Emergency Planning: Foresight or Folly?

Anyone who has ever filled an admin role in emergency services or emergency management is familiar with the veritable binders of plans, procedures, and guidelines for obscure & unlikely events that exist in most organizations.

My own experience is that more often than not when one of those binders gets pulled off the shelf in the midst of an emergency, what is contained in those pages is usually not particularly helpful, and often gets ignored entirely.

It is remarkably unhelpful in that often in organizations I’ve worked for, the only people who’ve read those plans are the people who wrote them heavens knows when and the people responsible for updating them every x many years. If the operations personnel, the people on the ground doing the response, have never seen the organization’s plan, one might wonder what the purpose of having the plans at all is.

However, maybe the purpose of these plans was never to guide operations, but they served another purpose. Shedding light on this question, J. Anderson writes in the Journal of Homeland Security Affairs;

These are what Lee Clarke has called “fantasy documents,” that is, documents that do not actually guide operations, but rather serve as reassurances that the organization has taken the problem seriously and stands ready to deliver… Schemes of prediction and preparation fall short of reality. Reflecting on the response to Hurricane Sandy, FEMA Administrator Fugate wrote, “We still plan for what we are capable of doing. We still train and exercise for what we can manage. We must plan, train, and exercise even bigger to fracture the traditional mindset.[1]

In my current job, where I do in-house emergency planning for a private organization, I think about this a lot. What exactly is the purpose of these documents I’m writing? Do they serve an operational purpose? Are they primarily for a regulatory or legal compliance? Are they merely an insurance policy to point to amorphous plans when asked by stakeholders or the public how we will respond to one thing or another? Are they an exercise in thinking through contingencies? A receipt that we have certain data on file?

I should add, I don’t think any of those functions are prima facie illegitimate pursuits. Though I do think that those of us commissioning, writing, and approving plans should have a clearheaded approach to what we’re doing. As such, the normative and descriptive functions of our plans (what the plans or documents should do vs. what the plans or documents actually do) is a topic which deserves some examination and discussion.

So given that, what should a plan be? Should we be writing much more detailed plans, trying to address every possible contingency with careful step by step procedures? Or should our plans be walked back to be much more general heuristics guiding response?

Is it legitimate for a plan to have little operational value and primarily be an exercise in thinking about possible contingencies and taking them seriously? Or does a plan need to guide operations?

Should we abandon the ‘planning’ enterprise entirely and instead direct resources towards excising & training the field staff in hopes that with a highly trained & experienced staff the spontaneous response will be better than any plan a schmuck like me can write parked behind a computer for weeks on end could be?

I don’t have full answers, but I have some ideas that may illuminate the planning process, which I intend to share over the coming weeks in (hopefully) bite-sized chunks as I have time to write about them. I’m hoping that by sharing some of what I’ve been thinking about, I can get some input from others with different perspectives & experiences.

[1] https://www.hsaj.org/articles/10661

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