Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 28, 2014

Should first responder drills include ice cream socials?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on May 28, 2014

Perhaps ice cream socials aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think about a first responder drill. But it’s something that journalist Chris Faraone thought of during the recent “Urban Shield” exercises in Boston. He writes in a recent article in the Weekly Dig:

I arrived at the presser in time to hear Mayor Marty Walsh welcome delegates from the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region–a network that includes the Hub and eight surrounding municipalities–plus emergency medical and fire personnel. In his comments, Walsh extolled the spirit of collaboration, while Office of Emergency Management Director Rene Fielding touted the relationships built through two prior Urban Shield runs.

Wondering if organizers added anything to this year’s schedule to bolster inter-agency communication, I asked Fielding and the uniforms beside her if they’d planned any meet-and-greet activities besides the mock trainings. “Something like an ice cream social,” I queried (they hadn’t). I was serious. Officials said that people “shouldn’t be alarmed” about the presence of 2,000 first responders in helmets and riot gear. That’s not possible–those visuals are inevitably frightening–but it might be reassuring if their interpersonal relationships were more than merely militant.

Mr. Faraone is what one would call a progressive journalist — my father might lean toward the term “leftist commie” — and the article generally addresses the militarization of law enforcement. I share some of the same concerns that he and those quoted in the piece have on this issue, though unfortunately while aiming at the right target he hit this exercise instead.  While the natural tendency to see every problem as a nail when you’re only holding a hammer is real enough, the scenarios included in the Urban Shield exercise are not driven solely by the desire to pull out the guns.

That criticism aside, what Faraone suggests in terms of an ice cream social points to an underlying truth.  As he put it:

As for first responders intermingling … for logistical purposes, they were mostly clustered with their own–transit fuzz with transit fuzz, triage officers with triage officers, and so forth.

I’ve noticed the same behavior in the few exercises I’ve observed.  Am I missing something?  Or are the participants basically all playing their assigned departmental roles with little to no overlap at the levels under leadership positions? While the higher ranks are “swapping business cards before game day,” i.e. leadership planning and responding together, are the rank-and-file actually getting the opportunity to meet and understand the roles of their opposites in the other responder disciplines?

This was an issue identified by a recent Harvard Kennedy School of Government report, “Why Was Boston Strong:”

Public safety organizations should develop improved doctrine, better training, and practice through exercises to ensure effective “micro-command” in crises. While officers typically look for command authority when operating at a scene with groups from their own agencies, they are less likely to do so when they have deployed as individuals and arrive at an emergency site on their own. Except for situations when near-instantaneous action is required to preserve life, doctrine should be developed and officers should be trained to look for authority at a scene of mass action, even if command is taken by someone from another organization.

One of report’s authors, Dutch Leonard, referred to this in Congressional testimony where he broke down the different experiences of responders:

By virtue of doctrine and years of joint planning and practice and work on multiagency events, the senior leaders of the relevant organizations for the most part knew one another personally and had knowledge of and confidence in each other’s capabilities – and they were able rapidly to form unified commands, both on Monday afternoon and again in Watertown in the early hours of Friday morning.  Individual police officers arriving from other jurisdictions at the scene of the gunfight at Dexter and Laurel Streets Watertown had none of those advantages to help them form a coordinating structure.  We need better doctrine, procedures, training, and practice to aid in the more rapid development of a command structure among people from different agencies arriving more or less independently and not under a preexisting overarching command structure.  We refer to this as the problem of establishing “microcommand,” and dealing with this requires that the doctrine that is now working well to coordinate agencies at the senior level needs to be cascaded downward so that it functions at any level where the agencies may encounter one another.

It is this problem where Faraone’s ice cream socials, or some other equivalent, might actually help.  The issue isn’t one of militarism, but understanding and recognition among tactical-level operators. Not just of mission, but role and structure.

On a final note, though I may disagree with the sentiments of some quoted in Faraone’s article about the nature of the Urban Shield exercises, I have to admit that criticism of terrorism preparedness drills so soon after an actual terrorist attack in the same city strengthens my admiration of our system of democracy. Always question – never simply accept.  Even when it seems to fly in the face of those protecting the public, this sentiment helps preserve our underlying freedoms.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 28, 2014 @ 7:29 am

Interesting post and thanks Arnold. First no-notice exercises the best. Second any type of exercise where leadership cadre meeting for the first time and handing out business cards should be graded an F for flunk!

Exercises are best where the response cadre stressed with new scenarios. Exactly who, when, how, and why did the personnel turn up? If a full-scale exercise then observers and evaluators should be widely available to see whether plans previously adopted are being followed, can be followed, and make sense given the scenario.

If there are exercise deficiencies are they in the plans, training or not of all personnel, types of equipment available and operational status. MOBILIZATION CAPABILIY to expand the RESPONSE.

Despite my consistent recommendation [including under oath] to NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] and FEMA
that REPP exercises [radiological emergency preparedness program] concentrate on radiological response and protection the basic EP planning guide NUREG-0654 and its supplements contain generic response requirements and make it a useful guide for EP response generally. Also the CHEM-DEMIL program guidance. [The CSEPP effort on EP alone has exceeded $10B in expenditures during its existence]!

And isolation and compartmenting the various personnel from their normal friendships and giving them challenging tasks in other disciplines I have found gives them insights into the real teamwork necessary.

And with over 50 atmospheric models just in the federal government [EPA’S CAMEO e.g.] how that issue is handled by states and their local governments can be interesting in any exercise where contamination issues exist. Protective gear issues are also raised in that situation and OSHA compliance and monitoring and decontamination and establishment of exclusion zones and controlling access and egress.

Again thanks Arnold!

Comment by Quin

May 28, 2014 @ 8:53 am

I was introduced many years ago to the concept of devolving command to the lowest functional level.


The fact is there is, it’s not a choice, it’s a function of reality that “micro-command” develops at the point of response to critical incidents and disasters. The important question is whether the organizations that respond to these events are creating a management and education structure that most efficiently supports leadership and action at the incident and/or for the incident management role performed immediately above the incident.

Here is a more recent article on trying to break through the ossifying hierarchy (most prominently found in the Army) by giving more than just lip service to the idea of mission command in the military.


The problem in at least some government agencies to adopt these concepts, particularly federal ones I’m more familiar with, is several fold. First, there is little incentive during steady state operations for federal leadership to invest in the necessary education (which necessarily occurs at expense to recocurring steady state work). Without the pressure of time or an immediate threat, decision making is centralized and stovepiped up to the highest levels. This slows projects to a crawl and makes adaptation to changing conditions exceptionally difficult as changes must often go through multiple levels of approval, by which time conditions for the project may have changed course again. Managers are not evaluated on working towards the future, which would mean dipping their toes into disruptive practices, but rather keeping everything stable for the “now”. This can work during predictable steady state operations where resources are sufficient or problems can be scaled down to meet existing resources. Not so good when events outstrip the ability of senior leaders to control all decisions in a timely manner or resources must be prioritized or triaged.

The VA is looking like it may be a good example. By aligning incentives (from both Congress, the executive branch and senior leadership) to focus on shorter term “progress” it looks like a perverse incentive structure may have developed that emphasized the short term (and the alleged eventual cooking of the books) over more dramatic (and traumatic) effective longer term solutions like privatizing some care, faster movement to electronic record keeping and integration with DoD medical record systems (all of which would have required a larger short term investment in personnel time and cost). In other words, the future efficiency gained is not valued enough to overcome the pain of the near term disruption.

Second, it loves to “train” but as the Vandergriff article points out, training is not the same as education.

Third, there is a serious deficit of accessible, understandable and functional doctrine to (1) provide micro-commanders tools and guidance to maximize expected results and (2) provide a level of trust of higher level leaders that micro-commanders will operate and make decisions consistent with their agency’s larger goals. It goes without saying, personnel should not be just trained on doctrine, but more importantly provided the opportunity to educate themselves how to use it.

Third, while often times an agency and its senior leaders may have vision, the imagination required to carry out the vision of senior leaders is sorely lacking. Why? Look at problems one and two for a (partial) answer.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 28, 2014 @ 9:13 am

Quinn! Great comment thanks!

Bureaucracies often do what they can do or like to do not necessarily what needs doing.

For example when I ran FEMA litigation mystaff was instructed not to litigate proof of loss or damage only cases without my permission but instead concentrate coverage issues that supported flood plain management because the NFIP was a land use program not an insurance program at its core.

Most of my successors reversed that litigation guidance.

Comment by Bruce Martin

May 28, 2014 @ 9:46 am

At the first responder level, agency training and policy influences operators more than untried notions of interagency command or cooperation. This challenge is apparent as LE/EMS/Fire discuss mingling teams during active shooter events. Operators will do the best they can, but we could help them. Developing a common command language and set of principles would seem to be necessary, or at least helpful. The federal fire agencies have worked on this within their discipline since the South Canyon Fire fatlaities in 1994 (www.fireleadership.gov). It is more than the C3 tool of ICS and their experience is instructive. Local agencies are often protective of their response procedures/doctrine; a common language does not impinge on that.

It’s a big challenge to integrate local government and multidiscipline operations. If collaboration is an imperative in hls, is common operations language a piece of that?

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