Saturday, February 22, 2014

On Draining the Swamp

"When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp."

State of Florida EOC at the opening of the 2013 National Mass Care Exercise
I plan to make this quote the unofficial motto of the 2014 National Mass Care Exercise that will be held in Tallahassee May 18-22, 2014. I also may have to re-phrase it a bit in deference to whatever tender ears may be in attendance.

The central focus of the exercise will be testing the concepts laid out in the White Paper on Mass Care Task Forces that was published in December 2013. And the White Paper is all about developing a doctrine for the state mass care coordination process. I know, for some people the word "doctrine" is a dirty word, but they have to get over it. Doctrine is simply a commonly understood way of doing something that is taught to other people. And the mass care community (the states, the voluntary agencies, the feds, even the private sector) need to have a common understanding of the state mass care coordination process so that when we are all assembled in an affected state during a big disaster we can work together more effectively.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I obsess on the big, even large and at times catastrophic disasters. I focus on these disasters because those are the ones with the complex problems, the biggest consequences and that are the least understood because they happen so infrequently. In Florida, disasters have to be big to elevate to the state level because our counties and voluntary agencies are capable. The state doesn't get involved in any serious manner unless they are overwhelmed.

When the disaster grows big the mass care staff at the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) get overwhelmed trying to fight all the alligators. The State Mass Care Coordinator needs to expand the staff to meet the increased number and complexity of the coordination tasks that they must complete. Staff with the training and experience to step in and help us aren't hanging out in Tallahassee waiting for an opportunity: they must be identified and brought in at the time of the disaster. We must have a structure and processes constructed, in place and in writing for these new arrivals. This structure is the mass care task force. When they get there the people in the task forces work on draining the swamp.

We've been trying to figure out how mass care task forces are supposed to drain the swamp since 2009, when we set up a Feeding Task Force for the Hurricane Suiter exercise (Craig Fugate's last State Exercise before he became a Femite). In 2012 we set up 3 TF's: Feeding, Sheltering and Distribution. In 2013 we had 2 TF's: Feeding and Sheltering. In what turned out to be a trial and error process we had lots of trials and even more errors.

The Shelter Task Force in operation during the May 2013 National Mass Care Exercise in Tallahassee.
The crux of the issue was that this was a complex problem and nobody really knew how these task forces were supposed to work. Oh, we THOUGHT we knew. Last year I thought I was so smart and had this problem ALL figured out and then 2 hours into the exercise I told myself, "Well, this isn't going to work, either." And we had plenty of criticisms from the participants. Read the After Action Reports, here and here.

But we're getting better. And the best part is that all these mistakes we're learning from are happening in an exercise and not a disaster. The really best part is the Exercise this year will show that we've got it all figured out.