When I review EOPs written by non-emergency managers, I find that most clients have an OK plan for the first few sections (Purpose, Scope, Assumptions, etc.), and then things start to fall apart and get confusing right at the Concept of Operations, or CONOPS section. This area of the EOP is problematic for almost everyone who has to write one without being an experienced emergency manager, so I thought it was worth a quick post to give some guidance.
There’s a reason that the Concept of Operations Section in most EOPs marks where the document starts to go off the rails, and it’s that the CONOPS is the first point in the standard EOP format that the writer can’t just go off boilerplate language – she has to actually input original text about her organization’s response plans. The word “concept” in “concept of operations” seems to guide people in all sorts of directions, from long winded descriptions of the Incident Command System to a mishmash of ominous statements about the disasters that can befall the jurisdiction in question. From there things tend to spiral out of control and the plan becomes a mess – hard to follow, unfocused, and usually a mix of original text and cut-and-paste sections from other plans. Few people seem to know what should actually go into the CONOPS section.
The reason CONOPS can be so confusing to write is that it is meant to be a general statement, or high-level view, of your response organization and activities, but the mix of the title “‘Concept’ of Operations” with the long list of sections after it (Communications, Alert and Warning, Direction and Control, etc.) leads people to believe it should be highly detailed. The information that should go in the CONOPS at first may seem redundant, as the traditional functional format of an EOP has those same sections as Annexes to the plan. The difference is that the CONOPS should contain only general statements about communications, alert and warning, direction and control, and similar topics. The detailed and specific information about these functions goes into annexes to the plan. The CONOPS section should be restricted to general information only. Think about the annexes being the parts you want to tear out and pass around for people to know exactly what they should be doing in a disaster, and the CONOPS as the part you want to show your CEO to give her a general picture of what the organization is planning to do. The CONOPS is not likely to change from year to year, but the information in the Annex might. You don’t want to have to mess with your Basic Plan just because you got a new radio. Keep that information in the Annex.
I’ll give you a simplified example. Your CONOPS Communications section might say “Our organization will use phone communications when possible during incidents, but also has emergency radios that can be used when necessary.” The Communications Annex might say, “Our organization has the following land line phones: [list of phone extensions and locations]. When phone communications are not useable, we will use radios on the following frequencies: [list of frequencies and channels]. We have [X] number of radios of the following types [list inventory of radios] and they are stored [list where they are stored].” Restricting the detailed information to the Annex makes the plan easy to update when phone numbers change, and avoids cluttering up the main, or “Basic,” plan with way too much information for the average reader.
So, when you are first writing a CONOPS and find yourself stumped, try not to overthink it. First, just review the Purpose of your plan (you wrote an original Purpose statement and didn’t just copy one out of a template, right?) and write a statement about how your response to a disaster will achieve the purpose of your plan. Still stumped? Drop me a line and I’ll give you a hand figuring it out.