Emergency Management: Coordinating a System of Systems

Emergency management, by nature, is at the nexus of a number of other practices and professions, focusing them on solving the problems of emergencies and disasters.  It’s like a Venn diagram, with many entities, including emergency management, having some overlapping interests and responsibilities, but each of them having an overlap in the center of the diagram, the place where coordination of emergency management resides. That’s what makes the profession of emergency management fairly complex – we are not only addressing needs inherent in our own profession, we are often times doing it through the application of the capabilities of others.  It’s like being the conductor of an orchestra or a show runner for a television show. It doesn’t necessarily put emergency management ‘in charge’, but they do become the coordination point for the capabilities needed.



This high degree of coordination depends on the functioning and often integration of a variety of systems.  What is a ‘system’?  Merriam-Webster offers that a system is a “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.”  Each agency and organization that participates in emergency management has its own systems.  I’d suggest that these broadly include policies, plans, procedures, and the people and technologies that facilitate them – and not just in response, but across all phases or mission areas.  Like the Venn diagram, many of these systems interact to (hopefully) facilitate emergency management.

There are systems we have in many nations that are used to facilitate components of emergency management, such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the Incident Command System (ICS) (or other incident management systems), and Multi-Agency Coordination Systems (MACS).  These systems have broad reach, working to provide some standardization and common ground through which we can manage incidents by coordinating multiple organizations and each of their systems.  As you can find indicated in the NIMS doctrine, though, NIMS (and the other systems mentioned) is not a plan.  While NIMS provides us with an operational model and some guidance, we need plans.

Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs) help us accomplish a coordination of systems for response, particularly when written to encompass all agencies and organizations, all hazards, and all capabilities.  Likewise, Hazard Mitigation Plans do the same for mitigation activities and priorities.  Many jurisdictions have smartly written disaster recovery plans to address matters post-response.  We also have training and exercise plans which help address some preparedness measures (although generally not well enough).  While each of these plans helps to coordinate a number of systems, themselves becoming systems of systems, we are still left with several plans which also need to be coordinated as we know from experience that the lines between these activities are, at best, grey and fuzzy (and not in the cuddly kitten kind of way).

The best approach to coordinating each of these plans is to create a higher level plan.  This would be a comprehensive emergency management plan (CEMP).  Those of you from New York State (and other areas) are familiar with this concept as it is required by law.  However, I’ve come to realize that how the law is often implemented simply doesn’t work. Most CEMPs I’ve seen try to create an operational plan (i.e. an EOP) within the CEMP, and do very little to actually address or coordinate other planning areas, such as the hazard mitigation plan, recovery plans, or preparedness plans.

To be successful, we MUST have each of those component plans in place to address the needs they set out to do so.  Otherwise, we simply don’t have plans that are implementation-ready at an operational level.  Still, there is a synchronicity that must be accomplished between these plans (for those of you who have experienced the awkward transition between response and recovery, you know why).  The CEMP should serve as an umbrella plan, identifying and coordinating the goals, capabilities, and resources of each of the component plans.  While a CEMP is generally not operational, it does help identify, mostly from a policy perspective, what planning components must come into play and when and how they interrelate to each other.  A CEMP should be the plan that all others are built from.


I’m curious about how many follow this model and the success (or difficulty) you have found with it.

As always, if you are looking for an experienced consulting firm to assist in preparing plans or any other preparedness activities, Emergency Preparedness Solutions is here to help!

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Creating Operational Emergency Plans

I was inspired for this article from an email I received earlier today from Lu Canton, a rather prolific emergency management consultant who has branched a bit into consulting consultants.  His email today (a forward from his blog) was about making emergency plans ‘real’.  His point was that many planners focus on checking the boxes of the list of planning requirements (those prescribed by law, regulation, etc.) rather than focusing on ensuring that you have a plan that can actually be implemented.  He conducted a webinar over a year ago which I had blogged about.

Planning requirements are important, as they largely stem from lessons learned from earlier incidents.  Granted, some of these requirements come about being translated through the eyes and ears of politicians whose staffers write the legislation and don’t understand emergency management at all – resulting in convoluted, contradictory, and poorly focused requirements.  Requirements lead to standards, helping to ensure that emergency managers are addressing the needs of their jurisdiction and best practices in the industry.  To help guide us through this, many higher level agencies provide templates.  I’ve pontificated in the past about the danger of templates, which have a place in reminding us of these requirements and help us with format and flow, but are often misused by individuals who simply seek to fill in the blank with the name of the jurisdiction and claim they have a finalized plan.

How do we avoid falling into this trap?  Follow the planning process!  FEMA’s Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 101 provides an overview of this process for creating emergency operations plans.  The two initial steps – forming a planning team and conducting a hazard analysis – are absolutely critical to the integrity of the process and ensuring a quality plan that meets the needs of your jurisdiction by addressing your threats and hazards.  Planning teams then need to consider these threats and hazards, make reasonable assumptions about their impacts (using a credible worst case scenario), then identify resources and strategies the jurisdiction will undertake to solve the problems they will face.

Does all this mean that a plan needs to be written from scratch?  Of course not!  In fact I strongly encourage people against it.  It’s practically guaranteed that you will forget a critical element.  One of the greatest things in the emergency management community is how we learn from each other.  You can reference templates you find, examine plans of your neighboring jurisdictions or jurisdictions similar to you, check out what is on LLIS.  There is plenty of great content you can examine and apply for your own use.  Just ensure that you carefully review and consider how it applies to you.

As you write the plan, think the details through.  This will help ensure that your plan is operational, not just meeting requirements.  Discuss with your planning team what is expected of each assisting and cooperating agency for each incident type.  Who will be in charge?  What resources will be necessary and where will you get them from?  What would the objectives be and what processes and decision points must be conducted to accomplish those objectives.  As you create the plan, map out these processes and ensure that you’ve considered the who, what, where, when, and how of each step in each process.  Recall that you are planning at a strategic level, not a tactical level.  Planning at a tactical level is nearly impossible with a pre-incident (aka ‘deliberate’) plan.  Tactics will be addressed during the actual response, hopefully referencing the EOP/CEMP you are writing now, and implemented through an incident action plan (IAP).

Remember, though, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  Your plan needs to be tested to ensure viability.  Use a table top exercise to test policy and decisions, then a functional exercise to test the implementation of the plan and higher level tactics.  Full scale exercises and drills can test the tactical implementation of plans.  Good evaluation of the exercises will lead to planning improvements.  For insight on the exercise process, you can check out my exercise management series of posts referenced here.

Remember: when it comes to planning – keep it real!

Tim Riecker

Are you Planning for All Hazards?


While I’m amazed by the number of jurisdictions and businesses that don’t have any emergency plans at all, I’m almost nearly amazed by those who only have isolated, single hazard plans. I’ve seen plenty of entities with only fire plans or flood plans.

How does this happen? Many small towns may ask their local fire chief to write an emergency plan for the town – this plan often times outlines the fire response structure but ignores other hazards. Sometimes this myopic view of planning takes place because of a focus or near panic over one particular hazard. These situations are generally not the fault of the people who wrote them. Just because someone is in public safety doesn’t mean they know every facet of it. Emergency planning is as much of a niche as pump operations in the fire service or special tactics in law enforcement. It requires a certain set of knowledge, skills, and experience to be successful and effective.

While it’s logical that a larger jurisdiction will have a more complex emergency plan than a smaller jurisdiction, there are still foundational elements that are common to all. Perhaps the most critical of these is the necessity to plan for all hazards. All hazards planning, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is a process beginning with the identification of the hazards which can impact a community, the impacts associated with each hazard (also known as vulnerability), and the probability of each hazard impacting the community (also known as risk). This is called a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA). By rating the vulnerability and risk factors for each hazard, a fairly simple algorithm can be used to provide an overall ranking for each hazard. Additional information, such as the availability of resources to respond to each hazard can be included as well.

Obviously there is a lot of context that needs to go into such an assessment, which is best conducted by a planning team to gain the most amount of input. Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 101, published by FEMA/DHS, provides much more information on the planning process as a whole. Historical disaster information should be referenced, but not to the extent of outweighing other inputs. Fluctuations over time in population, topography and development, and climate change are all leading to, as the investment world states it, historical information not necessarily being indicative of future performance.

Scientific data should also be examined, such as flood maps and wild fire risk. Communities should be sure to reference information on hazardous materials, which is required reporting by industry per the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (also known as SARA Title III). Once you have identified and ranked all the hazards, you know what ones to focus on. Perhaps it is the top 8, or maybe the top 12 that indicate a high enough vulnerability and/or high enough risk to incorporate into your planning efforts. Once these are identified, you continue through the CPG 101 planning process to create a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan incorporates all elements needed to address the responses to these incidents. Given that the majority of responses are largely similar, regardless of the hazard, one concept of operations will address this in the plan. Separate plans, written as annexes or appendices, then can be created for hazards with very specific issues, such as a pandemic, or to address specific functions, such as evacuation and sheltering.

Is it possible to anticipate every disaster that could possible impact your community? Can your community possibly predict being trampled by a giant man of marshmallow or having busses tossed aside by fire breathing dinosaurs from Japan? No? Then don’t spend much time on these things. Be realistic. That said, a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP) – which is a plan that considers all hazards, all resources, and the whole community – can even help account for hazards you didn’t identify. Do you think Chelyabinsk, Russia had a plan for meteor strikes? Not likely. However, consider how the components of a CEMP could have addressed critical areas of response: mass casualty, search and rescue, debris management, sheltering.

I recall a number of years ago, prior to the 2013 occurrence in Chelyabinsk, where there was a bit of media frenzy over near earth objects (NEOs) such as meteors. The public information officer (PIO) for the state’s emergency management agency received a call from a media outlet inquiring if the state had a plan for meteor strike. The PIO answered ‘yes’, qualifying that with a statement about the value of comprehensive planning. Was there a specific plan for meteor strikes? No. The likelihood is so slim that it’s not worth putting effort toward (although I’m sure someone has). Does the CEMP cover all the necessary response components? Absolutely.

Author’s note: Unfortunately I don’t recall where I got the picture from, so I’m unable to give proper credit. If anyone knows or claims it, I’ll gladly give credit or pull it down.