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Spring Disasters: Getting the Management Basics Right

Spring Disasters: Getting the Management Basics Right

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

As we approach the tornado season in the Midwest with its spring storms, we must remember that all disasters start locally. How we manage day-to-day incidents in our organization is a likely indicator of how a larger disaster will progress.

If you do not have consistency and strength in basic management and task completion at small house fires, for example, how can you expect a rapidly growing Incident Command System (ICS) chart with multiple players collaborating to occur? Do you practice your skills at these small events? Do you conduct critiques to determine ways to improve? Do you tabletop larger events to ensure that positions that are often not filled are refreshed and have checklists in place?

If Management Basics Do Not Work Properly during Small Events, Large-Scale Disasters Will Fail

We often respond to calls each day and do not fully incorporate or actually use ICS terminology. We opine that it’s a small event and we do not need all of the extra terminology that comes with implementing ICS. Instead, we decide to only use the terminology after the event grows.

Imagine that you are at a two-alarm fire and think that it's going well without the ICS principles. Because you have enough personnel and gallons per minute to outpace the fire, you win again and cannot see the need for all of that fancy terminology that they made you learn in ICS classes.

But later, you are managing a disaster event that is spread over a neighborhood; it involves rescuing people and performing reconnaissance in areas to determine the areas hardest hit by the tornado. Emergency calls keep coming in and people from the communities around you are showing up, wanting to know how to help. At this point, your recollection of how to properly divide the event into sectors through divisions or groups is long lost; you wish you had a way to efficiently organize all of the responders who have shown up to help.

In normal firefighter fashion, incoming fire and EMS companies become frustrated and begin to assign themselves work areas, thinking that at least they are helping the overall cause. But at some point, the disaster event becomes so overwhelming that you need to bring in a command team to rein in the event’s activities.

How does such an event grow out of control so fast? When we had fires with all of our resources and some mutual aid, it seems to go well. Where did this management process begin to fail?

Because fire departments respond to fires regularly, there are often written and unwritten plans of what activities need to take place. Often, the fire involves less than a block and even if a company did not go through the proper assignment process, nearly all of the command personnel can see them operate and know how their activities are interacting with others.

Once we lose prior experience and the ability to directly see all resources, we are forced to conduct management on paper and from a distance. Due to the unfamiliarity of some of the tasks during a disaster, we can not rely on company officers to pull from memory what they did last time and hope that the same actions will help at our event. We are now relegated to true incident management.

Begin with Management Basics

Because we are unfamiliar with the type of activities to be performed in a widespread disaster, we are forced to develop objectives. These objectives can be basic and change over time, but they drive resource requests. However, it is necessary to have the right people and equipment to complete these objectives.

Next, sectorize a disaster event in order to maintain the span of control. At a typical fire in a municipality, it may not be uncommon to have up to 10 reports, as most activities are policy-driven. While this is far too many, it happens throughout the country each day.

The lack of radio traffic and constant activity means that supervisors are not forced to provide constant direction. In an event in which this is the first and possibly last time in a career for a person to respond to this type of event, the supervision will be more intense and regular. To accomplish this level of supervision, you cannot have the upper tier of direct reports.

Instead, trying to stay around a span of control ratio of 5:1 is best. If comfort levels rise in the supervisors, then expanding towards 7:1 may be acceptable.

Creating sectors may be accomplished by geography or tasks to be performed, which will help you in creating divisions and groups. Be sure to sectorize early and do not allow the span of control to grow. Also, keep placing supervisors and levels of supervision to hold to the correct span of control. If the use of strike team and task forces do not help, consider moving to the branch level.

Practice your abilities to set objectives and sectorize at your next one-alarm fire. Conduct tabletop exercises and determine how the ICS structure would change if you moved to a three-alarm fire. Talk to your crews about the growth transition, your thoughts on creating sectors and the objectives that you would set for each type of hazard present in your community. Get the management basics right on the small events and that will make the big events easier to handle.

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.