Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mass Care in Alaska

Every state has mass care challenges but Alaska has some unique ones. I learned a lot about the intricacies of feeding and sheltering survivors in The Last Frontier during an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) deployment July 6-22, 2015. Alaska asked for a Mass Care Coordinator and a Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) to assist with the Sockeye Fire that had affected Willow, a small community about an hour and a half north of Anchorage. Alaska picked me for the mass care job and Laurie Levine, a Red Cross employee who work with the state of Maine, as the VAL.

Former Daytona Seabreeze HS & fellow UF Gator alumni Amanda Loach,  now with the Alaska Homeland Security & Emergency Management, checking the information board at the Willow Community Center. 
Upon arrival Laurie was busy assisting the Willow community with the intricacies of long-term recovery and the case management process. When the mass care response ended after the first week I was able to make myself useful by writing initial drafts of state mass care plans and procedures. In my estimation the state did a good job with the mas care portion of the Sockeye Fire response because they had dedicated and competent professionals working not only in the State EOC but with the non-governmental organizations in the field.

Unfortunately, the Sockeye fire response is to a 9.0 earthquake response as a pick-up baseball game is to the World Series. And to their credit, the Alaskan emergency managers I spoke to knew it. They learned this lesson during the 2014 Alaska Shield exercise held to commemorate the 1964 earthquake that rocked Anchorage. They realized that because they weren't prepared for a catastrophic mass care response, a lot of the response activities defaulted to outsiders who stepped into the void to do what had to get done. They wanted to stay in control of the mass care response no matter how big the event.

So what to do?

In the face of a catastrophic mass care event a state can react in one of two ways. In the first instance, they could wring their hands, complain that they're not resourced for this kind of thing, and insist that FEMA and the Red Cross take over their mass care response. Of course, when the response is over they can complain that FEMA and the Red Cross did it all wrong, spent too much money and took too long to get everything done.

The second choice would be to write the mass care plans and procedures that would allow the state to absorb the extra personnel required for a catastrophic event and yet still remain in control. After the lessons of Alaska Shield they decided to pursue this choice but didn't have the expertise to write the necessary plans and procedures.

Fortunately for them, I LOVE to write mass care plans and procedures. I'm serious. I had a ball. I sat down with my Alaskan counterpart, Debbie Reed, and talked about the one week of the response that I had been able to observe in Alaska (I also was able to listen to some of their conference calls while I was still in Florida). Debbie was keen on getting a state shelter plan. Based on what I had observed of their response, I thought that they would benefit from having written procedures for their mass care response. And with that Debbie turned me loose.

Most of what I did was copy and paste from templates and plans in my vast repertoire of electronic mass care documents. Then I went through and edited out non-Alaska terms (like "Florida" and "ESF 6").  Using this process I put together a first draft of the first ever State of Alaska Shelter Support Plan. This draft had all the easy parts of the plan: Purpose, Scope, Assumptions, Situation, and a start on the Concept of Operations. 

During the final out-brief to a room full of stakeholders I told them, "I did the easy part. I outlined the state shelter support tasks they must be accomplished during the various phases. You guys need to get together and decide which agency or agencies are responsible for each task. That's the hard part."

Next I turned to writing a standard operating guide (SOG) for the Alaska mass care response. The first step in that task is to ask: Where does mass care fit within the Alaska state emergency operations center structure? The answer to that question should be in the State Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). The EOP said that the State Mass Care Coordinator (Yay for Alaska for writing a SMCC into the Plan) would activate a Mass Care Task Force when required.

During the Sockeye response they established the State Mass Care Task Force with four active subcommittees; Feeding, Sheltering, Volunteers & Donations and Pets. By the time I arrived each of the Subcommittees and the Mass Care TF were having weekly conference calls.

The Alaska State EOC is run according to the Incident Command System (ICS), with an Incident Commander and General Staff. Their Plans Section published an Incident Action Plan and I attended the 11 AM Tactics meeting. In the Tactics meeting they drew up the EOC structure according to the diagram below.

Alaska Mass Care Group within the State EOC Organization
When the time came to write the SOG I asked if we could change the name "Mass Care Task Force" to "The Mass Care Group". This way the name would be within the ICS convention and we would change the names of the Subcommittees to Task Forces. An advantage of this change would be that when we created the Mass Care Group catastrophic organization structure the outsiders who came in to help Alaska would more readily understand the task force concept than the idea of subcommittees.

Debbie Reed (L), Alaska State Mass Care Coordinator and Amanda Loach (R). On the white board behind them is the "Mass Care Group" notation  from the Tactics meeting.
With that settled, I came up with various options for how the Mass Care Group could be structured and showed these options to Debbie so that she could pick what she thought best suited Alaska. Based on her feedback we created 3 structures: State Response, Federal Declaration Response and Catastrophic Response. The Federal and Catastrophic Response structures allowed for an increasing number of personnel to be assigned to the Mass Care Group but the Group would always operate under the direction of the State Mass Care Coordinator. All of this was outlined in the draft Alaska Mass Care Group Standard Operating Guide.

When required, and based on criteria that they will develop, mass care task forces will be activated within the Mass Care Group. The mass care task forces will have task force leaders who will report to the State Mass Care Coordinator. Each task force will do planning and coordination for their assigned functional area. So that the task forces would have operational procedures to guide them I drafted a 3rd document, The Alaska Mass Care Task Force Standard Operating Guide. The SOG drew heavily from the Generic Mass Care Task Force SOG.

These 3 documents were not drafted in isolation. During my first week in Alaska I was joined by John Fulton, the FEMA Region 10 Mass Care representative. John and I knew each other from Sandy and we discussed the concepts outlined in the 3 documents.

As I was drafting the documents I also consulted frequently with Kelley McGuirk, the Regional Disaster Officer for the Alaska Red Cross, and Jenni Ragland, the Emergency Services Disaster Director for the Alaska Division of the Salvation Army.

L to R, Laurie Levine (ARC), Jenni Ragland (TSA), Kelley McGuirk (ARC) & Amanda Loach (AHS&EM) 
I admittedly gave them a lot of information to digest in a short period of time. It will take months for them to absorb these documents and determine how they should be modified to best suit Alaska. As everyone would agree, it's a lot easier to edit and document than create one from scratch.

The whole experience of my time in Alaska was positive and educational. Never before, and possibly never again, will I attend an emergency management meeting where Dog Mushers are an item on the agenda. I am grateful for the kindness and courtesy that was extended to me by everyone that I met in Alaska. 

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