Contingency Planning

I’m going to wrap up 2020 by discussing contingency planning, which is a practice not seen often enough. Before I get started, I should contextualize my use of the term ‘contingency plan’. My general use of the term, at least in emergency management applications, is intended to refer to a plan which may be needed to address the disruption of current event management, incident response, or recovery operations. Essentially, it’s the emergency plan to use while dealing with an emergency, in the event that something bad occurs.

When might you need a contingency plan? Contingency plans should be developed for the kind of situations that have you looking over your shoulder or asking ‘what if…’. Weather events are often good examples, such as a response taking place during some very active tornado weather. You might be responding to the impacts of an earlier tornado, or something completely unrelated, but a tornado warning is in effect, meaning that one could materialize at any time. This could also be a response taking place in a low-lying area during a flash flood warning. We sometimes build contingency plans into our standard operating guidelines or procedures (SOPs/SOGs) by having back-up teams, such as rapid intervention teams (RITs) in the fire service, which are standing by to rescue firefighters in trouble during an interior firefighting operation. Assessing risks on an ongoing basis and developing contingency plans should be part of your incident management battle rhythm.

Where to start with contingency planning? Let’s fall back to the CPG 101 planning process. Yep, that works here, too. The first step is to build your planning team. Contingency planning is a responsibility of the Planning Section, but others need to be involved. Working from a traditional ICS structure, I’d certainly suggest involving Safety and Operations, at a minimum, but depending on circumstances, you may wish to expand this, such as considerations for failures in the supply chain (thus Logistics and Finance/Admin), which may be less of a life safety matter, but can heavily impact operational continuity.

With consideration to the Safety Officer, I’d argue that tactical safety is the primary focus of the Safety Officer; while things that can have much broader impact to the incident, while still a concern of the Safety Officer, may require more in-depth and coordinated planning, thus why I tag the Planning Section to lead contingency planning efforts. My experience has always had the Planning Section taking the lead in this. That said, your incident management organization may decide to assign this to the Safety Officer or an assistant Safety Officer. That’s totally fine in my book, so long as it’s being addressed.

Step two of the planning process is to understand the situation. Some of your risks might be really apparent, such as the tornado warning, but others may require a bit more assessment and discussion. If you need to dig deeper, or are looking at a potential need for a variety of contingency plans, I’d recommend using a risk assessment matrix to help assess the likelihood and impacts of the risks you are examining. Here’s an example of a risk assessment matrix from the United States Marine Corps. Sadly, the risk assessment matrix is not yet a common tool in our incident management doctrine and practices in the US, though I do see it referenced elsewhere. In looking at the tool, obviously those with higher probabilities and severity of impact are the priorities on which to focus. Be sure to consider cascading impacts! Keep in mind that this risk assessment, depending on the duration and kinetics of your response and the dynamics of the environment, may need to be performed more than once throughout your operations. It should at least be considered every operational period.

Step three is to identify goals and objectives. Of course, in the broadest sense, our operational priority is always life safety, but we need to refine this a bit based on the specific hazard we are planning for. Second to life safety, we should also be considering operational continuity, ensuring that we can return to current operations with the least disruption possible OR be able to immediately respond to emergent needs created by the hazard in the event of the hazard creating a more kinetic environment. Your plan may also need to address impacts to the public at large (essentially anyone not part of your incident management organization). Depending on your operational scope and the area of responsibility, this may actually exceed the capacity and mandate of your incident management organization. You will need to determine how to ‘right size’ the scope of your planning efforts. This is perhaps a good opportunity to consult the local emergency manager. Don’t lose focus, though. The contingency plan is not intended to save the world. Remember, responder safety is our number one priority.

Step four is developing the plan. This is largely an outline of the essential elements. There are a number of components to consider for your plan. First, with consideration of cascading impacts, we should identify what aspects of the hazard we can mitigate and how. If there are hasty mitigation steps we can take, those may help limit the risk to life, resources, and operations. Next, consider your concept of operations for the life safety aspect of this plan. As with any other emergency operations type of plan, we need to maintain situational awareness and have protocols for notification and warning. Using the tornado warning (during an active response) as an example, who is responsible for maintaining a watchful eye on the skies and keeping tabs on dynamic weather products? If they see something of concern, who do they notify and how? Is there an emergency radio frequency that everyone’s radio will automatically go to if used? Perhaps three blasts of an air horn? Identify what will work for your operating environment. Keep in mind that if the matter is of urgent life safety, you want to minimize the number of steps and the amount of time taken between awareness and notification to responders. Next, upon notification, what is the emergency action plan – i.e., what needs to take place? Evacuation? Shelter in place? Some other action? A great reference for this from the wildfire incident management community is Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES), which is part of their incident safety analysis.

What happens after those protective actions? Ideally some kind of status check-in of the impacted personnel for accountability and continued situational awareness. Who is responsible for communicating that and to whom is it communicated? Is it wise to have some sort of rescue team standing by incase anyone is in trouble? If so, what resources need to be tasked to it, what is its organization, and what are their operating protocols? Can you reasonably keep the rescue team out of harm’s way to help ensure continuity of their capability?

You may also have a continuity of operations (COOP) aspect to this plan, to address how the incident management organization will minimize down time, restore prior operations, and possibly even identify alternate methods of operations. Depending on the hazard, a reassessment of the operation may need to take place to see if objectives will change to address a new situation created by impacts from this secondary incident.

Consider the current operational environment that every jurisdiction is facing at this moment. Jurisdictions, EOCs, and others should certainly have a contingency plan in place right now that addresses things like potential Coronavirus exposures, symptomatic personnel, and personnel that test positive. Many have been dealing with it, but do they have their protocols in writing? Most do not. In New York State, all public employers are now required to develop a plan to address these and other factors for public health emergencies.

Step 5 is plan preparation, review, and approval. This is the actual writing of the plan. Of course, you are in the middle of an incident, and it’s likely that the contingency(ies) you are planning for is breathing down your neck. Depending on how much haste is needed, your plan might be a few bullet points, or it could be a few pages long with more detail. Obviously do whatever is appropriate. Have the planning team members review the plan to ensure that it addresses all critical points and accurately reflects the necessary steps. Have you identified what will trigger the plan? Who is responsible for monitoring the situation? Who is responsible or activating the plan? How will they activate it and notify others? What are the responsibilities of others once they are notified?  Once you and the planning team are satisfied that you’ve addressed all the important points, the plan should be forwarded to the appropriate authority for approval, such as the incident commander, EOC manager, agency administrator, etc.

I’ll also note here that if you have multiple threats and/or hazards for which you are developing contingency plans, try to keep your contingency operations as similar as possible. The more complexity you have, especially to deal with different hazards, the more problems can occur during implementation. For example, your means and methods for notifying personnel of a tornado and a flash flood can likely be the same if their protective actions are also the same.

Lastly, step 6 is implementation of the plan. This is where someone should be working on any mitigation actions that you identified and personnel should be briefed on the plan, so they know what they are responsible for and what they need to do, when, and how.

It seems like a long process, but it can be done in a few minutes for urgent hazards. Some contingency plans may certainly be longer and more complex, especially if you are preparing for something that has a lower risk factor or something that isn’t yet a hazard, like a distant weather front. Several years back, I was part of the overhead team for a state-wide months-long debris removal initiative in the aftermath of a late season hurricane. As operations went on, we eventually entered the next hurricane season, and with that we identified the threat of future tropical storms to our area of operations (an entire state) and the operations we were responsible for. We needed to identify who and how systems would be monitored, trigger points for activation of the plan, and how to communicate emergency actions to several debris removal and debris monitoring contractors. We had time leading into hurricane season and were able to develop a well-crafted plan to meet this need. Fortunately, we didn’t have to use it.

Have you written contingency plans for incidents and events? What lessons have you learned from contingency planning?

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As a final bit on 2020, we are all certainly happy to see it pass. Keep in mind that while the new year offers a mental benchmark, we still have months ahead of us continuing to manage the consequences of the pandemic and our response to it. We have learned a lot of lessons from this response, which every organization should be capturing, if you haven’t already. As we go into the new year, resolve to do something meaningful with those lessons learned. Don’t just let them languish in yet another after-action report. Implement those corrective actions!

Stay safe.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

3 thoughts on “Contingency Planning

  1. Thank you for these helpful thoughts and information. Have you ever used the new IASC guidelines for developing emergency preparedness and response plans?

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