Back to Planning Basics

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”

President Eisenhower said these words in 1957, and former FEMA Administrator Fugate repeated them at a recent conference. After two full years of COVID response, I believe many in the emergency management community may empathize with President Eisenhower’s first sentence. Some may appreciate his follow-on suggestion to, “take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window.” The fact is, two years ago, no one had a “COVID plan” to throw out a window; however, many  of us emergency planners had pandemic plans or plans for family assistance centers, mass causality, and mass fatality incidents. The fact that we had these plans reinforces Eisenhower’s main point (which Administrator Fugate echoed): because we all went through the process of developing those plans, we were able to adapt them and solve the problems at hand.

One of the greatest things about the six-step planning process and FEMA’s CPG-101 is that it’s not until step five that you put pen to paper. Participants in FEMA’s new Advanced Planning Practitioner course complete eight units of instruction before learning how to write a plan. Even then, it’s summarized onto one visual.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen jurisdictions try to write the plan in a silo first, and then start the planning process. I’ve heard that this is because they want to give a planning team “something to react to,” or that they know how agencies will respond so they can just fill it in, or worst yet, they’re going to write how they want another agency to respond. All of these are surefire ways for a plan to sit on a shelf, either physically or virtually.

One of the greatest things about the six-step planning process and FEMA’s CPG-101 is that it’s not until step five that you put pen to paper." Jon Stewart

I’ve also seen jurisdictions follow and embrace the planning process, so rather than focus on the negatives, I want to highlight some of the successes I’ve seen when jurisdictions do that.

Step 1. Form a Collaborative Planning Team – This is sometimes easier said than done. For a lot of people on a planning team, their involvement is part of “other duties as assigned.” And let’s be honest, not everyone gets excited about writing a plan. A success I’ve seen in helping get a team’s early buy-in is to perform a tabletop exercise with them. Now the exercise purists may bristle at this, but by showing the team what can happen without a plan, it can energize them to make sure that scenario never happens.

Step 2: Understand the Situation – This step is often the hardest but can also be one of the most rewarding. It allows the planning team to take a deep dive into understanding their community and the impact of hazards. An example I like to use comes from a mentor of mine. He said that when you understand where a community is naturally going to go to for help during a disaster, you can help prepare and support that location.

Step 3: Determine Goals and Objectives – If the planning team used a scenario in step one to help kick things off, step three is the perfect time to bring the scenario back and adapt it. It can serve as a natural checkpoint for the team to consider what they thought when they started this process, what they’ve learned so far, and their priorities for addressing the problem at hand.

Step 4: Plan Development – While step two may have been the hardest, step four is often the most fun. In this step, the planning team gets to ask “What if…” to the scenario they developed. And like the Marvel comic and now television show, they get to explore the cascading impacts from hypothetical response decisions. It can be easy to go down a rabbit hole in this process, but it allows the planning team to think through the problem, which will ultimately allow them to adapt the final plan to evolving real-world situations.

Step 5: Plan Preparation, Review, and Approval and Step 6: Plan Implementation and Maintenance – These steps deserve their own blog post. I’d like to see the emergency management community move beyond the standard Microsoft Word plans and dig into how we train people to the plans and exercise them.

I’ll close with a quote from another West Point graduate and U.S. Army officer, my pop-pop, Colonel Alfred Hess. Growing up he used to tell me, “Prior proper planning prevents poor performance.” While maybe not quite as eloquent as Eisenhower’s words, they are good reminder that properly using the planning process does improve our performance, regardless of what’s on paper.