4 Steps for Successful Interagency Collaboration During a Disaster
Interagency collaboration is an integral component of modern emergency management. As the scale and scope of natural and man-made disasters increase, emergency managers require more interagency involvement with their Emergency Management Agency (EMA). So, how can we manage the complexity of collaboration while still benefitting from it?
The Incident Command System (ICS) provides standardization in terminology and process that shows its value when responding to a disaster with different types of agencies. Each agency has its own training focus, preferred tasks, and specialized resources. An Incident Commander’s responsibility is to leverage these assets for a cohesive and collaborative response.
ICS includes 14 core principles, with the following specifically assisting in enhancing interagency collaboration:
- Dispatch/deployment means that personnel and equipment should only respond when requested or when dispatched by the appropriate authority.
- Comprehensive resource management stipulates accurate, up-to-date accounting of resource use.
- Integrated communications calls for the development and use of a common (incident) communications plan and interoperable communications, processes, and structures.
- Manageable span of control prescribes a span of control that ranges from three to seven subordinates for any one individual.
Interagency response could be required from EMAs in your neighboring municipalities (towns, counties, cities), the state or federal level, local utility companies, or partner organizations such as private industry.
Let’s consider these four points and how they could be used within an incident response software system, like D4H, to improve interagency collaboration for disaster response.
Leadership requires good information, a coordinated process for sharing it, and a willingness to act on it – however imperfect or incomplete – to fuel action.
1. Preparedness: Interagency Notification
When an incident starts to grow, we need a method to respond accordingly. Communication is key in a well-coordinated response and having an up-to-date contact list will ensure your communications are received. Everbridge is integrated with D4H Incident Management to create the ultimate way for EMAs to launch and manage incidents, emergencies, events, and disasters directly from a laptop or smartphone.
This integration enables users to send Everbridge mass notifications by SMS, email, and phone call to the partner agencies without ever closing their emergency management software.
2. Responding: Interagency Resource Management
Going beyond tracking resources, we need to ensure all agencies can work seamlessly together. How easily does your system integrate team members during an incident?
Interagency information sharing is a breeze now, before D4H, we only had systems that our own staff could access. Now, we have a neutral and common platform that we can all share and access during an emergency, from in the field to back in the EOC.
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There are some interesting field techniques where responders are rated on their skills that are required for the current response. The challenge with this process is that it takes time, and time is not something we have during a disaster response.
This invites a great opportunity to profile your mutual aid partner resources during an exercise long before the response is required. By storing information in the cloud, prior to the incident, we are able to organize our response much more efficiently.
Regardless of your EMA’s size, eventually, a disaster will become large enough to require timely integration of outside resources into your response.
3. Planning: Joint Interagency Training Exercises
Partner agency team members can be quickly added to your emergency management software platform, but success doesn’t just happen by signing up upon arrival. Every responder knows they need to prepare through practice and ongoing skill development. While we can assume this happens within each agency, we also need to take steps to practice responding together through joint exercises.
Large organizations know engaging many departments for an exercise can become complex. Working with multiple large outside agencies can drastically increase complexity. One solution to introduce a cost-effective method of joint exercises is through remote tabletop sessions via a Virtual EOC
While tabletop exercises alone will not guarantee success, these are steps to better integrate outside agencies and communications for a unified response.
Watch this 30-minute video on “Interagency Collaboration at the EMA Communications Center” with Lincoln County, Maine, or read How Lincoln County EMA uses D4H to Maintain a Common Operating Picture in their Virtual EOC:
4. Prevention: Span of Control & Team Size
We have an automated method of notifying agencies, integrating their teams into our response, and we are prepared to work together because of previous joint training exercises. The last concern we need to address is that we still need to manage the communication flow to and from an EMA.
In the following diagrams, we can see how the growth of team size increases the number of communication paths (and potential miscommunication).
We can see how quickly the communication paths increase (6 to 28) by simply changing the team size from 4 to 8 people! More is not always better.
Thankfully, the solution already exists, ICS has two principle recommendations for resolving this:
- Limiting the span of control (max 7 people under each supervisor, with the optimum being 3-5)
- Establishing a chain of command
So how do we possibly invite large agencies to assist with these limitations?
By following a chain of command, we can group units up together so that one phone call to the neighboring fire chief could result in hundreds of additional resources. As the Incident Commander, you have only added one more member to your response (their fire chief), and the span of control limits are still maintained.
This also illustrates why walk-on volunteers are such a challenge to manage. Volunteers often have not trained together, and they are not aware of the importance of following the chain of command. Deploying these individuals without training could derail your response, even with their best intentions.
Organized communication is essential to successful disaster response. It’s also just as important to learn from past mistakes so emergency managers can leverage additional resources from other agencies and plan how to manage future complexities.
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 keep 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, callouts, and incident reports. What tools are you using to manage and prepare your agencies to work together for success?
References and Recommended Reads
Gerow, M., 2012, ‘The Importance of Small Team Size’
Waugh, Jr. W.L. & Streib, G., 2006, ‘Collaboration and leadership for effective emergency management’
Leybourne et al., 2010, ‘Understanding and overcoming communications complexity in projects’