Last night I spent some time reviewing the Comprehensive Emergency Management and Continuity of Operations Plan (which should not be combined into one document) for a small town. Having reviewed more plans from within the State of New York than I can count, it was readily obvious that a state-provided template was (mis)used in the making of this plan. The end result: a poorly written plan that can’t be operationalized.
First off, I must say that there is nothing wrong with the template that was used. This template has been provided and is regularly updated by the Planning staff of the State’s Office of Emergency Management. Good templates help to ensure consistent formats are applied and all baseline legal and necessary content is included. There are many planning templates out there across the nation and globally for emergency plans. Some are good, many are not so good. The closest I tend to get to a template is using it as a reference. I generally see the use of templates akin to a Jean-Claude van Damme movie: you think it’s a good idea at first, you soon discover that you don’t really like it but for some reason can’t leave it, and in the end you are left wondering what really happened.
One must keep in mind when using a planning template that one size does not fit all… actually one size doesn’t fit anyone. While a template, as stated earlier, will provide you with a format and essential content, they don’t provide YOUR detailed information. If you simply use the template the way most people (wrongly) do, you are essentially doing the Mad Libs version of emergency planning by plugging in titles and locations where it tells you to. But where does this get you? Is the plan ‘customized’ simply because you filled in the blanks with your information? Of course not. The plan needs to make sense. The easiest way to determine if it makes sense or not is to read it. A good plan should provide a strategic-level narrative of how your company, jurisdiction, or organization will respond to and manage the impacts of a disaster. Who is in charge, and of what? What does the organization look like? What priorities must be addressed?
Templates really should be viewed as guidance documents – this will help prevent most user errors. Plans address needs – so a good needs assessment (threats and hazards) up front will help identify the content of the plan. Don’t forget to read the plan while you are writing it to make sure that it makes sense. Consider how it will be used and by whom. Do we write emergency plans just to fulfill a legal requirement or do we write them so we can use them???