Decision Support Information, aka Incident Intelligence


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Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Basics of Fire Intelligence

I had a super sexy sounding job once as a Fire Intelligence Coordinator at “South Ops,” the busiest interagency emergency coordination center in the world.  Our job as one of eleven geographic area coordination centers in the US was to coordinate regional mutual aid for wildfires and major all-hazard incidents.  We processed more resource orders per year than even the national center.  Now, that is a 100% South Ops perspective, from a South Ops data perspective.  The data backs it up, though.

I mean:  that is sexy stuff all around.  Well, I reckon if you are into that sort of thing.  Big money and big crises.  Our fires were the fires on the national news – often.  I could put an update on our website and see it on the CNN crawl within three minutes.  Everything in So Cal is big.  We did scale.

Now, it might have been ever-so-slightly sexier if our center was located next to an airport like the national center is in Boise – which is also co-located with a smokejumper base.  As far as that goes, “North Ops” (the center in northern California) was also at an airport (albeit a smaller one) and co-located with both a jump base and a hotshot base.  Plus fire engines.  Meanwhile, our center in southern California was at the intersection of two major freeways, and eventually under a flyover for one of them.  The highway kind; not the airport kind.  We often found soot on the railings around the compound… a reminder of the particulates we breathed – especially next to the freeway – in sunny smoggy southern California.

I digress.

Despite our location, that job was one of the coolest things I ever experienced.  I was there for right around four years solid, and every single thing I did was based on the three principles of fire intelligence.

Here they are:

Incident Intelligence = Situation + Resources + Incident Potential (Risk)

Situation status is that:  what’s happening with the situation.  If it’s one incident, it’s what you know about that one thing.  If you’ve got 12 large incidents and 47 initial attack fires – that’s a whole lot more situation to know about.  Figuring out what’s going on now, as best as you can tell, is a good baseline for figuring what to do next.  By the way:  in incident management, there are a whole lot of forms and processes to keep all of this straight.  It's part of the Incident Command System (ICS).

Resource status is knowing which resources you have available now, working on the incident(s), which resources are enroute, and which resources you might be able to access.  At an incident, you really need to know what you’ve got now to work with, and what you know will get here soon with a reasonable degree of certainty.  Regionally or in the “big picture,” you also need to know what you might be able to get soon and/or if you had more money.  Money is a resource too:  are there channels to get additional funding?  How realistic are they?  What thresholds do we need to pass to access more money?  Some resources may be on a required day off, or some may be in the next region over and would take a day or two to get here.  The resource picture depends on your perspective.  Whether or not you get resources and/or funding also depends on the big fire intelligence picture.  It starts at the incident, then it’s regional, then it’s national.  Context matters, and priority decisions based on your situation and risk data may determine what resources you are able to get and when.

Risk, or incident potential, is all about what is likely to happen or what could happen.  In wildfire, part of this is fire danger and/or fire behavior.  Risk is also about what is threatened, what the consequences could be if fire behavior does X thing or if we don’t get the resources we think we need.  Risk can be about what is vulnerable as well.  Are there threats to life and property?  Which neighborhoods are most vulnerable?  If we don’t stop the incident from spreading before it hits Y point, how many months could it burn?  If the spill gets into Z waterway, what are the cascading impacts?

The official US Department of Homeland Security risk calculation is this:

Risk = (Consequence) + (Threat) + (Vulnerability)

More on risk is in this post called "Why," and on the Focus Area page for Assessing, Accepting, & Addressing Risk.

Decision Support Information

I ended up working in Washington, DC for a spell on the National Incident Management System (NIMS). ICS, mentioned above, is one element of NIMS and is typically focused on actual incidents.  NIMS is more big picture.

In NIMS (and in Washington, DC) terminology, “intelligence” was more of a term for the “secret squirrel” stuff:  intelligence of the national security and/or law enforcement variety.  What are terrorists threatening?  Do we have intel on where the drug trafficking routes are?  That sort of thing.

The term we worked on for this "incident intelligence" area of the NIMS then became “incident decision support information.” 

The term "decision support information" works pretty well in life, too.  For anyone to make good decisions, we need solid, verifiable, validated, real-time / current decision support information.  Knowledge is critical to problem-solving - and that is exactly what this is.

These principles work to manage incidents from the tiny 4’-wide wildfire to the huge conflagrations on TV where whole communities are evacuated – perhaps in several regions.  These principles work.

Way Forward Finding

To make good decisions, you need to know the situation, the resources, and the risk

And that is how we find a way forward. 

Navigating disruption starts with the basics.  We start here.  Once you’ve got good decision support information, you can move forward with strategy and tactics... and you build yourself a plan you can take action on.  And not just for fires; or for incidents.  For anything

When you regularly assess and update the decision support information, you can update the plan and the actions accordingly.  This part is important, because of course:  the only constant is change.  Plus, folks managing everything from daily emergencies to major catastrophes use these principles and concepts to help them think critically in chaos.  It's part of countering fear, and not panicking

These principles can help you think through tough situations and scenarios.

Why is this post on The Blog?  It's here because the principles work to help people make tough decisions, in crises.  And when it works in major emergencies and at scale - you know damn well it can work for you.  At home.  With the family.  At work.  At whatever else you are working on. 

At building what's next.

"We have the tools - we have the talent!" - Winston Zeddemore, in the movie Ghostbusters


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