A Few Thoughts on Emergency Planning

A conversation I find myself having fairly often is about people not using plans. It’s amazing that we invest so much time, money, and effort into building plans to never see them used, even if the opportunity presents itself. Why is this? I see four primary reasons:

1. People don’t know the plans exist. There is really no excuse for this one. I find it shameful and wasteful, especially if these people are identified as action agents within that plan. There was practically no point in even developing the plan no one knows about it and their respective roles identified within. Socialization of plans once they are developed is extremely important. Minimalist effort can be made by simply sending the plan or a link to the plan, but I consider this to be inadequate as many people will dismiss it, never get to reviewing it, or not understand what they are reading. Structured briefings are the best way to initially familiarize people with the plans and their roles. It helps to have refresher training as well as ensuring that new hires are similarly trained. This can even be done as a recorded presentation or webinar, though providing a contact for questions is important. Along with socializing, remember the importance of exercises, not only to validate plans but also to help people become more familiar with plans their respective roles by taking a scenario-drive dive into the content. Does everyone in your organization or jurisdiction who has a role in a plan know about it?

2. People don’t remember the plans exist. This one is a bit more forgivable, especially for newer plans, rarely implemented plans, or for personnel who are used to “doing things the way they’ve always been done”. Still, I find these excuses to be weak at best. People’s inability to remember the plans, even granting them the distraction of the incident itself, means that the plans haven’t been socialized and reinforced enough (see item 1 above).

3. People don’t care if the plans exist. This one has been underscored considerably over the past year related to pandemic plans, point of distribution (POD) plans, and other related plans. We’ve seen many senior leaders and elected officials be completely dismissive of established plans, choosing instead to “do it their way” in an effort to exert greater control or to ensure that their name is front and center. Since this one involves a lot of ego, particularly of senior leaders and elected officials, it can be difficult to work around. That said, this underscores the importance of ensuring that elected officials and newly appointed senior leaders are adequately briefed on the existing plans when they take office, and given confidence in the plans and the people identified to implement them, as well as the important roles of elected and appointed officials.

4. People think the plans are faulty. This option is the likely more well-intentioned version of #3, where people are intentionally not using the plan because they feel (maybe true, maybe not) the plan is inadequate and feel that “winging it” is the better option. Part of this lack of confidence may be unfamiliarity with and/or validation of the plans (see item 1 above re socialization and exercises). This could be a difference of opinion or even something intentionally obstructionist. Along with socialization and exercises, I’ll also add the value of including key people in the planning process. This gives them a voice at the table and allows their input to be heard and considered for development of the plan. While you can’t include everyone in the planning process, consider that the people you do choose to involve can serve as representatives or proxies for others, especially if they are well respected, giving less reason for others to push back.

A separate, but somewhat related topic (mostly to #4 above) is about people being often dismissive of or lacking confidence in plans by expressing the saying of “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”. This saying is credited to nineteenth century Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke. We see this saying tossed around quite a bit in various circles, including emergency management. While I understand and respect the intent of the phrase, I don’t think this necessarily holds true. I’ve seen great plans fail and mediocre plans be reasonably successful. Why? Circumstances dictate a lot of it. Implementation as well (this is the human factor). What we need to understand is that plans provide a starting point and hopefully some relevant guidance along the way. If a plan is so detailed and rigid, it is more likely to fail. So should our plans not be detailed? No, we should put as much detail as possible into our plans as these will help guide us in the midst of the incident, especially if certain activities are highly technical or process-oriented; but we also need to allow for flexibility. Consider a plan to be a highway. Highways have exits which take us off to different places, but they also have on-ramps to help us return. A deviation from a plan does not mean we throw the plan away, as we can always get back onto the plan, if it’s appropriate. It’s also smart to build in options, as possible, within our plans to help minimize deviations. 

How we develop plans is strongly related to step 2 of CPG-101, and that is “Understand the Situation”. Without an understanding of the situation, we can’t account for the various factors involved and may not account for the circumstances for which we must develop contingencies or options. And while this assessment is part of the planning process, as well as training, exercises, and other facets of preparedness, I feel that a wholistic assessment also has value. I’ve written a lot about the POETE preparedness elements and have begun advocating for APOETE, with the A standing for Assessment. This assessment is broad based to help guide our overall preparedness activity but is not a replacement for the element-specific assessments.

My last thought is about pandemic and POD plans. I’m curious about who has used their plans during this pandemic, and if not, why not? Of course many of the assumptions we used for pandemic planning weren’t realized in this pandemic. Does this mean our pandemic plans were faulty? Not entirely. Clearly there should have been many content areas that were still useful, and even though some of the assumptions we had didn’t apply to this pandemic, they may still hold true for future public health emergencies. We’ve also learned a lot about our response that needs to be considered for plan updates, and we need to weigh how much of the reality of political blundering we should account for in our plans. In the end, what I caution against is developing a pandemic plan that centers on the COVID-19 pandemic. Preparing for the last disaster doesn’t necessarily prepare us for the next one.

Those are some of my thoughts for the morning. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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