Creating Operational Emergency Plans

I was inspired for this article from an email I received earlier today from Lu Canton, a rather prolific emergency management consultant who has branched a bit into consulting consultants.  His email today (a forward from his blog) was about making emergency plans ‘real’.  His point was that many planners focus on checking the boxes of the list of planning requirements (those prescribed by law, regulation, etc.) rather than focusing on ensuring that you have a plan that can actually be implemented.  He conducted a webinar over a year ago which I had blogged about.

Planning requirements are important, as they largely stem from lessons learned from earlier incidents.  Granted, some of these requirements come about being translated through the eyes and ears of politicians whose staffers write the legislation and don’t understand emergency management at all – resulting in convoluted, contradictory, and poorly focused requirements.  Requirements lead to standards, helping to ensure that emergency managers are addressing the needs of their jurisdiction and best practices in the industry.  To help guide us through this, many higher level agencies provide templates.  I’ve pontificated in the past about the danger of templates, which have a place in reminding us of these requirements and help us with format and flow, but are often misused by individuals who simply seek to fill in the blank with the name of the jurisdiction and claim they have a finalized plan.

How do we avoid falling into this trap?  Follow the planning process!  FEMA’s Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 101 provides an overview of this process for creating emergency operations plans.  The two initial steps – forming a planning team and conducting a hazard analysis – are absolutely critical to the integrity of the process and ensuring a quality plan that meets the needs of your jurisdiction by addressing your threats and hazards.  Planning teams then need to consider these threats and hazards, make reasonable assumptions about their impacts (using a credible worst case scenario), then identify resources and strategies the jurisdiction will undertake to solve the problems they will face.

Does all this mean that a plan needs to be written from scratch?  Of course not!  In fact I strongly encourage people against it.  It’s practically guaranteed that you will forget a critical element.  One of the greatest things in the emergency management community is how we learn from each other.  You can reference templates you find, examine plans of your neighboring jurisdictions or jurisdictions similar to you, check out what is on LLIS.  There is plenty of great content you can examine and apply for your own use.  Just ensure that you carefully review and consider how it applies to you.

As you write the plan, think the details through.  This will help ensure that your plan is operational, not just meeting requirements.  Discuss with your planning team what is expected of each assisting and cooperating agency for each incident type.  Who will be in charge?  What resources will be necessary and where will you get them from?  What would the objectives be and what processes and decision points must be conducted to accomplish those objectives.  As you create the plan, map out these processes and ensure that you’ve considered the who, what, where, when, and how of each step in each process.  Recall that you are planning at a strategic level, not a tactical level.  Planning at a tactical level is nearly impossible with a pre-incident (aka ‘deliberate’) plan.  Tactics will be addressed during the actual response, hopefully referencing the EOP/CEMP you are writing now, and implemented through an incident action plan (IAP).

Remember, though, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  Your plan needs to be tested to ensure viability.  Use a table top exercise to test policy and decisions, then a functional exercise to test the implementation of the plan and higher level tactics.  Full scale exercises and drills can test the tactical implementation of plans.  Good evaluation of the exercises will lead to planning improvements.  For insight on the exercise process, you can check out my exercise management series of posts referenced here.

Remember: when it comes to planning – keep it real!

Tim Riecker

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