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Leadership during COVID-19: Building an Incident Action Plan

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University 

We are all living during a time that no one has seen and taking actions as a society that have not occurred during our lifetimes. First responders are supposed to be invincible personnel who carry out a mission regardless of its hazards. After all, we signed up for serving the public.

But if you believe in that invincibility, your organization is destined to fail. Regardless of the bravado we exhibit and the dangers we face, we all have families, incomes, and other people who are important to us and rely on us.

[Related: Officers Adapt to COVID-19 with New Protocol, New Response Realities]

As leaders during this challenging time of social distancing and coronavirus, we must properly manage two main areas in our organizations. Those areas are planning and communication.

Creating an Incident Action Plan for Disasters Like COVID-19

While we have not seen this type of global pandemic for some time, we must work it like all other disasters and build Incident Action Plan (IAP).

Some organizations have altered their policies, some have written directives and some have built out their IAPs. While Incident Command System (ICS) purists will only want an Incident Action Plan, it may be good to have a balance of policies, written directives and IAPs. The advantage to an IAP is that all of the information is in one place and can be updated daily.

The Incident Action Plan is also a common format to which our personnel are accustomed and allows for consistent updates. However, IAPs must be specific enough to inform personnel and laid out in a format that allows for quick reference. Procedures and directives are changing at a highly rapid pace during the coronavirus pandemic, and many people will not be able to memorize all of the information. As a result, it is imperative that they can easily find vital information in the Incident Action Plan.

The advantage of creating an IAP ahead of time is that you can create parts that are static, such as the stations, staffing, and unit leaders, in the early phases of a disaster when operations are normal. Later, you can quickly add a “live” update when staffing levels start to reduce or the people who were in charge of certain areas become ill and need to be replaced.

Building the IAP should involve the assignment of deputy positions in your section chiefs and incident commanders in case these key personnel become ill. Another part of the IAP should be a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) by position or succession plan.

The COOP should identify leaders in your organization and who their replacements are, using the order of succession. During normal times, this plan ensures that each person is properly trained to take over responsibilities from their supervisors, if necessary.

Remember that plans should be built for everyone, ranging from incident commanders to the lowest-level field worker. This practice ensures that information is communicated to everyone, especially those personnel who may need to step into new positions.

While some people proclaim that a 30- to 40-page IAP is overwhelming, we must train our branch directors and division/group supervisors. They will need to brief their personnel on information that pertains to their crews.

Communication from Strong Leaders Is Vital

The other important action of leaders during this time of COVID-19 is the communication of information. While an IAP provides much information, leaders need to speak in front of many different groups for a variety of reasons.

The first reason is to be able to communicate what is in a plan. If you have 30 different people read a plan, you will likely have 30 different interpretations of what the plan says.

This problem can be overcome by having daily operations briefings. If possible, the briefing should be performed by the same person to ensure that a common message is relayed.

For example, the briefing could be conducted by the Operations Section Chief by National Incident Management System (NIMS) standards. Another option is to have the briefing conducted by anyone who is highly familiar with the plan.

Your Planning Section Chief can also facilitate the meeting, because that team worked to put the plan together. It is important for your communication to be consistent and carried out by someone who has a command presence.

Command presence is important at this point in the current COVID-19 pandemic. As anyone who went to their first fire with a great company officer knows, it is a much better experience than going to the fire with a company officer who wasn’t unsure of what a crew was supposed to do.

In our current COVID-19 pandemic, even the most seasoned responders have not been through this event. Many people are very nervous and seek the calm, confident voice of reason during this time. Be sure you pick someone who can be that voice.

This command presence needs to carry over to your external communications to the community. While some people have joked that all you are being asked to do is sit on your couch, the truth is that very few citizens are able to quickly adjust from their normal behavior and are stressed.

When residents go to the store and see empty shelves – or see reports of hundreds of people dying in Italy and COVID-19 cases in the U.S. increasing exponentially – they become upset and nervous. Their focus will soon be on the government to provide the last line of defense.

We can look at George Bush’s speech after the 9/11 attack, and we can see a leader who had a command of the situation and spelled out how we will respond to the event. This speech calmed the public and allowed people to see effective leadership in action.

Many citizens just want to see that someone has a plan and is in charge. Many fire service leaders have taken to Facebook to convey that their services will change, but citizens can still count on them.

This reliability is important for the public, as we truly are the last line of defense in this type of event. They also need to know that we are all working in harmony to develop plans that will allow us to continue to be the last line of defense, even in the worst times.

Be sure to plan and communicate. Both citizens and our personnel are counting on our leadership.

Incident Action PlanAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. 

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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