Operational Readiness in Emergency Management

Back in 2017 I wrote a piece on defining operational readiness.  It’s a topic, which, after some recent discussion with a colleague, I think bears revisiting and expanding upon.  Specifically, how we apply it in emergency management, or not.  Readiness is really a final comprehensive perspective of preparedness.  That is, once you have reached a certain level of preparedness, you can be ready, but being prepared doesn’t necessarily make you ready.  Preparedness is generally perceived as an ongoing process, though a state of readiness is typically a snapshot in time.

It struck me that the military tends to have more of a focus on readiness, while emergency management has a focus on preparedness.  While you will find both concepts within the doctrine of emergency management and military, the actual applications are considerably skewed.  After my discussion, I began to wonder why there this difference exists and what we can learn from it.

Having worked a considerable amount with various National Guard elements, I’ve come to highly respect their processes and their endeavor for readiness.  Not that we don’t have similar rigor in emergency management, but the focus seems to be more on the processes of preparedness rather than a state of operational readiness.  Sometimes the differences are so subtle that I have to sit back and think them through, but they are certainly there, and they are meaningful.  Given the military’s focus on operational readiness, they serve as a good source of information, though it needs to be properly filtered for application to emergency management.

As I’ve applied more thought to this, I’ve assembled a refined definition of readiness as it applies to emergency management, that being:

[Readiness is the nexus of benchmark outcomes of preparedness matched with the needs of a specific kind and type of response. A state of operational readiness is achieved when all applicable preparedness benchmarks are met and the organization is willing and able to adequately leverage the resulting capabilities against a corresponding threat or hazard.]

I’ve put together a graphic I think reasonably represents this relationship below.  Readiness is represented by a cloud because, as I explore further in this writing, it is itself rather amorphic and complex.


To explain the components of my definition…  Readiness comes from a culmination of outcomes from preparedness activities, but only when each of these outcomes achieves a specific benchmark state.  The achievement of benchmarked preparedness activities define a measure of capability.  These capabilities are associated with a specific threat(s) or hazard(s).  As such, that state of readiness is only applicable to a specific kind (threat or hazard) and type (size and complexity) incident.  To help illustrate my points, here are a couple of examples using field response scenarios:

We can assume that a volunteer fire department is prepared to handle a room and contents fire.  They should have all the elements needed to do so, and in fact, these elements have standards (benchmarks) defined by the NFPA and state fire marshals.  Does this mean they have achieved readiness?  Hopefully yes, but perhaps not.  Given the rather extensive crisis of low membership in volunteer fire departments, the department in question may not have adequate staff to respond to this fire if it occurs, for example, in the middle of a week day.  This gives them a measure of degraded, or even negligible readiness.

Similarly, if we take the same fire department, having accomplished the benchmarks of preparedness for response to a room and contents fire, and even given adequate staff to do so, they may not have a state of readiness to fully address a hazardous materials incident.  While many of the elements of preparedness apply to both types of incidents, there are some critical differences which they would have to overcome to establish a state of readiness for a different type of incident.  Likewise, we could revert back to the room and contents fire and make it bigger – say a fully involved structure fire. While the department might have operational readiness to address the room and contents fire, they may not have the operational readiness to address a structure fire.

I think it’s fair to say that we can be prepared for something without having operational readiness for it.  Years ago, when there was a planetary ‘near miss’ by a meteor, a news outlet contacted our state OEM PIO.  They asked if we had a plan for a meteor strike.  The PIO acknowledged that we didn’t have a plan specific to that, but we did have a comprehensive emergency management plan, through which, and supported by various functional annexes, we were prepared to respond to such an incident and its effects should it occur.  Was the PIO wrong?  Not at all.  Assuming the other elements of preparedness were reasonably in place (and they were), it would be fair to say we were generally ‘prepared for anything’.  Were we ready, however?  Absolutely not.  The operational readiness needs for such an extraordinary, high impact incident are near-impossible to achieve.

When we examine this, it’s important to identify that a state of readiness can wax and wane, based on our ability to apply the identified preparedness measures to the incident in question. Considering the first example of the fire department and the room and contents fire, the department has a state of operational readiness when, as included in the definition I gave, all the preparedness benchmarks are met and they are willing and able to adequately leverage the resulting capabilities against a corresponding threat or hazard.  Changes in capability and/or the willingness or ability to apply those capabilities will result in degradation of readiness.  Depending on the factor in question, it may fully disqualify their readiness, or it may decrease their readiness by some measure.

So why is readiness important?  Readiness is the green light.  If we accomplish a state of operational readiness, we increase our chances of success in addressing the threat or hazard in question.  If we haven’t achieved readiness, we still can obviously be successful, but that success may come at a greater cost, longer period of time, and/or increased error.

How do we achieve readiness?  The current approach we have in emergency management certainly isn’t enough.  While some efforts may culminate in operational readiness, there is, as a whole, a significant lack of focus on operational readiness.  This seems to largely be a cultural issue to overcome.  In general, we seem to have the attitude that preparedness equates to readiness, and that preparedness itself is an end state. Even though we intuitively, and doctrinally, know that preparedness is a cycle, we seem to take comfort in ‘completing’ certain tasks among the preparedness elements – planning, organizing, equipping, training, exercises, and improvement – and then assuming readiness.  Readiness itself is actually the end state, though it is a dynamic end state; one that we can easily lose and must constantly strive to maintain.  To accomplish and maintain operational readiness, it is imperative that we aggressively and rigorously pursue activity in each of the elements of preparedness.  We must also continually monitor our ability to execute the capabilities we are preparing.  That ability, ultimately, is our measure of readiness.

The scale and unit of measuring readiness is something I’m not exploring in depth here (it really warrants its own deliberate effort), but expect to revisit in the future.  I surmise that the factors may be different based upon the various capabilities, and types and kinds of threats/hazards we are trying to address.  We need to examine capability requirements at a granular (task) level to truly assess our current state of readiness and identify what we need to address to increase our readiness.  I also assume that there is a somewhat intangible factor to readiness, one that likely revolves around the human factor. Things like leadership, decision-making, confidence, and ability to improvise. The measure of readiness may also involve certain external factors, such as weather.  The measurement of readiness certainly is complex and involves numerous factors.

I do know that practice is a significant factor in operational readiness.  Earlier I mentioned my experience with the National Guard.  Much of that revolves around exercises, which is one of the best (though not the only) measures of readiness.  Operational military units seem to constantly exercise.  Sometimes small scale, sometimes large.  They exercise different aspects, different scenarios, and different approaches.  It’s the regular repetition that builds competence and confidence, along with identifying shortfalls within the capability such as planning gaps, equipment failures, and the need to anticipate and prepare for certain contingencies.  While we exercise a fair amount in emergency management, we still don’t exercise enough.  I see a lot of people in emergency management leadership develop a complacency and virtually declare that ‘close enough is enough’.  It’s absolutely not enough to exercise a plan or capability once a year, which is something we often see (and often at best).

Preparedness is not something we achieve, it’s something we do; but through it we strive to achieve and maintain readiness.

It’s interesting to note that at the level of federal doctrine, we have a National Preparedness Goal.  We need to recognize that preparedness isn’t the goal – Readiness is.  A possible starting point for change would be the assembly of a blue-ribbon panel, likely by FEMA, to explore this topic and provide recommendations on a unified way ahead for emergency management to recognize the need for operational readiness, including purposeful changes in doctrine and culture to emphasize this desired end state.  We need a solid definition, means of measurement, guidelines for implementation, and an identification of the barriers to success with recommendations on how to overcome them (yep, I already know money and staff are the big ones).

I hope I’ve given some food for thought in regard to readiness.  The simple act of writing this and the bit of associated reading and thinking I’ve done on the topic certainly has me thinking about things differently.  As always, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on operational readiness, what it means to you, and what we can do to achieve it.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®




Operational Readiness – What is It?

A recent project I’ve been working on references ‘operational readiness’ as a key element of the training course.  We all know what operational readiness is, right?  We use the term all the time.  Surely, we must be able to find it defined in some key doctrine of FEMA.  Surprisingly not (and please, don’t call me Shirly).

Ah the internet… you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  Searches for the definition of operational readiness reveal two different concepts.  The first is a corporate perspective on operational readiness, which focuses on an organization’s ability to do what it is supposed to do on a daily basis.  This definition also seems to be adopted by hospitals.  While tangential, the focus on daily operations isn’t really what we are looking at relative to emergency management.  The second is of military derivation.  Drawn akin to combat readiness, the definition speaks to the capability of a unit, system, or equipment to perform the function for which it was designed.  Yes, this gets a lot closer; such as operational readiness of an EOC to perform as intended when it is activated.  I find it interesting, however, that such a simple, yet powerful concept isn’t defined within our own area of practice.

Edit: A few days after publishing this article I did find a definition of operational readiness in the context of emergency management.  The source is Title 6 (Domestic Security) of the US Code § 741 (National Preparedness System).  Title 6 is essentially the codification of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.  The definition provided therein is largely akin to the definition provided previous of  military derivation, but at least we have something linked directly to emergency management.  See https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/6.  

If we examine the definitions of each word, there is a bit of redundancy.  One of the definitions of the word operational (an adjective), provided by Merriam-Webster, states ‘ready for or in condition to undertake a desired function’.  A definition provided by the same source for readiness (a noun) states ‘ready for immediate use’.  (weren’t we always taught to not use the word we were defining in the definition?).  Anyhow, this doesn’t seem particularly helpful to us.

Let’s consider what our expectations are of operational readiness in the context of emergency management and homeland security.  Fundamentally (and reinforced by what we covered in the previous paragraph), both words, operational and readiness, imply an ability to perform within defined parameters at any time.  Readiness is often seen as a synonym of preparedness, although I would suggest that in this context, readiness is achieved through preparedness.  If we don’t have each of our POETE elements in order, our state of readiness is likely to be severely diminished.

The context of the term operational readiness generally focuses on a goal we want to achieve and maintain.  We want units, systems, and equipment (reasonably drawn from the militarily-derived definition) to perform in an emergency response to accomplish intended results.  I like to emphasize a difference from the military definition in that last part.  While we have expectations of resources to perform as they were designed to, in emergency management we do on occasion call upon resources (units, systems, and equipment) to perform, not necessarily as they were designed or originally intended, but in creative ways, either pre-planned or ad-hoc.  I think that our definition of operational readiness must leave room for innovation – which is application (and thus readiness) at a higher taxonomy level.

All that aside, I’m not intending to create a definition for the term here, but largely wanted to raise awareness of the lack of a definition within our own area of practice and provide some consideration for what we expect the term to mean through our regular usage.  There is certainly discussion that can be had on measuring operational readiness, which is a separate topic that I’ve largely explored (although not using that particular phrasing) through posts on preparedness and POETE assessments (see the previous link provided).

What thoughts do you have on operational readiness as a term and a concept? Have you come across a definition in emergency management or homeland security doctrine that I might have missed?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC