Recently, FEMA began rolling out their Lifelines reporting program to state, local and private industry agencies. At first glance, this program appears to be of great value to all stakeholders but as you get down into the weeds, it still leaves much to be desired.
Let’s start with the positives:
One of the greatest benefits of this program is that FEMA is beginning to realize that the walls placed around Emergency Support Functions (ESF) have caused duplicative effort for common problems, competition between ESFs for the same resources and miscoordination of priorities between ESFs and logistics partners. This program also establishes uniform Essential Elements of Information (EEI) reported from all ESFs in order to gauge cross sector impact which can be mitigated by a single contact (the new ESF14) rather than multiple contacts. Additionally, the common EEIs will allow for better visualization of impact from the disaster as well as success of response and recovery efforts. In my opinion this is where the benefits stop.
When looking deeper into the protocol there is very little uniformity after the definition of the EEIs. On the first rollout webinar, the partner agencies asked some very pointed questions to which the answers were shocking. There has been no standardization of how the data will be transferred to FEMA from partner agencies other than the current email submission of the forms provided in the rollout package. Not defining a standard data set and data transmission protocols will now require agencies to extract data from their current electronic crisis management systems then manually produce and submit these forms daily. This manual production of forms will add a yet to be realized number of man-hours daily, specifically to feed FEMA’s need for data. There was discussion about the future release of a Senior Leader Briefing (SLB) board which will be accessible by State, Local and Tribal government agencies but there was little clarity as to how submission would be completed there. Use of this SLB portal would still require an unknown about of data translation in order to get it to a submission format.
The most shocking detail that emerged from the webinar was that there is no defined threshold of what determines red, yellow or green Lifeline status. FEMA reported that they believe it is appropriate for the agency submitting the Lifeline report to determine the color code subjectively based on how they feel the Lifeline is impacted. While it would be inappropriate to say the “Power Lifeline is only yellow if greater than 200,000 residents are out of power”, due to vastly differing jurisdictional population sizes, there is some appropriateness to saying the “Power Lifeline goes to yellow when greater than 25% of the jurisdictional population is without power.” This type of threshold would allow FEMA to objectively gauge which jurisdiction gets priority. With the current stance, I could make Power status “yellow” because one house is out and it would appear on the SLB as being just as significant as a jurisdiction reporting yellow when they have thousands without power. This ambiguity will lead to inappropriate rationing of resources or lots of clarifying phone calls and data searches.
In conclusion, I do believe that this program is a step in the right direction but should have had more refinement before it was rolled out. With this program being the outcome of prior hurricane response shortfalls, and our entry into another hurricane season just beginning, it feels as though it was a rush to solution in an attempt to show a fix rather than a strategic launch of a well thought out and defined program.