Emergency Planning for Humanitarian Aid Organizations
by Roger Mason PhD
Aid organizations operate in some of the most hazardous conditions in the world. How do you prepare for the contingencies of working in dangerous environments? This article covers the steps needed to develop a practical and comprehensive plan from developing a hazard baseline to organizing an evacuation.
Humanitarian aid organizations come in a wide variety of functions and sizes. Some agencies have a worldwide outreach with thousands of staff, while others are single organizations providing a specialized service in one location. Larger organizations often employ security and risk managers responsible for emergency and security planning. This article is intended for organizations that do not have a central or onsite emergency/security manager.
What Type of Plan?
Organizations developing an emergency plan often consider what the plan should cover. Some organizations develop plans for the problem they consider the most significant threat. After a major flooding event, an organization may desire a disaster plan. Organizations victimized by criminals or terrorists develop a security plan. This type of planning is a natural approach to single set problem-solving.
This approach assumes this is the only emergency the organization will encounter. It does not include the emergence of new hazards or those unanticipated circumstances which may present new threats. Any factors that destabilize physical, social, health, safety, or political conditions may evolve into new threat combinations.
Local flooding may cause a food shortage leading to attacks on food convoys. A natural disaster problem has now evolved into a health and security issue. Risk managers refer to this type of situation as a cascading effect. If your plan is one-dimensional, you will be unprepared for additional threats. Emergency planning should consider a variety of hazards.
Employing a Threat/Hazard Based Approach
A threat/hazard-based approach is a risk management technique that assesses various environmental and human-caused threats. (The terms threat and hazard can be used interchangeably.) This approach includes general plans recognizing that some actions or procedures are foundational to all emergencies. It also includes actions for specific types of contingencies.
Objective of your Plans
There are two objectives you should consider for your plan.
Developing an organizational framework
The emergency plan should contain an organizational framework. This framework is where you attach your processes and procedures. The Oxford American Dictionary defines a process as “a series of things done to achieve a particular result.” Procedures are the specific actions for each of the things in your process. The more organized your plan is, the easier it will be to use. Your goal should not be to include everything but to organize what you do include carefully.
Banking time for an uncertain future
Preparing an emergency plan provides the opportunity to bank time for an uncertain future. When an aid organization becomes involved in a critical incident, one of the most precious resources will be time. This resource is the time needed to organize, evaluate, and act. People incorrectly assume they will be able to effectively evaluate the situation, make optimal choices, and act once an emergency occurs.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky studied the problem of decision-making during periods of increased risk. They noted that decision-makers assume they will be able to evaluate information and effectively act. Their research discovered the volume of unfamiliar information often overwhelms decision-makers. They observed plans usually take more time than assumed and have unforeseen obstacles. Finally, the researchers determined these conditions can lead to results unanticipated by the decision-makers.
This situation is sometimes known as being Overtaken by Events (OBE). As a
decision-maker is trying to assess the situation and develop a plan, the critical incident eventually overwhelms their ability to evaluate and act. Humanitarian organizations with a well-developed emergency plan are banking future decisions and actions. Instead of starting at ground zero, decision-makers can move rapidly into the response cycle, providing them more time to evaluate, decide, and act.
Developing a Threat/Hazard Profile
What to prepare for is determined by your threats and hazards. Threats are natural or human-caused. Natural threats include natural disasters or weather conditions, which can result in an emergency. Human-caused threats include accidents, crimes, terrorism, and unrest.
A common belief in some organizations is the lack of a past incident precludes future incidents. People often presume a decision-maker’s experience will allow them to recognize threats and avoid them. The Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, was recognized as highly experienced with 25 years of service on the trans-Atlantic passage. There had never been a cruise ship lost to a collision with an iceberg.
Establishing a Baseline
A baseline is defined as “a minimum level for conducting comparisons.” A threat baseline provides a foundation for accurate threat assessments. This begins by developing a list of natural and human-caused threats. They should be unique to the country where you are. What are your annual weather patterns? Are you subject to natural disasters like earthquakes or flooding? Do you have recurring health emergencies like Ebola outbreaks? Human-caused threats can include political unrest, terrorism, crime, and environmental accidents. You must also review historic trends and patterns that may provide greater understanding when and how these types of threats will occur.
Monitoring Real-Time Threat Conditions
Once you develop a threat baseline, you must begin monitoring the real-time threat level. This review should be conducted on three levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. Strategic monitoring should include what is happening throughout your region. Are there terrorist organizations attempting to destabilize surrounding countries? Strategic information is available from various open sources provided by the government, international organizations, and private intelligence services.
Operational assessments should evaluate what is happening in the country where you are located. Is there a pending regime change? Are there new laws that will impact your operations? Sometimes information can be gathered from national and local news sources. In some countries the content of the news is directly controlled by the central government. Personal contacts from your local embassy or a government official you work with can provide useful information.
The tactical level is what is happening around you. Some people incorrectly assume an understanding of tactical conditions is sufficient to provide your threat profile’s overall context. Tactical information provides information about the immediate environment around your operation. It can provide warnings of a pending emergency. Many humanitarian organizations have fallen victim to attackers who are either in their immediate service population or are locals serving in your organization. Tactical information may not prevent such an attack but may offer warnings.
Gathering tactical information involves relationships. Relationships take time and trust. The more time and effort you invest building relationships the wider and deeper your information pool will be. You cannot expect to suddenly reach out to locals you barely know and expect them to share information that could harm them if the source was disclosed.
Cross Validating Your Assessment
It is essential to cross validate your assessments. Cross validation means you seek outside sources to validate or challenge your conclusions. It is vital to have trusted external sources at each level. At the strategic and operational level, you need someone outside of your country to provide a wider focus with a different perspective. At the tactical level it must be local people that you trust.
Organizing Your Plan
A well-organized plan should allow a reader to find the information they need quickly. It is important to remember people may review the plan without firsthand knowledge about your organization. (Ex: Your embassy organizing an evacuation or rescue of your team).
Annexes and Appendices
One of the easiest ways to organize the plan is using the annex and appendix system recommended by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency. The annexes divide the emergency plan into topical sections. This system allows the users to locate the information they need easily.
Your annex sections should be divided into administrative, functional, and operational topics. It should include a table of contents.
Administrative: How are you organized?
This annex explains how your organization is structured. It should provide a complete description of your administration, staff, and any stakeholders. It should include your administrative org chart. This annex explains the organization of your leadership.
Functional: How do things work?
This annex describes your organization’s “nuts and bolts”. The functional annex should include your communications, vehicles, utilities, logistics, and fuel storage system. It should offer a description of your campus and individual buildings including your housing facilities. These systems and resources represent your daily living and working conditions and may serve as the basis for possible survival operations.
Operational: What do we do, and how do we do it?
What will we do if an emergency occurs?
There are two parts to the operational annex. The first part explains your daily operations. It should describe what your organization does, and the systems designed to support these activities. It should explain how your staff works to accomplish this. The second part is the lists of your threats/hazards and your immediate action plans. These are the various situations that require an emergency response. Examples might include being attacked on the road or the kidnapping of a staff member.
The first part of the operations annex should provide a snapshot of your typical daily operations. This part of the annex shows where and how your staff is employed. This information is vital if your staff works from a central base combined with field activities. This section should include information about your clients. Do they form crowds waiting for services or supplies? This information should be included in summary
Emergency operations are what you will do during an emergency or security incident. This section should list mission-critical infrastructure like your utilities. It should include your procedures for restoring or replacing a particular service and your contingency “work arounds.” (Ex: your solar-powered electrical system is damaged. What diesel generators are available, and how will you employ them?)
This section should include a list of the hazards and threats developed during your assessment. Local hazards should have a brief explanation where they are located and how they interact with your location. An example might be a stream crossing a road. During a rain event, this stream may become impassable. Each of these items/topics should have an immediate action plan.
Immediate action plans are the heart of your emergency response. They provide the staff with a set of actions they should employ during an emergency. The immediate action plan are simple procedures for the threats identified in your threat assessment. These plans provide an immediate starting place to organize and protect staff during a sudden emergency. (Ex: Unrest in a neighborhood village where your satellite clinic is located, a criminal attack on your campus, or a loss of power.)
Part of the operational annex is a two-part evacuation plan. The first part involves when and how your team will self-evacuate. This section includes logistics. communications, vehicle operations and travel routes. This section should include personal preparations for evacuation.
The second part is your rescue plan. If the situation prevents self-evacuation, you may be forced to shelter in place waiting for an outside rescue operation. This could be an overland evacuation by an armed rescue force or an air evacuation employing helicopters. The difference between the rescue plan and the self-evacuation plan is the rescue plan is about preparing to leave while remaining in place.
The appendix is where vital information is stored. This annex should include important phone numbers, address and contact information for safe locations, and any detailed information that staff might require like lists of personal survival items. It may include specific details on how to operate pieces of equipment (ex: fuel pump, generator, satellite phone.)
Managing Your Plan
An emergency management plan is only as useful as the effort to manage and maintain it. Two areas require continual attention: organizing a crisis management team (who is in charge) and developing decision and operational protocols (what are their guidelines).
Organizing a Crisis Management Team (CMT)
Aid organizations should develop a CMT to manage their emergency planning and operations. The CMT should be the organizational and operational focal point of your emergency management efforts. The CMT has four functions: conducting situation assessments, developing emergency and security policies, managing program requirements, and managing operations during an emergency. The CMT should meet monthly but the frequency of their activities depends on the safety situation.
Conducting Situation Assessments
The situation assessment is a review of the safety and security situation. Any events that occurred in the previous month should be reviewed (Ex: A shooting incident in a local town where the staff shops for supplies.) The purpose of the assessment is to determine what happened and if adjustments to the safety and security policies are needed.
Developing Emergency and Security Policies
Your policies should be divided into long-range planning and contingency-based adjustments. The CMT must look ahead while tracking real-time issues. This review may result in policy changes.
Managing Program Requirements
If the standards developed by the CMT are not maintained your plan may lack functonality. (Ex: testing equipment, inspecting supplies, conducting training).
Managing Operations During an Emergency
If an emergency occurs, the CMT should manage operations.
Developing Your Decision/Operational Protocols
An organization’s decision and operations protocols set the direction for how your emergency operations will function. Often there are competing opinions about these important guidelines. It is best to work through these issues before they are needed. Getting feedback and consensus will not be possible in the middle of a security incident or emergency. The six areas for consideration include:
People assume that the repetition of daily decision-making will prepare them for decision making during periods of uncertainty and risk. Kahneman and Tversky discovered this was not the case. Organizations should develop simple plans for who is responsible for making decisions, what decisions they can make, and when decisions will be made. This strategy does not limit the necessity for contingency based decisions but establishes a framework for the decision process. Decision authority should be connected to a person’s responsibility and authority within the organization. (Ex: The administrative director versus a seasonal intern)
Establishing Operational Levels
Emergency plans should include defined operational levels. A typical system employs color coding. Each color represents a certain risk level, which determines the level of operations. (Ex: green for normal operations and red for an extreme risk level with operations suspended.) This system simplifies the management of the organization. Staff members can consult their operational chart and determine what activities are appropriate for the current operations level.
Relying on Quantifiable Factors
Experience is valuable. People’s intuition can be a useful addition to the
decision-making process. The problem is people’s experience and intuition can vary greatly. An essential part of your plan is identifying factors that can be quantified.
An example is average hourly rainfall. From experience a certain amount of rainfall in a fixed period results in the main access road washing out. Quantifiable factors can be evaluated, and their impact compared with other risks. This approach can simplify and accelerate decision-making by eliminating speculation.
Developing Survival Procedures/Skills
Survival procedures/skills include tasks that every member of your team must be proficient with. These are sometimes referred to as “lifeboat skills.” Basic survival skills that will keep your team alive. A self-evacuation requires vehicles. Every staff member should know where your fuel is stored and how to pump it. Everyone should know how to operate your satellite phone or use the emergency generators.
Determining Mission-Critical Priorities
During a critical incident it may not be practical to offer every service you normally provide. This includes your client services as well as the support services for your staff. By pre-determining mission-critical priorities, you avoid wasting decision time deciding what is essential and how to organize your resources.
A key part of your evacuation plan should be the steps required to shut down your operations. Depending on the circumstances, there may be time to protect some of your infrastructure and protect your information technology resources. This may include backing up sensitive documents to the Cloud or removing computer hard drives.
Organizations developing emergency plans should standardize requirements for their team members. During emergencies the absence of standardization often results in confusion and organizational shortfalls. If you tell your team to “collect survival supplies for two days” you may end up with a wide variety of what everyone considers critical for survival. The disparity in the content may make pooling resources and redistribution difficult.
Another advantage of standardization is it saves time. CMT leaders do not have to evaluate each staff member’s preparations. Standardization helps to speed your mobilization for evacuation or rescue.
Preparing to Employ the Plan
Just having a current emergency management plan is not sufficient to ensure its successful employment.
Organizations should prepare a training curriculum. This should include reviewing the emergency management plan, the land evacuation plan, and practicing contingency related skills. Familiarity with the emergency plan can fade, and fluency with survival skills are perishable. You should plan annual refresher training.
Developing Your Bench
Developing your bench refers to training people for a variety of roles during an emergency. In most organizations certain members have more significant skills in various areas. You should develop other team members that can take their place if your prime member is incapacitated. If you only have one person who can start up your emergency generator, you have a single point of failure.
Exercises are different than training. Exercises are planned events where portions of your emergency plans are tested. Exercises can help you evaluate your readiness to employ your plan and provide your staff members an opportunity to take actions while simulating an emergency. When planning your exercise, you should determine what your objectives are. If you conduct an emergency evacuation exercise, you might ask team members to assemble with their survival supplies, conduct a simulated vehicle preparation drill, and review the evacuation routes. You have exercised tasks and knowledge related to an evacuation without leaving your campus.
What to Avoid
As you read this article you may be wondering just how large a document is required to cover everything I have mentioned. It is better to have a simpler document that is easy to use instead of a large plan that has everything but is awkward to implement. Writing your plan can be daunting. Most organizations cannot take the time to go through the steps outlined in this article. I would recommend finding an experienced contractor that can help you prepare your plan.
Summary: Three Points of Encouragement
When I discuss the issues in this article, I often hear the same comments. 1. This is very interesting, but doing this would involve work and time that takes away from our calling. 2. We need to focus on what we do. The quality and level of our efforts are the foundation for our preparedness. 3. We have plenty of experience in the field to deal with these problems. Things always seem to work out.
Having a Plan Offers You Stability
The impact of emergencies can be lessened if you plan. There are no plans that can eliminate risk but being prepared offers your organization stability.
Planning Allows You to Keep Doing What You Are Called to Do
Taking time to plan along the way will limit the need to drop everything to prepare for a looming crisis. If your preparation and planning are in place, your mission centric functions may continue.
Planning and Preparation Offer Comfort and Reassurance to the People You Serve.
You are not the only people who will be aware of trouble. The people you serve will know what is coming. They will be evaluating your response and organization. Your level of preparation and organization can provide comfort and reassure those you serve.
The types of problems facing modern humanitarian aid organizations are not new. The ancient Hebrew history found in the Book of Nehemiah dates to the fifth century BC. The text provides a detailed account of the humanitarian project to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Within the story is a description of Nehemiah’s contingency planning for possible terrorist attacks against the construction project. His plan included a threat assessment and an immediate action plan if attacked. Great humanitarian efforts often involve risk. Risk can be mitigated by planning and preparations. This never changes.