(Feature Photo by Graham Ruttan on Unsplash)

By: Andrew Owlett

A New Way to Handle Multiple Incidents of Increased Complexity

Typically woven into businesses and local, state, and federal government entities are emergency management teams that staff Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs). These teams can stand up their EOCs at a moment’s notice and employ a broad range of staffing postures depending on the jurisdiction, incident type, and duration of an event. EOCs coordinate emergency response by acting as a nerve center for strategic decision-making, information sharing and coordination, and much more.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress test these emergency management professionals and capabilities, in the U.S. and throughout the world. The disease has thrown a wrench into traditional emergency management methodologies and operational structures, added new meanings to the word “emergency,” and in turn, begun redefining what emergency management entails and how we “do” emergency management.

That is what this article is for—to help provide some guidance and considerations for emergency management leadership, team members, and other public servants, as the world and our field change rapidly around them.

A Call to Action

Historically, the emergency management community in most businesses, states, and localities does not often respond to a single incident for months at a time. Instead, after a while—anywhere from a single operational period to dozens for large scale incidents—the emergency management community turns from response to recovery. This allows it to shift roles, priorities, and goals, and relieve pressure on its personnel and resources. With COVID-19, this historical pattern is broken. The emergency management community is faced with ongoing response in some jurisdictions, recovery in other jurisdictions, and the potential for relapse or brand-new incidents in high-risk jurisdictions.

I cannot emphasize enough: A response as complicated, multifaceted, and resource-intensive as COVID-19 is stress testing emergency management professionals, with “stress” being the operative word. And, as we enter the severe summer weather season with an increased risk of tornadoes, wildfires, tropical storms, hurricanes, and so much more, we need a call to action to take care of one of the most important assets to the communities in which we live: the emergency management professionals themselves. If we neglect them now, we may not have a strong emergency management community in 12 months.

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A nurse in PPE stands outside after a shift at an NHS hospital. Photo by Luke Jones


Action 1 – Mental Health and Safety

Our emergency management professionals are working longer hours over a more sustained period than most have experienced. Though these professionals are tough, hardworking, dedicated, and positive, they could be building up stress and fatigue, or developing warning signs for more serious conditions of anxiety or depression. Emergency management professionals are always ready to answer the call for service, but that service is often for a shorter period than COVID-19 demands.

They will need leadership’s support to mitigate these increased threats as they continue to go above and beyond. If you have not already begun to do so, working to build a sustainable mental health and safety program for your teams is essential. Make this care part of your culture: Multiple times each week, engage in dialogue with your teams about the importance of mental health and safety.

As additional support tools, team leaders and colleagues could also consider:

  • Encouraging walking breaks with no technology.
  • Encouraging engagement in random personal hobbies in between meetings, halfway through the day, or at other convenient points in time, to get minds off work.
  • Leveraging mindfulness technology applications like Calm or Headspace.
  • Encouraging discussions with on-call telehealth counselors at the end of the work week.
  • Simply monitoring each other’s habits and tendencies for changes, which can be difficult or deprioritized when the ops tempo is high.

Take mental health and safety seriously. This is not just about buzzwords; this is about sustainable investment in your people.

Action 2 – Alternate Staffing Postures

Emergency management leadership also needs to consider long-term and permanent alternate staffing postures for its EOCs. It is not feasible (indeed, it’s borderline unethical) to have fully staffed in-person EOCs right now, and when it will be feasible again is anyone’s guess. Even with encouragements to maintain six feet of physical distance, provision of personal protective equipment, daily health and safety checks, or other mitigating measures, there is still an immense risk to health and safety.

To reduce these risks, team leaders should consider:

  • Rotating shifts that involve several skeleton teams (e.g., Team A, Team B, Team C, Team D).
  • Shifts and teams that include dedicated strategic 12+ month threat, vulnerability, and hazard outlook planners.
  • Shifts that are split, or that alternate, between primary operating facilities and continuity alternate facilities.
  • Hybrid virtual environments.
  • Complete virtual environments.

This staff posturing reduces individual operating burdens, allowing for response to multiple incidents of increased complexity. It allows you to spread your resources out, instead of using them all up for one incident. It allows you to not lose track of potential incidents on the horizon. Most importantly, it allows you to be more agile when the next incident inevitably comes your way.

When it comes to staffing, team leaders might consider adding:

  • Volunteer staff augmentation.
  • Hybrid public safety staffing.
  • Contractor staffing.

Tip: Always have at least two or three backups on your most critical taskings or priorities. This ensures continuity and cross-training. Now is the time to think creatively about your staffing postures and do something unconventional (if you have examples of your own creativity that have achieved success, leave them in the comments!).

Before we move on, let’s also talk about a huge administrative burden that COVID-19 has added to the equation: call volume.

Whether from citizens, private sector partners, or public sector partners, there is a substantial, across-the-board increase in call volume reaching EOCs right now. Every jurisdiction will respond uniquely, but as a leader no matter where you are, consider activating a just-in-time contract capability for a virtual call center outside of your impacted geographic region or partnering with volunteer entities to help safely staff call centers. This could allow you to offload some of the administrative call-taking tasks that are taking away from strategic planning and operational coordination capacity, and it will also force your organization to standardize procedures and capture data on common questions. You’ll be thankful for both moving forward, especially as we enter the severe storm season. Adjustments like this really can help you more easily respond to multiple incidents at the same time.

Action 3 – Compensation

Politicians and public safety activists should also not neglect emergency management professionals when it comes to legislation regarding pay. Whether through inclusion in hazard pay subsidies or general increases in base public safety and healthcare compensation (or both), money spent on these professionals is both well-deserved and an investment in stable future responses. The public safety and healthcare community is on the front lines of not just COVID-19, but also all the actions necessary to keep our communities safe whether there is a pandemic or not. Take care of them today, and they will stick around for tomorrow.

data on recoveries displayed on screen
Recovery figures on a COVID-19 data dashboard. (Photo by Tobias Rehbein on Pexels.com )

Action 4 – Future Policy and Procedures

We are in this for the long haul. With estimates on COVID-19 vaccinations anywhere from 6-18 months, there’s little telling when this will go away (if it ever completely does). As you are capturing your lessons learned, make sure that you are also rapidly closing out the tasks you’re learning from, and acting on those lessons. Especially in a long crisis, there is a traction to “getting things done.” Use that traction to your advantage to make the emergency management community a better place.

Some future policy and procedural suggestions for doing this:

  • Place a greater emphasis on continuity of operations planning.
    • Do this not just from a compliance perspective, but with a focus on true operationalization of continuity of operations programs. Do not create a 60+ page plan and insist it is operational (chances are it is not) just because it checks enough boxes. Create operational and agile procedures and strategies, really suited to your organization, that will let you rapidly continue your most critical functions.
  • Invest in people and technology.
    • NextGen emergency management will entail greater uses of technology. (We are already seeing this, and it will only continue.) The emergency management community should consider adopting process automation, machine learning, advanced geospatial tech, advanced big data ingestion, 3D/4D, sensor, and wearable and embedded technologies. All of these rapidly emerging tools are displaying their many uses in the emergency management community already, and especially shining throughout the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. There are many opportunities to leverage each type of technology, based on your organization’s needs and situation. This can provide an opportunity to include new people and skills in your system, while also building even stronger continuity.
  • Enhance supply chain capabilities.
    • Emergency management supply chain interdependencies continue to come into play throughout COVID-19. Rapid investment in contractual contingencies, stockpiles at the state and local level, and modeling and simulation software ties are critical to handling multiple incidents of increased complexity. Sometimes, though, policy gets in the way. Now is the time to reevaluate and knock down the policy barriers surrounding what constitutes a resilient supply chain for you, your team, or your jurisdiction.

Moving Along

Just like emergency management is not a “one-size-fits-all” community, these recommendations are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, this article is meant to be a primer for change. During the COVID-19 response and recovery, preparations for COVID-19 wave two, and preparations for a severe weather season this summer, we need to combine bold actions to break down the barriers that are preventing us from more efficiently operating and enacting necessary changes right now, with the foresight to account for the challenges, needs, and opportunities that will come later. We can do this, and we can do this together.

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About the Author: With over 14 years of experience serving mostly CXOs, Andrew Owlett is a change agent and passionate Crisis Management and Resilience + Strategy, Innovation, and Analytics seasoned leader, board member, public speaker, educator, and innovator. Connect with him on LinkedIn to learn more about his journey and so he can learn more about yours.

**The information expressed, and the information prepared, was completed by Andrew Owlett in his personal capacity. This material should not form the primary basis for any decision that you make in relation to matters referred to herein. Review carefully the material and perform such due diligence as you deem fit.

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