Indiana’s Disaster Response Task Forces Rethink Mutual Aid

The District Response Task Force program provided out-of-state aid during Sandy, and despite some glitches, the concept worked well.

by / December 4, 2012
Photo courtesy of Steve Zumwalt/FEMA Steve Zumwalt FEMA

Indiana proved that its disaster response task force program not only works, but that it’s also flexible, when it provided out-of-state aid for Hurricane Sandy.

The state’s concept for mutual aid relies on its 10 Homeland Security Districts. Each district has a self-sustaining task force — it includes incident command and public safety functions, among others — that can be asked to respond both within Indiana and out of state. While fairly new, the concept has been used twice in real-world responses, most recently to provide mutual aid to the East Coast during Hurricane Sandy.

Earlier this year, Emergency Management interviewed Joe Wainscott, executive director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, about the District Response Task Force program. “The impetus behind this was to be able to create a public safety surge into an area that’s been affected by a disaster, to augment and support the local affected public safety folks, support the incident commander, provide additional resources and then for a variety of needs,” he said.

Donations poured into the East Coast from across the U.S. following Hurricane Sandy and the Nor’easter that devastated the region. A team of emergency management professionals from Indiana helped local New York officials manage and distribute the donations to those in need.

The response was so great in Long Beach, N.Y., that donated goods exceeded the capacity of Long Beach City Hall. Arrangements were made to move all volunteer coordination efforts and donation collection and distribution to the city’s ice arena. In addition to a larger location, part of the Indiana Incident Management Team in Long Beach helped manage donation distribution and volunteer coordination.

On Nov. 9, the Indiana Incident Management Team was deployed to relieve the existing Indiana team in Long Beach. The 37-person team included public safety professionals from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana University, IDHS districts 1, 2, 5, 8, 9 and 10, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana State Police.

Source: Indiana Department of Homeland Security
Each task force is composed of five functions: law enforcement, fire suppression, emergency medical services, a Type III Incident Command Team, and a service and support element. The idea behind the concept is that a complete team can be sent to help an area — or as was shown during Sandy, one part of the task force can be called upon and in some cases merged with the same function from another district to form a strike team.

“Basically a task force brings a small jurisdiction size of public safety force to help them through the disaster time frame,” said Randy Collins, district programs branch director for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Collins said the state participated in six Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) requests during Sandy, including:

  • an ambulance strike team/EMS task force was sent to New Jersey, which included members from multiple District Response Task Forces;
  • an incident management assistance team, made up of mostly state employees and augmented by district personnel, went to Maryland; and
  • District 7’s incident management team went to New York.

The ambulance strike team was a first for Indiana’s task force program — members from five task forces combined to form one EMS task force. While the idea to pluck certain functions from a task force instead of sending a complete unit was envisioned when the program was developed, this was the first time it was done.

“New Jersey needed ambulances, so that’s what we did,” said Jeff Houston, commander of District 4’s task force, which was one of the five responding task forces. “We picked out the EMS element from the various districts and pulled those out and combined them into one full task force.”

The EMS task force arrived in New Jersey just before Hurricane Sandy impacted the state. Collins said Indiana was the first state to respond to the EMAC request and get the requested resources traveling east.

“From the standpoint of one of Indiana’s 10 districts and their task forces, this was a great opportunity to show everybody within the state of Indiana that the district concept works,” said Houston, who also is the EMS director for Franciscan St. Elizabeth Health in Lafayette, Ind.

Although the task forces are back in Indiana, the work continues as lessons are identified.

Houston said the EMS task force identified many takeaways from Sandy. He said EMAC requests are fairly new to personnel at the district level, and he now has a better understanding about what an EMAC is and the paperwork it requires. Houston also kept track of things that need to be tweaked, including developing a better equipment list and knowing where things are located. “That’s a growing pain — and it’s a good growing pain,” he said. “It can only get better the next time we are asked to deploy, whether that’s within the district, within the state or out of state.”

Houston said one of the big issues was communications — Indiana’s radios were incompatible with those used in New Jersey, making it difficult to talk with people working in the field. Houston said they will look into how that can be worked around next time. A possible solution could be bringing equipment that can patch into another state’s communications network.

At the state level, over the next three months, officials will be incorporating lessons learned and best practices from all the task forces into state guidance. The revision comes not only after Sandy, but also after the wrap-up of a three-year cycle during which each District Response Task Force participated in a full-scale exercise, said Collins. During the exercises, each task force mobilized, completed an exercise and then demobilized. “That was kind of the finale of the initial start-up process, so that was really the impetus of the changes,” he said.

For example, a key change will be in how the state reimburses districts. Collins said it was originally based off FEMA guidance, but didn’t factor in Indiana’s fiscal processes. Another change will help the incident management team and tactical resources, like police and fire, better interface. Collins said that going forward the leadership representatives of the tactical resources will complete either the FEMA all-hazards strike team leader course or the all-hazard division group supervisor course to create consistency throughout the incident command structure.

Despite these changes, one of the biggest takeaways for Indiana was proving that the program works. “It shows your local elected officials that the concept does work — that when your folks come to you and want to sign up and get that training and deploy with equipment and personnel — that the payback that they get is usually tenfold because of the experiences that these folks bring back with them,” Houston said. “So for the state of Indiana, it’s something that has been a long time building, but now we have proved more than once that it works very well. And the other states need to do it."

But one of the biggest benefits from the task force program was unintentional: The training and planning meetings have brought people together to create relationships across counties and areas of practice. “The way that it has built relationships was totally unanticipated, but is probably the No. 1 benefit of the program,” Collins said.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.