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Having a Plan is not Planning

EMA Emergency Management chiclet

by Jim Sharp

I’ll bet you have an emergency operations plan. Considering the nature of this publication, its contributors, and its readership, that bet is as close to a sure thing as I’ll ever get. Your plan is undoubtedly a good plan; perhaps even a great plan. You may have put your plan into effect at some point, either during an exercise or as part of a real-world event, and so have proved its value. Those of you who have been in the emergency management profession for a while might recall the days when the plan itself was the objective. Once the plan was “complete,” the planner’s job was essentially done. And those plans were show-pieces. The highlight of an emergency planner’s day occurred when someone walked into his or her office and asked to see THE PLAN. “Really?” the emergency manager would reply, “You want to see THE PLAN? Absolutely!” THE PLAN would then be ceremoniously brought forth; large binders full of slickly-produced photographs, graphs, maps, charts, and spreadsheets. THE PLAN existed, and we were therefore prepared – or so went the thinking of the time.

But “having a plan” and the actual function of planning are not synonymous.

In the context of the Incident Command System, the term “planning” usually refers to the planning process: What are our incident objectives? What tactics should we use to accomplish those objectives? What resources will we need? Who will accomplish the objectives, and within what time frame? All of that is absolutely necessary, but it is also analogous to our attempting to impose our will on the incident. What would we like to accomplish? What would we like to have happen? That’s understandable – and necessary - it’s how we bring order out of chaos. Yet we often seem so invested in deciding on what we’d like to see happen, and how we’d like to make it happen, that we often lose sight of the fact that some things are just beyond our control. Along with asking what we’d like to have happen, we should be asking what might happen next. What are the consequences of our actions? What happens once we accomplish an objective, and conversely, what happens if we don’t? How well can we, if not predict, then at least foresee cascading events?

For example, we may list as an incident objective, “Notify all residents of the Green Valley Subdivision to evacuate their homes not later than 1600 hours, 11/01/2017.” That seems straightforward on the surface, but it’s not that simple. What happens once we make those notifications, or what happens if we don’t? Let’s say we accomplish that objective – our notifications have been made. We’ve told people to get out. Have we given them any directions regarding where they should go, what evacuation route(s) to use, or how long they might be out of their homes? If we have not done those things, we may have simply shifted the location of our victims from their neighborhoods to somewhere else.

Conversely, let’s say we did not accomplish that objective. Why? Did people not receive our notification? Did they receive but chose to ignore our notification? Did they not understand what we were asking them to do? Those are questions – serious questions – for the after-action report, but in the heat of the moment the “why” doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we have not completed our objective and there are people in harm’s way. Their inability or unwillingness to do what we needed them to do does not absolve us of our responsibility. Nor can we just push it off until the next operational period, so what happens next? How will they communicate a need, or how will we communicate an evolving threat? What resources might we need for eventual rescue operations?

Planning is not guesswork. Planning should be data-driven. When you consider the amount of raw historical data and forecasting tools available today, planning must be data-driven. Flooding is something many jurisdictions experiences, so we’ll use that for an example. You have a record of previous flood events and the responses to those events. Within your jurisdiction’s experience you know where the levees are, how high they are, where they are most likely to be overtopped, what river levels result in overtopping, and what areas flood once overtopping has occurred. But you’ve (fortunately) never had a levee fail, so how should you plan for that?

First and foremost, what are the chances of a levee failure? You would need to know when your levees were constructed, what their estimated lifespans were at that time, and whether or not the levees have been brought closer to potential failure due to the floods they have withstood. How many times can that levee be exposed to the river in major flood stage and maintain its structural integrity? If, each time the river reaches major flood stage, the levee is brought a little bit closer to failure, how many of those events can the levee tolerate? What about flow rates? In the event of a levee breach, will the flood plain behind it be inundated at the same rate as it would if the levee were overtopped? Will it flood faster? How much faster, and what effect will this have on public information, evacuation, etc.?

Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) is a continuous process. Therefor the planning cycle, exemplified by the ubiquitous “Planning P” flow-chart diagram hanging in many an EOC, should exist throughout the day-to-day functioning of your agency or department. Just as objectives and circumstances change as your incident evolves, objectives and circumstances are constantly evolving within the communities we serve. Planning is on-going and flexible – and inclusive; inclusive of the agencies who will be involved in operations and inclusive of all aspects of your community. Will people behave the way you expect them to behave, or follow your instructions during an emergency or disaster? Do they have access to the technology you assume they have? Ask them.

First responders, when we arrive on-scene at an incident, perform an initial size-up: What has happened? What resources might we need? Who and what is involved? Yet while incidents come and go, communities remain, and therefore we should always be “sizing up” the communities we serve, because those communities are not static. They grow. They change. They evolve. And as emergency managers we and our organizations must grow, must change, and must evolve with them in order to assure that we are continually mission ready. For example:

Population demographics change. Perhaps you’ve experienced an influx of young families with children. What might that mean? It might mean that the number of children in the schools within your jurisdiction is increasing, which equates to larger number of kids to worry about in the event of severe weather, a HazMat incident, an earthquake, etc. It may also mean a larger investment on your part in public education - getting out of the office and into those schools to make sure those kids (and the adults responsible for them) are aware of the hazards they may face and armed with the knowledge about how to respond.

Even if your population numbers remain relatively constant, population densities can change over time. A new assisted living facility may have been built, resulting in several hundred people now living in a part of town that used to be inhabited by just a few dozen. The construction of a large apartment complex might have the same effect.

Have you seen an increase in aging or retired people? Would you know? If so, they may not be as tech-savvy as is much of the population, so all your social media based warnings, advisories, and education may not be reaching them as effectively as you’d like – or believe. What about people who speak a primary language other than English? All your newspaper articles, interviews, tweets, posts, printed materials, and messages through automated systems don’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t understand the language - and no one should become a victim just because of a language barrier.

Maybe there has been a change in average household income. Again, would you know? One (or several) large employers may have closed, or downsized, and unemployment is rising. This is absolutely a planning consideration. Families experiencing difficulties providing the basic necessities will probably not have the resources to stock the 72-hour supply kit we’ve been pushing for more than a decade, and so may be wholly dependent upon resources other than their own. A family making every penny count may have just enough gas in the car to get back and forth to work until payday. If we’re instructing them to evacuate, will they? Can they?

In the end, your plan (and your planning) directly affect two groups of people. The first group are the people who will have to implement your plan. If they have not played a role in helping to develop that plan, or if the first time they’re seeing it in its final form is when you activate it, your outcome will not be as good as it could or should be. The second group consists of the people the plan will affect. Does it really help them? Does your plan actually improve, or at least stabilize, the situation in which they find themselves? As with implementation, if these people have not played a role in developing that plan, your outcome will likely be less than optimal.

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