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Volume 31, Issue 1

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Beginning with Sept. 11, 2001, the premise that a disaster is “a low probability, high consequence event” has become redefined in reality as “a high probability, very high consequence event.”

Since 9-11, we have suffered a major electric northeast grid failure in August 2003; four catastrophic hurricanes during the 2004 hurricane season; a tsunami in December 2004; and hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma from August to October 2005.

These disasters combined with higher national security alert levels should prompt us to ask: “How can I protect against the frequency of these once seemingly more dispersed events?”

“How do I know if the disaster or emergency response plans that I am relying on to save my life are adequate?”
“How effective, robust, or viable is the emergency plan I am following?”

Recent performance of our federal, state, and corporate entities responsible for emergency response and public safety uncovered glaring deficiencies. Numerous errors, in-fighting, inefficiencies, and in some cases incompetence, were publicly brought to light. Avoiding the politics and the trap of the blame game, we need to determine:

  • Root causes behind the deficiencies
  • How to evaluate an emergency plan
  • How to identify the problems and shortcomings in an emergency plan
  • How to fix the gaps going forward.

As a veteran manager of computer disaster recovery for a large Florida corporation, I have observed what I believe works and what needs to be reviewed, revised and re-tooled.

I am suggesting some very specific criteria I believe can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of any disaster or emergency plan. While there may be other measures, effectiveness must rank high at the top. These criteria address the planning, content, and approach of the plans. The evaluation suggestions are without scientific or industry jargon and are based on my experience with emergency and response plans.
In order of importance, the plans should be judged in the areas of communications, proactivity, governance, training, and procedures.

Every disaster or emergency plan for the emergencies mentioned earlier has fallen short in this crucial area. Communications refers to any directive or instruction that affects or instructs:
1) The public
2) Inter-departmental and inter-agency procedure, contacts, and cooperation
3) Communiqué between local, state, federal, and corporate entities and then back out to the public
As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, there were no clear lines of communication among the federal, state and local governments. Responders, as well as the public, simply did not know what to do. Radio, TV, and Internet communication, due to power outages, were unavailable.
During the 2004 Sumatran tsunami, people were uneducated as to the dangers of the subsequent tidal wave surge. Additionally, there were not enough warning buoys to provide early warning. Many lives were needlessly lost.

The domino effect of the northeastern power grid was to some degree a failure of inadequate communication around the effects of initial failures that started in the midwest.

Communication failures and opportunities to cooperatively evaluate and share intelligence information during the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy have been publicized and documented.

All of the above led to a serious combination of inadequate public education and communication. Interagency cooperation among emergency providers was poor or non-existent. One sign of a poorly designed emergency plan is the intensification of turf wars and the inflexibility of agencies to collaborate due to rigid internal procedures. Plans must be written with provisions that enable them to communicate with and adapt to the skills and special expertise of other agencies during a combined effort. They should incorporate a section with some of the following characteristics:

  • Contact information for all primary offices and key responders: names, numbers, and addresses
  • All vendor or major suppliers that would be needed in support.
  • Secondary contacts if primaries are unavailable
  • News agency and public outlet channels for information, published before an emergency arises.
  • Emergency 800 numbers and radio stations, published beforehand.
  • Communication chain of command

An emergency response plan that does not have a section clearly stating all communication policies and practices should be considered incomplete.

One of the most devastating outcomes of public disaster response services is inaction when those in need, need action. People become desperate and lawless in survival mode without the assurance of personal security, civil order and the knowledge that help is on the way.
First responders and disaster relief services must be proactive. They must know when to act and how to quickly deliver. Waiting for the right invitation will always worsen an emergency and increase the likelihood of heightened casualties and damage.

Any emergency or disaster plan must have a clear set of executable actions. At the first level is an all-hazards plan providing the base actions for any specific scenario responses. At the next level, where possible and practical, are plans that account for specific scenarios that could occur. The specific scenarios are filtered by regional or geographical variances unique to those locales. These variances could include:

  • Weather
  • Topography
  • Events specific to locale (hurricane, ice, etc.)
  • Other unique features of the locale

Each plan describes the emergency, the first response action, and the roles and responsibilities of the response team in complete and detailed directives covering:

  • Pre-emergency preparations
  • Emergency declaration and actions
  • Post-emergency response
  • Steps for return to normalcy
  • A timeline that lays out the actions in the response plan.
  • Identifying alternative actions depending on predictability.

Note: Predictability, while sounding contradictory for an emergency, is the distinction, for example, between actions taken for a storm (where there may be some time to prepare immediately before the event) as opposed to a sudden terrorist attack or fire where there is no preparation possible before the event.

A plan lacking clear descriptions of any of these integrated components should be considered incomplete.

During a crisis, the emergency or disaster responders must have the authority to do their job. Other support entities, whether the normal primary responder or those enlisted for the event, must fall in behind the emergency response provider as ancillary supporting entities.

This governance/responder hierarchy must be established by policy and agreement before an emergency or disaster, not at the time of the event.
Local police, fire and rescue services are usually first responders in an emergency. They must be made aware and educated to relinquish authority to the emergency or disaster teams.

However, this must come with the assurance that the incoming emergency team knows what they are doing. This assurance can only come from preparation and collaboration that is built as part of the emergency plan preparation. The plan should describe how local services would work with the emergency teams as part of the larger emergency response effort.

The need for the agreement or the understanding of the statutory or mandatory governance policy beforehand is essential. It provides an opportunity to work through authority and jurisdictional issues among all parties.

These issues are barriers to cooperation that can cause infighting and chain-of command conflicts among the groups. The suggested collaboration will create confidence in the emergency response team. It provides an opportunity for local authorities to contribute their expertise in formulating part of the emergency plan and obtain their buy-in. The pre-emergency plan preparation effort strengthens the perception of competence and confidence in the emergency team and the entire process.

A disaster or emergency plan that does not have a section defining the policies, authority and governance between the emergency response team and the local first responders should be considered incomplete.

As noted earlier, emergency plans need to identify scenarios that could impact different local areas. The scenarios within the plan should contain recovery procedures, roles and responsibilities, salvage, security, relocation, and funding provisions. Most importantly, they must be practiced!
The plan components as defined under “proactivity” need to be fully exercised and regularly tested.

An emergency plan that is published and never, or infrequently practiced, is probably ineffective or useless.

If the public is required to convene or proceed to a specific location or follow any specific actions, they must be educated to do so. In many emergencies, pubic broadcast of information is available mainly through battery operated wireless radio. Many individuals may not have prepared well enough and do not have a battery operated radio or other wireless means. Communication of emergency locations and procedures must be planned beforehand. Public information should be disseminated via all channels available to the community: schools, churches, sporting events, licensing bureaus, supermarkets, home improvement stores, and any other outlet where the public congregates and could get the exposure to the necessary information.

Conducting mock emergencies and drills heighten awareness and sharpen response to the emergency situations. As ambitious as it may sound, the public must be involved in emergency drills so they can benefit from the experience gained by practicing emergency procedures. This can be achieved by information and instructions flashed on highway, road, and arena marquee signs that indicate evacuation routes, shelters and collection points for those impacted. Maps and route indicators published beforehand and circulated in newspapers and free pickup at supermarkets, for example, are also valuable.

I also believe it is time for public officials and those responsible for emergency plans to creatively consider certain shelters designated to allow harboring of pets along with their families. Huge problems have emerged after major storms and catastrophic events because no thinking has been applied to the inclusion of pets. Humane societies are deluged with abandoned animals from policies that exclude pets from emergency shelters. Also, many pet owners are reluctant to leave dangerous areas because they cannot take their pets, endangering themselves and potentially hampering emergency efforts by refusal to evacuate.

An emergency response plan that does not include an annual test that exercises the scenarios, nor delineate specific testing metrics to measure success, is not only incomplete, it is lulling the public into a false sense of security.

The inclusion of all components of an emergency plan into a well organized understandable set of instructions to include the above criteria is essential to the success of the emergency response effort.

An emergency plan is the crisis management tool and blueprint for any public or private entity charged with safeguarding the public or the entrusting of the assets of a corporation to enable business continuity.

This plan is both a “bottom-up” and “top-down” collection of guidelines, rules, and procedures. It must be clear enough for both the public and emergency participants to understand, ensuring a safe and successful recovery from the emergency. The plan must clearly demonstrate a timeline so all can see where the effort is going and whether it is on track.

The “bottom-up” component of the emergency plan are procedures and emergency actions (specific scenarios) contributed by the local responders as part of the collaborative effort recommended under “governance.” These draw on the expertise and practical know-how of those closest to the locale. These can be first responder actions for fire, hazardous materials, and other common emergencies as well as scenarios for emergencies common to the locale due to weather or geography, such as ice storms, and earthquakes.

The “top-down” guidelines, also an outcome of the collaboration, are components and resources developed by congressional and executive decree. These for creation of agencies and departments established for emergencies (Federal Emergency Management Agency), security (Dept. of Homeland Security), and nuclear regulations (NERC), to name a few. These bureaucracies are successful to the extent they can create an organization structure that recognizes a finer response breakdown by regions, states, and localities. They use and leverage federal taxpayer dollars. These large entities should act globally and serve locally. They must be able to handle both the large and the smallest emergency or disaster within their mandate to handle. They must help provide a shared partnership of federal, local, and citizen responsibility for the emergency plan and its outcome.

An often overlooked component of a complete emergency plan is the return to normal process. This section of the plan must include provision for the participation and commitment of all stakeholders in the restoration effort. Funds for rebuilding and retraining would be, in my opinion, a fundamental and powerful motivation for obtaining support from all government, private and citizen quarters.
In summary, determining a response plan’s effectiveness and completeness, it must:

  • Embody a clear organization
  • Identify roles and responsibilities
  • Clearly define the communication policy and mechanics
  • Be a proactive living document
  • Delineate the governance policies for all emergency participants
  • Include collaboration of all who implement and interact with the plan
  • Define the test and scenarios
  • Define metrics for measurement of success
  • Define annual testing schedule involving all participants
  • Create a strategy for pets at some shelters
  • Define strategy to return to normal.
  • Include funding and participation by all stakeholders.

Finally, I stress the need for leadership in creating and implementing any emergency plan. From its inception as a piece of legislation or disaster response plan, a clear and active leadership direction and presence needs to be in place. A comprehensive emergency plan is complex; addressing a global strategy while allowing for regional and local specialization. It takes leadership to negotiate the appropriate levels of governance and communication to instill confidence in those who implement or are served by it. Leadership helps ensure the emergency plan becomes part of the culture, merging the plan and participants into an integrated and successful whole. This results in an emergency response that makes the emergency seem less severe, is truly less lethal, and has more promise for a faster return to normalcy.

John R. Marino, CBCP, is a computer professional with more than 35 years of experience. His focused on disaster recovery, business continuity, and operational readiness for more than 10 years. The opinions expressed herein are his, and he is solely responsible for the accuracy and information contained in this article. To contact him, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Printed In Winter 2006