Redefining Mission Critical:
Managing Simultaneous Disasters
by Roger Mason PhD
As an emergency manager, your job is to prepare for and manage emergencies. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an emergency that has our attention. What if another disaster occurs during the pandemic? Historic models indicate the current pandemic may pass through several waves over the next year. What prevents another natural or human-caused disaster occurring during this period? How should you handle simultaneous disasters or emergencies?
The heart of any emergency operations organization is the emergency operations plan. The emergency operations plan provides a framework for how an emergency will be managed. The plan includes specifics regarding local threats and hazards. Emergency managers across the country are busy with contingency plans related to the virus pandemic. This does not prevent other disasters and emergencies from occurring. This problem is especially acute because combining a pandemic with any other disaster response is complicated.
This article will explore what makes a simultaneous disaster complex, the impact of this disaster on your conventional planning, and techniques for managing this type of event. We will also discuss specific challenges for emergency managers and offer some recommendations for managing simultaneous disaster operations.
What Makes a Simultaneous Disaster Complex?
You can say that every disaster is complex. I believe some disasters are complicated and some are complex. It is possible to evaluate the complexity of a disaster by employing guidelines develop by Dietrich Dorner and Joachim Funke. In their 2017 article for the National Institute of Health they proposed five criteria to determine complexity.
The criterion is variables, connectivity, dynamics, uncertainty, and goal conflicts. Every disaster involves variables in the conditions, circumstances, and outcomes of the situation. Connectivity refers to the mutual interaction and interdependencies of the stakeholders. The impact of incident time and development defines the dynamics for the disaster. Uncertainty is the number of unknowns within the incident. Goal conflicts refer to competing goals, and preferences within the stakeholder group.
Like any disaster, pandemic response is complicated. Once you overlay a pandemic on another disaster, the problems become complex. The variables rapidly increase as you superimpose a potential worldwide health crisis over a local emergency. Connectivity becomes a problem. Many disaster plans assume their populations will need public services to replace individual capabilities. Public services may be difficult to provide during periods of self-isolation.
Time, situational developments, and environment changes result in dynamic conditions. Through planning and experience many of these conditions can be anticipated. When two disasters occur simultaneously these conditions can co-mingle resulting in unanticipated conditions and outcomes. Uncertainty is magnified by the second, simultaneous emergency.
Many disasters are recurring phenomena which populations and planners have experienced. The last worldwide pandemic occurred over 100 years ago. When all of these factors are added together it is natural to anticipate the stakeholders will have conflicting goals regarding response, self-preservation, and levels of care.
Impact on Planning
If the addition of a secondary disaster is complex the impacts on planning can be profound. Three areas that will impact emergency planning are operational flexibility, availability of resources, and redirection of priorities. Most emergency plans assume that disaster managers will have operational flexibility to deal with contingencies. With simultaneous disasters, constraints may be introduced that fit the requirements of one disaster but cripple the response to the second emergency.
Simultaneous disasters may require local resources be directed to other areas.This can impact the availability of resources. One disaster may require the redirection of priorities. The plans for your local disaster may be redirected by planning priorities at a higher level. This means more decisions based on priorities that are not specific to your problems.
Challenges of a Simultaneous Disaster
Here are some of the challenges during a simultaneous disaster:
EOC (Emergency Operations Center) Operations
Will one EOC handle both emergencies? Are the disasters so dissimilar that you may require an EOC for both? Will you have enough personnel to staff more than one EOC?
Gathering current information about what is happening is critical to emergency management. The pace and profile of a pandemic may be slower and less defined than a familiar disaster. In the aftermath of a tornado or earthquake, the operational pace immediately ramps up to its maximum level and gradually tapers off. The damage is clear cut and obvious. A pandemic may begin gradually, and the impact may be unclear for some time.
Simultaneous disasters require attention to intelligence gathering. Since the future is uncertain and you may have no experience with this problem you are limited developing operational assumptions. This requires constant monitoring of conditions and developments. Data that is collected must be evaluated. You need to assess the impacts of each disaster and the potential effect on both.
During a disaster an experienced emergency manager knows what logistics will be available, how to access them, and the possibility of additional aid. These assumptions may be disrupted by appropriations by higher-level authorities or interruptions to the logistics pipeline. If you anticipate a second emergency you should be looking for additional resources and logistics with alternative systems for delivery.
You should prepare for disruption to your plans. The operational space that you have identified for your plan (staging area, local medical center etc.) may also be desired by the other authorities. You should develop alternatives for where and how you will operate if your original plans are superseded.
A pandemic can quickly absorb your medical/EMS bandwidth. This type of disaster is unique. After an earthquake, we do not quarantine people because they may have a broken arm. The treatment for a broken bone is immediate. In many cases the persons can care for themselves. The treatment protocols and conditions of a pandemic will quickly absorb most of the medical capability.
Not only is the intensity level of a simultaneous emergency higher, but the impact on emergency personnel is greater. The nature of disaster operations increases the personal contact of emergency personnel with victims. When you add an emergency like a pandemic, the responders must avoid becoming victims. The paramedics treating the victim with the broken arm do not have to worry about their own arm being injured. This changes during a health emergency. A loss of personnel due to sickness may be unavoidable. It may require a second look at what emergency services may have to be curtailed or eliminated.
Mutual aid is based on government stakeholders assisting one another by sharing resources. Pandemic conditions may limit the resources available and complicate their movement.
Managing Simultaneous Emergencies
Here are several recommendations to prepare for simultaneous emergencies.
Evaluating Your Leadership Bandwidth
Your leadership bandwidth is your capability to lead and manage based on the size of and experience of your leadership team. Governments and organizations often find themselves short of trained leaders during a single disaster. These are persons with leadership experience, familiar with their organization, and trained to fill emergency leadership positions. Long hours and fatigue can take a toll on your leadership team. This is compounded during a concurrent health emergency.
Emergency managers should evaluate how many leaders will be available and assess the impact of a health emergency on their availability. As members of the team become ill, your leadership bandwidth will decrease. The extent of leadership you can provide may limit the operations you can manage.
Prepare for Alternative ICS Operations
Every trained emergency manager is very familiar with ICS. Managers should consider how a secondary health emergency might impact ICS functionality. How will a simultaneous health emergency effect your ICS operations? You may need to expand your ICS framework to handle two unique emergencies. Considerations include establishing a secondary EOC for health-related operations, doubling ICS responsibilities, and establishing parallel ICS operations that share an admin and finance section.
Establish an Operations/Planning Integration Cell
The problems of conflicting operations and planning are common during a simultaneous emergency. With more responders and decision makers the opportunity for conflicts caused by overlapping operations and planning will increase. Consider establishing an operations/planning integration cell. Their job is to track operations and planning in both areas as well as outside agencies.
Focus on Intelligence Gathering
The need for timely intelligence gathering will grow as the complexity of the emergencies increase. During most emergencies an experienced emergency manager may be able to make educated guesses about what may happen next. With simultaneous emergencies, the uncertainty may be amplified as the emergency manager enters uncharted terrain. You can decrease the effects of outside decision-making and conflicting operations by constant intelligence gathering.
You may have limited experience with separate health emergencies during disasters. There will be many unexpected effects and unanticipated outcomes. You should emphasize agility in your management protocols. The number of variables involved in two disasters will impact the perception of time. If a legacy protocol is not working, it needs to sidelined and replaced.
Simultaneous disasters can be simply described as twice as many problems with half the resources. Doubling the disasters means dealing with greater complexity. Your operational plans may be impacted by other decision makers at a higher level of authority. This type of situation may require innovative approaches to traditional plans and protocols like ICS and emergency operations centers. The key is identifying new threats and finding fresh solutions. We must redefine what is mission critical.