Unified integration

A multi-agency approach to large-scale emergencies
November 14, 2011
Written by Andy Glynn
It has been said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Nothing could be more accurate when defining a multi-agency approach to large-scale emergencies.

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The Joint Emergency Services Operational Advisory Group (JESOAG) in Halton Region, Ont., produces effective protocols for jointly managing the response to events. Photos by Andy Glynn

 

Silos is a term often used when explaining how the three emergency services interact during responses to major incidents. Most of us know that there is a more efficient and more effective response – and, perhaps, a better outcome – to any event if we all work better together. However, it is not often that a truly unified approach happens at the incident site.

Even when there is some informal communication among agencies on the scene, the tendency is for each of us to migrate back to working within our own silos.

In Halton Region in southwestern Ontario, which encompasses Burlington, Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills, we learned a valuable lesson from an incident in the late 1990s that forced the three emergency services to consider how to unify and integrate at emergency scenes. The outcome was a coroner’s inquest recommended that:

The combined emergency services (EMS, fire and police) in each community participate in an annual workshop to promote teamwork at emergency scenes, including understanding of the role of each agency and the importance of communications between agencies, at different types of emergencies.

The region was tasked with bringing together police, fire and EMS to improve the ability to manage emergencies. The Joint Emergency Services Operational Advisory Group (JESOAG) was formed and is today a very active organization that produces effective protocols for jointly managing the response to events. The group comprises deputy chiefs from police, EMS and the four Halton Region fire departments. It also includes the local division commander from the Ontario Provincial Police, bringing the complement to seven members.

JESOAG mission:
To improve operational excellence through communications, understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities and teamwork


The group has come a long way since the coroner’s recommendation was imposed. In 2010, JESOAG identified a priority to develop, implement and exercise a unified command (UC) protocol. What started as a simple project turned into a major undertaking for the group.

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A field exercise in the fall of 2010 brought together all participating agencies.
 
When development of the protocol began, we realized that while there are unique differences among the three agencies, none is more obvious than terminology. Another major factor was that the premise of unified command requires each of us to understand and have a working knowledge of the incident management system (IMS).

The IMS component is what started the discussion, especially across each agency, which led to difficulty completing the protocol. All three agencies came to the table viewing IMS differently or having implemented it within the rank and file using a slightly different methodology. Although we all agreed that the principle of IMS is the same across the board, the terminology became the sticking point.

In order for the JESOAG to come to consensus, we needed to identify an IMS process that was generic enough to be applied across the three agencies and, optimally, within a provincial and federal framework.

Emergency Management Ontario’s IMS program was being integrated into the province at the time and, after reviewing the EMO document, we identified this as the model for our use. The document provided standardized terminology and could easily be integrated into the foundation of our UC model.

For the UC protocol to be accepted and for it to become part of the day-to-day operations, senior staff in each agency were required to attend and complete the necessary training. The training was organized into a two-day workshop offered several times around the region.

A couple of factors were critical for the group to be confident it could ensure the successful outcome of the workshops. First, the facilitation had to be shared by the seven members of JESOAG. Secondly, the workshop location needed to rotate and be hosted by each municipality and by the region (police and EMS). This provided a unified, integrated delivery and, ultimately, contributed to the successful outcome of each workshop.

It was agreed that these workshops were an excellent opportunity to bring together senior staff and that, in order to make the best use of everyone’s time, everyone needed to complete a prerequisite course. The provincial IMS level 100 course is a computer-based program and was identified as an appropriate prerequisite for all workshop participants. On Day 1, the IMS level 200 was delivered, along with the exam. The Day 2 content included a review of incident action plans, a review of each agency’s resources, an overview of the fire mutual-aid system, a presentation and a review of the UC protocol. The session concluded with a complex table-top exercise.

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The Halton Region Mutual-Aid Plan and Program provided the co-ordination and protocol for the region’s four fire departments and their responses to the incident during the field exercise.  Photo by Andy Glyn

 
To date, almost 100 of the most senior police, fire and EMS staff in the region have completed the workshops and have been recognized with certificates from the province. And, in the spirit of true unified integration, several representatives from the Ministry of Transport, the Hamilton Port Authority and emergency management officials attended and completed the workshops.

To my knowledge, these workshops are the first of their kind in Canada involving a local approach to building multi-agency relationships, breaking down silos and providing a unified response to emergencies.

However, no successful program would be complete without testing the participants’ knowledge out in the field.

For JESOAG to truly measure the success of the workshops, a field exercise was planned for the fall of 2010. This exercise needed to be complex enough to ensure that all four fire departments would be involved, along with regional and provincial police and EMS. In addition, the site had to be in a remote area where it would not draw many onlookers or media. Limiting access was important because this was the first attempt in the region at such a complex, multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional exercise.

The exercise became two-pronged, with one part involving the field component and the other involving the activation and exercising of the municipal Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). The EOC operated as though it were an actual emergency and received real-time feeds from the field.

The scenario was a simulated plane crash into a provincial park in the Town of Oakville. The plane was carrying between 30 and 40 passengers and crew. The park is in a remote area and has very steep declines to a river. This being the case, several passengers from the plane ended up over the cliffs and required rescue. Others became walking wounded and were lost in the dense bush; the remainder were in various forms of medical distress.

Essentially, the scenario included low-angle rough-terrain rescues for the fire departments, mass casualties for EMS, and wilderness search and rescue for the police.

As all the agencies converged on the site, it was critical that UC be set up early and a visible command post identified. One of the early challenges was managing the large number of emergency vehicles and personnel that arrived simultaneously and ended up on a narrow road close to the crash site. This blocked access to the site for necessary staff and equipment.

However, with UC functioning, personnel were able to discuss an immediate solution and resolve the convergence issue.

The Halton Region Mutual-Aid Plan and Program provided the co-ordination and protocol for the region’s four fire departments and their responses to the incident. The departments’ arrivals on scene were staged 30 minutes apart to simulate real time and to allow the fire commander to assign each department its tactical responsibilities. A forward-operations officer was assigned and delegated tasks that involved all four departments performing low-grade rescues from various locations over the steep cliffs. It was essential that the rescues be co-ordinated among the departments; therefore, safety was a critical factor while the rescues were being performed.

As the rescues were completed, the patients were transported to a forward triage area using all-terrain vehicles specifically designed to move non-ambulatory patients. EMS assessed the patients, provided a triage tag at the site, and then continued to do assessments in the forward triage area.

Interaction and communication among the agencies in the field was another critical element for the successful outcome to the exercise: fire personnel performed the rough-terrain rescues; EMS triaged; and police located the walking wounded. All this needed to be co-ordinated, especially due to the fact that the fire departments, using the ATVs, needed to assist by transporting equipment in to the site and moving patients out of the rough terrain and back to a central area.

Integrating the three agencies through unified command is difficult: it requires the right people with a common goal dedicated to making the process work. The lack of communication interoperability at the tactical level forced all communication up through the UC, which overloaded the command post. However, this was handled very effectively during the exercise by the use of incident action plans (IAP).

It was very refreshing to see the three agencies work so well together. The workshops and the exercise clearly established the fact that when the right people with similar goals come together, great things can happen.


After spending 14 years as a firefighter in a municipal department, Andy Glynn joined the Office of the Fire Marshal, where he served as an instructor, program specialist and acting manager of the OFM’s Emergency Management and Response Unit. In 2006, he became a deputy fire chief with the Town of Oakville, where he has held responsibility for training, fire prevention and professional development. He also acts as community emergency management co-ordinator. Andy is a certified Fire Protection Engineering Technologist. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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