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When Is a Disaster Plan Out of Date?

See my July IAEM Bulletin Disaster Zone column.

Planning is one of our major functions as emergency managers. Back when I had my staff track how they spent their time, planning was one of the significant blocks of time on the schedule. Back in the day I would sometimes present on how we spent our time.

Many people think emergency managers only respond to disasters. So what do you do the rest of the time? I would joke and tell people we would sit around with our feet up on the desk, waiting for the next disaster. That, of course, didn’t go over very well, so we renamed that portion of our time “planning.” You have to have some fun in what you do — right?

Here’s my July International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Disaster Zone column, which is about plans and planning.

When Is a Disaster Plan Out of Date?

There are all different types of plans that are required to be written. Comprehensive emergency management plans, continuity of operations plans, continuity of government plans, special hazard plans like dam plans, mitigation plans, recovery plans, pandemic plans, and on and on.

When and at what point do these plans become out of date? Is there a given rule as far as a specific date measurement that can be applied? Five years, three years? What should be the “rule of thumb” for a plan to be reviewed and updated? Is there written guidance in your state that prescribes when a plan must be reviewed and updated?

I don’t believe that a calendar or a clock should be used to establish when a plan is no longer viable. Rather, I believe that the measure that should be used to determine if a plan is out of date is either events prove it to be so, or when the people who worked on the development of the plan are no longer serving in the positions where they will be required to execute that plan.

Ask any emergency management agency if they have all the plans, I've rattle off above and the answer will be likely yes. But what makes a plan viable and current? Are the plans you can point to only “shelf art” that demonstrates that planning has taken place?

I expect some reading this now will say that a plan to be “current” needs to be exercised on a regular basis. Then of course, you have to define what “regular” means. Are we back to the calendar definition of time since last it was exercised?

One of the things I’ve observed is that emergency managers are good at drafting plans. We are also not bad at exercising some of the most important plans on the shelf. What we are terrible at is training people who will respond to a disaster, on the plans.

There is a planning technique I call the “Hoover Concept.” This is where one person, the planner, is tasked with developing a plan. That person basically locks themselves in a closet and writes the plan without any external input to the planning process. Therefore, they are “planning in a vacuum.” This the worst of all worlds and has likely produced many a three-ringed binder sitting as shelf art somewhere.

The best of all worlds is a planning process that engages all our partners, public, private, nonprofit in the planning process. There should be multiple versions of a plan produced “collectively.” It may be one person doing the majority of the keyboard work, but the input to the contents of the planning process comes from a wide variety of people and organizations.

Which brings me to the issue of, “When is a plan out of date?” I have come to believe that it is out of date when the majority of people engaged in writing the plan and providing input to the planning process have moved on. They have retired, gotten promoted, physically moved out of the area and are no longer serving in a position that has any relationship to the plan they contributed to.

What the above means is that people who will respond to a disaster have little to no knowledge of what the plan says and do not have a grasp of the concepts in the plan that were wrangled over in the formation of the plan as it exists.

There can be ways to overcome the above, which includes training people on the plan—rarely done! Or, discovering what is in the plan when people exercise the plan and then behave in ways inconsistent with the plan—since they don’t know what’s in it.

Like many people, I too have enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing a plan being competed. Then coordinated with others, and then promulgated by the chief elected official. Just remember that that stage of the planning process is just a milepost in being able to effectively employ the plan.

The viability of the plan will atrophy at the same rate as the people who helped with the plan development leave their positions and then all you have in reality is shelf art.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.