The 7 Deadly Sins of Emergency Management Planning

Emergency planning is the foundation of effective preparedness programming in local, state, and federal emergency management. Emergency managers spend the majority of their career in the preparedness phase of the emergency management cycle, which encompasses planning, training, exercise, resource readiness and community engagement. Effective emergency planning has techniques and best practices to help steer a jurisdiction to the best possible preparedness level before disaster. Below are 7 common planning missteps that can be avoided to ensure your emergency plans are in tip-top shape!

1). Photocopied Emergency Plans

In emergency management, we often avoid reinventing the wheel to help us get many jobs done while being short on staff. It is helpful to view and model emergency operations plans (EOP) or specified annex plans from jurisdictions who have already completed a plan. However, plans received from other jurisdictions should ALWAYS be edited to fit your unique community design!

There have been many occasions in which a jurisdiction took a plan from a neighbor and only changed the name of the jurisdiction in the finalized plan. On some occasions, jurisdictions have turned in EOPs or hazard mitigation plans for state and federal review WITH the other jurisdiction’s name STILL in the plan! Yikes! This defeats the purpose of having a community emergency response plan, which outlines exactly what stakeholders, resources, and actions will be taken based on unique hazards and community demographics.

By all means, use the framework, layout, or guidelines of an example plan. Sometimes we all need something to work off of if we are new to emergency planning or if our jurisdiction has never had the plan being written. But make sure you create a planning team of stakeholders and change the content to reflect unique agencies, personnel, resources, and residents. A photocopied plan will fail during response if it doesn’t match your community design.

2). Planning in a Silo

One of the most common planning mistakes is to write a plan alone without a planning committee, stakeholder review, or the external approval of those granted responsibilities in the plan. Similar to #1, the best type of planning is in a teamwork environment where issues and pitfalls can be brought up to a group and solved jointly, just like they would be during an emergency operations center (EOC) activation during a disaster. Also, emergency planners are often writing plans in which they do not have the subject matter expertise (SME) on the subject (hazardous materials, radiological, mass care, etc.). Bringing SMEs into the planning team allows for the complicated details to be brought up by the experts, and realistic solutions and expectations to be discovered.

Also just like above in #1, agencies and stakeholders should be aware of what responsibilities and actions are assigned to them. They should confirm that those responsibilities and actions are practical and realistic for them to do during a time of disaster. They should also approve and agree to providing those items. If not, the plan will not be able to be used during disaster response, and on the go solutions will be required for resources or actions. At the time of plan approval and adoption, all stakeholders should have a very clear understanding of their role and formally agree or have signed off on their part. This also ensures they will keep their word to those responsibilities come disaster time.

3). The “No Edits” Re-Adoption of a Plan

It is best practice (and sometimes a formal requirement) that plans are reviewed, rewritten, edited, and readopted every 3–5 years. This rule is in place for many reasons. For one, hazards and community design are constantly changing in our world. Response plans are not effective if they do not cover evolving modern hazards. Plans are also not effective if a community is changing, such as population growth/decline, resident demographics, local economics, and government funding and resources. Every few years, hazards must be reassessed and ranked through THIRAs and other hazard assessments. Resources and partnership agreements should also be reassessed. A huge issue in emergency planning is the re-approval of the plan to meet the 3–5 review requirement, but without ANY changes to the plan. Planning teams and committees were not created. No discussions took place. A plan is just being formally resigned without making the plan more ready. Plans should be updated after every exercise, EOC activation, and disaster as well. Exercises and responses test the plan in place and always find flaws, holes, or issues not thought of during planning. I am not aware of a perfect plan in emergency management. If you are — send it to me!

4). No Education of Plan Content with Partners Annually

To be able to act on a plan, all agencies and stakeholders mentioned with responsibilities in the plan must know their role. Outside of emergency management, our partners have busy jobs not related to disaster. It is important to take the time to hold seminars or disseminate short plan review materials to each agency on a regular basis for familiarity. This could look like a seminar or tabletop of the hurricane mass evacuation plan every May, or perhaps it is a review of the winter response plan every September. Reviewing in a group setting is also valued because it promotes partnership and teambuilding. It allows agencies to understand each other’s role to better coordinate and work together. Lastly, in person reviews allow for last minute plan clarification, correction, or explanation. Don’t let the plan sit on the shelf before you need it. Everyone should be familiar with the contents on an annual basis!

5). Lack of Plan-Driven Exercises After Plan Creation or Revision

Training and exercise programs go hand in hand with a multi-year planning cycle. After a plan is completed or revised, it is essential to conduct exercises based on the new plan to test the plan. It is always better to test an emergency plan during practice to find the mistakes, rather than during a real disaster. Therefore, a solid T/E program will revolve around what plans have been written and updated and will include objectives and scenarios geared towards the specific plan. Untested plans should be considered unfinished, despite plan adoption or approval by agencies and elected officials.

The same can be said after an activation or disaster. A thorough after action review should be conducted to capture the response missteps and required solutions. The AAR process should include comparing the response and the plan to find those required corrections or expansions. Plans should be modified post-disaster to ensure action items found in an AAR are completed.

6). Lack of Whole Community Planning

Similar to #1 and #2, effective emergency planning does not occur if an emergency planner is guessing how to best plan for a specific population group in the community. It is essential to engage the “Whole Community” and bring representatives of each community to the planning table for input and guidance. While we can read research and watch webinars on how to write more inclusive planning for populations of different race, religion, access and functional needs, language, and gender — nothing is better than speaking to each of these people through representation to better understand their challenges, concerns, and struggles. We do not know what it is like to walk in the shoes of every resident we serve. Giving them a voice in our processes will ensure we provide better disaster solutions that are more inclusive to the needs of the community.

7). Having No Paper Plan at All

Just like we preach to residents, taking the time to write an emergency plan down is important. Not only does it require more thought and work, but it also allows us to critically think and carefully plan better than a generalized mental plan would. The same is true for emergency plans in jurisdictions.

Many first response agencies and governments still operate on the “verbal handshake” or agreements and plans that have been done for years through verbal discussions and agreements. However, it is best to get the plan down on paper. For one, it makes the agreements a little more formal. It also allows for the acceptance of agreements in the plan to not be changed or forgotten without a formal process. Lastly, it is response liability evidence. Post-disaster, jurisdictions may be approached for documents that contain details on response decisions, initial preparedness, and other relevant items. Having a “plan in my head” does not look professional nor does it assist in showing the right or wrong of decision-making. It is vital to start recording plans and agreements on paper through formal processes that would stand in legal proceedings. Don’t forget — paper over thought bubble is also an item of continuity. If you vanished one day, no one else would know the plan inside your head!

What planning mishaps have you witnessed in emergency management planning? Share them with us so we can all learn how to be more effective planners. Planning is a cornerstone of emergency management. Response can’t even start without a plan.

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