Operational Readiness – What is It?

A recent project I’ve been working on references ‘operational readiness’ as a key element of the training course.  We all know what operational readiness is, right?  We use the term all the time.  Surely, we must be able to find it defined in some key doctrine of FEMA.  Surprisingly not (and please, don’t call me Shirly).

Ah the internet… you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  Searches for the definition of operational readiness reveal two different concepts.  The first is a corporate perspective on operational readiness, which focuses on an organization’s ability to do what it is supposed to do on a daily basis.  This definition also seems to be adopted by hospitals.  While tangential, the focus on daily operations isn’t really what we are looking at relative to emergency management.  The second is of military derivation.  Drawn akin to combat readiness, the definition speaks to the capability of a unit, system, or equipment to perform the function for which it was designed.  Yes, this gets a lot closer; such as operational readiness of an EOC to perform as intended when it is activated.  I find it interesting, however, that such a simple, yet powerful concept isn’t defined within our own area of practice.

Edit: A few days after publishing this article I did find a definition of operational readiness in the context of emergency management.  The source is Title 6 (Domestic Security) of the US Code § 741 (National Preparedness System).  Title 6 is essentially the codification of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.  The definition provided therein is largely akin to the definition provided previous of  military derivation, but at least we have something linked directly to emergency management.  See https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/6.  

If we examine the definitions of each word, there is a bit of redundancy.  One of the definitions of the word operational (an adjective), provided by Merriam-Webster, states ‘ready for or in condition to undertake a desired function’.  A definition provided by the same source for readiness (a noun) states ‘ready for immediate use’.  (weren’t we always taught to not use the word we were defining in the definition?).  Anyhow, this doesn’t seem particularly helpful to us.

Let’s consider what our expectations are of operational readiness in the context of emergency management and homeland security.  Fundamentally (and reinforced by what we covered in the previous paragraph), both words, operational and readiness, imply an ability to perform within defined parameters at any time.  Readiness is often seen as a synonym of preparedness, although I would suggest that in this context, readiness is achieved through preparedness.  If we don’t have each of our POETE elements in order, our state of readiness is likely to be severely diminished.

The context of the term operational readiness generally focuses on a goal we want to achieve and maintain.  We want units, systems, and equipment (reasonably drawn from the militarily-derived definition) to perform in an emergency response to accomplish intended results.  I like to emphasize a difference from the military definition in that last part.  While we have expectations of resources to perform as they were designed to, in emergency management we do on occasion call upon resources (units, systems, and equipment) to perform, not necessarily as they were designed or originally intended, but in creative ways, either pre-planned or ad-hoc.  I think that our definition of operational readiness must leave room for innovation – which is application (and thus readiness) at a higher taxonomy level.

All that aside, I’m not intending to create a definition for the term here, but largely wanted to raise awareness of the lack of a definition within our own area of practice and provide some consideration for what we expect the term to mean through our regular usage.  There is certainly discussion that can be had on measuring operational readiness, which is a separate topic that I’ve largely explored (although not using that particular phrasing) through posts on preparedness and POETE assessments (see the previous link provided).

What thoughts do you have on operational readiness as a term and a concept? Have you come across a definition in emergency management or homeland security doctrine that I might have missed?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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