With recent wildfires destroying thousands of acres across the U.S, and with an uptick in storm activity in the past few weeks, there is no time like the present to develop an organizational disaster plan. The all-consuming wildfires in Hawaii, which resulted in the loss of so many lives, and the recent devastation in Florida from Hurricane Idalia illustrate that no community is immune to natural disasters.
Wildfires have grown more intense and destructive across much of the U.S, and both Colorado State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released final predictions for the 2023 hurricane season as “above normal” for storm activity. For coastal exposed states and territories, this forecast is a gentle reminder to solidify preparations for future storms.
Disaster planning provides agencies with the knowledge and resources to:
- Protect the health and safety of the community.
- Minimize or eliminate the risk of future damage to property.
- Maximize sustainability and protection.
- Optimize critical response time.
- Ensure that FEMA policies are followed.
- Provide proactive solutions.
No two agencies are exactly alike, and each must consider its unique risk factors to develop a customized plan. A basic disaster plan may be a good starting point, but it will be ineffective without specific details that are relevant to each agency. An effective disaster management plan should define roles and responsibilities, emphasize a collegial approach, provide for communication channels, integrate with risk management, identify resources, and ensure sustained capabilities.
The plan should also be developed using a collaborative model and include relevant stakeholders. It is helpful to create a team to produce the plan and consider following the six steps in FEMA’s National Preparedness System:
- Identifying and assessing risk
- Estimating capability requirements
- Building and sustaining capabilities
- Planning to deliver capabilities
- Validating capabilities
- Reviewing and updating capabilities
Keep reading for an explanation of each step and the critical details you should bear in mind when developing your agency-specific disaster plan.
Step 1: Identifying and assessing risk
First, collect historical and recent data on existing, potential, and perceived threats and hazards to develop a risk assessment. This information is important as it becomes the basis of your disaster plan. Make sure to account for potential risk across the entire organization by including input from all appropriate stakeholders, not only during this step, but throughout the entire planning process to ensure that vulnerable and underrepresented populations are not left out.
A risk assessment includes an analysis based upon criticality, followed by a coordinated application of resources to mitigate the risk. There are many methods used in the identification of risks, including an analysis of loss data, historical analysis, expert consultation, physical inspection, survey, contractual review, discussion with stakeholders as well as a procedures and policies review.
For a natural disaster, historical information should be examined, along with information from catastrophic models and consultations with experts. Disaster specific risk rankings are recorded in the organizational risk register document and prioritized according to risk scores. The risk register and disaster specific assessments outline the current and planned mitigation controls for various disaster scenarios. The goal of a risk analysis is to create a structured assessment and starting point for meaningful risk discussion.
Step 2: Estimating capability requirements
Next, determine the specific capabilities needed to best address the risks identified. Some capabilities may already exist, while some may need to be developed or improved.
Plans are needed to deal with natural events where advance notice can be provided, such as hurricanes, as well as events where advance notice is often not possible, such as flash floods or tornadoes. Areas of vulnerability, like buildings that would not withstand a major hurricane or tornado, need to be addressed and resiliency measures considered, including grant funding that may be available for improving resiliency.
The safest places on the property should be determined, as well as the agency’s capability to replicate its services at another site. Relocation contracts or reciprocal agreements with another agency should be considered to allow for the primary functions to be sustained at a temporary site.
Agencies should have a plan for maintaining communication, for example, a back-up communication plan if cell towers are down. Addressing capabilities ensures that agencies have examined their ability to minimize the identified risks and are ready to address immediate needs in the event of a disaster. An agency’s capabilities and vulnerabilities affect critical business functions, and if they’re not accurately assessed and addressed, there can be major impacts to the agency’s ability to continue its operations.
Step 3: Building and sustaining capabilities
Agencies need to determine the best way to build upon existing capabilities, develop new capabilities where needed, and sustain these capabilities. Capabilities should be addressed in the short range, as well as for the long term. The risk assessment completed in step 1 can be used to prioritize resources to address the risks with the highest probability or greatest severity of loss.
Funding may be a consideration, especially when addressing modifications to buildings to improve resiliency. When funding is a concern, planning in phases such as a 1-, 3-, or 5-year plan is better than not having any plan.
There are many inexpensive steps that an agency can consider to support its recovery. For instance, adequate pre-disaster documentation such as the collection of yearly and dated photographs requires minimal effort and cost. Safely storing and securing items so they do not become projectiles in a wind event is another simple, yet powerful, approach to preventing damage from a disaster.
There will likely be other capabilities that will require funding and addressing over time. When addressing capabilities, consider the following areas:
- Safe and secure zones.
- Internal communication plan.
- External communication plan.
- Basic needs supply (water, food, first aid, blankets, flashlights).
- Transportation away from impacted areas.
- Coordination with local emergency responders.
- Documents that will be needed (photos, maintenance records).
- Reciprocal agreements.
- Temporary relocation site options.
- Pre-position remediation contracts for tasks such as tarping, water extraction, tear out of wet material.
- Staff coordination.
- Federal regulations pertaining to insurance.
- Business continuity plans.
- Insurance coverage.
Step 4: Planning to deliver capabilities
Delivery of capabilities requires a delineation of roles and responsibilities to ensure that all resources and needs are properly accounted for and addressed. Each of the capabilities identified in step 3 needs to be implemented by an assigned team member to ensure that the responsibility or task is fully carried out.
Because preparedness impacts an entire community, it is important to coordinate your plans with a diverse range of organizations across the community. This may include emergency management agencies, local businesses, nonprofits, community and faith-based groups, and various levels of government.
For example, a K-12 school may need to move students quickly from the affected area and may need to develop an agreement with a local business or church to provide a safe drop site. Purchases may be needed to ensure that appropriate supplies are available. This could include satellite phones, generators, food supplies, temporary offsite shelter for staff, alternative payroll services, and materials for emergency repairs.
Step 5: Validating capabilities
Now, it’s time to see if your planning efforts are working as intended. Participating in exercises, simulations, or other activities can help identify gaps in plans and capabilities. It also helps to measure progress toward meeting preparedness goals.
Mock drills and tabletop exercises are effective ways to determine how well your agency is prepared for a disaster. The insights received through these exercises will help determine gaps in the disaster management plan. The gaps you identify should be documented, and a plan should be developed to address how the gaps will be managed.
If the communication plan is determined to be ineffective, corrective action will be needed; if supplies are not sufficient or a shelter has not been identified, a plan for improvement will be required. If an assigned role was missed, update the plan to include the individual responsible for conducting a particular task.
Step 6: Reviewing and updating capabilities
It is important to regularly review and update your agency’s disaster plan. All stakeholders involved in plan execution should be involved in its development and maintenance.
A plan that sits idle with outdated resources and without regular assessment will be ineffective. Risks and resources evolve and so should your preparedness efforts. A disaster management plan is a living document; it will change over time as risks, roles, and capabilities evolve. Preparation and planning require stakeholder collaboration to ensure that the disaster plan takes into consideration all impacted parties.
Developing a successful disaster plan depends on having the right people on the team, which leads to the right discussions to ensure people are safe, property is protected, resources are readily available, and capabilities are sustained and improved.