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A Model for Agility in the Public Sector

Search and rescue task forces need to deploy at a moment's notice, and they have to be ready for any challenges they may encounter.

Members of search and rescue teams in Virginia meet to plan a mission.
(Flickr/Mark Warner)
Pick up just about any public-administration journal and you're likely to read about the increasing demands for agencies to be more flexible and agile in our wildly turbulent and unpredictable environment. We can learn something about intergovernmental collaboration, flexibility and agility from a set of organizations that have been dealing with turbulence -- in the literal sense -- since they were formed in 1989: urban search and rescue task forces.

Teams from the national network of 28 US&R task forces deploy to jurisdictions nationwide when floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and other disasters overwhelm local first responders. The network was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the task forces are managed by their local jurisdictions, and the majority of their members are local first responders. The localities pay, train and deploy the task forces; FEMA provides financial and technical support.

When FEMA receives a request for assistance, it determines which US&R task forces to send. They must be ready to deploy within six hours of notification. Once on scene, the local incident commander provides direction.

Task force members do more than search and rescue. They also provide emergency medical care for trapped victims, conduct hazmat surveys and stabilize damaged structures. The task forces were praised for their quick and effective response during the massive storms that battered Texas, Florida and Caribbean islands in 2017.

The task forces may have as many as 220 members, almost all of them working other jobs. Their managers give them time off for the frequent training sessions and occasional deployments. They don't all deploy to an emergency. Rather, they deploy in what are called "mission-ready packages" -- smaller groups of specialists to meet a specific need. These groups range in size from 15 to 35 people, depending on the specific requirements. Fairfax County, Va., which hosts one of the two oldest task forces, sent a team of 16 to help during Hurricane Harvey, the massive storm that hit Texas in August 2017, for example. A typical deployment may last a week or two. During longer deployments, task force members rotate off and are replaced.

Membership in a US&R task force can be quite prestigious. Fairfax County replaces only 12 to 15 of its members a year. Some applicants wait years before being selected. And the training is rigorous. New Fairfax members train part-time for 12 to 18 months before they can deploy.

Once deployed, the US&R members must prove their value. "Our top priority is to meet the needs of the local emergency management leaders," says Rick Roatch, the Fairfax County deputy fire chief who oversees its US&R task force. "We start by asking, 'What are the key tasks you need: Helping people get access to their homes? Evacuating people?' We make sure that our commanders bring a 'we're here to serve' attitude, and do whatever's needed." That's especially important because US&R is sponsored by a federal agency. State and local leaders often complain about feds who come to their communities with a "we know best" attitude.

Interestingly, task force members don't develop trust through formal team-building exercises. Rather, trust develops through their continuous training. While members usually train within their own specialist group, the Fairfax task force also holds an annual week-long simulation requiring each member to interact with all specialist units. Bottom line: Formal team-building programs aren't needed because the members already know, trust and respect each other.

Agility is as important as trust for the task forces. "Sometimes a local commander will announce, 'We need a US&R team to leave in 30 minutes to take care of an emerging situation,'" says Chris Schaff, Fairfax County's US&R program manager. "Our members always volunteer for those quick turnarounds."

What contributes to the task forces' agility? Some of the key factors:

  • The use of relatively small teams, with relationships built on trust.
  • Their multi-skilled members' ability to address a variety of needs, combined with year-round training that emphasizes the need to make decisions and act rapidly.
  • The nature of their mission, which attracts action-oriented people.
  • High standards: Once selected, task force members must continually demonstrate teamwork, flexibility and responsiveness.
  • And "line-of-sight": US&R members can see (and touch, and save) the people they're serving.
Much of the US&R model is widely applicable across the public sector, and it demonstrates that governmental collaboration and agility are attainable goals, even in the most turbulent of times.

For a good overview of how US&R task forces operate, watch this video.

A management consultant, educator and author
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