Updates and revisions of EOPs comprise one of my most substantial business lines. For anyone who has written or revised an EOP, this will not come as a surprise. EOPs hit the mainstream about ten years ago, when they became a requirement for funding for many organizations and entities. Busy professionals who aren’t emergency managers by trade found themselves tasked with EOP writing, which, believe me, is not a simple task even for a career emergency manager. This resulted in a flurry of EOP creation, which in turn sparked the creation of many, many EOP templates in an attempt to make this task easier and increase compliance with the requirement. Many EOPs were created utilizing those templates. Chances are, if you’re reading this, yours was too.
The ghosts of these templates are everywhere in the emergency management industry. From cookie-cutter cut-and-paste sections with nothing changed but the entity’s name (commonly Purpose, Scope, Situation, Responsibilities…well, the list goes on and on) to 400-page plans originally designed for urban centers being used by small towns, I see them everywhere and in almost every project. I’m of the belief that templates have not been that helpful, though even consultants sometimes use them. Templates allowed everyone to finish their plan and fill the requirement, but not to know, understand, or use their plan. I remember back when entities were encouraged to use “Find/Replace” to insert their organization’s name into an EOP written for another organization, just to have a product with which they could meet the requirement. Now that it’s time to revise and update, lots of entities don’t know where to start. They may not have ever read their EOP. If they don’t have the money to hire a consultant, they feel overwhelmed by this giant document that’s been in a binder on a shelf for years.
I attended a conference last year in which a representative of my state urged attendees to reduce their plans. “If it doesn’t apply, take it out!” she suggested. That’s good advice, to a point. Instead of defaulting to reductions, I urge revising with a focus on clarity and reality.
If you’re trying to update a plan and you don’t even understand the plan you have to update, that’s a sign that clarity is really the issue. Is your Purpose section two paragraphs long, leaving the reader yawning by the sixth line? Could your Purpose section read, “The Purpose of this plan is to describe how our entity will respond to an emergency or a disaster?” If so, that’s about what it should read! If you’re trying to update your EOP and you read through a section only to have no idea what it’s trying to get across, work to clarify it, and in turn, your mission, first. If you don’t understand it, no one else will either.
Next, have a look at whether your plan reflects reality. Does it really describe what your entity will do in an emergency? It’s easy to inject wishful thinking into an EOP, partly because we’re all urged to put it in our plans. Everyone feels bad answering “Describe how your organization will deal with a flash flood, a meteor strike, and a biological terrorism attack all at once” with “we can’t possibly deal with that and we’re all going to have to go home to our families.” Consequently, a lot of plans encourage operations that the entity can’t hope to sustain in an emergency. If the reality is that you’re going to have to shut down, or that you can’t support your operations after a certain level of crisis, or that you just don’t have the ability to sustain any sort of response at all, say it in your plan. If your reality is that your emergency room can only process two patients at once, then make sure your plan comes out and says it. Conversely, if you’re emergency operations rock stars who can establish and maintain a command structure across ten counties during a catastrophe, brag a little bit and make sure it’s in your EOP. Just remember – you can’t get training to deal with a given emergency if you claim to already have it. Identifying gaps in capabilities isn’t shameful, it’s the path to improvement.
Personally, I think the reality is that most entities are capable of managing most emergencies. I’ve seen it time and time again – a client starts the project totally overwhelmed and filled with dread when talking about disasters, but at the end of the process, they are optimistic and empowered. Trust me – with a little practice, empowerment, and organization, you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way. Most likely, updating your EOP will be harder than responding to a disaster!
My final piece of advice for those of you tasked with updating your EOP is to take it one piece at a time. Break the document up into reasonable amounts of work and update a new section every year. If you only have to work on ten pages instead of two hundred, you’re more likely to start and maintain the process. You know what they say: the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Some other resources for helping you update your EOP if you can’t hire a consultant:
- FEMA’s Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 101 (CPG 101) spells it all out for you. Do yourself a favor and just skip to Section 3.12, which explains in detail what each section of the plan should include.
- NFPA 1600: Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity is another good resource that you can order online by clicking the link. NFPA 1600 provides a consensus-based standard that has been widely adopted by many government and non-government sectors. It also contains a helpful (though robust) self-assessment tool to help you identify your entity’s level of preparedness.
- Your state’s homeland security and emergency management division should (hopefully) have a Plans section that can provide guidance. Don’t be shy about calling them up and asking for help. You might even find someone to provide direct technical assistance in updating your plan. You never know until you ask.
Good luck, and remember – I’m always here to help! Some EOPs don’t need all that much work. It’s just their size and complexity that can be daunting. I’m happy to take a look at yours and give you an estimate, or tell you what work can be accomplished within your budget.