Emergency Planning and Preparedness for Corporate Offices: Part 2

Jan. 4, 2005
How to assess, qualify and hire an emergency preparedness planner

[Editor's Note: This is the second part of a series of articles from Walter Ulmer, president of REMLU Inc., an emergency preparedness firm. His first article presented a checklist on emergency preparedness, this article addresses choosing an emergency preparedness planner and his third article will help walk you through the creation of your emergency response plan. Related articles are linked at the bottom of this story.]

You are faced with the dilemma which many corporate-level security officials are faced: increasing emergency preparedness requirements arising from local, state and federal directives along with growing client inquiries over specific preparedness policies in your corporation require you to "shore up" your emergency preparedness. Yet, you have insufficient time to organize, coordinate, integrate and validate a realistic emergency preparedness plan for your company.

You have identified a number of options. You might take on the task of emergency preparedness planning yourself, but you are already swamped dealing with day-to-day security challenges. You had hoped for additional funding to establish a position of Director of Emergency Preparedness, but your company is not authorizing any new positions at this time. None of your colleagues have the experience (or the time) to take on the additional role of developing and coordinating your emergency preparedness program. Your solution? Outsource; hire a consultant to develop your emergency preparedness plan.

There is a broad spectrum of companies offering emergency preparedness planning services. At one end of the spectrum reside former first-responders who are technical experts and have usually had experience with incident response. Normally, they have specialized experience in technical and/or tactical level training, incident command and control and, in some cases, risk analysis and assessment. Few at this end of the spectrum have a breadth of planning experience outside of their respective technical areas.

At the other end of the spectrum lie strategic-level firms that have top-level officials who bring name recognition to their product. While some have operational-level planning experience, many have most of their experience in strategic-level policymaking and may never have had the experience of rolling up their sleeves and sitting around a table to hash out emergency preparedness protocols. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the person you are looking for. This article considers what that person (or team) should look like.

Developing your requirements:
Just what exactly are you looking for?

Before you begin the process of hiring a planner, you may need to spend some time defining exactly what products and services you require. Are you looking for a risk assessment? A physical security plan? A review of existing plans? Development of an emergency preparedness strategy? Development of emergency response protocols for your organization? Facilitation for your own planning process? Perhaps you are looking for an exercise program to coordinate your plan with other agencies or someone to train your employees on existing procedures. There is, indeed, a difference between security programs and emergency preparedness programs. The former is generally associated with physical security, access control and incident prevention; the latter is a much broader preparation, response and mitigation program of which physical security and access control are an important part.

Whatever your requirements, the major difference between many planning consultancies is their methodology. Many so-called preparedness planners use a "cookie-cutter" approach: through a series of meetings and interviews with company officials, they gather information and develop a plan for you. The document, in all its glory, sits in a three-ring binder on your shelf. No one, with the exception of yourself, is familiar with the plan and many don't even know it exists. While this appears to be an efficient method of "planning" and certainly minimizes time requirements on the company's staff, it develops a document that is likely useless during an emergency.

A better method is a planning program in which key company staff participates in a series of planning workshops, meetings and, if desired, exercises. (The third article in this series will address the characteristics of an effective planning process). Your consultant facilitates the process, understanding that the strength of the eventual plan lies in the interactive process that the staff has experienced. It is more time consuming but, in the end, the staff "owns" its plan and is much more likely to implement it competently in the event of an emergency.

Your requirements will drive the planner's functions. Will he be a program manager, responsible for ensuring the program stays on track and is completed within budget and the time allocated? (How many firms have hired planners, only to find out the process drags on and on?). Will the planner serve as your voice within the organization? How well can the planner act as a conduit of information between senior and subordinate divisions within your company? Do you expect this person to be a subject matter technical expert in certain areas? What levels of latitude and freedom will you allow your planner within your organization? A good planner makes the effort to understand organizational culture and, to a degree, becomes a part of the organization during his tenure.

As you develop your requirements and search for a planner, it is not uncommon that your requirements may change. Watch as you move through the selection process to see how your prospective consultants analyze your existing plans and programs. An experienced planner will be able to assess your organization's programs, help you articulate your requirements, and suggest options available. And, perhaps most importantly, an honest planner will not have you sign up for more than you need.

Qualifications versus Experience:
"A highly qualified expert does not always a good planner make."

Often, the first screening criterion used in selecting a preparedness planner is technical qualifications. Corporate security officials tend to look for planners that "look like themselves." A former police detective now working as a security director may be more comfortable with a former local law enforcement official. A building's fire safety director may be more likely to hire a retired battalion fire chief.

While it may seem to make sense to select a consultant that understands your language, an effective emergency preparedness planner must have a broad view to effectively manage all of the challenges associated with planning for often complex and diverse organizations. In a sense, he must be "all things to all people." An initial screening should be based on his planning and operational experience, as well as any functionally-specific technical qualifications. Has the person you are considering hiring had a broad range of planning experiences? Has he ever developed operational plans that he had to implement? How often has he developed and delivered operational exercises? Have the exercises addressed tactical-level training or management-level decision-making? Has he ever been a resource manager? A fiscal manager? A sound planner does not necessarily need to know how to operate a specific piece of equipment, but he must be able to understand its capabilities and limitations and where it fits into the bigger picture.

A second mistake often made in hiring a planner is basing his planning qualifications on his "contacts." It is no secret that business is often rewarded based on who knows who; private corporations, cities, counties and states are apt to award work locally. It seems to make good sense to hire someone who is familiar with the operating environment. However, you should not overlook the benefits of "outside" consultants, who have no specific affiliation with organizations (public or private) from the local area and are able to bring fresh perspectives and objectivity to the process. They do not carry the burden, perceived or real, of having been affiliated with one emergency response agency or another. A competent planner will quickly establish necessary contacts in the area and a competent planning company will ensure it builds planning teams with knowledge of local issues. Contacts are important but objectivity is paramount.

Who do you want hanging around your organization?

Perhaps the most important considerations for selecting a good planner (and probably more important than his technical qualifications or specific area of expertise) are the characteristics that a planner can bring to your organization. A good planner understands his place in life, the planning process, and nuances associated with planning. Here are some characteristics that are worthwhile to consider:

Outlook: Perhaps the most important characteristic of a planner is his outlook. He should not be myopic, but think "globally," both horizontally and vertically. He should be open-minded to new ideas. He constantly asks himself, "What have I missed?" He must stretch the thought processes of planning participants with "what if" questions. And, at the end of the process, he understands the plan is not his but belongs to those who must implement it should the need arise.

Objectivity: We reviewed the importance of objectivity above. A competent planner has no agenda. He maintains a neutral point of view. How many planning processes have been stymied by agendas, politics, and positions?

Inclusion: A prominent characteristic of the planning process, the planner must demand inclusion. A competent planner asks, "Whose voice are we missing" and ensures all necessary viewpoints are represented during the process from within the organization and, in some cases, from outside the organization.

Ethics: What other products is the planner trying to sell? Is he part of a larger company? Will his planning process identify needs that can be filled by other departments within his company? A pure planner is not a salesman but is only a planner.

Program Management: We mentioned the importance of program management above. A good planner has extensive experience as a program manager. Your staff's time is valuable. After about two postponed meetings or exercises, program momentum can slow to an unrecoverable degree. The consultant must keep the program on track.

Breadth of Experience: Developing emergency action plans for commercial hi-rise buildings is different than developing preparedness plans for regional health departments. However, the basic tenets of planning are similar. Ask your candidates what specific planning programs they have undertaken. A good planner understands the basics of the planning process and the nuances involved in tailoring plans, processes and exercises for different types of organizations.

Company Size. A big company does not always mean a better product, especially when it comes to planning. Planning, by its nature, is a personal, time-intensive operation. With the frequent start up of emergency preparedness and security service companies over the past few years, many smaller companies can provide the same (or even better) levels of expertise, flexibility and responsiveness than can larger companies. Top-notch preparedness planners can be found in even the smallest companies at much less cost.

Communications: How quickly is your planner able to understand the intent of the corporate leadership and how well does he articulate this intent, policies and procedures throughout the organization. Is he able to grasp your broad guidance and turn it into realistic, sufficiently detailed and workable plans? Is he able to act as a conduit, bringing concerns and information from lower levels in the organization to upper levels without losing confidence of employees or management? Does he listen well? Good planners can communicate with everyone from the technical level to the strategic level.

Currency: Research, research and more research. Good planners are incessant researchers. Behind the scenes they spend considerable time researching current laws and regulations, keeping abreast of best practices, and ensuring competence in their particular areas. Choose a planner who has affiliations which can provide him current information across a broad range of disciplines.

Integrity: A good planner acknowledges his ignorance. He knows when to say "I don't know" or "this won't work." He knows that plans are never perfect and is able to identify and articulate a plan's weak points.

Accessibility: Ever had a consultant you just couldn't get hold of? No matter how hard you tried? How accessible is your planner? Can you call him whenever you want? Are there additional fees for contacting him?

Scope of Responsibility: A planner is not a decision maker. Instead, he is a decision facilitator. While free thinking, he understands his role is to capture options and possibilities and coordinate decisions from the appropriate level of management. Often planners are asked to make decisions or recommendations regarding a particular emergency preparedness protocol or policy. A good planner will lay out the options, provide an objective and thorough list of pros and cons, but ultimately allow the organization to make the final decision on how it chooses to operate.

In our next article, we'll discuss the planning process.

About the author: Walter F. Ulmer III is president of Remlu, inc. a veteran-owned small business dedicated to emergency preparedness planning and exercise development and delivery. He holds a bachelors degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a master of science in administration from Central Michigan University. He has over 25 years national and international planning and exercise development experience, ranging from the planning of military operations to developing preparedness plans for private corporations. He has developed emergency plans for military facilities, local jurisdictions, health departments, colleges and universities, high-rise buildings, and security service companies. He is currently an adjunct instructor for the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center and in this capacity presents emergency preparedness planning seminars to senior emergency management officials and elected officials throughout the United States. He is also a member of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) New York City Hi-Rise Emergency Action Planning Task Force.