How Agility Can Improve Disaster Management
Disasters have been affecting humanity since the beginning of time, and we continually see a need to improve how our emergencies are managed. Here, we look at how the agility approach in project management can be applied to emergency and disaster management.
First, there was fire
The Incident Command System (ICS) was born from the disastrous 1970 California fire season that claimed 16 lives, 700+ structures, burned more than 500,000 acres, and caused over $234 million in damage within 13 days.
Two critical issues needed to be solved:
- Standardization of structure/terminology/operating procedures.
- A management mechanism for resources.
So, in a typical highly-structured fashion, a great organizational chart and top-down leadership were developed with 14 fundamental principles.
The birth of emergency management
It makes sense that the ICS structure leveraged models that were understood and had shown their effectiveness in other areas, specifically Civic Defense. This adoption required a shift in social philosophy, in which an authority played a key leading role in preventing and responding to disasters. Now we can consider how to leverage the power of individuals in our responses.
Disaster management as a project
One can draw similarities between the evolving nature of disaster management and project management. In this article, we will illustrate this comparison and what it could mean for the future of disaster management practices.
Project management graphs with formulas for earned value describing the schedule/cost variance between actual, planned and estimated values look very similar to graphs depicting the impact of disasters.
Predictive project methods are great for recognizing a known situation and responding in a planned fashion. For example, when a train car carrying product ABC catches on fire, the best practice is to follow steps 1-32 for the industry-standard solution; but that is only for the eight firefighters working in that specific situation; what about the hundreds of other responders? How can they support that situation? Are they in communication with what is happening? We can find room to improve and remove poor communication from too many after-action reports.
Historically, project management has evolved from a predictive (highly planned) method of thinking to something that acknowledges the vast amount of change by implementing an adaptive agile approach. Specifically, plans work when the situation is recognized as something familiar, and a best practice already exists. Following a rigid plan is great for a limited task, but that doesn’t serve the entire organization’s response since each disaster is never the same and requires quick changes to adapt.
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” - Helmuth von Moltke
The power of pre-planning still has value, but it is now time to evolve our disaster management way of thinking to leverage the power of being more agile.
Agility in disaster management
The agile manifesto in project management is based on 4 key focus areas; here is what this could look like for disaster management:
1. Responding to change over following a plan
ICS is objective and plan-based, with hours between planning cycles and operational periods. Agile would recommend smaller planning periods to focus on quicker results and build out more detail only after the situation progresses. We need a faster, more dynamic method to respond to change. Leveraging our information with cloud-based emergency management software helps disseminate and quickly update our emergency response. Check out 6 benefits to creating a virtual EOC in 2022.
After-action reports often flush out crucial information that was missed during an incident. Agile focuses on feedback and delivering value sooner rather than later. Leveraging the power of GIS mapping helps both responders and command staff focus on the proximity of potential hazards and field reports to ensure information is relevant and timely. Understanding the potential of digital mapping is an opportunity that may be easier to implement than you realize. See 7 things your team should know about GIS.
2. Valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Paper-based incident forms and tracking are too slow, and team members are often ill-informed. An agile approach recommends keeping information flowing continuously and disseminating information for anyone on the team to see the situation progress using information radiators. Leveraging electronic whiteboards and forms help gather and disseminate information in real-time. Utilizing digital ICS forms reconnects our team and offers zero-delay integration of everyone’s input. See these 6 reasons why you should digitize your ICS forms.
Limited interactions, especially as the response grows, detach responders from their roles and situational awareness and can disconnect the command staff from their front-line team. Agile recommends communication in regular quick team meetings to keep everyone on track and flush out any obstacles that may have been found. Leveraging the many methods of communication by using mobile devices now enables a team of responders to gather input, share potential hazards, maintain situational awareness, and contribute to better decisions using devices they are already familiar with.
We still need appointed, responsible, and experienced individuals (like a Safety Officer) for key roles, but now they can leverage the power of the whole team helping them. Adopting more transparency invites more feedback and a greater chance of collaboration, among our team and stakeholders.
3. Stakeholder collaboration over contract negotiation
As incidents grow, so too does the number of experts and stakeholders. Agile recommends focusing methods of communication to the priority stakeholders and ensuring they are a part of the solution. One of the reasons the recovery phase of disaster management can be so costly and challenging is because current methods do not allow for good stakeholder engagement, especially from members of the public.
We need methods to integrate communication and build interactive responses based on the needs of our key stakeholders. Leveraging a platform that can gather and organize aspects of the situation is vital during all phases of our response.
4. Delivering incremental situation improvements over piles of paperwork
Disasters require multiple actions to stabilize the situation and protect people, property, the environment, and our economy. Agile recommends focusing on the highest value and resolving the most significant risks first. We need an easy-to-use technical system to continually juggle these competing demands for our resources. Ensuring this information is remotely available to all team members is critical to ensuring we are utilizing our resources effectively.
Disruptive trends challenging the old paradigm
While it is important to recognize the merit traditional methods of disaster response have provided, they are often plagued with old mindsets. Now, is the time to consider how we can leverage technology and introduce an agile mindset to our commanders and responders.
Leveraging technology allows us new ways to respond and begins to shift how our organization starts to look at itself. With more organizations looking at agile transformation, this trend toward a flatter, less hierarchical structure, and a team approach of people working together to deliver outcomes is likely to continue to support this way of working.
April 21st, 2022
About the author:
For over seven years, Clinton Boyda has led a regional municipal agency in Alberta, Canada as the Director of Emergency Management (DEM). Representing ten municipalities, Clinton has seen how important using a tool like D4H is to help Emergency Managers stay organized during all phases of a disaster. Also, as a Search and Rescue First Responder, he has seen the value D4H provides to manage certifications, call-outs, and incident reports. What tools are you using to leverage your lessons learned?
Interested in reading more about the agile approach? Check out:
- “Doing Agile Right: Transformation without Chaos” by Darrel Rigby, Sarah Elk, Steve Berez
- “Doing Agile Right: From Agile Mindset to Agile Principles” by Steve Denning
- “The five trademarks of Agile Organizations” by Wouter Aghina, Karin Ahlback, Aaron De Smet, Gerald Lacket, Michael Lurie, Monica Murarka and Christopher Handscomb