Emergency management's Plan B
By Doug Page
If a Katrina-like disaster had been caused by terrorists, the nation would still be in an uproar, demanding to know how the government could have allowed terrorists to blow a hole in the New Orleans levees, submerging the city. Or why the federal emergency response looked like it was run by the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
But Katrina wasn't the work of terrorists, it was nature at its most sinister, and public outrage never reached the boiling point. Yet the same questions are valid. How could it be allowed that a storm could destroy the levees? And if a levee breech caused by a killer storm couldn't be prevented, then why wasn't this anticipated and why weren't adequate emergency plans ready?
"In the wake of Katrina, many are questioning whether the u.s. has the right organization to handle homeland security threats," says Charles R. Wise, of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. "The public was promised that the creation of the Department of Homeland Security would fix the problem of having an uncoordinated response to homeland security incidents, but Katrina showed that it did not."
Wise says the current federal emergency management structure is plagued by unclear roles and responsibilities within and between levels of government. "Plans are incomplete and there is a lack of knowledge by officials at various levels of government about existing plans."
Plus, he says, officials are not following the requirements of the National Incident Management System, resulting in inadequate coordination of decisions and operations between federal, state and local officials and agencies.
Instead, Wise recommends Plan B: "Abandon the quest to establish the perfect hierarchy to manage all homeland security threats and hazards, and instead focus on a network model of organization and an adaptive management system to implement it that can adjust to the rapid changes in the homeland security environment."
And a software package that does just that is already available.
Responders and relationships
The Synchronization Matrix Planning Process, developed by Argonne National Laboratory, is supposed to increase emergency plan effectiveness by taking the broad view of all aspects of a response. What makes this planning process unique is the emphasis it places on relationships between responders at all levels, no matter what organizational or jurisdictional colors they wear.
"Emergency planners continually face the challenge of identifying the internal and external problems that might be faced during a response," says Jacques Mitrani, associate director of Argonne's Center for Integrated Emergency Preparedness.
Mitrani says emergency planners must know how to provide enough detail to make the response work, but not so much that the plan is inflexible and so verbose that it's ignored. They must also be aware of how to coordinate plans so everyone knows what to expect and no one is overwhelmed, and how to produce emergency plans that are appropriate for their needs, not one-size-fits-all.
"An emergency manager's best hope is to continually communicate with other response agencies or responding jurisdictions to learn what they are planning when confronted with an emergency situation, and vice versa, so each knows the consequences of the others' actions," Mitrani says.
Organize, then visualize
This is where the Argonne package comes in. The Sync Matrix tool is a key component in the larger Synchronization Matrix Planning Process, specially designed to support all aspects of the planning process: development, integration and synchronization.
"Sync Matrix supplies emergency management professionals with an interactive planning tool that presents a picture of the many interactions that occur as a response unfolds over time." Mitrani says.
The "pictures" come from graphic displays the system generates of such key data as hazard actions, response goals, decision points and response actions. Mitrani says Sync Matrix helps emergency planners better organize, visualize and analyze the flow of activities within and across response jurisdictions, whether they are geopolitical areas (states, counties and municipalities), corporate entities, or departments and agencies of a larger organizational structure.
"The software serves as a collaborative workspace, allowing planners to work individually or as a team," he says. Sync Matrix also provides a record of the planning process for later use in orienting new staff, informing elected leaders, guiding a response or completing after-action analyses.
The Sync Matrix planning process starts with identifying the planning team, which Mitrani says should include lead emergency planners from all response jurisdictions and all key agencies. At a minimum, representatives should come from emergency management, law enforcement, fire, ems, public health and public works agencies. Private-sector participants may be invited as appropriate, including representatives of such bodies as the local hospital association and operators of industrial sites.
"The key here is not to plan in isolation," Mitrani says.
Time is the enemy
Then, the first step for the planning team is to build the hazard scenario and establish the response timeline and scale. This means selecting a disaster, using models and other analytic tools to describe its characteristics, and figuring out how it will unfold over time. The hazard characteristics and the expected length of the response determine the timeline and scale.
For example, a hurricane plan may cover a period from five days before until five days after landfall, since hurricanes are typically slow-moving. Alternatively, the response to a chemical plant explosion may use a scale of minutes and hours due to a fast-moving plume. The team records the hazard scenario and timeline in a way that allows its viewing throughout the planning process.
Next, the team determines what the response is to achieve. For example, one part of an end state for a hurricane response might be "The population within the predicted flood zone is evacuated or in a government-run haven of last resort 12 hours before landfall." An intermediate goal that supports this end state might be "Have emergency shelters operating two hours before issuing an evacuation order."
Notice that both goals and the end state have time factors. Indicating a time limit allows planners to figure out how much time is available to meet response requirements. Just as in the hazard scenario, planners should record response goals and the end state in a way that allows for their viewing during the planning process.
Mitrani says the hard work begins when the planning team starts its iterative process of identifying decisions and response actions. For every decision or action, the planning team identifies the responsible party, the time factors, what occurs before, what occurs after and the resources needed. Periodically, as the team goes through the Sync Matrix process, they stop and review their work to identify progress toward achieving goals and the end state, and identify problems solved and new problems faced.
"New problems may be hazard-generated, response-generated or constraint-generated," Mitrani says.
At these review points, the teams also identify single points in the response that might cause its failure, check for omissions and gaps in the response, look for inconsistencies in responder relationships, and identify resources required and validate their availability.
In use today
Sync Matrix is already finding its way into some planning sessions. At the direction of dhs, Argonne is applying the process to assist selected Urban Areas Security Initiative cities with their plan integration. The system is also being used by dhs, fema and the Army for the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program communities in Utah, Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Indiana and Illinois.
"Argonne is soliciting feedback from all current users of the Sync Matrix Planning Process and the Sync Matrix software to provide a basis for future upgrades," Mitrani says.
In addition, Argonne is performing research for the Army, dhs and fema to assess and resolve identified emergency planning and exercise software needs.
The biggest issue, however, can be getting planners' attention.
"As always," Mitrani says, "the most significant issue is how to succeed in getting extremely busy emergency managers and planners to take the time necessary to try and then use this technology with all its associated benefits of having integrated, coordinated and synchronized emergency plans within their broader response community."