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Is Communication Our Excuse for Our Lack of Competence?

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By Randell Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

In a recent master’s thesis submitted by a student in the Emergency and Disaster Management program, the student noted that good communication was related to the organization and the competence of the people within the emergency response system. This student’s paper was one of the best I’ve read, in my opinion, because I am a firm believer that we use communication as a disguise for the competence failures of first responder personnel. However, a lack of competence is often not the fault of the personnel because we often do not know what we do not know.

The same week, I listened to the 2017 National Incident Management System (NIMS) webinar involving a rollout of the refreshed NIMS doctrine. Participants asked if they will be required to retake Incident Command Systems (ICS) courses. However, we are faced with so many unfunded mandates, there was no clear decision on whether or not retaking the ICS courses will be required.

Local Leaders and Governments Lack Commitment to Learning Disaster Management

Many agencies are involved in disaster response, but only emergency management agencies make an everyday job of it. Most emergency management agencies have enough staff to coordinate some level of disaster planning and response, as well as to complete required grant paperwork that makes purchasing equipment and some training possible.

When it comes to a disaster response, however, emergency management personnel are a tiny fraction of the community and government personnel who must come together during the actual response and recovery phase. Many of the necessary leaders do not study, practice or critique their disaster management knowledge on a daily basis.

While there is a requirement for completing many ICS courses based on one’s position in an organization, there is no continuing education requirement. I have taught numerous ICS courses and have seen a failure rate of less than 1%, which means that the level of competence to pass the exam must not be very high (think about a natural grading curve and distribution of grades).

Another problem is that while there are ICS course scenarios to provide a basis for the information, much of the testing must be lower-level competencies, such as defining and listing. In most failures, levels of learning would need to include the application and synthesis of information.

It is one thing to know what a Resource Unit Leader is. More importantly, you should know when to use one, what competencies this position should have and the interactions that should occur with the person holding that position.

Some Organizations Also Lack Commitment to Proper Training

In emergency services, we hire personnel who do not want to fail. They have a deep understanding of the gravity of failure, whether that failure is an active shooter scenario, a rescue from a house fire or a cardiac arrest. But due to competing interests, disaster management expertise does not always prevail.

Each organization has grown leaner in recent years to make government agencies as efficient as possible. Many governments were quick to cut training and travel because they were seen as luxuries that did not have a direct impact on first responder services.

Any successful business leader who has a large workforce knows the exact opposite is true. Business leaders also know that every incorrect decision due to a lack of training and understanding has a negative impact on an organization’s bottom line.

Honest, Anonymous Feedback and Accomplishment Checklists Are Essential for Training

The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) and documents have done wonders for the world of disaster exercises. But there is still the lack of anonymous feedback and the human interaction factors related to feedback. No one wants to attend a training or exercise only to be put on display for a lack of competence.

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Instead, the alternate response is just to say “we had a communication failure” or “we need some product to make our lives easier.” I challenge you to go through your area’s latest HSEEP or other after-action report. Find one instance where it is stated that a first responder lacked the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to serve in a particular position and created problems due to a lack of competence.

There needs to be a way to submit feedback that cannot be traced to an individual. Also, there should be a checklist of items that first responders are required to accomplish in a disaster exercise. This checklist would allow those who interact with that first responder to measure his or her accomplishments related to the competency/action list.

With anonymous feedback, first responders could receive their critique and have a realistic measurement of what they need to accomplish and how those accomplishments appear to those with whom they interact. This approach would be more objective and positive, as discouragement will hurt a first responder’s future performance as well.

Time, Resources and Honest Feedback Are Key to Improving Competency

Local government organizations will be at every disaster and will often set the tone for success. If emergency management agencies do not commit time and resources, as well as create an honest and objective feedback system for training and exercises, we will never be fully competent. Consequently, we will not deliver the best possible outcomes for those we are sworn to protect.

Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.