More lessons learned from IMS in the EOC

As part of an extra-credit assignment this semester, I was put in charge of designing and controlling an IMS-based exercise for my classmates.

Up until this point in our classes, and even throughout most of Ontario, our exercises and plans have been based on the old organizational model of the Emergency Operations Centre; with members of the Control Group operating under their positions (Mayor, Fire Chief, etc).

With the Incident Management System (or Incident Command system) becoming so widespread (and Ontario being way behind the US, Australia, and British Columbia in that respect) our teacher wanted us to experience an IMS-based exercise. I volunteered to design it.

It was a huge headache, but also a major learning experience for me.

For one thing, there aren’t a lot of guidelines for exercising IMS within the EOC. Even Emergency Management Ontario hasn’t fully worked out how to move from positions to functions. I tried looking at Australia and the US for guides, but I didn’t find much. I think my major problem was not that I was learning IMS in the EOC, but that I was trying to understand a new model after spending 7 months learning an entirely different model. Had we started the year learning IMS (as my teacher has told us next year’s class will) it might have made more sense applying it to the EOC.

One resource that has helped me has been these videos from the City of Edmonton Emergency Preparedness department. Having a visual to go along with all of the IMS org charts really made a difference in how I understood it.

I still had the challenge of designing the exercise, however. We were using a script from an exercise we’d done a few weeks previous, using the old model. This may have been a mistake, but time limited and a jam packed semester meant we couldn’t afford to spend the time writing a new script.

The day of the exercise, our class met in our mock EOC. We divided the class, with 2/3rd taking on functions in the EOC, and the remaining 1/3 operating as Incident Command and Operations at four “sites”.

We read the narrative (a flood scenario) to both groups, and then gave site-specific information to each “site” group. Each site and the EOC were responsible for completing an Incident Action Plan, based on the information they had. After an hour, we gave each group updated information (as though a full 24 hours had passed since the initial narrative) and the required forms were filled out.

Some things I concluded from this exercise included:

  1. Despite it’s claims, IMS is very form based, at least in the EOC.
  2. We should have started the site groups on their IAP earlier, so that the EOC could base their on input from the decisions being made at site. It was easy to forget that IMS needs to work from the ground, up.
  3. Even though phones are a hassle to set up (last time we spent 20 minutes taping down cords), they are more reliable than the radios were were using.
  4. We needed to give the sites more detail for them to base their IAPs on. Even a few pictures would have made a huge difference in making the exercise more realistic.

Even though it was aggravating, I also learned a lot about myself and my own strengths and weaknesses while planning this exercise. I realized that I very much like to look at every detail and plan for every possibility. I also learned that most of the time, this isn’t realistic or efficient. Though I was frustrated at the lack of control I felt going into the exercise, I realized that we really did need to just go for it, and see what worked and what didn’t. Obviously, I wouldn’t take that approach if I was working with a client, but we practiced the exercise within the classroom for a reason. I feel as though I now have a stronger ability to see the “big picture”.

I also really like IMS, and I have a much better understanding of it now. I’m really looking forward to seeing the direction Ontario takes it in the next couple of years.

IMS slowly going crazy

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I’m currently trying to complete an assignment on the Incident Management System (IMS). In it, we have a scenario involving a tornado going through the main part of our fake city, and a list of resources that we need to organize under the Incident Commander using IMS principles to guide us. I’m having trouble getting my head around it, because it all breaks down into smaller groups—or builds up into larger ones, depending on how you look at it. I decided to try and create a visual representation to try and help me sort it out, and this is what it looked like:

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I really like IMS, and in fact I’m in the process of helping to design an exercise that utilizes IMS in the Emergency Operations Centre, but certain things about it just boggle my mind. I’m think once I get my head around it, I’ll more fully understand how it can be applied to situations beyond a site.