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Planning for “What If”


It seems like there are plenty of disasters to test our capability as a nation and as individual communities, so why would we spend time thinking up – and planning for – a disaster even bigger than what we’ve seen in our lifetime, in the U.S.?

In 2011, we had a pretty impressive lineup of catastrophic tornadoes and flooding here in the U.S. Elsewhere in the world, there were more floods, as well as the 3-part crisis of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami/nuclear tragedy. Nobody ever thinks anything on that scale would happen, but it does. Less than a hundred years ago, the U.S. suffered upward of 650,000 deaths as the pandemic influenza of 1918 swept the globe, ultimately claiming an estimated 50 million lives around the world.

Although the majority of us will never live through an experience like that, and we hope never again to see something like that at home, we have an obligation as a nation to continue to push ourselves to prepare for what we call the “Maximum of Maximums.” Moreover, we as a nation must come together as a Whole Community to plan, prepare for, and if necessary, respond to a catastrophic event.

In keeping with this theme, FEMA has launched the fourth topic for public discussion on its online collaboration site – The Whole Community: Planning for the Unthinkable. With this new topic, we invite the private sector, non-profits, voluntary organizations and the general public to brainstorm truly innovative ways to fill critical gaps in the first 72 hours of response, like search and rescue or operational communications or medical response.

Will something like this ever happen? Hopefully not. But by planning for the worst, we will be in better shape than ever to respond to the “likely.” I hope you will join us in a productive dialogue, and help spread the word.

Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:28


As I tell my students neither I nor any professor speaks from a position of infallibility so please do not construe my comments and my observations/suggestions that way. My comment(s) are based upon our work in effecting communication and collaboration during the first 72 to 96 hours with the private sector. The main reason for our work which has led to the Business Emergency Operations Center (BEOC) construct is a perceived weakness in the incident command framework and resulting incident management systems (WEBEOC, E-team, others). This framework does not adequately address anticipatory processes that take place by the private sector and Northern Command during the onset of a response. Both the private sector and Northern Command sit “outside” incident command structures but need to anticipate initially what the “event” means to themselves while in parallel engaging in behaviors that could allow them as “sectors” to help others. On paper it appears that both sectors are communicatively involved. The DoD has DCOs that work within public sector jurisdictions so in that vein there is some level of connection. However the private sector does not have similar communication “lynch pins” that generalize across the incident command/management framework.<br />In our view the ICS is heavily public sector oriented and leaves little or no space in integrating the private sector within response scenarios. There have been attempts to do this integration if and only if the private sector is viewed through the lens of Critical Infrastructure Key Resource (CIKR) owners and operators. This view is very myopic.<br />During the onset of a response, the initial hours involve the identification of what needs to be responded to. CIKR owners and operators (electric, gas, communications, transportation, etc.) will respond on their own depending upon how incident management is performed and will communicate to certain operation centers the status of what they are doing. How these jurisdictional operation centers communicate and collaborate with the rest of the private sector (which are the community economic drivers) is very weak, uncertain, and often times not addressed.<br />The rest of the private sector (non CIKR owners and operators) are left to their own designs unless on their own they have planned ahead of time to integrate communicatively with certain jurisdictional information sources (city, county, state, region, other). But the main reason this integration is done is to ensure business continuity, not government continuity, which suggests private sector behavior during a response directed toward sustaining economic viability and resilience in the wake of an escalating catastrophic event. Initially during the first 72-96 hours private sector assessments need to be made to ensure that the “event” does not do harm to critical supply chains.<br />Once supply chain viability is addressed and taken care of then the private sector can assist during a response.<br />In circling back to what I said about anticipation by the private sector and DoD, if the “Whole of Community” approach is going to work then anticipatory processes (organizational process loops) need to be understood and synchronized communicatively during response as well as recovery dimensions of EM. The incident command structure does not address this synchronization very well.