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

DANGER: Templates in use

Timothy Riecker

Sorry… I thought this image was really funny!

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???