Although tactical operations get most of the attention during emergencies, anyone who has been on the front line of emergency response appreciates the ones responsible for the less glamorous task of planning. Simply put, operational success can be directly linked to the level of planning.
Within an incident command structure, the primary role for the planning section is to immediately piece together an action plan, which is then approved by the incident commander. For any major emergency incident, a detailed and practical action plan is critical.
One of the greatest challenges for any planning section or unit is keeping several steps ahead of operations. This can only be accomplished through active communication with the operations section to ensure the plan is working. So, why do many action plans fall short, or worse, fail completely? More importantly, how can emergency personnel ensure that action plans are adequate and executed effectively?
A good action plan is a flexible one, allowing for sudden, unexpected changes. Don’t get caught in the trap of losing focus just because an original idea or method failed.
Another failure point for action plans is confusion among those with emergency management responsibilities, or to state it bluntly, a disorganized planning section. Sound familiar? I have seen some action plans that resemble nothing more than chicken scratch and bad artwork; others are nice and tidy but lack the necessary information.
The action plan involves a lot more than penciling names in boxes. In fact, planning requires as much support as – and sometimes more than – operations. Quickly identify and source the experts who are qualified and feel comfortable in their respective roles. Technical specialists, structural engineers, and many other experts can make life a lot less stressful for the planning section. But does the action plan identify who is assigned to a specific task? Are the objectives clearly stated and prioritized? Anyone walking into a command centre should be able to get a pretty good idea what is going on and who is doing what by looking at the action plan.
Successful action plans also have clearly stated objectives, and all personnel in both the planning and operations sections understand what they are. Of course, objectives should be prioritized based on the most recent information and status of the emergency. Objectives should never deviate from the main goal; an experienced incident commander will always remind emergency personnel to stay focused on achieving that goal. Remember, in emergency management, an objective is something that needs to be achieved, whereas a goal is the desired outcome. For example, rescuing an injured worker from a chemical plant would be a goal; shutting down the plant and/or containing the hazardous substance will likely be one of the many objectives.
Once objectives have been finalized, realistic timelines should be established for each one. As onerous and impractical as this may seem, there is exceptional value in this. Timelines not only help to maintain a smooth rhythm in the command centre, but they also help to build and maintain positive morale in stressful situations by providing visual evidence of achievements.
The success or failure of an action plan ultimately depends on the level of communication between the planning and operations sections. I recall a tragic example during which several forest-fire fighters were caught in a blowout due to an unexpected shift in wind direction and speed. Lack of communication between operations and planning was singled out as the root cause of the response failures that took the lives of 13 firefighters. Other similar stories demonstrate how critical it is to have two-way communication in any command centre. Operations must inform planning what is working and what needs to change in order to meet objectives. The planning section must regularly and frequently update operations with situational reports, changes in command structure or personnel, availability of resources, and any change to the action plan.
Although there are seldom any guarantees, a good action plan will ensure that response goals and objectives are met in a timely and effective manner. A fluid action plan is essential to dealing with the many complexities and variables encountered during and immediately after a major incident. Clearly identified and written objectives will also help reduce the stress levels and provide guidance to all personnel for achieving them. And most importantly, never underestimate the value of communication.
Mike Burzek is the director of public protection and safety for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. He has more than 20 years of experience in emergency response and public safety, including nine years as a paramedic. He lives in Dawson Creek, B.C., and can be reached at
Industrial Outlook: February 2013
Action plans: success or failure?
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