In the ICS Classroom … a Guest Post by Tom Cox (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.


Along with the tried-and-true strategies of vaccines, masks, disinfectants, border closings, limiting gatherings, quarantines, and thoughts-and-prayers, we have the following added dimensions that reduce the effectiveness of each strategy.    All of these occurred in the last two days:

  • Politicians travelling when telling citizen to avoid non-essential travel.
  • Pharmacist deliberately destroys 500 vials of the vaccine.
  • Citizens deliberately sneaking past border closures to get in or out.
  • Businesses and churches refusing to follow group size restrictions.
  • Students and tourists holding parties while ignoring group size restrictions.
  • Nurses and doctors refusing to take the vaccine because they do not feel it is safe.
  • People paying to get ahead of others in order to get the vaccine.
  • Making elderly patients line up outside for up to nine hours to get the vaccine
  • Keeping New Years celebrations (and Christmas activities the week before) open because people will ignore any restrictions anyways.   
  • Keeping big-box stores open but closing most small local businesses.   
  • Businesses refusing to enforce mask or group-size guidelines.
  • People deliberately breaking quarantine, including ones who know they are infectious. 
  • Police refusing to enforce health restrictions and health officials who have no training. 
  • Security guards at quarantine facilities that have no authority or training to stop anyone leaving.
  • The virus is mutating and measures such as vaccines may be ineffective or less effective.
  • We still don’t know how it is transmitted and how far we should stay apart.   
  • We don’t understand “high risk” doesn’t explain high risk of catching it, high risk of spreading it, or high risk of dying from it and each of them is a different issue requiring different strategies.   


The key understanding is that strategies are great when they are 100% effective.   The Covid-19 response shows that selecting the best strategy is impossible when you don’t know the exact danger, the amount of spread, no mitigation is 100% and some may be as little as 5% effective (wiping surfaces), people ignore recommendations, enforcement is not possible, leaders aren’t leading and the virus is changing before we even understand what strategy worked best on the old version.

We have literally had 12 months of discussion on a world-wide basis by every elected politician and health expert of what strategy or strategies work best.    From herd immunity to “it will simply disappear”, the overwhelmed hospitals, exhausted health staff, and nursing home death rates demonstrate that selecting the most effective strategy is not as simple as it seems.   There are trade-offs (economy versus health), unknowns, changes, and people deliberately trying to reduce the effectiveness of the best of a variety of strategies of varying degrees of effectiveness.

Which strategy(s) would you recommend knowing that people will deliberately ignore your recommendation?  Now … let’s have that ICS Planning P Strategy Meeting!   

In the ICS Classroom … a Guest Post by Tom Cox (PART 1)

Over the next couple weeks, I am thrilled to present a piece written by my friend and colleague Tom Cox. I have had the good fortune to have “Tox” as an instructor for the majority of my ICS and ‘hands on’ education during multiple EOC activations. To receive next week’s post in your inbox, subscribe here.

Tom Cox is the Senior ICS Consultant with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and an instructor trainer with ICS Canada.   He has written a number of papers on teaching ICS, available at Tom specializes in instructor training and professional development as well as speaking on a variety of emergency topics at conferences across North America.    


When teaching Incident Command, one of the key steps is to choose which strategy or strategies will be used to achieve your Objectives.  As an Instructor, I have used everything from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (and the potential to detonate a nuclear weapon as a strategy) to the Thai cave rescue and wildfire strategies to plain language examples like my dog Austin wanting an extra bowl of dog food or emptying all water out of a bathtub if the plug cannot be pulled.    But in every case, there has been one unspoken assumption:

The strategy should be effective.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a different understanding on the choice of strategies when getting away from the classroom and dealing with actual incidents.    

Looking at a house fire, putting water on the fire is a sure-bet way of putting out the fire. But what if the strategy was not 100% effective?  What if the fire department arrived on scene and told the homeowner “We’re going to try something that is usually 75% effective and it should generally work most of the time…”?     


The Strategy Meeting during the Planning P is rarely given anything more than a cursory overview.  The discussion is a brief overview of “this always works.”   In fact, in the FEMA Planning P Video, the AHIMTA spends exactly 49 seconds on strategies … and there is no presentation of alternatives. Most of the meeting is centred on information sharing and meeting schedules. Vacuum trucks will work, we will have a limited evacuation and if we need to, let it burn. Done!  

While the FEMA Planning P video is meant to give an overview, it provides a dangerous example with a number of hidden assumptions:

  • We know what the problem is.
  • We know the best strategy to use and, therefore, do not need any alternative strategies
  • The strategies are near 100% effective
  • People will not deliberately try it make the strategy ineffective.   

You always want to have effective strategies when dealing with an Incident.     Ineffective strategies add a whole new dimension to the Strategy meeting.   


The Covid-19 response around the world is using a myriad of methods to try to contain and control the spread of the Coronavirus.    None of them have proven to be 100% effective, some are known to be less effective, some are believed to be ineffective and virtually every government in the world is throwing as much spaghetti at the wall to see what will stick.   Here are some examples:

  • We don’t know exactly how it is spreading.    Wiping surfaces with alcohol has been a huge effort, but if the virus is spread 99% by air, then is all the wiping worth the effort?
  • We know masks work, but there are different types of masks and some are less effective than others.    If you can’t obtain N95 masks and have them fit tested for everyone, is a mask that is 60% effective going to stop the spread?
  • Vaccines may have 70% to 95% effectiveness.    With a virus that is extremely transmissible, is even 95% going to be enough?     Will 70-75% be enough to slow it down?   What about logistics of a 95% effective vaccine that takes extreme cold to store and ship versus the 70-75% effective vaccine that can be held in a household freezer?   
  • We quarantine people for 14 days but that has proven to be a tremendous burden for those stuck in small apartments, small hotel rooms, or without access to medications, food or other essentials.   If we reduce it to ten days, people are more likely to stay in quarantine, but it will be less effective.   
  • We know kids spread the disease, but keeping kids at home is a huge burden on both the kids and the parents.    The children are generally not severely impacted (with exceptions) but if we send them to school, we solve one problem, but increase the risk of spread.    
  • We close internal borders (Canadian provinces/territories and Australian state to state travel) and external borders (international flight bans) but those are often instituted after the virus has already spread, such as the British/South African variants.    Closing the barn door after the horse has left appears ineffective, but we never discuss how many horses are potentially still within the barn.
  • We reduce gathers from 500 to 100 to 25 to 10 to 5 to 1 and yet the virus is still spreading.   We know we can’t isolate families from each other, we would find it difficult to shut essential businesses to prevent any human transmission, and we don’t know what the number is to stop the spread when one business or one gathering is resulting in 20 to 100 new infections.

What strategy would you recommend? How can we incorporate more strategy into the ICS Planning process?

Watch the blog next week where Tom discusses the consequences of less than 100% effective strategies in depth. Subscribe here to receive the copy in your inbox.

Field Notes

I am experiencing computer issues this week, so I would like to highlight an excellent new blog authored by my colleague and fellow EMGI Board Member, Sami Clements.

The Field Notes newsletter offers readers insights, tools and insights to contribute to a more empathic, inclusive, and accessible field of practice. In her initial post, Sami addresses the issue of burnout among emergency management professionals.

Happy New Year! See you next week.

Seasons Greetings!

Image via

While this year doesn’t resemble past seasons, it has taught us the value of the moments we share with those we love. May all that is beautiful, meaningful, and brings you joy be yours this holiday Season.

As always, my goal for this blog is to provide value to my emergency management colleagues, and to share best practises that can help to improve our expertise.

I will be taking a break from publishing posts over the next couple of weeks. My next post will be released on December 30th at 9:00a.m.

I look forward to continuing our discussion throughout 2021 and beyond.

All the best of the season,


Implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

Any comprehensive understanding of disaster risk reduction (DRR) must address the lived experiences and perspectives of the populations who bear disproportionate challenges in disaster contexts. Indeed, the existing challenges faced by Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, women and non-binary populations are more likely to be exacerbated as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

The United Nations commissioned the Sendai Framework for DRR 2015-2030 as a set of concrete actions to guide member states and mitigate risk. The Sendai Framework recognizes that, while states have the primary responsibility to reduce disaster risk, other stakeholders and communities share in the goal of reducing losses to lives, livelihoods, health and assets of persons, businesses and countries.

The Sendai Framework guiding principles indicate, in part that: 

[DRR] requires an all-of-society engagement and partnership. It also requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters, especially the poorest. A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective should be integrated in all policies and practices, and women and youth leadership should be promoted. In this context, special attention should be paid to the improvement of organized voluntary work of citizens.

United Nations, 2015

Using this, and the remaining principles as a guide, we can evaluate the existing scholarship and determine best practises to inform future policy. In an important article by Alice Fothergill published in 1996, she formulated a paradigm that creates a more comprehensive and holistic consideration of how societal inequities contribute to the disproportionate effect of disasters. While Fothergill’s article contains a gender focus, the inequities can be broadly applied to at-risk populations identified above. 

At-risk populations, particularly those experiencing poverty are more exposed to risk. In lower-income communities in particular, structural inequalities, disproportionately higher responsibility for caregiving, a lack of mobility and limited access to resources are factors in both the effects and perception of risk. 

In the response stage, women and men are likely to conform to socialized gender norms, and women are less likely to hold leadership roles in formalized response organizations. The role of women in formal recovery organizations will be examined in depth in a future article, but is beyond the scope of this post. 

In considering the implementation of the Sendai Framework, including the development of national resilience action plans, a ‘Words into Action’ set of guidelines were developed. Based on these guidelines, a series of ‘enabling factors’ were developed that will assist in the development of a resilience action plan in an inclusive and participatory process: 

  1. Leadership of local governments, including prioritizing the capacity of decision makers to understand and develop a holistic approach to DRR. 
  2. Involvement of other local stakeholders, ensuring accountability from decision makers and acting as facilitators during negotiation and consensus-building processes. These stakeholders may include representatives from universities and local NGOs, as well as the private sector and the media.
  3. Ensuring participatory mechanisms are in place to facilitate the involvement of local actors, particularly Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities, women and non-binary populations. 

The scholarship is clear that inclusive and participatory processes in the development of DRR frameworks “can minimize risk, set the right priorities and shape recovery in ways that strengthen local livelihoods and well-being.” (UNDRR, 2017)

Preparing for the ‘Next Normal’

Five shifts that will impact post-pandemic Business Continuity Planning

In the current turbulent disaster landscape, the requirement for organizations to have a comprehensive business continuity management (BCM) framework in place has never been greater. While it may be too soon to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, the study of prior pandemics offers some useful statistics. In a Globe and Mail article published November 12, 2009, the ‘worst case scenario’ impact of the H1N1 pandemic was discussed.

In the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak for example, the existence of BCM plans and remote-working models were credited with an overall minor disruption in economic activity. Considering the much more pronounced impact of the Coronavirus, world trade has been estimated to contract by 13% to 32% in 2020, according to the World Trade Organization

In a study examining the ‘next normal’, McKinsey & Company has considered five shifts that will impact businesses and organizations post-pandemic:

A shift in demand. Predictably, consumers have been reconfiguring their spending on discretionary purchases towards digital options. The study indicates that those jurisdictions that have reopened prior to the peak of the infection curve have experienced greater volatility in consumer spending.

A shift in the workforce. As consumers and businesses transition to ‘remote working’ models, an erosion of culture and a greater ‘siloing’ effect has been observed. The report authors predict that the potential for two ‘cultures’ – one for those onsite, another for those virtual – could form. In assessing all the risks to which your organization may be vulnerable, it’s important to ask what role corporate culture plays.

A shift in expectations. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a stable, resilient supply chain. These needs have been demonstrated by the greater expectation for suppliers to demonstrate the presence and implementation of a BCM framework.

A shift in regulatory uncertainty. The pandemic has resulted in increased political pressure to enact protectionist regulations and legislation. What risk does this present to businesses and organizations relying on cross-border trade? What ripple effects on government policy, supply chains and consumer behaviours need to be taken into account in developing an effective BCM plan?

A shift in virus intelligence. As safety interventions and tools continue to evolve to protect citizens, exhaustion is setting in – demonstrated by those refusing to follow public health guidelines. Paradoxically, this exhaustion is likely to lead to additional ‘waves’ of transmission and the capacity of authorities to contain it.

A comprehensive BCM framework is needed by all organizations, including specialized mechanisms for assessing risk. Exercise and evaluation programs are critical to ensuring the efficacy of the plan. By exercising the BCM in a low risk environment, challenges and improvements can be identified while avoiding losses to critical data and infrastructure. As an accredited Business Continuity Professional, I can help your organization answer and develop these frameworks.

What do you think? How has COVID-19 impacted your organizations’ BCM planning efforts? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Managing the Unthinkable

Disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

The role of the emergency management function is to deal with the unexpected, unpredictable and often unthinkable. Pandemic planning has long been considered, but not in the context of a concurrent natural disaster.

As I write this, Hurricane Laura is set to bring a “catastrophic storm surge” to the Gulf Coast, and California is battling 370 wildfires, a heat wave and rolling blackouts – all while simultaneously managing a pandemic. As Jacob Stern points out in The Atlantic, these disasters do not simply overlap: they compound. Often exponentially.

In California for example, firefighting forces heavily rely on inmate labour to supplement their ranks. Polluted air has been shown to increase vulnerability to the coronavirus, which inmates may then spread into the close-quarters environment of a correctional institution. Choosing to limit firefighting efforts as a result unleashes a secondary cascade of events beyond the capacities of any one agency.

A civil engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, Mark Abkowitz likens emergency management capacity to a reservoir. Multiple ‘draws’ from the reservoir may lead to insufficient resources getting to where they are needed. In an article for the Vanderbilt Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency, Mr. Abkowitz shares concepts needing clarity by emergency managers when managing multiple simultaneous disasters:

Effective Planning

While risk assessment is a basic tenet of emergency planning, it has not previously been considered for simultaneous disasters. In the event of a natural disaster, how does an organization ensure social distancing protocols are in place in an emergency shelter or in a reception centre? In the event of reduced stakeholder capacity, how are resources allocated? In the current climate, officials need to consider any possible scenario. Business continuity planning is a critical resource to ensure these risks can be effectively planned and managed. 

Logistical Challenges

Not managed effectively, lifesaving resources may be diverted to the wrong locations, and may inadvertently expose more people to harm. In establishing a unified command, consistent with ICS principles, effective coordination of a centralized supply chain can be ensured. As I wrote in a previous post about the Italian response to coronavirus, partial solutions are to be avoided like … well, you know. 

These questions, previously ‘unexpected and unthinkable’ are going to increasingly become commonplace as disasters become more complex and frequent, often overlapping. 

Does your organization have continuity planning in place to handle multiple simultaneous disasters? Let me know in the comments, or feel free to contact me here.