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Organization Matters: The Taboo of Transparency & Collaboration
By Billy Powers
 

"My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government." This statement was the opening of a memorandum for the heads of all government executive departments and agencies by our President Obama in his first term.

This noble directive was an effort to formalize policy that should be part of the heritage and culture within federal, state, or local government - policy that should be part of our emergency management agencies and organizations. Government, including federal, state, and local agencies, should be transparent, participatory, and, most importantly, collaborative. However, headlines reign with example after example where collaboration failed, all citing a myriad of reasons. Perhaps it was jurisdictional. Perhaps it was personal. Perhaps it was under the guise of vengeful payback for another agency not being collaborative in the past. No matter the reason, we must heed the presidential call and become committed to creating unprecedented levels of openness in government.

This toll bell should ring loudly within the emergency services sectors, which have built monarchies on stifling or withholding critical information. And, as evidenced by the tragic Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, incident command collaboration was cited in the after-action report as being threatened due to the "overwhelming response of varying agencies that arrived with the intent to mitigate the emergency, but rather produced a fragmented information network." Some have cited openly that this collaboration breakdown "threatened the timely response and recovery efforts." What was learned from this atrocious terrorist attack? The answer is simple. Our sector must work to find better methodologies to communicate and manage incidents (collaborate). Some might point to this after-action report as the birth of Incident Command System (ICS) 2.0: an evolution of the Incident Command Structure (ICS) approach developed in the early 1970s to help manage the need to respond to rapidly moving wildfires. Fortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have taken bold and necessary steps, including leadership to ensure there is more transparency and collaboration within the emergency management community. One example of this is by evolving the ICS structure, and creating a National Incident Management System designed to facilitate collaboration and response during and following an emergency.

In 2011, the National Preparedness System was created to build a series of integrated national planning frameworks intended to assign roles, deliver capabilities, unify and integrate response and recovery. Most importantly, the system put in place planning across the entire emergency management spectrum that was aimed at improving interoperability and communication. In short, this was the directive, or the emergency management sectors' call to conduct ourselves in an environment that promotes transparency and collaboration before, during, and following an incident.

In the famous Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler," the stanza states, "…if you're gonna play the game boy – you gotta learn to play it right. You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run." What is the point to this lyrical analogy? We must remove the taboo of transparency and collaboration! Emergency management or management as a whole, is not a game. We must heed Kenny's plea – and "learn to play it right" – coming out from behind the veil that has disrupted our ability to be as effective as we can possibly be when required.

If there is ever an uptick to an emergency or anomaly, it is the collaboration that results in direct and effective after-action reports. Here is our opportunity to stop, collectively assess and discuss the events in a collaborative environment. This is the opportunity to dissect the successes or failures and to develop or enhance cogent lessons learned. However, no matter how many atrocities occur, the toll bell that rings the loudest and comes to the top of the lessons learned is always the need for better communication, collaboration, and coordination – the hallmark to success.

So, one may wonder how to remove the taboo of transparency and collaboration within an organization and create homogenous, productive working relationships within an agency, department, or networked alliance such as a regional task force or joint force working group. The answers to this question will vary widely, dependent on the risk, consequences, and vulnerabilities that the organization is attempting to create synergies in. Examples might include the need to address risk reduction, prevention, protection, response, recovery, or the whole enchilada – which would be "The Gambler's" best advice. Remember the stanza and its charge, "…if you're gonna play the game boy, you gotta learn to play it right…" While I am not minimizing the task that comes with increased organization and transparency by exploiting this famed lyrical song, it aptly underscores the need for every organization to learn the game – which begins with transparency and collaboration. It is this mindset that will go far in aiding or mitigating any incident or anomaly.

Many of you may have shared the good fortune to know, meet, and hear the "Father of EMS," Chief James O. Page (1936-2004). Perhaps you had the opportunity to hear him speak at a conference or to read his countless articles that were full of wit, wisdom, and the flare for exploiting how to become better responders, leaders, managers, and the taboo: better communicators.

Following a full day conference event in Memphis in 1998, I noticed Mr. Page at the bar – sitting quietly and enjoying a glass of wine. At the time, I was a young hotshot lieutenant in the fire service eager for promotion, and pointed him out to my wife who I was sharing a drink with. I implored that I felt compelled to go introduce myself to Mr. Page and thank him for the remarks and the lecture he had given earlier in the day – promising my wife it would only take a moment to say "Thanks." The toll bell that rang loudest for me from Mr. Page's speech that day (and no truer words have ever been spoken in our emergency management community), "The time to meet your colleagues is not on the scene of an emergency." His emphasis and driving lesson was centered on pre-planning, or its broader term: collaboration. Chief Page spoke and mentored me for nearly 90 minutes – freely and with the zeal of a father adamant to impart knowledge into a son. My wife sat patiently (at least that's my story) while I soaked in the counsel of this legendary leader. For those 90 minutes, I learned more about the science of management than during any class, conference, program, degree, or cohort I have ever been involved with. Chief Page's approach was simple: people are the heart of the organization and we as leaders are called to be stewards of communication, coordination, and collaboration.

Chief Jim Page will surely be remembered for his work as a contributor and the technical advisor for the famed 70s television show Emergency! You remember the characters and the focus of paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto, or the unmistakable sounds of the tones for Station 51 to respond to another Emergency! But Jim's work and life contribution was his devotion to meld pre-hospital care within the aged profession of firefighting. The trails blazed by Chief Page changed the way the emergency management community responds to calls for help each and every day. His leadership, guidance, wisdom, and confidence that the two systems of firefighting and emergency medical treatment could be combined will be his truest legacy. But so will his advice and leadership to establish internal collaboration within the now networked firefighting and EMS community. Think about the collaboration that went into changing a 250 year old tradition for firefighters who responded to fires – not heart attacks and strokes. No, Jim was certain, and taught us that collaboration and transparency would be the hallmarks to saving lives, better managing our organizational resources and making our communities safer. I'll always remember our discussion. And, I will always remember his charge to me as an aspiring leader, "Give 100% in all you do, each and every day. You owe it to the men (and women) you lead." Ladies and gentlemen – this was not a charge about individual leadership. No, this was a life lesson for that young lieutenant that the essence of networked leadership was about being transparent and collaborative within your organization. This network begins with your peers, your department, your city agencies, your groups, task forces, and all the other marvelous response networks that have been created by the genius of our industry leaders – Chief Page being among them. Like many, I miss his lectures, columns, wit, wisdom, and insights, and have studied with fervor many of Chief Page's earlier articles and speeches to learn as much as I could about the success behind this legend.

I digress, and wish to highlight now how we can remove the taboo of transparency. Quite simply, it is through training and education. But most importantly, it is through practice, practice, practice! FEMA released the Independent Study Course (IS) 701.a – NIMS: Multiagency Coordination System (MACS) training nearly two years ago. The course highlights what Chief Page was imploring us to do as emergency managers nearly 30 years ago: to create a system that can improve incident response. IS-701.a will educate you on how to build a system that integrates personnel, procedures, protocols, business practices, and communications into an integrated and common system.

According to the FEMA course overview, after taking the MACS course, "you should be able to improve the overall coordination (collaboration) with, and support for, incident management by developing and operating within a [multi-agency] environment." Further, IS-701.a will aid the responder in identifying potential coordination and policy issues arising from an incident relative to the entire response system. Did you see the genesis? It is about learning how to better communicate, coordinate, and collaborate amongst each other. For more information on accessing IS-701.a and other Independent Study programs offered by FEMA, visit HYPERLINK "http://training.fema.gov/IS"http://training.fema.gov/IS. This training is free, and the lessons learned are sure to help us break down the barriers and become better responders and leaders. "If you're gonna play the game boy – you gotta learn to play it right." Multi-agency coordination is the core competency for us all to learn how to play it right.

Let us all learn the hallmark of true leadership – no matter your affiliation, organization, community, or structure. Transparency and collaboration are the keys to saving lives and preserving property. Period. Raise your hand if you disagree. Do not let the toll bell ring in your community, the toll bell that rings and you suddenly realize that you have not done due diligence to meet your colleagues (federal, state, local, private, non-profit, municipal or other). Openness, as cited and charged by our president can and will promote efficiencies during response to emergencies or events. I urge you to evaluate your organization and create this culture of transparency. This culture of communication, collaboration, and coordination must be second nature and not taboo. The age-old stovepipes need to be leveled, and the playing field nurtured with the seeds of commitment to creating resilient, stable, and ready postured organizations that are prepared to work in a unified manner when required – at any time. This approach will not be easy for some, and organizational culture and tradition may impede immediate implementation of such measures. But again I quote Kenny Rogers, "if you're gonna play the game boy – you gotta learn to play it right." Transparency and collaboration must become the rules of the game. I implore you to not allow tradition, pride, or prejudice to make you fold your cards early and walk away or run from the responsibilities we all share. Be safe.

Bill Powers, CHS-IV, is a Nationally Certified Fire Officer, author, and lecturer in the emergency management community. He has worked in the fire service for the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and currently in the field of Emergency Management Public Policy. Currently Mr. Powers is pursuing his PhD in Human Capital Management, with emphasis to exploit the science behind organizational resiliency in emergency management agencies. Mr. Powers can be reached at bvpowers@cox.net







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