County Manager Column from April 28, 2020

This column was originally published as a "From the County Manager" column on our employee intranet

Ramsey County operation under an Incident Command System

One question I have been asked by employees since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is: What does it mean to be operating under an Incident Command System and how does that differ from how Ramsey County normally operates? So I wanted to take some time and share the structure of our emergency response with you. Please watch the introductory video below and continue reading to learn more.

Our Public Health department began monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak in late 2019. By January, the department was posting prevention information for the public and began communicating with employees about coordination steps underway with partners and preparations if there were to be an outbreak here. On March 6, we were notified of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ramsey County, and Public Health activated its departmental Incident Command Structure. Our board of commissioners declared a countywide state of emergency following guidance from our Emergency Management & Homeland Security department on March 13 in alignment with Governor Walz’s declaration of peacetime emergency and activated our countywide Incident Command System, which has been functional since then. Basically, it was at this moment that we realized that a department-level response would no longer be able to address all aspects of the unfolding emergency, and we recognized the need to move to an integrated countywide response. Ramsey County was the first county in Minnesota to move into a countywide emergency response to address COVID-19, but now this approach is being followed by local governments throughout the state.

As the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) defines it:

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a management system designed to enable effective and efficient domestic incident management by integrating a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure. ICS is normally structured to facilitate activities in five major functional areas: command, operations, planning, logistics, intelligence and investigations, finance and administration. It is a fundamental form of management, with the purpose of enabling incident managers to identify the key concerns associated with the incident—often under urgent conditions—without sacrificing attention to any component of the command system.

At the center of an ICS is the County Incident Manager who has responsibility for coordination of an organization for countywide planning, response and long-term recovery, prioritizing areas requiring the most urgent response and assigning areas of work, and "breaking ties" in the event of competing priorities. This organization is called the Incident Management Team (IMT). The IMT has various sections responsible for Planning, Operations, Logistics, Finance, and Public Health Operations reporting into it, as well as the Public Information Officer. Sections each have Branches responsible for certain areas. For example, the Planning Section has branches dedicated to focus on homelessness and food security and basic needs. The team also has a skilled group providing administrative support.​

Because the demands on an IMT can be 24/7 over a period of days, weeks or months, section personnel rotate in shifts. We’ve been fortunate to draw on leadership and expertise from across departments to fill these roles – and have been fortunate to have some highly experienced top former public sector managers temporarily join our structure, too. The IMT has been active every day over the past six weeks since the local emergency declaration and have met to coordinate via video once or more on most days.

My role within the Incident Management structure is on Policy & Coordination which is responsible for coordinating and keeping lines of communication open with our board members and other local and state partners and policymakers, as well as providing information and input to the Incident Manager. I do this work while also serving as the County Manager and dealing with issues that go beyond the specific incident response. There is more below on how I and others balance dual roles so that we keep moving forward on multiple fronts while responding to the emergency directly in front of us.

The ICS has accomplished a great deal of complex work on many issues – but here’s a quick example of an issue the team has tackled. Under a nation- and worldwide shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, face shields and gowns, Public Health operations identified an urgent need to begin acquiring all available PPE anticipating future demand for front-line staff. The Incident Manager prioritized this effort, assigned work to sections and actively monitored progress. Planning and Operations developed a multi-faceted approach for inventorying on-hand PPE used in various departments across the county, procurement of new PPE from external vendors, and establishing a process for public donations. Finance and procurement continue identifying opportunities to purchase PPE and have coordinated with Logistics on a centralized procurement and distribution procedure. For donations, Logistics identified equipment and a process to safely accept, screen and inventory donations and Public Information continues promotion of the effort. To date, we’ve inventoried and distributed tens of thousands of pieces of PPE (which include thousands of donations following a big effort this weekend) and are expecting to receive about half-a-million ordered pieces in the coming weeks.

Some of the major efforts currently underway with the IMT relate to homelessness (which I wrote about two weeks ago) and food security and essential services - which I'll be sharing more about soon. For Service Delivery, the IMT has been responsible for standing up our network of document drop-off and walk-up sites and contact center. Work undertaken by IMT often will align with the resources of departments, but ultimately cuts across Service Teams with impacts on many departments.

As referenced above, the important work of the organization is not limited to responding to the COVID-19 emergency. It is imperative that we not lose sight of the important role that all of us are playing to serve this community during its time of need. While the incident gets a lot of attention, the other work happening across Ramsey County is also vitally important and needs to be recognized as such. Last week, I established a Racial Equity and Community Engagement Response Team and Compliance and Oversight Team to ensure that the work of both IMT and departments remains completely aligned with our Vision, Mission and Goals throughout our COVID-19 response – This was outlined in the weekly COVID-19 updates to the board of commissioners (videos which we link through RamseyNews each week).

Concurrently, work continues in departments as their approaches are regularly adjusted based on the evolving situation with COVID-19. Directors provide weekly Service Delivery updates which I review and approve in alignment with our ICS. Also, several departments are seeing temporary shifts as staff are being called on by the Incident Manager to perform roles in the ICS. I’m grateful and heartened every day by the can-do spirit and commitment to service in every corner of our organization! One example of this was evidenced in the great response we had to an employee survey to inventory individuals’ skills and experience that can be drawn on if needed for our response.

Thank you for your patience and flexibility as we do everything we can as an organization to keep pace with the changing demands this crisis presents for our community and employees while also providing the services that residents, businesses and stakeholders depend on us for.    

This column was inspired by questions employees have submitted about the Incident Command System. I hope it’s been informative. Please continue submitting questions and letting your supervisors and colleagues know what is on your mind and raise concerns to help us navigate this situation together.

Thanks again for all you do!