Planning with Flexibility in Mind

Incident command veterans know that the ability to improvise – to make the right choice from sketchy information while the clock is ticking – often determines the outcome of an emergency action.

By Scott Regen

If flexibility holds the key to success, can organizations build it into their highly detailed response plans? How do they resolve the tension between detail and freedom of action? Or ensure that multiple local, regional, state and federal responders understand the line between initiative and freelancing?

Michael Lindell, director of Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center and co-author of Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States, knows when a plan is flexible.

"Like a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, I can't define it but I can tell it when I see it," he says. "As a general rule, though, the flexibility should go into the plan and the details should go into the procedures."


Creating detailed procedures is easy. Evacuation procedures might call for police to drive along a specific route at a certain speed reading a prescripted message. They may list hospitals, nursing homes and prisons that require special actions, and media contacts to broadcast warnings.

Formal emergency operations plans (EOPs), which comprise the heart of any response, require a broader range of details. The more detailed the plan, the more options an incident commander can choose from when time matters.

The problem is that plans are not how-to guides to field operations, says Dennis Atwood, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Program Coordination Division. "Real incidents never play out like planning documents."

FEMA has spent years teaching communities how to develop detailed emergency plans. The elements are found in its planning bible, SLG 101: Guide for All-Hazard Emergency Operations Planning (available at

The guide covers the core emergency management functions of direction and control, communications, warning, emergency public information, evacuation, mass care, health and medical, and resource management. Appendices provide guidelines for earthquakes, floods, tornados, hurricanes, hazardous materials, military chemicals and munitions, radiological releases and terrorism.

The planning process itself involves untangling knots that will clearly tie up responders who arrive at the scene without answers. It documents jurisdictions, responsibilities and mutual aid agreements. Equally important, it investigates a community's most likely threats, outlines potential responses, and locates the resources to implement those responses.

Untangling Knots

Sometimes, identifying resources is obvious. A city prone to flooding needs to know where to find sand bags. Other times, communities may have to reach out to identify specialized expertise. Responders near a railroad carrying hazardous materials need hazmat gear and training, says Lindell. But they may also need specialized help, such as someone who can repair a leaky valve or patch a hole while wearing HAZMAT gear.

"In the United States, the resources are there for any kind of problem," he says. "But even if they're next door, if you don't know the right person to ask or have authorization, they might as well be on the moon."

The best plans provide lots of details beforehand, so incident commanders do not have to make it up on the spot. But communities also need to teach incident commanders to apply plans flexibly.


The U.S. military, which has long given field commanders very broad latitude to meet general objectives, has an answer to that question, says William C. Martel, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College (Newport, RI). "We call it 'train as you fight,'" he says.

"Our goal is to make training as intense and realistic as possible, so when you fight a war you know what to do. If you're training right, you're pushing people's envelopes all the time. You're making them uncomfortable," says Martel.

Atwood agrees that challenging, realistic exercises followed by tough, blame-free evaluations are the best way to prepare for large-scale incidents. The exercises he creates always include challenges to responders. An airport crash response exercise, for example, may include a large aircraft. But instead of locating the crash at the end of a runway, Atwood may stage them near highway overpasses. They may include burning vehicles and ruptured hazmat trailers.

Atwood seeks a balance when planning exercises. They should not be tough enough to lead to total failure, but they should expose flaws in emergency planning and operations.

Such training not only improves team coordination, but the ability of commanders to think through an emergency's implications. "If an incident commander sees an overturned tank car burning near chlorine and LPG tank cars, he should try to predict what's going to happen beyond the release," says Lindell. "He should look at weather, wind speed and direction, atmospheric stability, and populations. A lot of people get into an emergency and don't look at the entire situation."


Planning an incident command structure often involves touchy issues. Yet without a firm structure, it is easy for multiple local, regional, state and federal crews to freelance.

Atwood advocates a predesignated, hierarchical list of incident commanders so there is no doubt about who is in charge. This looks easy on paper; nice clean lines between boxes. But Atwood admits, "It's a challenge for all first-responder assets to work together without rice bowls or stove pipes getting in the way. We're talking about human beings here."

A common cause of friction involves government experts. Lindell, who has run hazmat exercises in the past, notes that outside chemical experts always know more than anyone else on the site.

"That puts the local people at a disadvantage," he says. "But local public officials are the ones responsible for the safety of their community. If a federal agent shows up and he's a jerk and says, 'I'm in charge,' that can create a worse situation than if he never showed up at all." One goal of any exercise should be finding ways for local officials to work effectively with outside experts.

Staying in Control

Lindell finds that two problems frequently occur during emergencies. The first is that people have not planned enough. "Lots of people think, 'We handle this kind of stuff every day, we can improvise when we get to a real emergency.'

"A true disaster is almost unimaginably difficult to handle," he says. "There are so many people from different jurisdictions, news media, victims, potential victims; a flood of people trying to get information and provide information. People who rely on their ability to improvise fall behind the power curve and events start occurring faster than they would have ever believed possible."

He also worries about things falling through the cracks. While the incident command system has been proven time and again, commanders often find it hard letting go of old responsibilities. Fire fighters may focus on fires. Police think about population protection. For an incident commander to ensure all the tasks get done, he or she cannot get dragged down into specific operations.

Although detailed plans and rigorous training may help, in the end the ability to make the right choice comes down to having the right people in charge.

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