Sunday, May 05, 2013

Coordination Complexity & the National Mass Care Exercise

On Friday, August 13, 2004 I was in the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Tallahassee when Hurricane Charley struck Charlotte County on the southwest coast of Florida as a Category 4 Hurricane. The storm plowed through central Florida and exited into the Atlantic Ocean as a Category 1 near Daytona Beach. Twenty five of the state's 67 counties had been struck by hurricane force winds and they all began screaming for help at the same time.

At that time I had been the State Mass Care Coordinator for almost 5 years. This was my first big disaster and I had plenty of time to study the requirements of the job. I thought my intelligence and diligence would leave me prepared for the tasks at hand. I was wrong. I spent the first week of the disaster overwhelmed and confused. With the hindsight of my current experience I realize that I focused on the trivial and overlooked the important areas, not out of disregard, but out of ignorance of their existence.

I did a few things right. I realized that I was overwhelmed and called for help. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)  is a process for states to ask for and receive emergency personnel from other states. I remember filling out an EMAC form asking for "state mass care workers" and then returning to the EMAC desk each day with a hopeful expression. I was so ignorant that I didn't realize the number of state mass care workers in the nation was infinitesimal and I might have had better success asking for kangaroo trainers. 

In my defense there wasn't a single document in the nation in 2004 that even identified the position of State Mass Care Coordinator much less explained how to do the job. Now FEMA's National Integration Center has approved Interim Guidance for the State Mass Care Coordinator Job Title. And the nation will be testing a wealth of documents on how to manage mass care at the state level during the 2013 National Mass Care Exercise to be held in Tallahassee, FL from May 20-23, 2013.

The screen shot below of the old Tracker message system we used in the State EOC in 2004 for the Charley response shows a sample of the resource requests and information messages we received on August 16th. At that time, on Day 3 after the storm, we had already received over 3,300 messages. The works out to about 800 a day, or 35 an hour if you assume that they arrived evenly over the 24 hours in the day. But they didn't arrive evenly. The messages came in gushers and waves during the daylight hours and this inundation overwhelmed our ability to process and understand what was happening in the affected area.

I remember many times during those early days sitting at my desk in the big room of the EOC with a land line in one ear, a cell phone in the other ear, and 3 people standing behind me waiting to ask a question. How much planning and analysis of this wealth of information was being performed by me or anyone else? 

We weren't planning for anything. We were just reacting.

During large disasters the very real situation that I just described is not uncommon. Those of you who have experienced these situations are nodding in agreement. The symptom of overwhelmed EOC workers is caused by under-staffing. Duh. So why aren't we doing something about it?

The reason emergency managers across the country are in the situation I described in August 2004? We don't know what we don't know. I didn't know that the systems that I put in place would be inadequate for the required level of the disaster response. I could not have been expected to divine this, and there was nothing written down that could aid me in arriving at this conclusion.

A Homeland Security Institute document published in February 2009 finally gave me a name to the problem that we were facing: Coordination Complexity. An Appendix to this document, entitled Coordination Complexity, talked about the concept but lamented that FEMA had yet to define the term. With the National Integration Center now in the throes of updating the National Incident Management System manual I want to throw the concept of Coordination Complexity on the table as something that needs to be presented and defined in the new manual. Since for my own purposes I needed a definition now, I throw this out for everyone to criticize:

Coordination complexity is the degree to which the size and nature of an event increases the volume of required agency interactions and degrades the ability of an Emergency Operations Center to function without additional procedures and staff.

The Homeland Security Institute article did list some parameters for coordination complexity which I assembled into the table below.

"Media Attention" is the parameter at the top since it tends to influence actions of the elected leaders who are our bosses. This introduces in some jurisdictions the phenomenon that I call "briefing up," wherein the poor emergency manager is pulled from his/her critical tasks in the EOC to give detailed and lengthy explanations to the elected officials, discussions that would have been more fruitful and less disruptive to the response if they had been conducted before the disaster started. 

An EOC is a facility where response agencies assemble to coordinate their actions. The "Stakeholder Composition" of those agencies is a major determinant of the level of coordination complexity involved in the response. The large number of agencies within the EOC are coordinating with local, state and federal agencies external to the EOC. And the agencies involved in this coordination have varying levels of expertise, experience and skill.

Finally, type and quantity of the tasks performed within the EOC and the number and competency of the staff assigned to execute those tasks affects the level of coordination complexity of the event. My favorite parameter is the "# of follow-up actions required" to complete a task. 

Using these different parameters one can construct a table to determine the Coordination Complexity Level of an event. The table below is just such an example and can be used to assign the Coordination Complexity Level for a mass care response in Florida.

In this table a Level 1 is more complex than a Level 3. Thus a State Mass Care Coordinator can use this table (or a similar one adapted to the jurisdiction) to estimate the Complexity Level before the storm hits and then request the additional personnel required to meet that level of complexity.

What level of capability is required for a given Complexity Level? We are working to answer that question during the National Mass Care Exercise this month. Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment