short blade, it would be difficult and hardly constitutes a threat to the entire aircraft.
However, I do think TSA missed the boat with the golf clubs and lacrosse sticks - the damn overhead bins are full enough.
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