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ESF, EOC, ICP alphabet soup

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Recently a well respected social media crisis communications blogger and tweeter Kim Stephens (@kim26stephens, idisaster 2.0) asked her followers ways to improve the interface between incident command posts (ICPs)  and emergency operations centers (EOCs), and if technology had a solution.  It took me a nanosecond to say….ummm….no.

Having worked in real and simulated EOC and ICP environments on large scale events I don’t think technology will solve the inherent tension between the role and operation of EOC’s and ICP’s.  I can’t think of an incident command class I have taught or participated in where the role of the EOC has not been brought up and discussed.

Things get real spicy when class participants are emergency management types.  The questions and resulting discussion usually focus on; Who orders stuff? Who gets on T.V.? Who runs the show?  Where should all the “important people” go? For those of us who cut our teeth on emergency response, we default to ICS principles and paramilitary structure .  Emergency Management types rely on the emergency services function (ESF) concepts and internal EOC guidelines and plans.  The problem lies in the cross-over and conflict between ICS and EOC functions.  You just can’t have it both ways.

Shortly after 9/11, I traveled to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland to take the “Executive Analysis of Fire Service Operations in Emergency Management” course, which was  hurriedly added to the curriculum of the Executive Fire Officer Program.

I highly encourage taking a class on this beautiful campus (Oh yeah, the Feds cover all your travel and housing). You get a chance to rub elbows and find out that you and your agency is not as unique as you thought, and if it is you get an opportunity to share your experience. FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute is also housed on the campus, with fire and EM courses running at the same time. We played with with our EM partners in managing disaster scenarios, interfacing Command and Emergency Operations Center activities.  While we were only on opposite ends of a building, you would have thought we were on different planets, speaking Vulcan and Chinese. The after-action debrief revealed duplication of effort, frustration with lack of coordination, distribution of conflicting information and a general sense of resignation that each group thought the other group didn’t have a clue about how to manage a disaster.

Now, I know this was almost a decade ago, and we’ve spent lots of money and effort training folks on ICS.  But, I suspect many still don’t have a practical clue about the roles of  EOC, Area Command, Multi-Agency Coordination Center and Incident Command and how they should work together. The higher up the food chain you go, the greater the uncertainty about who does what is revealed. Oh yeah, and don’t forget about the different ICS rules we have to play by when the mess involves haz-mat.

So, how to fix it?

  • At the federal level – Reduce the boxes and dotted lines… simplify the org charts for MAC/AC/EOC/JOC/etc….., and they need to quit renaming functions every few years.
  • Figure out if ESF functions really belong in local emergency management organizations, or should be maintained primarily at the regional, state or federal level.
  • At the local level, EM and first response organizations need to sit down in a room and figure out who does what.  In my little corner of the world, emergency management and a stood up EOC provides resource support and regional coordination, and Command and Control functions are separated and the roles respected.
  • When teaching ICS 300/400 allow more time for robust discussion on this topic.  In the classes I teach, it comes up repeatedly.

I know this is a tall order.  But, unless the ESF/EOC and ICS/ICP conundrum is not practically solved and exercised, any technological tool deployed during crisis will simply document how screwed up things were.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://jgarrow.posterous.com Jim Garrow

    And don’t even get me started on the public information coordination between feds and locals. My local EA Officer said in an exercise that locals would not be welcome in the federal/state JIC and would not have access to the NICCL or SICCL.

    Thanks for bringing this up again, Chief. Gotta keep pounding on it.

    -Jim

    • http://chiefb2.wordpress.com chiefb2

      Agreed, thanks Jim, Nice haircut by the way…. :)

  • http://www.confluence-dpc.com Jeff Bowers

    The introduction of ICS in EOCs was a knee-jerk reaction that should have been thought out a bit better. Some of the conceptual advantages of ICS, such as unity of command, limited span of control, and scalability, should have been better tailored to unique emergency management purposes rather than simply foisted on emergency managers as a wholesale requirement. I think most EMs will recognize that ICS is not a perfect fit, but they maintain an ICS facade to remain eligible for grant funding. I oversimplify a bit, but not much.

    An even larger concern, I think, is keeping non-EM and non-responder folks trained to do something in disasters they’re not used to doing in peace time. In my opinion this is a huge barrier to operational readiness in an EOC or ECC and an impediment to effective local governmental response and recovery.

    Instead, I think that we should flip the switch and instead of adding “extra” disaster duties to government staff we should make it part and parcel of their normal jobs to be prepared to respond and carry out their assigned duties in “emergency mode” during disasters. It seems like a subtle difference, but not really. The current practice is often to fit square staff pegs into round emergency holes. What I’m thinking is more along the lines of giving ownership of emergency response activities to the staff who have to implement them. This gives everyone in government a real role in emergency management and avoids the perception that disasters constitute a separate, often foreign set of duties that are almost never trained or exercised except in the most diligent of communities.

    This also means retaining familiar lines of authority in the EOC. Again, there’s no reason why we can’t apply some of the beneficial concepts of ICS to existing government org charts. It’s not a perfect idea, and I’m working on refinements to it. But I still maintain that the insistence on a separate org structure with seemingly different duties during disasters causes more stress than is necessary to (non-responder) public employees and ultimately prevents us from maximizing our capabilities to mount effective response and recovery efforts.

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.