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Emergency Managers: Ditch the Plan and Write a Playbook

More important than having a plan ahead of an emergency situation is the process of planning itself. During events, emergency managers should leave room for improvisation and adjusting to conditions as they unfold.

Paramedics and fire fighters respond to car accident
Those who develop and write emergency management plans should be familiar with the Moltke the Elder quote, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” While there are several versions of it floating around, my personal favorite is attributed to Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Through an emergency management lens, these quotes allude to the unpredictable nature of tense situations and the near-certain presence of overlooked variables when even the most perfectly crafted plans get put to the test.

Echoed throughout the field of emergency management, one planning school of thought promotes a sentiment that plans are useless things on their own, but the process of planning is invaluable. In contrast to viewing a plan as a resource to be activated in a reactive sense, this school of thought suggests a plan should instead exist as a receipt — proof of commitment to a planning process and a demonstration of proactive critical thinking.

When plans take the form of step-by-step instructions for dealing with any particular scenario, it can be easy to poke holes in them or pepper them with unending “what if” situations that a plan might not account for. This contributes to a situation where many plans and standard operating procedures become either too general to be useful to the practitioner or too encumbered with details and caveats to be implemented when it counts.

In terms of products that provide structure and guidance to decision-makers during emergencies and disasters, a better alternative exists than the step-by-step plans our field is used to writing, reading and then discarding. The relationship between a plan and the process of preparing must account for the balance of fluidity and structure. Preparation efforts must account for real-time adjustment to dynamic circumstances.

In a 2006 article, James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf outlined this relationship, what they call the “Art of Emergency Management,” as a series of improvisations that occur under tight time constraints and with pressing demand for action outside the scope of a plan:

  • In reproductive improvisation, improvisers re-create an existing capacity;
  • In adaptive improvisation, they amend an existing capacity to match changing demands, producing a new system; and
  • In creative improvisation, they create an entirely new capacity in the absence of an existing model.

Support for the inclusion of fluidity and improvisation in Kendra and Wachtendorf’s assessment comes from jazz musicians: “Jazz musicians are not censured for their improvisations, nor are they criticized for not composing their scores in advance. They work to build their knowledge across a range of fields, and this knowledge provides the elements for each improvisational outcome.” With this context, we can appreciate works like John Coltrane’s improvisation on “Giant Steps” for the music itself, but also for the intense preparation required to develop the skills to deliver the improvised performance.

A similar comparison can be made in American football when a quarterback calls an “audible” and changes the play in the seconds before the ball is snapped. Particularly for the quarterbacks who are known for their audibles, the Tom Bradys, John Elways and Peyton Mannings, the audible represents an improvisation in the sense that it’s an on-the-spot departure of the plan, but these decisions are rarely viewed as impulsive, reckless or the product of failing to prepare. Instead, they’re often viewed as the result of extensive preparation, practice, and the rapid assessment and dissection of the immediate problem facing the quarterback’s orchestration of offensive effort.

Football offenses typically generate a playbook, and references to “the playbook” often refer to the entire scope of possible actions offensive decision-makers might consider. The audible call at the line of scrimmage often represents a shift from one play in the playbook to another — one that might offer a higher probability of success.

In essence, the audible works because offensive players study their playbook and the roles associated with the various plays. While teams may generate a general strategy to favor certain types of plays or exploit certain match-ups against their opponent, the “game plan” is never a pre-identified sequential list of plays to be used during a game. Instead, each play call is meant to achieve objectives in real time. At the end of a game, the actual sequence of plays called may or may not reflect the pre-game strategy, depending on the willingness of decision-makers to implement in-game adjustments.

Emergency managers somewhat replicate this through the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the development of objectives en route to publishing an incident action plan for an operational period. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of NIMS is its scalability and usefulness in a variety of scenarios and emergency situations. While NIMS may not be perfect for every situation or for every emergency management decision-maker, it’s a good example of how an operation can come together when a large group understands the same playbook.

With or without NIMS, the full extent of an emergency management playbook may take many factors into consideration without inherently adding them into a queue of sequential but unexecuted actions, à la standard operating procedure or situational instructions. Like the relationship between the various offensive players on a football team, a successful playbook should offer a variety of options in order to maximize the effectiveness of each player or stakeholder. As playbooks are developed and adjusted to meet the needs of a dynamic operating environment, the full capabilities of stakeholders must be considered so they include capabilities that may be beyond the normal expectations of a traditional role. Such consideration is effective preparation.

A contributing factor to successfully bridging the gap between preparation and action is the balance of structure and fluidity. A playbook approach can provide that balance while acknowledging no two incidents are the same. In order to get the most out of pre-incident preparation, it is crucial to understand the differences between a step-by-step instruction and a playbook. Where a plan provides the answer to the question, “What specific action do we take to respond to this problem?” a playbook asks us, “How might we approach this problem with the understanding we possess?”

The United States Coast Guard employs a similar approach when orchestrating individual search-and-rescue missions, understanding that the responses to individual hazards generally pass through the defined stages of Awareness, Initial Actions, Planning Considerations, Operational Considerations and Conclusion. If we take these stages as the foundation of a playbook approach to preparation in emergency management, they can be used to help organize response activities among and between partners in a manner that allows for more fluidity, adjustment and improvisation, considerably more so than a step-by-step approach to preparation and planning. Using this framework, a “play” should outline the roles and responsibilities of individual stakeholders without committing them to specific tasks.

This foundation should be interpreted with flexibility, as actions described may be performed simultaneously or in a different order to suit specific circumstances. In preparation for any hazard, consider the following when developing plays and a playbook of your own:

Awareness: How might any stakeholder receive the first information that a hazard is present? To what extent are the sensors and situational awareness methods maintained by the hazard management community capable of providing information about an acute hazard?

Initial Actions: Once any stakeholder receives an initial report about the presence of a hazard, some immediate action may be appropriate, pending the receipt and evaluation of initial information. After assessing a hazard’s disruptive potential and factoring in the urgency necessary to appropriately address the hazard, appropriate personnel, resources, and facilities should be notified and informed of the hazard.

Planning Considerations: Smart and effective planning of the response to a hazard is essential, particularly when aspects or the full scope of a hazard’s disruptive potential are unknown. Proper and informed planning is critical to the success of hazard mitigation and response. Safety concerns dictate that all participating facilities, agencies and stakeholders know what to expect from the others. This effort often requires a purposeful effort to break information out of organizational silos. How can rapid assessment drive operational adjustments?

Operational Considerations: Operations generally encompasses all activities that involve mitigating the impact of, responding to, and recovering from a hazard and its primary or cascading disruptions. Every effort must be taken by stakeholders to make the best possible decisions based on the collective understanding of the information available when a decision must be made. Deviations from the playbook or formal plan, when made proactively and when communicated to partners, must be acceptable and encouraged, when appropriate. Such deviations should look to replicate existing capacities, adapt existing capacities to manage unique needs, or create new capacities in the absence of an existing framework or best practice.

Conclusion: A situation will be deemed to have concluded when information is received that a hazard is no longer present. Following the conclusion of a situation, all information, paper materials, data and communications should be compiled and reviewed by stakeholders engaged in the response. The collection of accurate, detailed hazard management data upon conclusion of a situation is a crucial element to sustaining the improvement to these processes.

Individual plans, on their own, will never be as important or useful to the emergency manager as the overall process of planning. As counterintuitive as it might seem to suggest that “the plan” may not be the optimal medium to enact the full benefit of preparation, how seriously have we considered our options? A playbook approach to preparation provides necessary structure by giving due respect to constants and variables. Within that structure, individual plays allow for emergency managers to adapt to changing circumstances. The management of emergencies and disasters can be a dynamic and fluid business. It’s time for our planning efforts to reflect that.

As a former officer in the United States Coast Guard and Response Team Lead for the Pacific Disaster Center, Brad Milliken conducted search and rescue operations and responded to various emergencies and disasters in the Americas and Caribbean.