The response landscape is changing as a result of social, political and technological influences. The Incident Commander’s work environment, driven by today’s 24/7 media and social media coverage, can become hostile. The frequency of incidents that raise public concern has increased. It is no longer sufficient for responders to manage the response. They must also ensure stakeholders are invested in the response process, but there is a gap between stakeholder’s wants and what responders can realistically deliver. What are the appropriate skills and training needed by Incident Commanders to address this gap? What are the skills responders need when some individuals or organizations fan public fear, anger, and frustration to advance their own causes? What are the skills responders need to build public trust in the response organization and Government? The Coast Guard is committed to meeting the training needs of responders and preparing them to meet the demands of today’s challenging, and potentially hostile, response environment. The authors identify skills for Incident Commanders to improve their crisis leadership, community engagement, and to increase the effectiveness and resiliency of their Incident Management Teams.
Coast Guard emergency responders face greater challenges than ever before in achieving a successful response to an incident. In fact, success is difficult to define. Coast Guard’s doctrine on “Incident Management and Crisis Response (CG Pub 3-28, 2013) says:
Response success is no longer measured merely in terms of operational success. With 24-hour cable and Internet news cycles, almost any incident... has the potential to become an event, garnering national public, media, or political interest…. Unsatisfactory response to the event may garner criticism even if the incident was correctly managed and all adverse consequences were successfully avoided.
(Executive Summary, p. v)
The message from the Commandant of the Coast Guard to his responders is clear. Admiral Zukunft’s expectation is that Incident Commanders will manage both the operational execution of the “incident”, and the broader “event” that exists beyond the scope of operations. (USCG Pub 3-28, 2014) Managing the incident alone is not enough. For example, after John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crashed off the coast of Massachusetts, the search and rescue operation that ensued was straightforward. The Coast Guard and other agencies launched a Search and Rescue response in accordance with policy. However, unlike most searches, the political pressure, extensive media coverage, and high public interest, required additional attention from the Unified Command. These circumstances created an event beyond the scope of the incident. These “crisis events” are more challenging and complex to manage.
Managing crisis events requires specialized skills that are not necessarily intuitive. Incident Commanders, and Unified Command when utilized, must have the personal and institutional capacity to build trust and confidence with skeptical or even hostile stakeholders. They need to be adept at communicating effectively with leadership and other stakeholders external to the event, including the media and the public. They must also clearly articulate facts and the limits of response capabilities. Finally, they should be mentally prepared to handle conflict and perceived failure.
These skills are not explicitly taught in traditional National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) training. However, the next generation of Incident Commanders recognize the need for these skills and are eager to learn them. (USCG, 2016) The objective of this paper is to identify how the Coast Guard can better prepare its responders to manage crisis events and meet the expectations of the Commandant, especially in a hostile environment. The Coast Guard is committed to equipping crisis responders the skills needed in the areas of crisis leadership and stakeholder engagement.
Today’s emergency responders often face a hostile environment. The term “hostile environment” describes a situation where one or more of the parties external to the response organization, collectively known as stakeholders, create conflict or openly condemn the response. Not all responses involve a hostile environment but there is the potential on every incident to encounter adversarial stakeholders. A hostile environment could lead to loss of the public’s trust and confidence, resulting in the response being perceived as a failure. The pressure to have the response viewed in a positive light is a top concern for responders, and the federal agencies they represent. (Austin, 2016) Their concerns are warranted as a number of Coast Guard Incident Commanders have been relieved for failing to adequately address stakeholder concerns. This was the case during the COSCO BUSAN oil spill in San Francisco, California. The initial Incident Commander was relieved in the wake of agency concerns that information was not released to the public as quickly as it should have been. (Fagen, Bulwa, Coile, 2007)
A hostile environment can be created through a number of different scenarios. One cause of a hostile environment is stakeholder expectations that are different than, or incompatible with, the response objectives developed by the Unified Command. Stakeholders may have different opinions regarding what is achievable in the response and have little motivation to compromise or resolve differences. Figure 1 illustrates this concept. The triangle represents a response organization, comprised of all of the positions that fill the Incident Management Team (IMT). The IMT would develop an Incident Action Plan (IAP) based on the on-scene situation. They would determine the limit of “What’s Possible” after considering the capabilities of the responders and the equipment available to the response. The upper line represents “What People Want”, or the expectations of stakeholders. These expectations are often based on assumptions, or other subjective information. The space between “What’s Possible” and “What People Want” denotes a possible gap between stakeholder expectations and what is actually feasible.
Adding to the challenge, a hostile environment may also stem from a lack of trust between stakeholders and the response organization. Scientific facts may be rejected due to mistrust of government officials, scientists, or industry. This was the case after the 2015 Gold King Mine release impacted the Animas River running through the Navajo Nation. The Navajo government was unwilling to accept water quality measurements from the Environmental Protection Agency because they blamed the agency for causing the release in the first place.
Worst of all, facts may be ignored if they are incongruent with stakeholder motives. This situation arose during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Parish Presidents in Louisiana demanded control of spending, based on their previous experiences with the reimbursement process from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during hurricanes. However, oil spills are funded differently than hurricanes. Legislation does not allow funds to be managed in the same way. The expectations of the presidents and the pressure on them to get results for their constituencies created friction with the IMT. (Lloyd, 2009) These are examples of incidents where stakeholders refused to acknowledge facts in order to continue to bring both attention and resources to their causes. The trend today seems to be to sensationalize; increase the scale, the number of clicks, and the sheer noise created by the event. (Packer, 2013)
A hostile environment may also result from stakeholders having unrealistic expectations of support from the response organization. Stakeholders who are impacted by incidents have come to expect compensation from the responsible party and emergency relief from the government. Support provided to victims by the government on large-scale incidents, such as Hurricane Katrina, set high expectations for future assistance. An extreme example is flood victims who expect replacement value for homes built in flood plains. These homeowners are aware of the risks of building in these areas, and yet they still expect the government to cover their losses in the event of flood damage. To counter this trend towards government dependency, FEMA is placing more emphasis on fostering community resiliency and individual initiative.
When the environment turns hostile the Unified Command is no longer managing just the incident, they are now managing the crisis event too. In a crisis event, the stakeholders are most likely not playing by the rules of ICS. Members of the response community share a common understanding of the principles of ICS based on NIMS ICS doctrine. They build relationships with each other during preparedness activities such as training, exercises, and contingency plan development. Stakeholders that do not participate in these preparedness activities, and are not required to use ICS.
Figure #2 illustrates the differences between what a responder would experience in managing an incident versus managing a crisis event. The left side represents the world internal to the IMT, where Incident Commanders are operating in familiar territory. This is the world of ICS, with shared rules, objectives, and skills consistent with their NIMS ICS training. On the right, the parameters of managing the stakeholder relationships external to the IMT, called the crisis event. This is unfamiliar territory for most Incident Commanders because stakeholder actions are unpredictable and there are no shared rules or expectations.
There is a gap in skills for Incident Commanders between these two worlds. The skills needed to effectively manage an in incident within an IMT are different than those needed to manage the external crisis event. Responders in the U.S. are trained and qualified in ICS based on standards set by FEMA. However, there is no routine training for how responders should deal with today’s hostile environment and the unrealistic expectations that are placed on the IMT. The majority of emergency management training available to responders focuses on properly executing the operational planning process and developing an IAP. These are only the tactical aspects for managing the incident, and do not address the larger crisis event. Most emergency management training does not teach responders to be crisis leaders or provide them with soft skills such as negotiation or crisis communications.
Many Incident Commanders also struggle with how tackle management objectives. Management objectives are those objectives set by the Unified Command that do not require tactical resources to accomplish. Examples of such objectives include developing a Stakeholder Management Plan, or identifying an information management process. Most emergency management training and exercises address management objectives with a cursory nod. Unfortunately, responders do not get the opportunity to practice executing these management objectives because they are more focused on the operational planning process than with the end goal of developing an IAP.
Feedback from students in the Coast Guard ICS-410 Incident Commander course shows that they lack confidence in their ability to demonstrate crisis leadership and engage with stakeholder effectively during a response. (USCG, 2016) When considered from a Human Performance Technology (HPT) perspective, this is a performance gap. The basic premise of HPT is that the best worker in the world is not successful if they do not have the right tools and organizational support for their activities. Conversely, the best tools and organizational support do not guarantee stellar performance if the worker is incapable of doing the job. Good performance is only achieved when there is synergy between the worker, the work, and the workplace. (USCG Training SOP, 2011)
To determine the causes of this performance gap and develop recommendations for addressing the causes, the authors culled information from a number of different sources. First is the 2013 ICS Occupational Front-End Analysis. (USCG, FEA, 2013) The Coast Guard does not develop training without first conducting an analysis on what is causing the problem. The analysis team collected input from over 40 ICS experts and developed a comprehensive picture of how the ICS program could be improved using the Instructional Systems Development and Peak Performance System model. (USCG, FEA, 2013) Their findings were organized into general categories including; knowledge, skills and information, effective work environment, motivation or incentive, and assignment or selection. (USCG ICS FEA, 2013) For the purposes of this paper, only the lack of knowledge, skills and information were considered because the other findings are outside the scope of the Coast Guard training system.
The authors also collected lessons learned from After Action Reports and Incident Specific Preparedness Reviews from numerous U.S. incidents over the past decade ranging from oil spills to hurricanes and terrorism. Additional guidance was collected from other organizations in the emergency management field, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Institute. Finally, feedback was collected from students in Coast Guard ICS classes via course evaluation forms, and from current and previous Incident Commanders through personal interviews. Information from all of these sources was consolidated to create a comprehensive list of skills and actions required by responders to survive and thrive in a hostile response environment.
Coast Guard doctrine distinguishes between an incident and a crisis event. (USCG Pub 3-28, 2013) Complex crisis events demand a higher level of crisis leadership, especially if they involve a hostile environment. The authors found that the skills and actions required to manage the crisis event fell into three general categories. The first category includes individual crisis leadership skills that should be cultivated by responders to make them good crisis leaders. The second category includes skills required to engage externally with stakeholders and maintain their trust and confidence. The third category encompasses actions for Incident Commanders for developing an IMT that can withstand, or even counter, a hostile environment.
1. Individual Skills Development:
This paper is centered primarily on the Incident Commander, and what he or she needs to combat or endure a hostile environment. However, these skills are valuable to other members of the IMT who fill a leadership position or engage with stakeholders, including; Deputy Incident Commanders, Public Information Officers, Liaison Officers, or Agency Representatives. They are also relevant skills for members senior to the Incident Commander, such as Area Commanders, Principal Federal Officials, or Agency Executives.
Table 1 notes some individual skills that have been identified. These crisis leadership skills are a unique skillset above and beyond that of normal leaders and managers. They highlight some of the more challenging aspects of being an Incident Commander, such as the initial ramp-up and the transition back to normal operations, or long-term recovery. Unfortunately, NIMS does not have clear guidance or processes for these transition periods. Incident Commanders must be prepared to make decisions early in the incident without having all of the information. These key decisions include, but are not limited to, the location of the incident command post (ICP), the makeup of the IMT, and processes to be used. Referencing established plans or policies can help the Incident Commander make these decisions. (USCG Cosco Busan ISPR, 2008)
2. External Engagement
Community stakeholder engagement is perhaps the most critical factor in preventing and responding to a hostile environment. Table 2 describes several key skills or efforts that the IMT leadership must be able to achieve in order to be successful in external engagement.
Further guidance for stakeholder engagement can be found in international standards and workbooks that detail the entire collaborative process from problem identification, establishing objectives, identifying stakeholders, building communication and collaborative decision-making skills. One common international standard is AA1000 Account Ability’s “Stakeholder Engagement Standard” (AccountAbility, 2015). Table 3 identifies the common Community Engagement Frameworks that Incident Commanders should strive to implement.
3. Building a Capable and Resilient IMT
To build a strong and effective IMT, an Incident Commander should take specific actions to ensure they will function well as a team in a crisis. The most important way to do this is by visibly trusting and supporting the team. Conversely, the IMT members must trust the leadership to lead them during the response. Table 4 lists considerations for developing and maintaining a healthy IMT.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
“During a crisis, good leadership entails understanding the environment, controlling the narrative, building consensus, using the whole team, and planning transitions.” (CG Pub 3-28, 2014)
The response landscape is constantly changing as a result of social, political and technological influences. A Coast Guard Incident Commander must be skilled in crisis leadership and should be prepared to face potentially hostile environments during a response. They must look beyond the operational incident and also consider the larger crisis event.
How do we institutionalize some of these crisis leadership and external engagement skills and actions? Following the Coast Guard training model, once recommendations are identified during a performance analysis, the analysts then determine the best intervention to address each recommendation. The different types of interventions include training, job aids, coaching, clearer position descriptions, feedback systems, clear performance standards, additional resources, changing organizational values and culture, doctrine and procedures, or incentives. (USCG Training SOP, 2011)
The Contingency Preparedness and Response Management School at Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown overhauled the Coast Guard’s Incident Commander Course (ICS-410) and the Incident Commander Job Aid after the 2013 Front-end Analysis. The course was updated to include three new units; Coordination with Stakeholders, Coordination with Agency Executive (the Incident Commander’s boss), and Coordination with the Public. At the same time, a new unit, titled Support to Stakeholders, was added to the Incident Commander Job Aid. The Schoolhouse should review the ICS-410 course and the job aid again to ensure all of the skills identified in this paper are covered. Additionally, the Schoolhouse should adopt the practice of reviewing all lessons learned from large-scale incidents to determine if any of the lessons can be used to improve Coast Guard training.
What is the next step? These skills should be incorporated into NIMS ICS doctrine and policy. The authors recommend first updating the Best Response model (Kuchin, J.T., & Hereth, L.K., 1999) to align with Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) Meta-leadership model. (Marcus, L.J., & McNulty, E.J., 2010) The new Best Response model should include factors external to the incident that are managed as part of the crisis event. The model should be expanded to include practical measures that address positive press and positive stakeholder engagement as well as an emphasis on preparedness activities.
The authors also recommend updating NIMS to address crisis leadership, external engagement, and IMT management. NIMS should include practical guidance for addressing management objectives on a response, including how to staff the IMT appropriately to handle these objectives. Finally, NIMS should place more emphasis on managing transitions at the beginning and end of a response since these aspects of the response are particularly challenging for most IMT’s.
These steps will ensure that the Incident Commanders of tomorrow are equipped to handle the most complex, and potentially hostile, response environments. While, it is not reasonable to expect that future Incident Commanders will meet the expectations of every stakeholder on every response, providing these responders with a solid foundation of training and performance support could make them more resilient to these challenges in the face of the next crisis event.