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Experienced emergency manager shares ‘boots on the ground’ insight

The crucial role that Incident Management Teams play in a coordinated response to emergencies was recently highlighted for Pennsylvania College of Technology students by a nationally contracted instructor, mentor and consultant.

Susan Taylor-Hall, the executive associate/director of ETC and Associates (and one of the cross-country luminaries rounded up by instructor David E. Bjorkman) met virtually with emergency management students to enlighten them on a variety of rewarding and challenging careers.

Her message to the class was clearly one of partnership, in which each of the disparate agencies involved in emergent incidents functions as part of a fully engaged team. In that spirit, she told the aspiring practitioners, it is vital to know individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. In the heat of the moment in the Emergency Operations Center, being able to tap into and utilize each person’s particular skill, knowledge and ability is crucial for success.

She explained how Incident Management Teams fit within the National Incident Management System, which was established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That system was largely utilized by some branches of the military; then, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she said, it became evident that the entire nation needed to come together and coordinate its response efforts. The response to that large-scale disaster brought people from all across the country; different teams from different states all wanting to assist, but hampered by procedural and communication issues, a “language barrier” of sorts – proving the need for a common standard of emergency management response and recovery.

In addition to knowing your personnel’s capabilities, she said – sharing lessons learned during her extensive emergency management experience in Florida and across the nation – it is important to identify those areas of improvement that are needed and make the proper adjustments.

Taylor-Hall shared some experiences about the Incident Management Team of which she is a member, particularly one where collaboration brought about a respectful partnership.

During the team’s deployment to the Florida Keys, its members established a professional rapport with the tribal community in that area during the response phase. Team members had taken time beforehand to learn and understand the unique traditions and societal concerns of the tribal community that was part of the area response. That team education and situational awareness resulted in the development of a significant relationship within the tribal community and the responding team members – so much so that, when flooding hit a section of Oklahoma a few years later, support from the specific Incident Management Team was requested through the states’ mutual aid compact. The respect and sensitivity shown to the local tribal community resulted in a mutually beneficial and long-lasting professional relationship.

Educating her audience on the dovetailing of responsibilities in the Emergency Operations Center/Incident Management Team partnership, the presenter shared what happens during an emergency, where the EOC fits in for the local response, and how an Incident Management Team is requested and deployed to assist in response efforts. Once deployed and delegated the authority to manage the incident, the initial responsibility of the team is to focus on the safety of the team members and community that they are serving; stabilizing the incident; and the preservation of property and the environment. The Emergency Operations Center then assesses what resources are needed and available for the emergency (volunteer companies vs. paid firefighters, for example) and how they will be requested and deployed. Should resources become scarce, the EOC coordinates further response and requests additional resources that may be needed through local mutual aid agreements and, if needed, through federal partners.

Taylor-Hall shared the importance of utilizing the incident command structure and how it is implemented by Incident Management Teams: The Incident Commander oversees the entire incident, along with command staff – public information, liaison and safety officers – working in concert with the planning, logistics and finance/administration sections to coordinate a successful outcome.

Each team member is specially trained for his or her position and works within the system, regardless of the emergency. Some incidents require specific subject matter experts that focus specifically on their specialty: response to a hazardous-materials incident, for instance, when experts with specific knowledge in dealing with such materials would be requested. Those experts would provide valuable insight to the Incident Commander and team personnel to deal with the emergency at hand.

The speaker outlined five types of incidents, ranging from a single-person car crash to a major wildland fire, and how they’re managed – a major undertaking given the multiple jurisdictions involved and the mix of personnel and equipment necessary. Different types of emergencies require a correspondingly tailored engagement of specialty incident management teams, which she termed the “boots on the ground” in disaster response.

Taylor-Hall’s support of Penn College students through Bjorkman’s outreach reflects her 30-plus years in the emergency management, fire and safety realm. Among her many qualifications, she has served as a team member of the State of Florida All Hazards Incident Management Team Qualification Review Committee and is a FEMA Contract Instructor. She has also worked at the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center in support of the Emergency Services Branch – specifically in search and rescue, and as a controller and evaluator during statewide exercises.

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