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How to Marshal the Experts in a Crisis

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A deep knowledge of networks of science and medical researchers is invaluable when pandemics and health emergencies occur. But how do you marshal diffuse networks of expertise in a crisis?

Almost 40 years ago, the Forest Service developed a command-and-control approach to battling forest fires that was successful in coordinating efforts across multiple jurisdictions and fire departments. Its approach was adopted by other agencies to address their own forms of emergencies. For example, USDA uses it to battle infestations of crop-killing insects.

The Homeland Security Department later refined and included the approach—called the Incident Command System—as part of the National Incident Management System and recommends its use by all agencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further refined the system when it confronted the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. In a series of rapid incremental steps, it adapted ICS with a number of changes to meet the needs of a network of scientists and doctors. A new report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government by Chris Ansell and Ann Keller of the University of California-Berkley describes the changes and how they could be useful lessons for other agencies facing similar challenges.

The Original ICS Model

The Incident Command System is a governance model that “was initially developed by firefighters in California in the late 1970s after a summer of severe fires that overwhelmed the resources of any single firefighting company,” write Ansell and Keller. The model resolves coordination problems among multiple agencies by creating a flexible and scalable command-and-communication structure that minimizes organizations working at cross purposes in emergency situations.

According to the authors, “The most fundamental element of the ICS model is the rapid establishment of a single chain of command.” The model is organized around four standard components: operations, planning, logistics and finance/administration. These components report to the incident commander and the four sections are further subdivided into branches and units that follow a common structure. Regular training and exercises allow participants to be familiar with roles and responsibilities in advance of a crisis.

Why Did CDC Make Changes?

The CDC is not a first responder in the traditional sense. The authors note that its central mission is best described as the “rapid mobilization of authoritative knowledge” in a crisis situation. The ICS model was developed with “a set of assumptions about what constitute critical agency mission functions during a crisis,” say the authors. And leveraging knowledge is different than directing a firefight.

In reviewing the 2009 pandemic, the authors observe that three features of CDC’s pandemic response challenged the logic and assumptions of the traditional ICS model, saying the agency needed to:

  • Focus on producing authoritative knowledge rather than carry out an operational mission
  • Draw on specialized and often isolated knowledge from a dispersed network of actors
  • Create a robust approach for managing external communications about what was going on, in order to anticipate and respond to confusion and rumors.

What Did CDC Do Differently?

Basically, CDC flipped the traditional ICS structure. The technical specialty units that are nested in the planning section in the traditional model were renamed as “task forces” and they became the core of the agency’s revised ICS approach. These task forces were staffed by subject matter experts from epidemiology labs, as well as vaccination and medical care experts. They became the most prominent units in the daily meetings of the senior incident leadership team. One reason, observe the authors, was “leadership wanted experts reporting directly to experts.”

The traditional line role of the ICS components, such as a planning and operations, were relegated to staff roles. In addition, CDC elevated the roles of the joint information center (which ensured that the agency was speaking with one voice) and “team B” (which mobilized external experts to check on internal decision-making).

Prior to its use of the ICS model, CDC had used an ad hoc set of task forces. In the end, CDC had produced a hybrid model that combined features of this approach with the more structured logic of the ICS approach.

Can Others Use CDC’s Approach?

The authors envision other knowledge-intensive agencies adapting CDC’s approach to rapidly mobilize authoritative knowledge in different kinds of crises. For example:

  • The National Weather Service is charged with providing timely information that helps the nation respond effectively to weather-related emergencies. This role is clearly critical for effective emergency response, but the Weather Service’s mission, like the CDC’s, is primarily about man­aging knowledge.
  • Other science-based agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, are often called upon to assess emergency situations and to provide expert guidance to decision-makers. Many institu­tions, in fact, have some capacity to deploy experts rapidly in the case of emergencies or crises.
  • Agencies involved in economic regulation, like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve, are periodically called upon to rapidly provide authoritative informa­tion in support of policy decisions.

If a knowledge-intensive agency envisions that it might become the coordinating center of an emergency or crisis, the authors recommend that they plan in advance how they would respond. The ICS model may be a good starting point—which is recommended by Homeland Security—but they should assess whether the lessons of how CDC adapted the ICS model might be better suited to their environment.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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