What we learned from Hurricane Katrina and what we should do next to improve emergency planning

Get free weekly news by e-mailBy Dr. Jim Kennedy, MRP, MBCI, CBRP

Last week in a prime time press conference, President Bush stated that in light of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, the emergency plans for all major US cities should be reviewed. The question is how should they be reviewed and by who? I think that this plan review is very important, but it should be undertaken by every city, municipality, and borough in the US.

As local and State governments move forward to meet the President’s request of emergency plan review I have a few thoughts. I have been involved with emergency and business continuity planning for over twenty-five years and have held positions in both the public and private sector. I have learned much from my experience and have some thoughts which I have shared below.

Emergency management and planning has become more and more important over the last 20 years due to the impacts of ever changing weather patterns, potential issues associated with nuclear power plants and, after 9/11, possibilities of terrorist threats. State and local governments began to recognise the importance of emergency planning and the business continuity process to the very survival of the government, businesses, and citizens of the communities they govern. Practitioners of emergency and business continuity planning have become more professional and, with the development of the professions, have sought appropriate avenues for gaining valuable recognition of their education, training, and qualifications through certification. Certification bodies provide a great service to the profession by offering opportunities for learning and advancement.

Certification documents a level of understanding, knowledge, and a commitment to the business of emergency and contingency planning. The importance of the job of emergency plan review should only be left to those who are certified emergency or contingency planners, people who have spent most of their lives protecting lives and property.

In the coming months, as the President has stated, many state and local governments will need to utilise consultants to assist with the evaluation, review, and validation of emergency operations plans (EOPs), continuity of government plans (COG) continuity of operation plans (COOP), and business continuity plans (BCP). By choosing suitably qualified and certified consultants, government agencies can be assured that the individuals understand the planning process and have been assessed as to their level of competence and understanding of emergency and business continuity management. It is also important to note that certified consultants are required to operate to the Code of Practice and Ethics as defined by the certifying organisation.

The plans of the various agencies which participate in emergency response and recovery can vary greatly. Local plans will normally deal with planning the town or city’s response in support of the Emergency Services and recovery from an incident while maintaining the essential governmental and business services.

An emergency plan will normally contain the following:

* Succession Plans
* Call-out arrangements
* Key personnel lists
* Management arrangements and structures
* Security arrangements
* Evacuation arrangements
* Medical Operation Plans
* Public information
* Media handling and response
* Communication strategies
* Data relating to the site, geography, population etc
* Designated emergency facilities
* Recovery strategies
* Financial arrangements

Often times once a plan has been written and reviewed it is considered complete. It is copied, distributed, and stored away for the day when it will be needed. However, this is not what should be done, and in fact this is very dangerous.

Any plan that is designed to protect the lives and property should be validated. A plan can be validated in a number of ways. The first way is to evaluate all aspects of the plan to ensure that the actions indicated are achievable and within the limits of time given. For example, if evacuation is part of and emergency operations plan the questions that need to be asked and answered are:

- How many people will need to be evacuated?

- How will they evacuate (use their own cars, public transportation, require help in transportation)?

- If they, as in the case of many poor and indigent, require help in transportation how will the government respond?

- If school buses will be used – who will drive them? Have the roles and responsibilities been defined?

- Where will they be evacuated to? Alternate locations in case primary locations are unavailable?

- How long will evacuees have to stay in shelters?

- Have appropriate levels of food, water, and amenities been planned for the period they will be needed until the emergency is over or assistance is obtained from other sources?

- Do the people from the government responsible for managing, aiding, or directly participating in evacuation have people who can perform their duties in case they are adversely impacted by the event (their house is flooded or family needs to be moved)?

Every component of the plan needs to have the right questions asked and answered and validated.

The most effective way to validate a plan is through the use of exercises. These are focused at testing the plan as a whole, or specific parts of a plan. An exercise may be done as a tabletop exercise or theoretical "run through". A tabletop exercise will normally consist of the testing of procedures, using the injection of unplanned scenarios to evaluate the development of the response to an emergency and to make sure that a specific area of the plan is tested. Upon completion of this type of exercise, the plan will be revised if any shortcomings are identified.

This tabletop exercise has value and for some types of plans, but I strongly believe that “live” exercises, drills if you will, are the only adequate way to ascertain if certain portions of a plan will work. I have conducted drills using boy and girl scouts as ‘victims’ to test the ability of emergency services to address the needs of mass casualty situations. I have also participated in the timing and testing of evacuation drills to ensure that people could be moved from one place to another and away from a potential harm in a specific time period.

Only through actual defining of metrics and measuring actual response can a plan be validated. So I believe that in the coming months and years that more and more emergency plan drills need to be undertaken and the response critically evaluated. The touchy-feely idea of being very upbeat and positive are fine, but plans that affect peoples lives and futures are better left to those who are critical and demand perfection.

Assume that NO plan is actionable until it has been tested and validated.


* Assessment. Governments need to be more critically aware of internal and external risk factors and the consequences of any failure in their own systems, those of others, or uncontrollable events such as severe weather and terrorist attack.

* Prevention. Risk factors which have been identified by a government agencies and organisations should be eliminated or substantially mitigated.

* Preparation of plans. EOPs, COGs, and COOPs must be developed for each local, county and state government. They should be realistic, robust, flexible and address any risks within their scope of authority. They should also meet the needs of all of the recipients of the emergency response.

* Education. Anyone involved to any extent in an emergency plan should be aware of their role & responsibilities and be given the opportunity to practice by actually doing it.

* Plan Review and Validation. There are a number of circumstances in which a plan may need to be reviewed. Following any test of a plan, or its use in an emergency situation, it is important to analyse whether the planned response was fully effective. Contact numbers and names need to be regularly reviewed and changes taken into account and recorded.

Any and all plans must be tested and validated to ensure that they address the needs and that all of the known or reasonably foreseeable risks are attended to by providing a sufficient and timely response. This testing can range from tabletop exercises to full scale ‘live’ exercises or drills. As well as testing the plan, exercises can also test whether the training given to staff has been effective and reveal whether some training needs have been overlooked.

Certified consultants should be employed to provide an independent third party validation. Avoid the “can’t see the forest for the trees” syndrome.

* Response. Some governmental agencies respond to incidents as part of their core activities. Others may only very occasionally be asked to provide an emergency response. No agency or governmental body has regular experience of dealing with major incidents which require a large-scale response from many organisations. It is important therefore that when an incident, and especially a major incident, occurs all agencies are ready and equipped to respond according to the plans developed.

* Recovery. Once an initial response has been made to a major emergency and the source of the incident has been addressed and the immediate effects mitigated the emergency is by no means over. As we have seen with the US hurricanes in 2004 and most lately with Hurricane Katrina there will be medium and long term effects, such as damage to infrastructure, communities and the environment, which will all need to be addressed in a coordinated and sensitive manner. Not all of the long-term effects will be immediately obvious, so government agencies need to be trained to continue to monitor local situations.

Dr. Jim Kennedy is Distinguished Member of Consulting Staff in the security and business continuity practice of Lucent Worldwide Services. Dr. Kennedy has over 25 years experience in the business continuity and disaster recovery fields and holds numerous certifications in network engineering, security and business continuity. He has developed more than 30 recovery plans, planned or participated in more than 100 business continuity and disaster recovery plan tests and has helped to coordinate three actual recovery operations.


Date: 20th Sept 2005 •Region: US •Type: Article •Topic: Emergency planning
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