Planning to Fail?

29 Nov

We can all agree that all governments, local, state and Federal, have an obligation to provide certain essential services to their citizens. We also probably expect, optimistically, that our local governments have plans to ensure these essential services can be delivered during a disaster or disruption of some kind. We might be wrong.

The concept of continuity of government planning has been around for a while, but it did not come into its own until after Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. Scenes of devastation from New Orleans were broadcast around the globe. Local governments were seemingly incapable of providing essential services during the disaster. The situation became politically unacceptable very quickly. It is tragic that reforms are enacted only after it is too late.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 – National Continuity Policy, was released in 2007. It ordered Federal departments and agencies to identify the mission essential functions they perform, and develop procedures to ensure those functions could be carried out. The Federal government is forced to comply with this. Good for them. What good does that do you, wherever you are? What has your local government (city or county) done to ensure they are ready? Odds are, not too much.

Local government is not forced to have continuity plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has put out two excellent documents, Continuity Guidance Circulars 1 and 2, to assist local governments. The key term is guidance. Many soft, pleasing words are in the prefaces of these documents, emphasizing cooperation across local, state and Federal governments, extolling integration of planning efforts, etc., etc. Unless the individual States mandate continuity plans, it is possible your local jurisdiction doesn’t have one.

There are a few very basic reasons why your town may not have a continuity of government plan:

  1. They might not know what it is. This is not intended as criticism; some law enforcement and fire department personnel are “volunteered” as emergency management coordinators and receive little to no formal training in the discipline. The term literally may be no more than a vague memory from a boring PowerPoint years past.
  2. They don’t know how to do it. Local officials may not know how to get started. If DHS had put out the guidance for local jurisdictions, they would have been 300 pages each, filled with technical jargon and a sure cure for insomnia. Because FEMA, a professional agency, developed the guidance the result is a model in brevity and clarity. So simple, so clear . . . Unfortunately, these “volunteered” planners may not know where to find the training materials.
  3. They aren’t made to do it. Local officials probably won’t undertake the project on their own initiative, unless a bright emergency management official pushes for it. If nobody else cares, why should they?

Some naysayers out there may ask: “Who cares?” After all, civilization has endured for thousands of years without FEMA and their silly continuity guidance, right? If a disaster strikes, “they” will make it work somehow, won’t they? Perhaps “they” will, but at what cost?

Is a 14-day power failure, instead of a six-day failure, acceptable to you? How about a $30 million bill because your jurisdiction had to secure an emergency contract with a private ambulance company to transport casualties, because all the Fire Dept. ambulances were submerged in five feet of water, because your elected officials ignored a recommendation to relocate the fire station out of a floodplain? How about a $10 million bill because the vital records at the County Clerks Office, both paper and electronic, were not backed up and a false fire alarm soaked the office with one foot of water and destroyed 80% of the records? How about a response to a mass casualty incident taking much longer than it should because the County Emergency Operations Center was destroyed and there was no alternate site? Is this acceptable to you? It shouldn’t be.

Local governments have an obligation to their citizens to ensure they can provide essential services. How many of them are owning up to this responsibility?


Department of Homeland Security. (2007). Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 – National Continuity Policy. Retrieved from

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2009). Continuity Guidance Circular 1. Retrieved from

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2010). Continuity Guidance Circular 2. Retrieved from

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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Uncategorized


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