Artena Moon: Leadership during Blackout

By Artena Moon

The advancement of technological decision tools that rapidly assess situational data and provide statistical analysis on probable outcomes saves lives. These tools are ever evolving and provide decision support based on a plethora of data parameters and are often layered over mapping platforms; they are invaluable tools. For example, decision makers on the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties (December 2017) used a Web-based spatial decision support service tool for fire movement probability mapping to plan suppression tactics. Each emergency support function uses technology to aid in its multiteam response efforts. But, what happens when leadership relies on these decision tools and they are no longer available? What happens to leadership during a blackout? For the purpose of this article, blackout is defined as a response event in which no power or systems of communications other than face-to-face interaction are available.

Rim Fire, Photo Credit: Benny Thorp 2013

Emergency management organizations spend millions of dollars annually on equipment, implementation, and training of new communication and technology systems to enhance responders’ ability to make informed decisions in an expeditious manner. During routine emergency response, these tools increase effectiveness and facilitate decision-making, but what happens when there is no power to the server, the net control station goes offline, radio and satellite-phone power is depleted, channel assignments cannot be manipulated, cell towers become inundated, or a cyber-attack affects the grid or Internet? In an austere environment, automation tools no longer exist, and responders must make leadership decisions in the dark.

Implement Training

Based on my experience, I posit that every organization should include leadership-in-the-dark training on the mission essential task list as a training module or insert it into the exercise for each new automation tool. The training should include a thorough explanation of the organization’s core mission and objectives and the knowledge and skills necessary to lead when guidance is absent. Leadership decision-making training would increase self-confidence and benefit organizations if it is presented alongside technological systems training. Leaders must understand the benefits of new systems and also what to do when automation and communication systems no longer function.

No organization will find it comfortable to cut power to its headquarters during a training exercise. Many training events simulate austere environments while the air is filled with the humming of responders’ radios, the ping of new mail, the chirps of batteries, and the landscape is riddled with participants’ hung-over communication gadgets. Still, communication and social and technical gaps accounted for 42 percent of after-action report (AAR) recommended improvements based on an analysis of California State-level AARs from 2007 to 2014.1 One can only speculate what the gap would be in a blackout.

Including blackout training during scheduled exercises will increase respondents’ abilities to self-identify areas of improvement and which steps will increase their success during a response in a technological desert. At present, the leadership push is for acceptance of automated tools that enhance fire, law, and medical responders’ ability to make decisions. A module on blackout scenarios may be just what is needed to increase the trust in new systems for veteran responders leery of too much automation.

Blackout functional exercises test continuity of operations plans and provide a foundation of organizational knowledge. In August 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned EarthEx2017 to exercise interdependencies of lifeline infrastructures in a black sky even, or long-term power outage. The exercise objective was to examine organizational processes, procedures, and leadership with a focus on interagency communication.2 Many state, county, and local response organizations participated, but the concept can be applied on a smaller scale in a local setting to test communications in an austere environment.

The purpose of this article is not solely to emphasize the need for blackout leadership and communication training; it is also to give examples of solutions that can be implemented without cost to mitigate some of the potential risk of a black sky event. In my work with federal, state, county, and local response organizations, I have found that simple works better.

Table 1. Communication Card

Following are some examples you can use during disaster training events to simulate austere environments and for collaboration to convey purpose, direction, and meaning quickly:  

1.     A communication card (Table 1).

2.     A sand table.

3.     A white board.

4.     Paper and pencil.

5.     Sticky notes and wall or chalk or sand rock and hard surface.

These are a few examples of disaster planning in an austere environment. They seem elementary, and they are, but they are tools that veteran responders remember using and newly trained responders do not have in their arsenal of tools. The point is to keep the stubby pencils sharpened, used, and relevant so leadership can transfer purpose and organizational mission in a fully automated environment that may someday go dark.


1. For data contact me at [email protected]

2. For more information and to register for future black sky exercises, visit www.eiscouncil.org.   


Artena Moon, EdD ©, MBA, MAOL, has worked in the tactical communications field for more than 25 years and is a member of several communication project teams (ESF/EF#2) working on the improvement of communications at the state and local levels.  Her dissertation research at the University of Southern California is in organizational change within the emergency management field and the improvement of social communications and collaboration. She is a decorated veteran and served in various leadership roles within the tactical, IT, and telecommunications fields. She is CEO and emergency management director with MoonCom, an emergency communications company.