For an emergency, planning personnel provide direction and operations personnel provide action. At first glance, their roles may seem very different but, in reality, they are dependent on one another – like two sides of the same coin. Effective planning requires operational input, and effective operational response requires careful and comprehensive planning.
The importance of plans: “You have to have a plan so that you know at which point you’ve deviated from it,” Coast Guard Captain (then Commander) Peter Martin shared this advice at an internal planning meeting in 2012. Although that thought did not make much sense at the time, the brilliance of the perspective has slowly become clear. For example, if someone is in Florida, driving north to Atlanta, Georgia, and ends up south in Miami, then he or she certainly deviated from the most direct route, but may still make it to Atlanta – eventually. However, the extra detour was not part of the plan.
Plans provide structure, guidance, and the ability to react to the expected and unexpected. A plan can be as innocuous as determining that a car requires a full tank of gas before driving across the state of Florida or as robust as securing hotels, providing clothing options, and accounting for personal medical care for a two-week European tour. Without a plan, it is difficult to know what should be done, how to do it, and how to prepare for the unexpected.
Planning: Contingency vs. Action Plans There are essentially two types of plans: contingency plans and action plans. According to the Oxford Dictionary, contingency plans are “designed to take a possible future event or circumstance into account.” Another definition is, “a course of action to be followed if a preferred plan fails or an existing situation changes.” Contingency planning affords opportunities to think of all of the horrible things that could happen and then determine the best course of action if any actually do occur. An action plan, though, is immediate and pressing. This type of plan is developed after an emergency happens.
For example, a contingency plan for a home fire might include prevention steps like smoke alarms and strategically placed fire extinguishers. It may also include clearing dried underbrush that could catch fire outside, preparing a list of emergency phone numbers, and having a pre-designated safe place to meet. However, even with all of the precautions, the home could still catch on fire. In this case, the local fire department will respond and quickly develop an action plan. This (action) plan is not about preventing the fire, but instead includes new and immediate factors like the type of fire, the appropriate substance to fight the fire, steps to prevent the fire from spreading, where to fight the fire first, which equipment is best suited, etc. As with the firefighters’ action plan, which is specific to this fire, an action plan is designed to address the immediate needs of a particular situation – right now.
Two different plans are created for the same situation. Contingency plans are not time constrained and anticipate occurrences, whereas action plans have no time to lose and require immediate reactions to specific issues. A contingency plan allows for long-term training, while responders using an action plan must already know their jobs and be able to do them.
However, the two plans are more similar than different especially regarding general content. Each plan establishes objectives: long term or short term. Each plan includes available response equipment, even if the equipment lists are different. Each plan should be reviewed routinely to ensure accuracy and relevancy, specifically with respect to phone numbers and emergency contacts. Most importantly, those with operational experience must vet each plan to ensure effectiveness and plausibility. Planners need operators and operators need planners.
Among response professionals, planners and operators are two sides of the same coin. They have different skill sets, different immediate goals, and very different measures of success, but they must work together to achieve the common goal: safety. Too often, however, they speak different languages and set different priorities making cooperation unnecessarily difficult.
In the house fire contingency plan, for example, a planner can say that there needs to be an evacuation strategy. But only someone with local knowledge of the area, the home, and the family can determine if the evacuation strategy is realistic. For example, exiting the front door may not be safe because it faces a very busy street, perhaps the keys to the back door were lost years ago, or maybe stairs could present a problem. In addition, an evacuation plan for a cottage in the country on three acres of land is very different from a plan to evacuate a condominium in a high-rise building. Both homes need an evacuation plan, but operationally these plans are different.
Operations: Incident Command The Incident Command System (ICS), now well adopted throughout the United States as an incident response management tool, specifically lays out the roles and responsibilities of the Planning Section and the Operations Section. Those in the Operations Section focus on the tasks, whatever they might be, and seek to achieve objectives set forth by the incident command. They are charged with completing their assignments within specific timeframes and reporting back if they are unable to do so. Those in the Planning Section, on the other hand, must look ahead and determine what is next. A lot goes into figuring out the plan for the next operational period, but it all hinges on whether or not the Operations Section has already completed its assignments, and if not why not.
Operational people do things and spend time in “the field.” They physically act and produce visible outcomes. It is often said that, “Operations doesn’t do paperwork.” Planners, on the other hand, do lots of paperwork. They staff command posts or sit at desks – writing, thinking, and documenting. When people engaged in daily operations say that they have “got this,” it means that they will handle whatever the issue is, without any instruction. They have done it before – no problem. To a planner, those words are like fingernails on a chalkboard as they wonder: “Got what, exactly? When? How? With what tools? What’s the PLAN?!”
Consider the 2012 Republican National Convention, held in Tampa, Florida. Setting aside VIP transit plans, parties, and protestors, the convention took place in August, and August on the Gulf of Mexico means one thing: hurricanes. Contingency planners had to figure out how to coordinate continued security on the water while getting boats and crews to safety in the face of impending severe weather. Everyone knew a hurricane was a real possibility, but issues arose in the details, such as determining: (a) which boats would come in first – with only one available boat ramp, a schedule would be necessary; (b) how long it would take to pull a boat out and get it ready to move; (c) where the boat would go; (d) how long it would take for the boat to get there; and (e) what logistical concerns would exist for stowing so many additional boats that were not usually in the area. The time to answer these questions was before the wind picked up and lightning began to strike.
In order to sort these tedious details, the operators – those who best know their boats and their crews – are the right people to provide the planners with such important specific details. However, pulling operators off their boats for meetings creates frustration. Boat operators have work to do – “real work” on the water – and may feel that, “Nothing important gets done in a conference room!” That feeling may change, of course, when boat operators look to the planners to find out what the plans are to keep their teams safe. The planners could not do this type of planning without the operators’ help.
Planners and operators must join forces to accomplish the same goal. Planners are not there to make operators miserable, to waste their time in meetings, or to keep them from doing their jobs. Planners support the important work of securing waterways, fighting fires, evacuating residents, and other operational tasks. Resolving the communication gap and smoothing the relationships between planners and operators cannot be found in additional training. Exercises and drills do not result in epiphanies. Continued open conversation is perhaps the best and easiest way to vent frustrations and ultimately work together – like two sides of the same coin – to plan and respond to anything and everything life presents.
Sharon Russell, LCDR U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Reserve, attended Officer Candidate School at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, after earning her M.A. in Environmental Policy. She served on active duty and then joined the Reserves, working full time as an emergency response consultant at The Response Group, where she has been for 10 years. She returned to active duty to serve as the USCG Maritime Security Project Officer for the Republican National Convention in 2012. She is still in the Coast Guard Reserves, assigned to the District 7 Contingency Planning Department.