5 Key Qualities of Good Emergency Planning: Can We Plan A Disaster Response? If So, How?

One of the many vestiges of the recently departed decade was the conclusion that emergency plans had little value. Although it was not a new concept, this perspective came into particular vogue in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Pundits rolled out military quotations from von Moltke (“No plan survives first contact with the enemy”) to Eisenhower (“Plans are worthless; planning is everything”), while the Department of Homeland Security reflexively piled on numerous planning requirements for local and state agencies.

The fact that most of these mandated plans had no connection to hazard profile, vulnerability or local need (much like many of the required batch related to terrorism) simply amplified what for many was an underlying sense of futility and typified DHS’s lurching between terrorism and hurricanes at that time, not to mention seemingly proving the pundits’ point.

I’m actually not a big fan of most plans, especially the ones so long that they make one wax nostalgic for a “short” Russian novel. The general skepticism toward plans has ample justification, but it has some serious flaws as well, so it’s worth taking a little time to examine where the true problems lie.

Fantasy versus function
In his book Mission Improbable, Lee Clarke used the term “fantasy documents” to discuss the societal roles that emergency plans have had. By providing the illusory impression of control and safety, and at least an implicit guarantee of a post-catastrophe return to normalcy, such plans are meant to reassure us even though the assumptions on which they are based have no connection to reality.

Examples include many mass-evacuation plans (particularly those around nuclear plants) and the assumptions underlying much of our Civil Defense program during the Cold War.

There’s absolutely no question that effective planning is priceless, but it’s a false choice between an effective process and a functional product. Both serve useful purposes if done appropriately.

One of the biggest differences between the two is that the process can be accomplished largely by showing up, whereas the product requires commitment toward creating something tangible. That’s an admitted oversimplification, because having the right representatives continue to show up to build the necessary trust and networks is in itself a demonstrable commitment of resources.

But the point is that there seem to be a lot fewer functional plans out there than there are networks. Trust and effective networks are indeed critical for realistic plans, but go only so far by themselves.

In addition, military plans are based on projecting the behavior of a sentient, adaptive opponent. Most civilian emergency management plans (based on hazards other than terrorism) address considerations related to inanimate “opponents.”

The response to Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall in Louisiana three years after Katrina, was widely acknowledged to have been effective. Florida’s responses to repeated storm hits in the summer of 2004 (and in other years) were effective, and the fact that this is unremarkable is itself noteworthy.

The coordinated response to the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August 2007 (a tragedy and a mass-casualty incident, but not a true disaster) was not only effective, it bore the fruit of years of planning, training and targeted grant acquisition in the absence of a “motivating” disaster.

Was all of this due to luck or improvisation? Both surely are involved in every successful response, and there are such things as no-win scenarios, regardless of how good a plan is. The mobilizations at every level of government for the H1N1 pandemic tested the plans that had been developed over the previous several years and demonstrated the importance of having such plans in place. They weren’t perfect (military aphorisms or not, there is no such thing as a perfect plan), but they did what plans are supposed to do: They kept decision-makers from having to make everything up as they went along, as well as from having to make all of the difficult decisions under crisis conditions. That is what plans are for.

Five key qualities
So what attributes give a plan extrinsic value?

Scope: Clearly define whether the plan stops at coordination or is focused on operations. Assess hazards non-ideologically and focus on how they can affect the organization’s ability to carry out its critical functions, which themselves should be defined.

Realism: Describe relevant capabilities that actually exist and identify gaps. Make realistic assumptions based on as much evidence as possible. For example, don’t assume that a major metro area can be evacuated based on daily commuting behavior, or that withholding information from the public will prevent panic and improve results. Solid assumptions do not in themselves make a plan, but crappy assumptions will absolutely break one — more than any other single factor.

Flexibility: Don’t try to list every capability or possible scenario (remember that Russian novel), but design the plan to provide a flexible, scalable response organization, identifying thresholds and mechanisms for activating or escalating the response.

Delineation: Clearly identify roles and responsibilities within the organization before, during and after major emergencies and disasters, including any special authorities requiring an internal or external declaration of emergency. Take the opportunity to lay out the organizational philosophy and priorities and ensure that the plan and associated procedures are consistent with them.

Maintenance: Keep the plan current and keep it relevant, which means testing and updating it based on exercise and actual incident results.

Committing to making the plan as useful as the planning is as much a statement of organizational values as it is prudent practice.

A good plan is really just another tool. It won’t make a response work by itself and will never have all of the answers, nor should it be seen to do so. A bad (or absent) plan may indeed be overcome by luck, skill, and improvisation, all of which are always necessary to some degree.

Making a plan an end in itself, for example, solely to meet compliance, to be able to point to a document to assuage the public, or to create an organizational sense of completion, is a good recipe for a worthless document and an inferior response.

In seeming response to the sentiments expressed earlier, the quote gallery offers the perspective of former FEMA Director James Lee Witt: “In a crisis, you do what you have to do, but it’s better to do what you planned to do.”

About the Author

Jeff Rubin, Ph.D., CEM, is the emergency manager for Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Tigard, Ore., which hosts a comprehensive hospital preparedness website. His opinions do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

This paper was originally published online in Homeland1 on March 18, 2010.