New Ideas and Old Problems
Innovation and maintenance are terms tossed around a lot when it comes to emergency planning, and plenty of other fields and professions for that matter. An emergency plan might be considered innovative if it uses a new approach, promotes the use of new technology, or borrows ideas from other fields. For example, a recent trend towards managing plans through shared, online storage is one example of a low-cost, innovative approach that is growing in popularity, and increasing secure access to plans.
Likewise, performing plan maintenance through regular updates, and making sure capabilities are fresh through exercises, remain essential tasks for emergency planning. On the surface, the concepts of innovation and maintenance can appear very different since one focuses on new/fresh approaches, and the other focuses on existing resources and practices. So how can emergency management professionals effectively innovate, while still practicing efficient plan maintenance?
Innovation provides a way to throw new ideas at old (and new) issues, and test solutions to problems that seem daunting, while maintenance makes sure the tools that are used regularly remain polished and at-the-ready. Simply put, innovation is important; maintenance is important; but using them independently can lead to inefficiencies and outdated approaches. Innovation for innovation’s sake can result in efforts without stakeholder buy in, or in an overlap and duplication of work, and plans that are maintained only at an administrative level can fall out of alignment with actual practices.
Rather than treating these as concepts as opposed, they can be embraced through an integrated approach. “Innovative maintenance” can provide a path for plans and planners to capitalize on the potential for progress offered through innovation, while still benefitting from the foundations of lessons learned, and the power of maintenance to keep our plans relevant and up-to-date.
Innovating to Maintain and Maintaining to Innovate
Innovative maintenance lets both concepts build on the other’s strengths. In practice, innovation as part of maintenance gives us a way to keep emergency plans relevant as society continues to increase its reliance on technology and shift to new ways of thinking. It also allows planners to benefit from new technologies and thought processes as part of our plan maintenance cycles.
Innovative maintenance provides an avenue to integrate innovations that have been pioneered in the field into the regular maintenance process. One example can be found in FEMA’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Before, during, and after the storm, FEMA enacted a slew of response plans that had been developed and maintained over the years. While executing these plans, FEMA also initiated a Field Innovation Team (FIT) to assist disaster survivors. The FIT was empowered to test new methods of rendering assistance to survivors throughout the affected areas, and employed several innovations to improve FEMA’s operations. These innovations included
- using tablets and other communications technologies to quickly connect survivors on the ground with resources;
- working with nonprofits and other NGOs to communicate with the public;
- and using locally developed maps to locate gas stations with available fuel.
Put into Practice
Many of the innovations tested by the FIT proved to be successful. Survivors were able to connect more easily with assistance services, important messages and other announcements were dispersed more widely and easily, and citizens were able to more easily find fuel. The success of these “prototype” innovations led to their subsequent incorporation into existing FEMA plans. In this way, the program shows how professionals can practice innovative maintenance.
By innovating new ideas, technologies, and approaches to apply already established plans, the FIT was able to better serve the affected citizens. Taking it a step further, by incorporating these innovations into existing plans, they were rolled into the process of regular plan maintenance. This kind of process shows just one example of how innovation can be unified with routine maintenance.
Granted, larger organizations like FEMA may be capable of more easily pursuing these approaches compared to smaller organizations or individual planners. Budgetary concerns and public scrutiny are always challenges to planners looking to try something new. However, the base concept remains the same regardless of an organization’s or task’s scale. The use of the FIT approach in general shows how new innovations can be tested during exercises and actual incidents, and if successful, rolled into the plans that govern them. The specific actions the FIT took, such as connecting with disaster victims through new technologies, or further partnering with affected communities to manage resources gives a more ground-level picture of what these kinds of innovations might look like, even when scaled to match the scope and planning needs of different organizations or individuals. By making the implementation and evaluation of innovation a regular practice, and tying it directly to maintenance, emergency managers can strike a balance between upkeep, and leaving breathing room to try out new, innovative ideas that could become new standards in the field.
As mentioned earlier, using cloud storage to share and manage a plan is just one way to put innovation into practice, and though not something applied in the field, it ties directly into how we operationalize plan maintenance. The end-goal should be to move beyond just testing innovative ideas towards plugging innovation as a concept into the entire maintenance process. These kinds of efforts can empower planners to practice innovative maintenance on a smaller scale while still harnessing the power of innovation in direct connection with good maintenance practices. Making innovation a part of maintenance lets us move the focus away from innovation for the sake of innovation, or maintenance as a checkbox, towards more effective, open, and progress-driven planning.
This article was originally published in the IAEM Bulletin, Vol. 34, No. 9 September 2017.
Authors: Michael Goldsbury, Emergency Management Associate, and Lee Zelewicz, Emergency Management Associate
Innovating in the Face of Disasters: Two Key Requirements, Hot Topics in Security & Safety, The Conference Board of Canada.