The Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) Executive Education Program (EEP) and Executive Leaders Program (ELP) teams collaborated to deliver a multi-week executive education session for the FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) Academy that focused on strategic leadership, critical thinking, and incident management principles. The IMAT Academy is usually conducted in-person, but CHDS was able to quickly pivot to an online delivery format.
The IMAT Academy is coordinated by the FEMA Field Operations Division (FOD) within the Office of Response and Recovery, and this session was conducted as part of the onboarding and orientation of a new National-level (NIMAT) team. “CHDS generally provides education opportunities for individuals who apply, are accepted, and come together in a cohort. This opportunity was unique because the participants were all part of a single team,” noted Ellen M. Gordon, Executive Education Programs, Executive Director. The mission of an IMAT is to deploy to an incident or catastrophe to support state and local operations, coordinate federal assistance, and support inter-jurisdictional response. The teams are fully compliant with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and train and exercise as a unit. There are regional and National-level IMATs. The National or NIMATs consist of three teams (Red, White, and Blue IMATs). Each NIMAT is assigned to a geographical region of the country. Regional IMATs generally handle disasters within their regions, while NIMATs coordinate large scale or complex response operations.
“Conducting a multi-week in-person academy virtually was a challenge as daily schedules, length of presentations, and breakout activities all had to be balanced against the realities of a virtual environment,” explained David Fukutomi, Executive Education Program Deputy Associate Director. Time zones, online attention spans, and the work-from-home environment’s reality were significant considerations in structuring the agenda. Simply converting a traditional eight-hour session agenda to a Zoom-based delivery was not going to work. Slow internet connections, outdated software, or the struggles of learning to use a new application for the first time can disrupt the whole operation. “A significant challenge was not being able to see and engage participants in person. It is easy to underestimate the impact of eye contact, nonverbal communication, and social interaction has when conducting a regular CHDS session,” said Fukutomi.
The session featured a combination of keynote speakers, panels, and topical discussions. CHDS provided a diverse and accomplished group of subject matter experts (SMEs) that drew upon their personal and professional experiences. The keynote speakers included former US Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and Lt. General Jeff Buchanan, US Army retired, who shared leadership lessons and led insightful discussions. CHDS also utilized its alumni network to garner two of the SMEs: Nancy Dragani, Deputy Regional Administrator for FEMA Region VII, and Joyce Flinn, Director of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Flinn is an alumna of the CHDS Executive Leaders Program (ELP1402), and Dragani is an alumna of the CHDS Master’s program (MA 1005/1006) and Executive Leaders Program (ELP0601).
Participants also collaborated in group activities each day, designed to reinforce the learning by addressing specific challenges. Content from the Executive Leaders Program and Pacific Executive Leaders Program (PELP) deliveries were incorporated as were lessons learned from CHDS’ recent offerings during the pandemic. The breakout activities required participants to role-play as leaders in local jurisdictions and the private sector, all of which helped participants gain an appreciation for the unique challenges faced by leaders in other organizations. “For a federal team to be effective, I believe it is vitally important they understand the dynamics and politics that are present in every state,” Dragani remarked. “No two states operate in the same manner. Hopefully sharing our experiences and state processes provided these new members with insight that will aid them as they experience their first deployment.”
The week-long group activity, known as the “Big Island Fruit Company Case Study,” put participants to the test as key personnel of a fictitious private-sector enterprise. Each day they addressed a significant challenge, culminating in developing and presenting to a simulated governor and executive staff. “Executive education is our core mission. We share best practices, encourage collaboration, and challenge participants to think broadly,” said Glen Woodbury, CHDS Director in describing the Center’s contributions. “As an educational experience, this was intended to be very different from a traditional training session.”
Preparation proved to be the key to successful virtual deliveries. Virtual engagements require significantly more prep time than standard deliveries. Fukutomi agreed, “Testing internet connectivity, the familiarity of the platform functions, and how content translates virtually with each speaker is essential. Even though we were in different parts of the country, we succeeded together by investing in up-front planning.”