“No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”

This quote is credited to a German military strategist named Helmuth von Moltke, who served in several wars in the mid-1800s.  He had a certain theory of war, understanding that several strategies must be identified in planning, as it is difficult to ascertain exactly what will happen after first contact with the enemy.  What can we in emergency management learn from this?

First off, we should all recognize that it’s a rare occasion that anything goes according to plan.  That is a reality which we must identify as a foundation of our planning efforts.  These realities are part of our planning assumptions.  In essence, we simply don’t know exactly what will happen, when it will happen, where it will happen, or what the impacts will be.  We also can never be completely certain about the resources we will have available to us to respond.

Based on these planning assumptions, we should not count on our plans working from the moment an incident occurs.  Very simply, there is always some catch up that we need to account for.  Most importantly, we need to gain situational awareness to determine the scope and magnitude of the incident.  Once we have a reasonable degree of situational awareness (often we never know everything we would like to), we can start making decisions as to how we will respond.  These decisions should be guided by our plans.

Our initial response – what we do when we first run in approach, assess, and begin our initial life saving measures – may not have a solid plan, but the foundation of it does follow a certain algorithm.  Many disciplines, especially the traditional first response ones, often underscore the importance of a scene size up.  While this varies a bit based on our respective disciplines and the nature of the incident, the common themes involve seeking answers to the usual questions – who, what, where, when, why, and how.  As we begin to gain answers and process this information, we request and assign resources.  Our initial response is often unorganized.  We don’t know all there is to know about the incident.  We don’t have all of our resources readily available.  Mentally we are overwhelmed with information, trying to process everything quickly.  Eventually, though, we should begin to transition into our planned response, bringing order to the chaos.

While emergency and incident management isn’t war, there are certainly a number of parallels that can be drawn.  While von Moltke’s statement is often cited in our profession, devaluing the plans we create, I think the perspective of those who cite it is wrong.  We should not intend for our plans to be implemented immediately upon occurrence of an incident.  Rather than sticking a square peg into a round hole by trying to immediately apply our plans, our initial response should deliberately guide us to our planned response.

One of the chief elements of our plans is our organization – the incident command system (ICS) or incident management system (IMS).  Our ability to properly implement our plans is predicated on our ability to manage.  In a complex incident, one person cannot handle all the elements and tasks.  Delegation is necessary and ICS/IMS is the organizational model we should be following.  It is through our incident management organization that we manage resources, hopefully in accordance with a plan, which helps us to manage the incident.  The transition to managing the incident instead of responding to the incident can be a difficult one to make, especially for those not experienced with larger incidents.  Much time can be wasted resisting or struggling through this transition.  The transition, however, is a conscious and deliberate effort.  It won’t happen automatically.  It must be managed.

I’ve referenced in previous blog posts Cynthia Renaud’s paper “The Missing Piece of NIMS: Teaching Incident Commanders How to Function on the Edge of Chaos’.  Much of what I’m talking about in terms of managing our ICS/IMS through the transition of initial response into our planned response has also been cited by Chief Renaud.  The bottom line is that we can do better in our core ICS/IMS training to aid our incident managers in making this happen.  Much ICS training seems to have dropped the essential concept of scene size up/assessment, or simply glosses over it.  How can you make decisions about how to manage the incident if you don’t know what’s going on?  It’s also a rare occasion that ICS training has much mention of the planned response.  The focus is on incident action planning, which is certainly needed to guide us through tactical application, but courses often fail to indicate the indispensable reference of emergency plans when identifying objectives and strategies.  This is a clear disconnect in our preparedness efforts and must be fixed.  We can do better.

If you haven’t yet heard of my crusade to improve our current state of ICS training, there are a number of articles I would direct you toward.  Check them out here.

Of course I’m always happy to hear what you think – comments are welcome!

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness!

2 thoughts on ““No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”

  1. Nice post – first time I heard that quote.

    I like one by Mike Tyson as well – Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth. Not as poetic but it has the same feel.


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