Tips & Tricks for Effective Disaster Planning

by Robert J. (Bob) Roller

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.  –Dwight D. Eisenhower

Everyone has a plan until they get pucnched in the mouth.  –Mike Tyson

One of the most critical yet least understood core emergency management capabilities is planning, which reduces the chaos present during a disaster. However, the emergency management community is awash in various planning systems, various types of plans, and confusing terminology that complicates the work. This often causes problems when emergency managers are tasked to lead new planning efforts, to update existing plans, and to adapt them to real-life emergencies. Eleven tips and tricks can help solve these problems.

Robert Roller headshotAt its most basic, effective disaster planning should be seen as a well-organized problem-solving activity with the plan serving as the document where the results of this activity are recorded. The points below are intended to help beginning and advanced planners alike skillfully manage both the development and revision/adaptation of those plans as conditions require.

  1. Know thyself. Disaster planners should focus on being professional problem solvers rather than creative writers. It can be both terrifying and liberating to recognize that planners are not supposed to know the answer to the problem at first glance. That is okay. Working through the process to gain situational awareness of the problem empowers planners to develop and recommend potential solutions. Deciding the answer before understanding the problem or considering alternative solutions is the emergency management version of “fire, ready, aim.”
  2. Define the problem. After accepting that planning is organized problem solving, it should be obvious that the problem cannot be solved until the problem itself is clearly identified. Being told to simply “write a plan” is troublesome because it is not possible to develop a clearly articulated solution without a clearly defined problem. The plan is simply the documented results of the planning process. Therefore, do not worry about the plan until the team works through the process. Instead, focus the early efforts on clearly identifying the problem that leadership actually wants solved. This also enables stakeholders to contribute exactly the right information to resolve that problem.
  3. Plan to plan. The time and resources available to develop disaster plans can vary from multiple years and millions of dollars to almost no time and almost no money, depending on the situation. Before the team starts working through the process, take time to plot major milestones to account for the time needed to complete each step, action, milestone, project, etc. If possible, ask the decision-maker who will ultimately approve the finished plan to approve this document as well. This step is particularly important for longer-term planning efforts where it is important to manage expectations regarding the speed of the planning process and to schedule the interim meetings needed to ensure the effort remains on track. If necessary, plan backward from the completion deadline to ensure the team has enough time to complete all the steps in the process. If it becomes obvious that there is not sufficient time to complete the plan in the time allotted, then talk to the decision maker regarding either reducing the tasks, extending the deadline, or providing more recourses. As is often the case, plans can be either fast, cheap, or good, but only two of these options can be selected.
  4. Get a hammer. Busy schedules, competing requirements, and being tasked with other important work are some of the barriers that can distract critical stakeholders who need to support the effort. If a planner is going to get the right people in the room (or Zoom meeting) and keep them long enough to get the work accomplished, then they need a tool of coercion. A simple memo with the task (e.g., problem) clearly stated along with a hard deadline and clearly defined lead and support agencies is the most powerful tool they can have to get people to the planning table and to keep them there. This tasking is a “policy hammer” that can be used to coerce and cajole others to support this important work. The size and effectiveness of this hammer is also proportionate to the seniority of the official who signs the memo.
  5. Include everyone who might otherwise impede the work. The number of people who actively contribute to a planning effort is usually a much smaller group than the number of people who must eventually approve the plan through the various review and approval steps. Invite anyone who can veto the plan into the effort early. Even if they do not contribute much, they feel included. They also are less likely to block or submit major revisions during the final review and approval stages if they can discuss their concerns earlier.
  6. Train the team. The emergency management community is awash in planning systems and terminology that look similar but are, in fact, wildly different. If eight emergency managers were asked “What is a strategic plan?”, they might provide eight different answers – all of which could be correct. This also holds true for other commonly used and commonly confused terms. Each piece of doctrine developed by each organization defines these terms as best suits themselves. Do not assume everyone understands the planning process or the terminology, even if they say they do. Budget time early in the planning effort to explain what the team is trying to accomplish, how they are going to do it, and what terms they are going to use. Think of the planning leads as “professors of planning” and recognize the need to teach this subject to the planning stakeholders so they can effectively contribute to the work.
  7. Leverage the authority of the deciders. It is common for many people around the planning table to have strong opinions on any given topic, and these opinions can sometimes lead to lengthy debates where no consensus position seems obvious. However, it is also sometimes true that certain planning team representatives have the formal authority to decide the answer to these questions based on the formal authority of the organizations they represent. For those circumstances where an office or individual has the authority to decide an issue (legal, medical, etc.), identify these superheroes early and leverage their authority to reduce unnecessary debate on otherwise lengthy discussion topics.
  8. Show the work. Explaining how the planning team got to an answer is just as important as providing that answer. Just like a teacher who wants to see how a student solved a math problem, it is important for decision makers to understand how the team came to a particular conclusion. The decision makers need to see the interim products, understand the underlying logic behind them, and then validate these data points to continue planning. Failing to do so risks providing a finished product to a decisionmaker only to find out they disagree with the foundational elements that undergird the entire plan. By showing the completed work at each stage as well as the logic behind it, the planning team obtains the guidance it needs to continue planning and also reduces the risk that the entire plan would need to be rewritten once provided to leadership for final approval.
  9. Leverage the exercise capability early and often. Many planners fall into the bad habit of only seeking to exercise plans once they are completed. This validation effort is a necessary but not sufficient use of exercises and personnel. If the planning team adds an exercise component to the start of the planning effort as well as to the end, they can both validate the problem they are trying to solve and galvanize the support of stakeholders who would not otherwise believe that the problem existed or should be a priority to solve. In addition, include the exercise team in the development process, so they understand the context and issues that exist behind the plan. This understanding increases the likelihood that the validation exercises at the end of the effort reflect the intent of the plan as the team understood it.
  10. Know where to begin revisions and adaptations. When updating or adapting a plan for real-world requirements, attack the facts and assumptions first. Once these changes are incorporated, evaluate how this impacts the roles and responsibilities, the concept of operations, and other elements of the plan.
  11. Write journal articles to share what has been learned. All stakeholders are in this together. Sharing and seeking lessons learned builds disaster planning resilience across jurisdictions.

Robert J. (Bob) Roller serves as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Planning Branch Chief, where he supervises the development, implementation, and assessment of major federal government-wide planning efforts that address complex and catastrophic disasters. In addition to his steady state responsibilities, he is a qualified planning support section chief within the National Response Coordination Center, where he leads FEMA planning efforts for multiple disasters and supported response operations for the COVID-19 pandemic. He joined FEMA in 2017 after serving at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Headquarters, where he led the development of multiple DHS-wide planning efforts – including pandemic workforce protection, land migration surge contingency planning, and the annual DHS Operational Planning Guidance. He also has 15 years of experience as a firefighter and EMS provider in both wilderness and urban environments. He is currently a volunteer firefighter/paramedic/swiftwater rescue technician in Maryland and belongs to several mountain rescue teams, including one he co-founded. The opinions printed here are his own.