When a seemingly unrealistic incident occurs, emergency managers must be equipped with the base knowledge necessary to respond to the previously unknown scenario. Acronyms are a good way to remember what to do when stress levels are high and time is short. By getting back to the basics, managers are better equipped to respond and to protect their communities.
Emergency managers and responders across the United States confront a wide array of hazards and emergency situations daily. Whether responding to and managing floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, or any other natural or human-caused threat, effective operations begin with preparedness.
A Worst-Case Scenario
Preparedness efforts typically focus on the principle of planning for the worst, and hoping for the best. As such, planning, training, exercising, and evaluating preparedness frequently begin with the premise of identifying the worst situations imaginable and developing response protocols accordingly. Although this may enable the emergency responder community to broadly take an all-hazards approach to planning and preparedness, it also may create a lengthy menu of procedural guidelines that can overwhelm emergency or incident managers. During times of high stress and urgent need, the emergency or incident manager may become so stressed that identifying the starting point for establishing management functions is the first challenge.
As is often said, managing major incidents is a good news-bad news situation. The relatively infrequent incidence of catastrophic emergencies is the good news. Major incidents with potentially horrific consequences and threat to life are relatively rare. Correspondingly, that same rarity also is a primary cause for concern for emergency managers and incident commanders. The opportunities to apply acquired knowledge, skills, or abilities associated with major incident management for most personnel are very limited. In order to offset the limited experience in actual major incident response management, many preparedness efforts involve conducting exercises with scenarios that are close to unimaginable and incomprehensible – perhaps even unrealistic.
Additionally, in the efforts to support the “all-hazards” concept associated with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), preparedness efforts – specifically exercises – sometimes incorporate an array of different threats and hazards concurrently. This can lead to a descending cycle of efforts to develop and conduct more complex and detailed scenarios for each successive exercise. If this progression continues, emergency preparedness and planning efforts result in more detailed and complex plans and protocols.
The net effect can be that both emergency managers and incident commanders may become overloaded with situational details that can cause “decisional paralysis” or information overload. Sometimes characterized as “brain drain,” such overload causes a person to become unable to think through an orderly sequence of decisions in a timely manner. If this occurs, it may be best to remember another old adage, “Keep it simple, son” (or KISS).
From Priorities to Preservation
One fundamental – or back-to-basics – tenet of the Incident Command System (ICS) is to employ an orderly methodology by which emergency managers and incident commanders organize and focus response efforts to address threats and hazards of any type or magnitude, indeed all hazards. This principle is captured with the acronym P-O-S-T and has been presented in various ICS training programs for many years. Often the “P” is overlooked or minimized because it is a consistently recurring step, but it can help begin the initial thought process regardless of the magnitude or uniqueness of a threatening situation.
The “P” in P-O-S-T represents “priorities.” One unchanging element in every incident is the fact that there are three common core priorities. From an “all-hazards” perspective, the priorities are constants and may be the only elements that do not change regardless of threats, hazards, vulnerabilities, or risks. These priorities can be listed by another acronym – L-I-P, which stands for: (a) Life safety; (b) Incident stabilization; and (c) Property conservation (or Preservation). The order in which they are listed also represents the relative order in which these priorities should be addressed when defining the parameters of any emergency. It is from these three core priorities that all further decisions and actions can be programmed.
Priorities also may be stated using different, or more detailed (subordinate), verbiage. For example, an incident commander states that the “first priority is to reopen the highway.” Although this is a legitimate statement, it may be driven by the recognition that opening the highway is critical to implementing life-saving operations (priority number 1). Alternately, if there are no immediate life-safety threats, reopening the highway would facilitate stabilizing the incident situation sooner (core priority number 2). Or finally, reopening the highway may limit continuing damage to property. In any case, the original statement to “reopen the highway” captures the intent of one of the three core priorities or perhaps all three.
The “O” in P-O-S-T represents “objectives.” Once the situational demands of the incident can be defined within any or all of the core priorities, incident managers can identify operational objectives to confront the threat(s) and conform to these priorities. Objectives are broad statements of intent or desired outcomes relative to the priorities and actions anticipated.
The “S” in P-O-S-T represents “strategy” (or strategies). Based on the objectives established, incident managers typically then assess several alternative strategies for action to meet the objectives and select the one or two strategies deemed best under the circumstances. There may be cases in which two (or more) compatible strategies may be adopted. The important decision relative to adopting strategies is to remember that if multiple strategies are considered, they must not be counterproductive and cannot “neutralize” each other.
Finally, the “T” in P-O-S-T represents “tactics” or “tasks.” These are the functional actions undertaken to disrupt, deter, or redirect the event(s) to achieve a more favorable outcome. As with strategies, several alternative tactical options often are assessed. Selection of tactics most commonly are dependent on the immediacy (or urgency) of the threat; readily available resources; time necessary to acquire resources not on hand; and functional constraints to perform the actions under consideration.
Putting P-O-S-T Into Action
One example of using the P-O-S-T process might be as follows:
A tornado touches down suddenly in a suburban locality wreaking havoc on an area of residential occupancies 200 yards wide by half a mile long. Fortunately, National Weather Service warnings provide sufficient time for most residents to take protective measures; however, structural damage is extensive.
All three priorities come into play. Life safety for citizens and responders are the preeminent priority. With that, incident stabilization (priority 2) and property conservation (priority 3) also steer initial decision-making.
The objectives may be stated as follows:
Identify and provide emergency medical care for any injured citizens in the impacted area within ___ hours. (Priority 1)
Ensure all emergency response personnel conduct operations in the safest and most expedient manner possible using appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment. (Priority 1)
Map and cordon/secure the impact area from unauthorized incursion within ___ hours. (Priority 2)
Survey for any externally visible structural damage, especially for residential occupancies, within ___ hours. (Priority 3)
Strategies may include:
Organize search teams of trained/qualified response personnel and conduct surveys and searches for any victims. Remove any readily extricable victims, provide triage and treatment, remove to safety, and report any victims needing technical rescue assistance and/or life support.
Establish technical rescue crews prepared, equipped, and capable of conducting technical rescue activities.
Establish emergency medical services (EMS) operations in a safe location to provide care for victims or any injured personnel.
Establish traffic control points at all roads providing access to the affected area and prohibit entry for all by authorized personnel.
Contact local power and other utilities and cut off all services within the impacted area pending determination of safety for restoration on a case-by-case basis.
Obtain local tax maps or other records to support assessment operations.
Tactics may include:
Conduct aerial (preferably rotary wing) overflight of the impacted area (conditions permitting), noting visible victims and report same to command. If possible provide live-stream video to command or other downlink location.
Establish 10 three- to five-person teams of fire/EMS personnel who, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and having appropriate hand tools, conduct house-to-house “walk-around” surveys on a street-by-street basis to locate any victims. Assess victims for injuries, provide preliminary treatment, and direct them to the EMS care location or notify supervisory personnel of need for more extensive victim care and/or removal assistance.
Establish two- or three-person EMS teams to provide care for victims within the impact zone and to remove any victims as needed.
Request utility companies to interrupt utility services to the area at main control points for the area.
Establish squads of heavy equipment to conduct debris removal operations to facilitate access to any debris-blocked streets.
Establish a branch in the operations section to record all reports of damage to structures and coordinate structural triage activities.
The development and implementation of the objectives, strategies, and tactical operations should follow an orderly progression initiated based on core priorities.
Confidence, Effectiveness, Efficiency & Safety
Emergency managers and incident commanders should develop an intuitive sense of awareness to fall back to the P-O-S-T process in order to organize their thoughts based on core priorities, regardless of the nature or scope of the incident. (It also may help to have a “cue card” simply stating P-O-S-T located with other emergency response field guides or first responder job aids.) Using these three core priorities to formulate objectives as statements of intent, emergency managers then can assess strategies – or means to achieve the objectives.
Once viable strategies have been identified, the tactics or actions to accomplish the strategies can be formulated. Based on an orderly progression, as captured in the acronym P-O-S-T, emergency managers would be more confident that any scenario confronted, no matter how complex, unique, or potentially overwhelming, could be resolved with a greater degree of effectiveness, efficiency, and, above all, SAFETY. Often, the most basic of processes can be the best solution to the biggest challenges.
Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.