Collaboration's Real-World Challenges

A superstorm, a Navy yard shooting, and a major transit incident are just three examples where a breakdown in communications, incomplete common operating picture, ineffective coordination, and/or lack of situational awareness negatively affected response efforts. Multiagency collaboration and real-time, critical information are needed in both life-threatening and nonemergency situations.

Collaboration is vitally important to a successful and efficient response to a disaster – natural or human-caused such as a terrorist attack. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) – the foundation of the National Preparedness System – was developed to provide response and recovery organizations with a common approach to collaborate and manage an incident. However, despite NIMS, the ability of responders to effectively collaborate among one another is often lost in the chaos, scale, severity, and scope of a disaster. All too frequently, this leads to severe consequences, including a breakdown of communications, an incomplete common operating picture, and an overall inability to provide lifesaving and life-sustaining services to survivors.

Storms, Shootings & Stranded Trains

During the response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, responders faced numerous challenges in collaborating across all levels of government. According to the 1 July 2013 Hurricane Sandy After-Action Report, responders across a multitude of response elements (e.g., the Regional Response Coordination Center and the Joint Field Offices) and their senior leaders conducted response operations independently from one another and did not consistently report their actions to the federal coordinating center known as the National Response Coordination Center. To compound this, responders from emergency support functions took a more “department-centric approach to response operations, rather than the integrated functional approach prescribed by the [National Response Framework].” Together, these examples point to a breakdown in communications (among responders but also between responders and senior leaders) and an incomplete common operating picture that contributed to the responders’ and senior leaders’ inability to fully deliver lifesaving and life-sustaining services to survivors.

During the 2013 Navy Yard shooting, the Navy Yard’s emergency call centers did not provide potentially vital information to officers at the scene. The July 2014 MPD Navy Yard After-Action Report stated that, “At the very least, this process created the potential for a significant gap in communications and situational awareness between responding [Naval District of Washington (NDW)] personnel … and [Office of Unified Communications (OUC)] dispatchers, MPD officers, and D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel.” In this case, effective collaboration between the Navy Yard’s call center and the D.C.’s OUC as the incident unfolded may have proved invaluable to responders at the scene, as they relied on real-time, critical information to adapt and respond to the situation.

Similarly, according to the Initial District of Columbia Report on the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station Incident on January 12, 2015, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority failed to report that there was a stranded train to the OUC during the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station incident. Consequently, responders were unaware of the ongoing situation and the serious perils of the passengers on the stranded train until they arrived at the station platform – revealing a disconnect between field-based incident management and incident support elements (e.g., the OUC and D.C. Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency). This, along with the Navy Yard example, also highlights the importance of collaboration between response agencies during nonemergency conditions (hereafter referred to as “pre-incident preparation”).

Building a Common & Consistent Understanding

Pre-incident preparation includes: (a) training responders; (b) conducting exercises; (c) reviewing plans; and (d) building relationships with neighboring jurisdictions or other appropriate, relevant agencies and organizations, including (but not limited to) private and nonprofit sectors, as well as faith-based organizations.

Responders and senior leaders alike should receive frequent, standardized training to ensure there is a common and consistent understanding of collaboration and coordination procedures across various response agencies/personnel. In addition to understanding NIMS principles, it is also important for responders to shadow more experienced personnel in order to truly understand and better execute their individual roles and responsibilities in the midst of an actual disaster.

Conducting exercises allows agencies and organizations to identify and remedy any shortfalls related to existing plans and procedures, personnel, equipment, or facilities. With regard to collaboration, it is important to use exercises to measure current collaboration and coordination capabilities by choosing an objective(s) focused on the operational coordination core capability. Given the outcomes of the real-world incidents as discussed above, it also is important to exercise (and train to) large-scale, complex incidents – exercising for the worst, prepares for the worst.

Reviewing plans on a periodic but formal schedule is a critical element of pre-incident preparation. A formal process to review plans ensures existing plans are applicable and user-friendly, and include: (a) specificity, outlining the exact procedures for each individual organization; (b) established and formal processes; and (c) uniformity across various levels of government/neighboring jurisdictions/organizations.

Clearing the Way Through the Chaos & Fog

Building relationships allows jurisdictions an opportunity to better understand the capabilities and capacities of other relevant (often geographically nearby) jurisdictions. In building relationships, there is more frequent interaction with one another, which in turn allows for greater familiarity with one another’s protocols, plans, and procedures. Said frequent interactions also may ensure there is a continuous review and improvement of doctrine. Another positive outcome from building relationships is the development of in-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) procedures. The EMAC, which offers assistance during a governor-declared state of emergency, is one example of effective and successful collaboration that can occur in response to a real-world disaster.

The ability to successfully collaborate in the chaos and fog of a disaster in addition to the inadequacies of currently available collaboration systems such as NIMS remain challenges for responders today. However, one way to overcome these challenges is with deliberate, pre-incident preparation. It is through pre-incident preparation that responders can adequately deliver lifesaving and life-sustaining services and achieve the National Preparedness Goal of a more secure and resilient nation.

Sarah Tidman

Sarah Tidman is a research analyst in CNA Corporation’s Safety and Security division. Her work there has focused on emergency management and preparedness. She has expertise in the design and evaluation of preparedness exercises and in the evaluation of real-world events. She has supported numerous exercises for local, state, and federal agencies, including several national level exercises, and she has deployed to observe and evaluate response operations during real-world incidents such as Hurricane Isaac.



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