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Emergency Planning 101

Emergency Planning 101

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower

Does your community have an emergency plan? Chances are there is one on the shelf somewhere.

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC 118-30-060) requires each “political subdivision”—read that as every city, town, and county—to have a current plan of operations based on a hazard analysis (pick your favorite or favorites). Although special purpose districts are not mandated to plan, emergency management planning is beneficial, especially for districts providing essential public services. 

As described in the WAC 118-30-060,  a current plan of operations must contain the following five elements:

  1. Mission/purpose: an explanation of why the plan has been established and the situation and/or assumptions on which the plan has been based.
  2. Organization and responsibilities: a list of agencies involved, the chain of command, and the organizational relationship between these agencies, including specific responsibilities for each agency involved.
  3. Concept of operations: a general explanation of how the plan is to be implemented and performed.
  4. Administration and logistics: a document describing the use of resources in response and recovery and how those actions will be financed. The processes implemented in this element are critical to cost recovery.
  5. Direction and control: a description of the local emergency operating center(s) and the mechanisms for maintaining continuity of your unit of government.

After this initial description, WAC 118-30-060 then includes, literally from A-Z, a list of all the operations that need to be addressed. Since you can all read the WAC for yourselves, I want to discuss in plain and simple language your role, as a civil servant, when the stuff “hits the fan.”

The Phases of Emergency Management

Emergency management can be thought of as having four phases.

Phase 1: Preparation. We already discussed a bit of this. It’s important to do a plan not just because the law requires it but because the process of doing it helps imprint an action plan on your mind when you need it.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” and there’s truth in these axioms. Even if your plan goes out the window soon after an emergency at least it points you in the right direction. It’s literally better than nothing. This phase also includes the public education part: Having even a small percentage of your populace informed and prepared themselves multiplies your agency’s capacity.

Phase 2: Mitigation. Like preparation, this phase also takes place in advance of the event.

Remember when I said “pick your favorite” disaster? During the mitigation phase you do what you can to lessen the impact of whatever you think might be the most likely eventuality.

You might seek grant funding to reinforce essential structures, install backup power supplies, or simply adjust priorities in the annual budget to address some identified need or vulnerability. Something as relatively simple and inexpensive as backing up important records to safe storage can be invaluable later on. Even if your agency never experiences an emergency it will be better off because of the attention given to mitigating risks.

Phase 3: Response. This is it. Whether you’re ready or not your worst nightmare is here and you are dealing with the immediacy of a disaster. All hands are on deck to help reduce casualties and damage and to expedite recovery. Typical response activities in phase 3 include warning, evacuation, rescue, and similar operations.

Let’s visualize what happens in an emergency: Imagine one of those garden water features where one container fills to the brim and spills into the next one, which in turn fills until it spills over, and on and on. Think of disaster response that way. Your responsibility is to handle as much as you can at your level with the resources you have at your disposal.

When you have exhausted all resources, you must ask for help from a larger unit of government in the chain of command until the resources needed require push the emergency to the top where the buck literally stops with the POTUS.

Luckily, in my career I never needed to go beyond the governor’s office, but every day brings new emergency events to some part of the country where a disaster declaration may eventually be needed by the President to authorize emergency response resources from the federal government.

Phase 4: Recovery. Some phase 4 activities start during the planning phase and continue during an emergency event.  For example, your staff will need procedures to document expenses for resources consumed in a response phase. Without these records financial assistance from a higher level can be delayed or, even worse, disallowed.

All the activity associated with reconstruction, repair, and rebuilding to restore your community starts even before the response phase ends. Examples of such activities include getting your infrastructure functioning again, helping victims return to permanent housing, community redevelopment activities, and long-term planning.

What’s Your Plan?

There it is: Emergency management distilled to its essence.

Take a look around your jurisdiction for its emergency management plan, review it, and consider whether it has the strength to serve as an organizing document during what is likely to be a tumultuous time. Does the plan make sense? What additional activities can your jurisdiction do to address mitigation measures in a systematic way? In answering these and other questions, always follow the Scout motto and “Be Prepared.”

Additional Resources

For more information on emergency preparedness for local government, here are some resources:

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me at

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.