Tomorrow’s Emergency Management Capabilities

The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) provides a solid set of guiding principles for homeland security actors to “build, sustain, and deliver core capabilities.” Perhaps most important to this process, exercise evaluators assess performance with regard to stated objectives and then identify and document areas of improvement for the tested capabilities.

Evaluators help to identify the gap between where response partners currently are with respect to a given capability and the standard to which they would someday like to achieve. Ideally, in the improvement planning stage, corrective actions are taken to close the identified gaps.

The Known & Unknown

This linear process suggests a predictive capacity with regard to knowable threats and hazards and how they should or could be navigated using certain core capabilities. In other words, capabilities are developed based on the assumption that what worked in the past in one scenario will work again in a future scenario and that these behaviors and actions can be reliably repeated. According to a 2002 article published in the Harvard Business Review, this sensibility has reasonable validity in decision-making contexts that are  “simple” or “complicated.” In these ordered and predictable domains, history has proven that cause and effect will consistently yield the same results. For example, a Class A fire (ordinary combustible materials) can be easily doused with a water-filled Class A fire extinguisher. Because these results are repeatable over time, the contextual domain can be defined as simple (a straight line between cause and effect) and the term “best practice” has appropriate use because employing this method is indeed truly the “best” response each time.

However, the same assumptions cannot be made about core capabilities in contexts that The Harvard Business Review refers to as “complex” or “chaotic.” In these unpredictable and unknowable domains, there are no best or even good practices to rely on. Assuming that basic capability tasks and priorities can be completed in these domains is potentially dangerous. According to the authors, the practices, solutions, or capabilities to address problems or decisions within these contextual frames will be emergent (complex domain) or novel (chaotic domain). An example in this instance would be the “problem” encountered by the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. The crew and support personnel did not train or plan for the incident. All individuals involved needed to improvise with random parts and materials that were already in the craft. In other words, the solution emerged over time because the context was complex and it was only in retrospect that true cause and effect was understood.

A Limited Capability Set

Here lies the limitation with the current homeland security capability model. Capabilities (and plans) are developed with an assumption that they will be operationalized in known and predictable domains. However, it can be reasonably argued that future catastrophic events will be either initiated or influenced by incredibly complex phenomenon. Human beings are not prepared to understand let alone navigate (via existing plans and capabilities) the unintended consequences of a complex array of interacting forces that have been unleashed within the past few decades. Meta-hazards – such as worldwide political unrest, 3-D printed weapons, climate change, fake news, aging populations, automation, artificial intelligence, failing educational systems, globalization, emerging pandemics, and drought – are all indicators of a highly interdependent, connected, and ultimately unpredictable world that will present unknowable future hazards, consequences, and risks for the homeland security enterprise. In other words, although emergency managers plan and prepare for all-hazards, there is no way to conceptualize plans and capabilities needed with regard to the hazards and threats that they will one day face in an increasingly complex future state.

In this context, the current capability set (and the methods to improve it) is a somewhat limited solution to an increasingly dynamic and complex set of catastrophic possibilities. This is obviously not to say the current capabilities should be discarded. These capabilities certainly have a place in contexts that are knowable and predictable. It is also reasonable to assume that these capabilities will have use in domains that are unpredictable and unordered (e.g., Apollo 13). However, the future will hold incredibly complex and dangerous problems that current capability sets will be unable to address.

To put it another way, risk management professionals are in the difficult position of navigating two different contextual realities by trying to implement artifacts (capabilities, plans, etc.) produced in one context (pre-event) into that of another that exists in a perceived but ultimately unknowable and unpredictable future dynamic. That is why consideration of an alternative and additional set of emergency management capabilities that will help ready the enterprise for the unknowable consequences of tomorrow’s threats and hazards is imperative.

Tomorrow’s Emergency Management Capabilities

To ready the enterprise for the unimaginable, emergency managers first need the capability to distinguish between predictable and unpredictable domains. For example, by being able to apply contextual sense-making tools such as the Cynefin Framework, response professionals are able to consider situational awareness in a new way that assists in solving problems and making decisions. As described in the examples above, an understanding of the difference between static (predictable and ordered) and dynamic (unpredictable and random) contexts can help decision makers to determine if an existing solution or capability will solve the problem or if an emergent or novel solution will be necessary.

Once emergency managers develop the capability to distinguish between different ontological realities, they will need new capabilities to operate within complex and chaotic contexts. Real-time learning, as its own discrete emergency management capability, would set the foundation and stage for navigating within these unpredictable domains. Public Affairs Professor Donald P. Moynihan refers to this ability as “intracrisis learning.” There is no doubt that response professionals learn during complex events. An example would be a standard operating procedure that is revised multiple times during a crisis until it truly reflects the intended result. Each revision demonstrates new learning (based on a cycle of action and reflection) that is immediately pushed back into the document in real time. Learning does not wait until the end of the event or exercise but emerges during the actual play. Just like for the crew and support personnel of Apollo 13, this type of emergent and improvisational learning is key to success in navigating chaotic and complex domains.

As it turns out, research suggests that improvisation is an integral part of the learning process in uncertain and complex environments. Thus, a formal and structured improvisation capability would give emergency response professionals another tool to navigate within the unknown. Andrew J. Phelps, Oregon Office of Emergency Management Director, explored the idea of collaborative learning in relationship to improvisation in his Naval Postgraduate School thesis, entitled “Play Well With Others: Improvisational Theater and Collaboration in the Homeland Security Environment.” Phelps recommends that homeland security practitioners be trained in improvisational techniques to enhance collaboration. He also suggests that an improvisational model could be used to evaluate collaboration during the after-action review process.

Using this type of alternative methodology to evaluate complex human interactions makes sense. The traditional after-action review process relies on a simple and linear set of questions and practices that cannot truly capture the dynamic complexity of modern exercises and events. Just as new response capabilities are needed, so is a new set of capabilities and techniques to help elicit, develop, and capture the knowledge generated during an event or exercise.

Appreciative inquiry is one such existing technique: a type of action research that deliberately asks participants positively framed questions that are focused on the foundational strengths and accomplishments of the past to craft innovative and collaborative futures. Participants are encouraged to share their responses through constructive dialogue and storytelling to capture the nuances, richness, and complexity of their shared and interconnected experiences. Appreciative inquiry assumes that complex problems (such as multiagency emergency response) cannot be understood or solved by traditional linear methods or models. In other words, perceiving a multiagency intervention within a traditional problem-solving methodology (how to “fix” what is “broken”) cannot fully consider the complex adaptive system at the heart of any interdependent emergency response.

Beginning the Discussion

Ultimately, the future is sure to bring threats and hazards that today’s emergency response plans and capabilities will fail to adequately address. The reality is that nobody will ever be able to produce all the capabilities needed for every possible disaster scenario. Thus, beginning the conversation now on how to create and develop additional individual and organizational capabilities that will allow for real-time learning, improvisation, innovation, and adaptation based on an understanding of contextual sense making is critical. The increasing complexity of modern-day exercises and emergencies demands that response agencies have an alternative capability set. If not, emergency management professionals will forever be one step behind when trying to navigate the consequences of the threats and hazards of tomorrow.

Jeffrey Kaliner

Jeffrey Kaliner is a homeland security instructor at Cascadia Technical Academy in Vancouver, Washington. Before his current position, he served as an emergency preparedness liaison for the state of Oregon and, before that, he helped build the City of Chicago’s Bioterrorism Preparedness Program by serving as its first director of training and education. He holds a Master of Arts degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a Master of Science in education from Northern Illinois University.



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