Recent incidents, and the responses to them, including the wave of natural disasters across the United States since 11 September 2001 – e.g., numerous tornadoes, floods, and tropical storms, Hurricanes Katrina and Irene, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill – have led to numerous discussions and debates, at all levels of government, on incident management policies and procedures. Those events and follow-on responses have led in turn to revised doctrines and policies related to the roles and responsibilities of numerous agencies and organizations both in government and in the private sector. The dialogue continues today, with the development and implementation effort related to Presidential Policy Directive (PPD)-8, National Preparedness, and to a planned future redraft of Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5, Management of Domestic Incidents, both of which will significantly affect response and incident management policies in the foreseeable future.
Efforts are already underway, for example, to: update the National Response Framework; implement new frameworks for protection, prevention, mitigation, and recovery; and develop the plans and processes needed to address the objectives outlined in the National Preparedness Goal. In addition, the National Incident Management System is soon to be rewritten, and it seems likely that there will be additional updates to the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan – which governs such events as the Deepwater Horizon spill. These updates are important both to the development of doctrine for homeland security as a profession and for the operational coordination of all levels of government as such events become even more complex in the future.
Over the past several years, numerous association meetings, forums, and conferences of various types have been held to discuss how incident management is understood and viewed – at different levels of government, by the media, and by elected and appointed officials. In an effort to continue that discussion, approximately 25 thought leaders from government, the commercial sector, and academia – including homeland security leaders who are nationally recognized for their knowledge of and contributions to the nation’s incident and homeland security response programs – participated in a National Incident Response Policy Conference (NIRPC) earlier this year in Washington, D.C. The attendees were asked to focus on challenges and solutions related to the question, “What should the federal government’s response doctrine be in responding to large-scale catastrophic major events in our nation?”
Thoughtful Responses – But Numerous Complexities as Well
The principal purpose of the 4 October conference was to initiate dialogue – between and among the thought leaders participating – in the field of incident management and to discuss numerous overlapping issues related to response doctrines and authorities, common goals, and public understanding and trust. The multifaceted conversation focused primarily on the authorities, directives, and initiatives related to disaster response in an attempt: (a) to identify potential conflicts among federal, regional, state, local, and private-sector partners and communities; and (b) to make recommendations on possible ways to resolve such conflicts. The conference was hosted by The George Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk, and was sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton and O’Brien’s Response Management.
The goal of the conference was to determine how to identify what constitutes “unity of effort” and how that unity – and both public trust and understanding – can be achieved in the context of the varying and sometimes offsetting influences provided by different doctrines and authorities. After much discussion, the group’s participants determined that the following “characteristics” would be needed to achieve the unity of effort being sought:
- A common set of goals;
- Agreement and consensus on the mission and how to employ resources;
- Participation of the whole community – i.e., recognition of diversity within the community: multiple voices, one message;
- A common understanding of the problem and the priorities for addressing it;
- Agreement on objectives and message;
- Visibility of the positive effects of coordination;
- Working as a team rather than as individual players; and
The conference’s facilitators leveraged recent events to stimulate discussion because many of the characteristics mentioned just above had been encountered during recent large-scale responses. The possible difficulties discussed included but were not limited to the following: a misunderstanding of the roles and responsibilities postulated for or assumed by different levels of government; conflicts among leadership at the state, regional, and local levels related to and/or caused by the federal government’s statutory preemption of response operations; and the perceived lack of effectiveness and/or applicability of existing doctrine.
The Importance of Gaining Public Trust
Before the meeting, members of the panel were asked to provide feedback through a short survey. The survey topics related to several overarching themes and debates in the field – again, including but not limited to: political involvement in response policies and procedures; the benefits and/or problems of postulating different doctrines for disaster response; the accountability of so-called “responsible parties”; the efficiency and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of current disaster preparedness and response plans; and the importance of gaining public trust, and public participation, during a response.
The answers to the survey questions served as a helpful catalyst to guide the discussions. The topics were first broken down, though, into three primary areas: authorities; common goals; and public understanding and trust. In the morning session, the NIRPC attendees discussed the challenges associated with each topic; the afternoon session was devoted primarily to the discussion of solutions.
Many of the topics and solutions discussed were not new, but reiterated the issues mentioned above. The recommendations developed by the group reinforced the importance of the same issues and, it is hoped, will promote change within a narrow window of policy updates and revisions that are currently happening – or will happen at various times over the next year.
Five overarching areas, based on the discussions, were deemed particularly important for future policy directives and, it was agreed, must be incorporated into future training and incident management plans and operations: (a) the further development of homeland security doctrine; (b) an increased emphasis on unity of effort and unified command; (c) higher priority in understanding and developing the mechanisms needed to address federal, state, and local political and policy interests; (d) the use of better mechanisms to incorporate science and technology in a systematic way; and (e) the development and use of better tools to build public trust and confidence.
There was also a major cautionary conclusion: The conference participants said they were concerned that the absence of clear and concise unity of effort – joint reliable information, coordinated response activities, and careful and robust coordination – might result in those who do not have direct responsibility, or are not properly trained, to attempt to manage an event’s response – thereby leading them to vocalize their frustrations, create potential misunderstandings, and even misdirect resources toward efforts that might break down the unity required to effectively manage an incident and mitigate its consequences. This particular scenario was described by one attendee as the need to “minimize the trade space” in which those who are uninformed, and/or misinformed, are allowed to play a role that enables them to affect the media as well as the public and political arenas.