Three Critical Oversights in Emergency Planning

November 13, 2023

Effective response by an emergency management organization (EMO) is dependent on strong relationships. Emergency planning involves a highly complex network of organizations, businesses, teams, and individuals. Successfully planning for emergencies caused by disaster requires cohesion between all of these interconnected parties. 

Many critical oversights that happen in the emergency planning and response process are due to a hierarchical management structure. To get out ahead of these common oversights, emergency management organizations need to rethink how they distribute power and responsibility.

In this article, we’ll discuss what hierarchical emergency management teams commonly overlook, including:

  • Communication channels between emergency organizers and responders.
  • Qualitative insights about recovery priorities from the community. 
  • Long-term emergency planning that facilitates resilience and risk mitigation. 

How a Hierarchical Management Structure Hinders Effective Emergency Planning 

Team dynamics factor heavily into emergency planning, response, and recovery. Even for the average organization, building and maintaining effective teams is a challenge on its own. Under emergency circumstances, the strength of emergency management teams is tested. Disasters present community members, emergency management organizations, and responders with intense, stressful circumstances. Leaders, as well as affected individuals, need to make effective decisions under pressure—often while experiencing personal distress.  

A hierarchical management structure is common in public and private (enterprise) emergency management teams. It’s also the structure used by our government and therefore shapes government-led disaster response. However, hierarchical management structures can impede successful disaster management. The nature of hierarchical management slows (or blocks) bottom-up communication and reduces collaboration between departments at different levels of authority. 

During a disaster, this control-and-command approach leads to fragmentation where critical information isn’t reaching leaders and decision-makers. Ultimately, emergency response plans must ensure the safety and recovery of individuals lowest in the hierarchy. However, in the emergency planning process, the hierarchy prevents meaningful input from those “at the bottom” of the chain of command, namely, the victims of disaster and those responding to an emergency on the ground. 

An alternative to hierarchy is a network structure which can support greater equity in emergency management. Networks rely on communication and collaboration between parties that are considered to have equal authority. A network structure is more adaptable and facilitates interaction between everyone impacted by disaster. 

Learn more about the pitfalls of hierarchical management structures in Management Lessons from the Sinking of the SS El Faro on Harvard Business Review’s Cold Call podcast. 

Three Critical Planning Oversights Driven by Hierarchical Management Structures

1. Lacking Insight into What Those Responding Need to Do their Jobs 

When those at the top of the chain of command, such as government administrators, Emergency Command Center (ECC) Directors and/or staff, are not familiar with how a disaster situation is playing out on the ground, there can be a critical disconnect between the emergency plan and its execution. 

There are many intersecting levels of responsibility involved in disaster response. Hierarchical management structures create barriers to effective collaboration between each level. When decision-makers at the top aren’t receiving or listening to critical information from those lower in the hierarchy, they don’t have the insights they need to make informed decisions. 

Those who are lowest in the management hierarchy are likely to include individuals responding to disasters (such as emergency services, temporary housing teams, food services, and facilities support etc.). Emergency planning must take into account what emergency management team members on the ground are most likely to need while leaving room for flexibility to address unexpected challenges in the moment.

It’s critical to maintain an open and reciprocal line of communication between those on the ground and those responsible for coordination and planning at all levels. Part of an effective emergency plan is establishing a protocol for communication that ensures those on the ground are heard—and, more importantly, listened to. Those on the ground must be regarded as the authority on what’s happening and what the community needs. 

When organizations work collaboratively—rather than hierarchically—it ensures greater efficiency, better resource distribution, and more effective response that can potentially reduce or eliminate destruction, loss of life, and negative psycho-social impacts.  

Get support strengthening your emergency management network →

2. Overlooking What Really Matters to the Community

Emergency response plans must include community engagement. Understanding what matters most to the community helps teams allocate resources and budget to the areas that will truly support resilience. A hierarchical management structure often marginalizes the voice of the community because its members are seen as the lowest rung on the ladder of authority. This means that communities are excluded from planning and decision-making processes when they are the ones who will be affected by them. 

Acknowledging and establishing community members as sources of insight and wisdom in the emergency planning process helps managers gather qualitative data. This data can be used to inform risk mitigation strategy, emergency response planning, and priorities for building back better. The qualitative data community members can provide includes: 

  • Which sources of food, water, and energy they rely on most. (e.g., local grocery stores versus community farms or traditional hunting land).
  • Insights into intangible community values, such as the need for ceremony or spiritual reconnection to the land after disaster. 
  • Information about psycho-social needs to protect individual mental health and community cohesion. 
  • Greater understanding of the state of infrastructure and wildlands based on community members’ anecdotal evidence. 
  • Mitigation and prevention strategies informed by Indigenous Traditional Knowledge. 

Community engagement increases equity in emergency management. When the community is involved in emergency planning, it builds trust between governments and organizations and those they hope to serve. 

Demonstrating how emergency management plans meet the needs of the community makes it more likely that the community will actively participate in response, recovery, and rebuilding. This increases efficiency and ensures that emergency plans establish a strong foundation for the future health of the community. 

Get support conducting strategic community engagement →

3. Focusing on Short-Term Gains Rather than Long-Term Impact

As the frequency of disasters continues to increase, today’s decision-makers must understand that no disaster is natural. Human activity plays a role in both the initiation of disasters and the extent of the destruction they cause. 

Emergency management organizations must work closely with both policymakers and private enterprises that shape infrastructure, land development, and resource allocation. The decisions that these organizations make can have a deep impact on disaster risk and the ability to effectively respond to disaster. 

Emergency planning must be a cross-functional priority that spans every organization responsible for the structure and maintenance of a community. Private and public sector decision-makers need to prioritize risk mitigation and enhancing recovery capability whenever they are making investments in infrastructure and resources. 

Effective emergency planning clearly outlines the responsibilities of all the organizations within the community’s network of structural and legislative support. These responsibilities include activities like creating policies that reduce disaster risk and establishing agreements with commercial enterprises to secure their participation in disaster recovery. 

Get support with risk assessment and mitigation →

Get Support with Emergency Planning for Your Community 

Emergency planning is complex. Creating an effective plan involves communication and collaboration between many different organizations, decision-makers, and community members. 

Rebecca Innes Consulting (RIC) specializes in disaster and emergency management consulting. Our approach prioritizes community engagement and establishing collaborative relationships between everyone involved in emergency planning, response, and recovery. Our team can help you create a plan that addresses the nuanced challenges of keeping your community safe.  

<Book a consultation>

Helping you prepare for and recover from disasters through strategy, project planning, and grant writing services. Based in Alberta, Canada

RIC is fortunate and grateful to live vibrantly on the land of the Treaty 7 People – the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations (Chiniki, Bearspaw, Wesley), and the Métis Nation (Region 3). In the spirit of change, RIC is committed to seeking truth and reconciliation.

© Rebecca Innes Consulting 2023