Making Planning Documents More Than Words on Paper

President Harry S. Truman once said, “I believe in plans big enough to meet a situation which we can’t possibly foresee now.” However, terms like big and comprehensive do not always equate to size. Something that is laborious and unread adds no value for those tasked with managing emergencies and disasters. However, although comprehensive plans are vitally important, they can easily become a simple “check-the-box” requirement that results in a sizeable unread document that sits on the shelf. The organizational emergency operations plan (EOP) is highly susceptible to such a phenomenon. 

Design With a Purpose 

Quite often, EOPs have specific guidelines on what developers must include. Other resources, like incident action plans (IAPs), often focus on specific tactical responses. When applicable, IAPs should reference a more extensive resource (like an EOP annex) without repeating the text in the cited document. For example, if the EOP has a detailed annex on responding to a bomb threat, the IAP may summarize the threat response and reference the larger document. Regardless, reducing duplicity produces shorter documents with content the reader can more easily digest. 

Regardless of which format is used, support, collaboration, and consistency are critical for building effective, usable plans. 

Another reason why a concise but thorough plan is preferred is that people will more likely take the time to read the draft before it is published. The document must be organized so users can easily understand and follow it. Using an organizational or professional template provides other like-minded organizations with a familiar and easy-to-follow format. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies offer the following: 

Regardless of which format is used, support, collaboration, and consistency are critical for building effective, usable plans. 

Leadership support – Leaders, training classes, and plans often highlight the importance of executive support, which includes every step of the process. Even before getting the chief executive’s signature, seek leadership’s help to ensure all stakeholders read and discuss the draft form before publication. Support from the chief executive can ensure that subordinate leaders take the time to read, understand, and support the plan. 

Collaboration – This development process is as important as the plan itself. In addition to strengthening the document, collaborating with various stakeholders adds realism and value to the end product. Stakeholders with essential roles in response, continuity, and recovery efforts should be able to digest the document with a full understanding of how they can support various responses and how their daily functions can enhance responses when needed. However, such buy-in begins by involving others when formulating or updating the plans. Collaboration also introduces and expands upon experience, and reaching out to seasoned experienced people ensures credibility. For example, imagine someone without expertise in that area writing the active shooter response annex. To overcome this credibility gap, seek advice from those with such experience or, better yet, let them draft that section! 

Consistency – Conflicting documents are doomed to fail. For example, different procedures in different plans may discount both resources by causing confusion or losing responders’ confidence. These inconsistencies can occur within or between agencies and organizations. Internally, for example, imagine if a university’s general EOP and its campus police department had conflicting standard operating procedures and general orders when a major incident occurs on campus. Externally, a plan for a specific organization may be confusing if the first responders’ expectations for that location were drastically different. For example, imagine the results of conflicting guidance during a bomb threat response at a high school if the school’s EOP calls for an initial modified search, but the arriving first responders begin an immediate evacuation.  

Testing & Creating a “Working” Document 

Not only is it essential to discuss, wargame, and exercise the functional annexes of an EOP, but the operational section must garner the same attention. A tabletop exercise ensures that everyone understands the succession of authority and that emergency notification triggers, for example, can be incorporated into the tactical functional annexes. When organizations exercise the plan in draft form or before making updates, they can identify areas that need additional discussion and changes and increase buy-in from others. Rapidly publishing without collaboration almost guarantees the document will sit on a shelf to gather dust or, even worse, become second-guessed. 

Very few plans are set in concrete, and responses seldom proceed as expected. Therefore, they must be flexible and adaptable to serve as guidance in situations that typically require some deviation. In addition, a plan should be updated whenever new information would make it more robust – for example, after a critical response (whether directly involved or occurring elsewhere) or exercise.  If nothing else, EOP’s should be updated annually.  Following are a few general tips to remember when developing a document that is more than just words on paper: 

  • Within the ICS, use standard terminology and avoid jargon. Remember, the plan is often developed and published for a wide range of people, not just one stakeholder group (e.g., public safety officials). 

  • Do not confuse historical knowledge and standard operating procedures with “that’s how we’ve always done it.” A plan that relies simply on past responses is destined to become too rigid and lack flexibility. 

  • Involve organizational executives (or policy groups) in the concept of operations section before investing a lot of effort into the writing. For example, operational planners should not decide on the succession of authority. Likewise, executives, public relations, and communications staff should not dictate tactical planning decisions (i.e., functional annexes). 

  • Make sure the EOP clearly points out the difference between emergency notification and crisis communication, including specific roles and responsibilities throughout the incident. 

  • Identify resources needed to support the plan and begin building such capability, which includes equipment and personnel. 

It is important to remember that longer is not better. An unusually long plan will likely sit on a shelf and become nothing more than words on paper. Even though it may not be challenging to develop and write, getting people to read and use this critical resource takes much collaboration and support. The sooner that cooperative effort begins, the easier the process and the more valuable and practicable the document. 

Andrew (Andy) Altizer

Andrew (Andy) Altizer has over 20 years of emergency management planning experience and another 10 years of planning experience in the military. He is the emergency preparedness coordinator for The Westminster Schools and a Criminal Justice instructor at Georgia State University. Previously, he was the director of emergency management at Kennesaw State University and director of emergency preparedness at Georgia Institute of Technology. He also served as the critical infrastructure protection program manager at the Georgia Office of Homeland Security. In the U.S. Army, his roles included inspector general, public affairs officer, artillery commander, and plans and operations officer.



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