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Twelve Months On From QLD Floods: Lessons Learnt

Written by Grant Ziarno, Consultant – Emergency Management

This article provides a snapshot of the Incident Management training provided in South West Queensland and the effects the training had on the emergency response during the 2010/11 flood event. With Emergency Management Queensland, I was involved as a facilitator of the scenario-based training and was also an operational employee deployed to Local and District Disaster Coordination Centres during the event. Below are some of my observations after the event.

In November 2010, Incident Management Teams within district and local disaster management groups in the South Western Region of Queensland were tested on their response to an extreme weather event. It was an opportunity for these groups to test their evacuation plans, re-supply arrangements, personnel and asset coordination, internal communication protocols and external communications.

Participants responded as they would in a real event using their Incident Management Plans (IMP), standard operating procedures, supporting documentation and local knowledge.

This exercise allowed participants to identify gaps in their emergency response, which became extremely beneficial during the flood event.

These findings included:

  • Inappropriate size and location of Incident Coordination Centres (ICS)
  • Lack of specific identified roles during an emergency including the Incident Management Team (IMT) and support staff. Lack of updated contact lists
  • Communication issues between external agencies, isolated communities and other stakeholders
  • Lack of Liaison officers
  • The need for predetermined evacuation centres
  • The need for continued training
  • Ineffective information management protocols
  • Under estimation of resources required to respond to an incident
  • Lack of appropriate escalation points

Even though (due to the size of the affected area) some participants felt the November scenario exercise was unrealistic, the extreme weather event became a reality in December and January of 2011.

So how did the Incident Management Teams respond during the event? Did the recent training they received assist them in their response? Simply, the answer is yes.

Although there was little time between the exercise and the actual event, a great deal had been learned and major changes had begun to be implemented. The exercise meant incident management and the emergency response was front of mind and local IMTs responded quickly and more effectively than in the past.

Four main improvements could be observed during the response to the emergency; clearly defined structure, defined and communicated roles and appropriate allocation of resources and communications.

IMT Structure

Given members of the IMT had a better knowledge of the incident control system in place there was little need for further communication of the process during the response. This allowed IMTs to concentrate on an effective coordinated response to the emergency and not on the processes involved. Having the procedures, protocols, forms and boards in place saved time and reduced confusion.

Considerations regarding the scale and scope of the emergency were made and appropriate Incident Action Plans (IAP) were put in place quickly. As the emergency evolved and conditions changed, the IAPs were revised to reflect the most appropriate response.

Roles and responsibilities

The IMT was able to respond effectively and work together in a cohesive manner given the roles and responsibilities of IMT members were recently highlighted and communicated to all members. There was no question who was in command at Incident Coordination Centres and the roles of Operations, Planning, Logistics and Communications were for the most part clearly identified and allocated appropriately.

Deficiencies highlighted during the exercise had been addressed and support staff within the business as usual structure were identified and quickly utilised during the response.

Allocation of resources

The allocation of resources, especially in relation to personnel, had mostly been addressed directly after the exercise and appropriate resources were allocated immediately in the emergency. The allocation of internal resources enabled a quick response both in the development of Incident Coordination Centres but also in response to the flood event.

Identifying resources and establishment of MOUs with external suppliers enabled the IMTs to formulate responses within an IAP without having to waste time determining resource availability and cost. This was paramount in enabling a quick effective response given the magnitude of the emergency.

Communications

Although there was little opportunity to improve communication protocols before the flood event, enhancements were made during the emergency. As the shortfalls in communication were identified during the exercise, it was quickly apparent what improvements must be made and how it would be managed.

IMTs were able to recalibrate and adopt standardised forms. Communication and action logs were used effectively to determine appropriate responses. Communication protocols internally and externally were refined and contact lists were updated and added to.

These changes identified during training were quickly implemented and not only assisted greatly in the response of IMTs, but also provided a record of actions taken and the reasons for these actions.

Allowing for the fact that each local IMT had a differing ability to respond to the emergency either due to varying levels of experience or resources, as a general rule, each IMT responded more effectively than they would have previously. While some teams gained more from the exercise than others, this can be put down to a number of variables; skill level and experience before the exercise, level of participation during the exercise and the willingness of local teams to learn from the outcomes and instigate change.

The value of having Incident Management Plans in place cannot be overrated and the same can be said for testing the response by utilising these plans. Having and Incident Management structure and testing it certainly allowed IMTs across South Western Queensland to respond much more effectively than they ever could have before.

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