Agricultural Incidents and Effective Multi-Agency Coordination

Responses to agricultural emergencies such as food contamination, animal diseases, or pest infestation are similar to other types of responses in many respects – but in several important ways quite different from the responses to traditional fires, hazardous-materials releases, or natural-disaster emergencies. For that reason, some National Incident Management System (NIMS) functions, such as Multi-Agency Coordination (MAC), are required in addition to the ICS (Incident Command System) structure and certain adapted ICS positions to support the uniqueness of an agricultural response.

Emergencies precipitated by fires, the release of hazardous materials, or natural disasters are typically bound by a geographic area, and other incident parameters, such as when and how it was initiated, can be defined and usually understood – as is the realization that a tactical field incident command is rapidly needed. That logical, common-sense cause-and-effect process is not always quite so obvious with an agricultural emergency.  For example, contaminated food discovered in one state may have had its origin several states away – or in another country (e.g., the melamine-contaminated products imported from China).  Also, it may not be known, until days or weeks of trace-back work and surveillance has been completed, if sicknesses were related to food poisoning, what specific food caused the illness, and/or where the food came from. Such incidents involve many agencies and at times other governments, multiple authorities, and a wide array of resources coordinated over numerous locations.

To coordinate these efforts, it is not an incident command post that may be needed initially, but rather a MAC Group. The MAC Group would activate to share initial surveillance data and case studies, for example – as  well as media information, research data, intelligence, policy decisions, investigation details, agency authorities, and regulatory policies – with partnering agencies and industry.  While the MAC Group does not direct tactical operations, its memebers will carry out objectives-based action plans to coordinate priorities and allocate resources.

Specialized Tools, Responsibilities, and Operational Guidelines 

To be successful in these efforts, MAC Group members will need various specialized tools and training – involving but not limited to the following: MAC Group functional responsibilities; individual position guides; a comprehensive organizational structure and activation triggers; a spectrum of communications pathways (to tactical command posts, other MAC Groups, and other agencies); detailed information related to jurisdictional authorities and responsibilities; and prioritization matrices.

A MAC Group must be both flexible and willing to adapt quickly when an emergency situation is better understood. The MAC Group will collaborate and coordinate with emergency operations centers (EOCs) and joint information centers (JICs) – but it should be remembered that the policy, regulatory, and data-sharing functions may be designed into MAC Groups established outside of those structures.

A helpful example of the challenges involved in such situations is the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s investigative response to melamine-contaminated animal foods that involved multi-agency and even international interagency coordination across a wide geographic area.  Consumer-call and complaint lines were established; local, state, and FDA inspections and “sampling” events were conducted throughout the country; media outreach was achieved via press releases and web site information; meetings and calls were conducted between national regulatory partners; and a team was dispatched to China.  Probably the greatest strength of this multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional response was its adherence to the multi-agency coordination principles of ICS as outlined by the NIMS guidelines.

Variations on the Theme: A Distinct Approach Needed 

An agricultural response Incident Command System looks much the same as others – but with a number of variations.  Fires and natural disasters usually entail an acute phase of response during which the threat must be mitigated as quickly as possible, and the recovery phase immediately follows. In contrast, agricultural responses may entail a much longer response phase involving, but not necessarily limited to, any or all of the following: food or animal testing; facility or field sampling; surveillance, recall, and/or quarantine actions; the disposal of contaminated foods or animal carcasses; and a disinfection program. These tasks often require a longer-term approach to the response. In fact, agricultural responses are typically longer; in addition, the incident-planning cycles also are longer, response staff may shift out more frequently, larger databases of information must be established, and ongoing coordination with an essential MAC Group is needed to funnel the information intended for statewide or national distribution. 

Also, ICS Operations Sections responding to an agricultural incident must be flexible enough to allow for their unique focus. A surveillance branch might be needed, for example, made up of epidemiologists, scientists, laboratory experts, and/or other subject-matter specialists and technicians. A separate food-contamination branch may be composed of a product-recall unit, a food-disposal unit, cleaning and disinfection teams, and field or facility inspectors from various departments with oversight and regulatory authorities over food.  Disease-related incidents may require the euthanasia of infected animals as well as the establishment of vaccination and/or vector-control units.

In addition, a number of subject-unique plans may need to be developed – e.g., for food disposal, carcass disposal, and disinfection. Site-safety and site-sampling plans also would be required, as always, but when they involve agricultural incidents they must include bio-security considerations. All of these agricultural and human-health types of issues, of course, must be: (1) reflected in the composition of the EOCs and MAC Group activated in response to the incident; and (2) incorporated into the command structure of incidents that not only require traditional responses but also include an agricultural-related component.

There are several other ways in which agricultural responses vary from the norm. Although agricultural and health departments may have ERT (emergency response team) staff specifically trained for time-critical responses, non-ERT staff from other departments may be tasked during extended responses to provide additional support. The latter will usually have two sets of commitments – to the response team, and to their day-to-day duties – which means that a hybrid management structure may be established that allows them to meet both sets of responsibilities.

Indeed, many agriculture-related responses do not actually close and demobilize, but instead evolve into long-term programs, such as with a plant-pest eradication event that may take years to resolve.  In such cases the incident command lines of authority could be replaced during the period when the response phase evolves into a program – a transition that may cause tension between ICS authority and agency program authority. The tension can be lessened significantly, though, if basic ICS terminology, tools, and authorities become ingrained into the overall program culture. In this way, ICS training supports staff with response and program work. Also, management tools such as incident action plans, situation status reports, safety plans, and media release processes become working and effective habits.

There is a long-term benefit from using this approach: As the ICS tools and terms are used more commonly in program work, staff members become more effective in responding to time-critical emergencies, coordinating with multi-agency groups, and understanding the response roles. Staff training efforts are also then streamlined into a common system, using the ICS principles and guidelines as a base.

To briefly summarize, best-practice suggestions for agriculture responses are to:

  • Establish and train an effective multi-agency coordination capability as a primary response organization – taking special care to include the tools, procedures, communications links, and strategies needed;
  • Develop operational positions that are focused on the work of agriculture and human health staff, so they can work comfortably in a traditional ICS structure; and
  • Use ICS tools and terms as part of the common lexicon among staff that often work in both response and program cultures.

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For additional information about the FDA’s investigation of the melamine-contamination incident, click on http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OC/OfficeofOperations/ucm120948.htm

Mark Ghilarducci

Mark Ghilarducci is vice president and director of the Western States Regional Office of James Lee Witt Associates, providing technical expertise and consultation services to government and private-sector clients in the fields of Crisis and Consequence Management, Emergency Services, Homeland Security, and Government Affairs. A 1987 graduate of the University of California at Davis and a 1998 graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government fellowship program for senior executives in state and local government, he has over 25 years of diversified service in the fields of emergency management, fire, and emergency medical services. A former deputy director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES), he also chaired the Technical Committee of the state’s Standardized Emergency Management System. He has lectured at numerous colleges and conferences throughout the world, has provided instruction and consultation services to many foreign governments, and has been a contributing author to several trade journals and technical books.

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Frank Castro

Frank Castro-Wehr, a James Lee Witt Associates program specialist, has over 19 years experience in emergency-management projects, including several in the field of CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives) incidents. He holds a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Arkansas and an MA in philosophy and theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Among his other accomplishments, he has developed plans and response tools for state and local agricultural departments and health departments, and local emergency management departments. He also has conducted a number of bi-national hazmat and counter-terror exercises along the U.S.-Mexico border, and has worked with U.S. and Mexican agencies during exercise planning meetings. Witt Associates is a part of GlobalOptions Group.

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