Emergency Planning and Preparedness for Local Government

How your government handles emergency planning can mean all the difference in the world in how prepared you are during, and after, an emergency situation.

December 23, 2020

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When an emergency strikes your community, it can cause devastating effects on many levels, including financially, economically, and socially. If you respond poorly to an emergency situation (or even if you don’t, but that is the public perception), your community’s reputation can take a big hit. And that is why government emergency planning is so critical.

Almost like a moral imperative, it is the responsibility of the local government to prepare for a variety of emergency situations and protect their citizens while responding and recovering effectively. And the responsibility of this government preparedness primarily falls to local elected officials such as mayors, boards of commissioners, and city councils.

In a nutshell, the best way to protect lives and communities is by planning and preparing as best you can with a rock-solid city disaster management plan.

The Challenge of Government Emergency Planning

Once you have set the necessity to prepare an emergency response plan, you face some real challenges to making that happen.

The most obvious challenge to government emergency planning is that, by their very nature, emergencies are often unknown and/or unpredictable.

Your community might face any number of natural emergency scenarios including blizzards, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes along with other disasters such as active shooters, power outages, sabotage, explosions, and toxic chemical spills.

Regardless of the emergency, you rarely have much warning if or when these scenarios will happen. And when they do, there are also so many different variations of potential scenarios the planning and preparation must account for all sorts of possibilities.

Another challenge to adequate preparation? The process consumes a lot of time, money, and resources – especially for an emergency that you hope never happens in the first place. And if you are already dealing with budget constraints, the thought of spending money on “what if” scenarios might not seem as pressing of a need as more urgent concerns such as police patrols or bridge maintenance. Planning and preparing for emergencies, while necessary, pulls you away from other activities and tasks that also need your time and attention.

Finally, government preparedness is a never-ending process that begins with planning, moves through the organizing, training, and equipping phases, and “ends” with evaluating. But it doesn’t really end.

At that point, you look at what worked and what did not work and then take corrective actions to improve your effectiveness – continuously tweaking along the way. Because of this, no community is ever 100% prepared. This can be tiresome and lull people into a false sense of security, which creates challenges for the government emergency services planners.


How to Better Prepare Your Community for an Emergency

While a community can never be absolutely 100% prepared (nor should that be the aim), the more realistic goal should be to prepare the community as best you can.

You can tap into many online resources to walk you through all four phases of emergency management, such a Ready.gov, FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Recovery Planning Guide for Local Governments, International City/County Management Association’s Disaster Recovery, and FEMA’s Community Recovery Management Toolkit.

But for a quick jumpstart of your government emergency planning efforts, review the following key elements first.

1. Regularly meet and review your plan

Make it a priority for city leaders and officials to meet and review the city disaster management plan that should already be in place. These meetings offer a place to address the potential threats; assess your community’s level of preparedness; discuss appropriate response actions; and review recovery plans.

EfficientGov provides a terrific set of questions that local governments should address when reviewing government preparedness plans.) These meetings also provide an opportunity to work on mitigation (i.e., preventing potential emergencies or minimizing their effects.

2. Conduct a risk assessment

A key part of government emergency planning involves evaluating the potential disasters and hazards that could affect your community. Not every community is susceptible to hurricanes, flooding, or snowstorms, so it is valuable to do a risk assessment of your community’s unique situation.

In fact, an article in Public Management eloquently captures this point, stating that, “All disasters are local. They happen in cities and towns and counties of all sizes where citizens look to their local government managers and elected officials to lead the immediate response, guide the longer-term recovery, and reassure them that life will be normal again … someday.”


3. Define clear roles and responsibilities

Every city has an assigned emergency manager, but roles and responsibilities should be clearly spelled out. Creating these job descriptions, with assigned personnel (and backup personnel) is a critical aspect of government emergency planning before, during, and after a disaster.

For example, when an emergency strikes, what are their specific functions? Who else will be notified to help? And what are their specific responsibilities during the emergency?

And don’t forget about the recovery phase – there should be clear lines of communication and coordination in the aftermath of the emergency. This will help get essential services restored as well as focus on long-term recovery efforts.

4. Communicate to all departments

Not everyone will be involved in the government preparedness process, but an emergency becomes every person’s responsibility – even if they did not sit in on the planning sessions. It is easy to overlook the fact that everyone needs to be made aware of any planning and preparation that has occurred.

This means they need to know where to find all the emergency planning documents and to understand the procedures and protocol when an emergency occurs. This covers everything from citywide evacuation plans to lockdown procedures in government buildings – anything that directly impacts them.

Cross-department communication is a critical component of an effective government emergency services plan.

The best way to achieve this comprehensive level of communication? Use a document management system to securely store your critical content, ensuring that every employee knows how and where to access it. Plus, a document management system enables you to quickly push that information out when an emergency does occur.

5. Engage the public in your planning

Don’t go it alone! Working with the community when preparing your emergency response plan is crucial throughout the process for two reasons. First, you want (and need) community members’ input on the plan since it affects them directly and personally. And second, you also want to let them know what they can do to prepare themselves, empowering them to take preventive steps to protect their family and their property. If citizens know what government emergency services can and cannot do for them, they are more likely to have realistic expectations and to take some personal responsibility in their own emergency planning and preparation.

You can encourage public engagement using both formal methods (such as community meetings, planning committees, and community-partner organizations) and informal methods (including emails alerts, social media posts, and news releases).

Regardless of how you communicate and engage your citizens, the primary goal is to focus on the people you serve, not just the internal systems and mechanisms (though they are many and far-reaching).

6. Make long-term recovery part of your plan

If you serve as your city’s emergency manager, you probably spend a lot of time completing paperwork to get reimbursed by the state/county/federal government. After all, emergency funds need to be released to help pay for overtime of first responders and the different cost-associated elements of your emergency plan.

To make this happen, you need to make sure that all the paperwork is documented and submitted in a timely manner; otherwise funding may get dispersed elsewhere before your community gets refunded. So, having a plan for the financial recovery to receive that state/federal emergency money is crucial in the short-term after an event.

But there is also more than just financial recovery post-disaster – there is the “need to re-establish a healthy, functioning community that will sustain itself over time.”

To help local governments think through this long-term recovery, FEMA just released a Community Recovery Management Toolkit noted in the resource section earlier. The toolkit offers several resources – such as case studies, guidelines, tools, and training – that will help guide government preparedness in more long-term thinking, beyond just debris removal and short-term needs.


7. Emergency training

Mapping out a thorough plan lays a solid foundation of government preparedness. But the real litmus test of effectiveness lies in training to the plan.

Outside of first responders, most government employees are not experienced in handling emergency situations. They need to understand what to do, how to proceed, and what the proper protocols are. The only way to do this is through effective training.

Don’t think that training must be a city-wide emergency drill, either. In reality, it is more effective to offer multiple short, scenario-focused training throughout the year than to try cramming all the training into one, massive session. Rather than a one-time hit, think of your training as an education process that includes training, exercises, hands-on drills, and evaluation. This all funnels back into the planning when you discover (through training) the strengths and weaknesses of your community’s capabilities, procedures, manpower, equipment, and facilities in real-world scenarios.

Doing this in a training management solution, like PowerDMS, can help save both time and money. You can host and track these trainings online to ensure employees know and understand the plan. By hosting it in the same software as your planning documents, you can easily cross-reference the plan in the training, so when one is updated, the information stays current.

Bottom line? Our tool would help you get control of all the moving pieces involved in planning for an emergency.

In summary, think of emergency response planning as a continuous process in which your efforts evolve over time to reflect your community’s threats, needs, and resources.

Start wherever you are and tap into whatever resources you have. Work (and communicate with) your community. And train, monitor, assess, and modify every step of the way. In doing so, you are protecting lives and communities as best you can.

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