I recently did a test from a youtube video on multitasking or rather switchtasking as the presenter, Dave Crenshaw, calls it. The premise is that multi-tasking is a myth. Try the test yourself to understand why: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCeGKxz3Q8Q
In emergency management, multitasking should not be an option. The Incident Commander should be able to concentrate on one job which is to coordinate the response to the incident. We devised the IMS system to reduce risk of multi tasking. The system creates a careful delegation of responsibilities and tasks. It creates a cycle that controls the development of key objectives, their prioritization and their resolution one at a time. It instills concepts such as chain of command so that there is filtering of decision making as we get to the top of the chain. We teach unity of command that says nobody should answer to more than one superior.
Then we get to a Fort McMurray situation where we ask the fire chief to also take care of the evacuation. As the newly submitted report shows, there were numerous issues related to coordination and communications almost all starting with the province. The greatest one in my mind was that the province left everything to one person instead of letting the fire chief coordinate the response to the fire and having someone else coordinate the evacuation. This was a costly example of how multi tasking cannot work.
In Ontario, all municipalities must have a Community Emergency Management Coordinator; a CEMC as we know it. A few of us are privileged to be in a large urban environments and we are fully dedicated to this job. In many rural or small town settings however, budgets don’t allow for the presence of a full-time CEMC. So naturally the first person to turn to is the Fire Chief. It is assumed that being a Fire Chief means you know everything about emergency management as well. Unfortunately, that is putting a load of expectations on these people that shouldn’t happen and can ultimately lead to a Fort McMurray situation.
Some municipalities have realized this and delegated the CEMC function to someone else but most of the 447 municipalities currently have a senior fire official as their CEMC. Since those people are being asked to multi task, the question is raised as to how we can help them succeed when faced with such daunting odds.
The Canadian Emergency Management College closed in 2012. It was the only Canadian institution catering to emergency management education for first responders at the time. When it closed, nothing was there initially to compensate. In Ontario, the CEMCs now have access to the BEM course, the IMS course and the CEMC courses from the province. Those are good courses and should be maintained. These courses are general and apply to anyone. What they do not consider is the multi tasking aspect of the CEMC/Fire Official combination.
So a new program at Humber College is starting up in the fall to cater directly to that need. Under the initiative of retired Brampton Fire Chief Andy MacDonald, Humber College expanded its program to cater directly to the continued education needs of Senior Fire Officials. As part of the Humber College Fire Service Executive Management Certificate and along with courses in administration, budgeting, labour relations and more, the college decided that it was time to include courses on what it means to be a CEMC when you are a fire official. Two courses were created: Emergency Management for Senior Leaders and Managing Multiple Agency Responses. The first presents the skills and knowledge required to be an effective CEMC on a day to day basis while the second looks into expanding the ICS system into an IMS structure when dealing with large-scale responses.
There are three target audiences here. The first and most important is the rural fire official that has now been tasked to play the CEMC role. A good portion of the courses aims at helping those find the right resources quickly to make the job easier. It also helps at finding ways to delegate effectively and break down tasks to ensure completion before moving on to the next.
The second audience is for the senior fire official who is in an urban community where a full-time CEMC position is filled by someone else. The goal here is to help fire officials understand how the CEMC can contribute to the role of fire and help take many of those tasks away from fire to reduce risk of multitasking on the site of a complex emergency.
The third audience is for people outside of fire services but involved in emergency management or emergency response. These can be CEMCs that are not fire officials or senior officials from other services that can benefit from understanding the role of the CEMC.
Multi tasking doesn’t work. Try this test: do the grocery shopping with a fairly standard list and time yourself. The following week go back with a similar list but bring along someone to engage in an intense discussion on the chances of the Blue Jays making the playoffs this year…or any other heated discussion you feel appropriate. Then check your time. Check also the accuracy of your purchases. Did you forget something? Did you find doing the grocery more stressful in those conditions?
Now transpose this into an emergency response situation and try to coordinate the media response, the mayor’s visit to the site, and the evacuation at the same time as doing an effective job of controlling the incident. The response time goes up, the quality goes down, and your stress level goes way up.
Hopefully the Humber program can be an option to make the job easier. (1)
My wife tells me she is good at multi tasking. She has a load of laundry going on while she does the dishes. I call it good delegation. Giving the laundry job to a machine is a form of delegation that leaves you free to concentrate on something else. You are still only concentrating on one job at a time.
(1) http://www.oafc.on.ca/fire-service-executive-management-certificate-elective-courses (See FSMC022 & FSMC023)
Note: You don’t have to be a member of the OAFC to register for courses and you can take several course only and not the whole certificate. There are many great courses applicable to managers, not just Fire Chiefs.
Contact Dan Rowland at Dan.Rowland@humber.ca for more information on the oafc program.