Book Review: How to Write an Emergency Plan

How to Write an Emergency Plan, by David Alexander (2016). Publisher: Dunedin Academic Press, UK. Paperback: 268 pages. ISBN/ISSN: 9781780460130. $36. U.S.

Reviewer: Jean Slick, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Disaster and Emergency Management Program, Royal Roads University, Victoria, B.C., Canada

Alexander’s (2016) newest book, How to Write an Emergency Plan, provides readers with practical advice about emergency planning. In this regard, the content of the book is as much about planning processes as it is about the content and structure of an emergency plan. This new book expands on Alexander’s previous work on the subject of emergency planning, including his article Toward the Development of a Standard in Emergency Planning (Alexander, 2005) and his earlier book Principles of Emergency Planning and Management (Alexander, 2002). Further, in this latest book, Alexander draws from his exploration of the role and use of scenarios as a particular tool for advancing emergency management practice (Alexander, 2000).

While Alexander is a Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University of College London and a distinguished academic, his newest book is written for a lay audience and is intended to function as a guide for anyone, anywhere, who has a responsibility for emergency planning. The book is generally jargon free and key terms are defined and topics are properly introduced, making the book valuable for those without formal education or training relating to emergency management. While the book draws from both research and practice knowledge about emergency planning, the book is written in a conversational style with limited references to academic literature. The lack of references would most likely limit the utility of the book in graduate level disaster and emergency management programs, however the book would be a good supplement in lower level post-secondary or training programs.

The ‘how to’ nature of the book is reflected in the structure of the book, which includes the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • What are emergencies?
  • What is an emergency plan?
  • The emergency planning process
  • First step: background research
  • Second step: scenario building
  • Third step: from scenarios to actions
  • A note about the structure of the plan
  • Fourth step: using the plan
  • Planning to maintain the continuity of normal activities
  • Specialized emergency planning
  • Conclusion: the future of emergency planning

Throughout the book, Alexander presents principles of practice that apply to emergency planning regardless of the context. The principles provide a concise summary of generic rules that should inform emergency planning. An example of a principle offered in the Introduction chapter is, “emergency planning is about helping to create a common language and culture, and common objectives, for the organizations and people who respond to emergencies” (Alexander, 2016, p. 7). Most but not all sections in the book offer one or more principles that help to summarize and reinforce key best practices. While this approach has great merit, some further attention to the consistent use and placement of the principles would increase the value of this method for distilling key practices.

The first four chapters in the book provide a practical orientation to the topic of emergency planning. In the Introduction chapter, Alexander describes the need for and benefits of emergency planning, and situates this planning with reference to civil protection functions of governments. He reinforces that planning for local response is essential, while at the same time emphasizing that coordination with planning across levels of government is needed.

The next two chapters, What are Emergencies and What is an Emergency Plan, as the titles suggest, provide foundational knowledge such as the distinction between emergencies, disasters and catastrophes, and an explanation of the rationale for an all-hazards approach to emergency planning. Chapter 3 also addresses plan ownership, as well as the need for planning to be a participatory process; while these are important topics, they seem to fit better with the topic for Chapter 4.

Chapter 4, The Emergency Planning Process, begins by talking about the role of context in planning, as well as the function of pertinent legislation and laws. Alexander then proposes a five-step emergency planning process, which includes (a) research, (b) writing, (c) publicity, (d) operations, and (e) updating. While these steps make sense, they are not the same set of steps used to frame the next set of chapters. Consistency in the framing of the recommended steps in an emergency planning process would help to reinforce the planning model offered in this book. As a practitioner turned academic, I would have liked to have seen further attention given to expanding practitioners’ knowledge of the types of organizations (i.e., DRC model) engaged in emergency response, as well as discussion about the need to plan for as well as engage with these different types of organizations in the planning process. Further, the rationale of the need to plan for emergent response, based on what is known about collective behaviours following a disaster, is important for practitioners to understand. While noting these limitations, the merit of the chapter is its emphasis on planning as a process, rather than a product.

The next set of chapters (5-9) each spell out in considerable detail the scope of work required in each step of the planning process. Chapter 5, on Background Research, explains the core components of hazard, risk and vulnerability assessments. While noting that an audit of emergency management resources (e.g., human, technical) is also required as part of the research step, further attention to the need to assess community capacities, in addition to vulnerabilities, would have strengthened this chapter.

Chapter 6, on Scenario Building, draws from Alexander’s (2000) previous exploration of this topic. Given that all contingencies cannot be planned for, the value in scenario development as part of the emergency planning process, is reflected in one of Alexander’s principles on this topic, which states, “the scenario methodology should produce a range of outcomes, representing the envelope of possibilities for the impact of a hazard under the range of different conditions that is expected to occur in the affected area” (p. 67). Alexander provides a detailed description of the process of scenario modeling, and those who have not previously used this approach would likely find this chapter to be of great value.

Chapter 7, From Scenarios to Actions, as the title suggests, explains how to use the results from the hazard, risk and vulnerability analysis, as well as scenario modelling, to specify the kinds of emergency management actions required in the plan. While the distinction between agent and hazard generated needs and demands is not explained in this chapter, examples of both of these types of needs as guiding actions are listed. The topic of command systems is explored and the need for coordination is addressed in this chapter, as is the need for and function of an emergency operations center.

Chapter 8, entitled, A Note on the Structure of the Plan, offers a generic structure for building and writing an emergency response plan. While the suggested content of the first five chapters of a plan are well described, the content of the chapter ‘emergency management specifications,’ seems to address some topics (e.g., evacuation, search and rescue), but miss others (e.g., food, shelter). A summary of the major elements of a plan is provided at the end of the chapter, but the frame for this is not the same as the structure for the plan offered. Chapter 9, Using the Plan, reinforces the dynamic nature of emergency planning, and talks about the need to test plans, as well as to incorporate learning from actual responses.

In Chapter 10, the focus in the book shifts to the topic of Planning to Maintain the Continuity of Normal Activities. This chapter addresses the importance and distinction of business continuity planning, as type of emergency planning activity. Chapter 11, on Specialized Emergency Planning, goes on to explore specific needs and considerations related to planning for (a) different sectors (e.g., health system, industrial facilities, tourism); (b) different hazard types (e.g., pandemic, terrorism); and (c) particular hazard-generated needs (e.g., mass-fatalities). A limitation of this chapter is that no such frame for explaining these different types of specialized planning needs is offered. The book concludes with Alexander posing and responding to questions related to emergency planning, as well as with a discussion of international frameworks that inform practice (e.g., Sendai).

Overall, the book provides considerable guidance related to developing and writing an emergency plan. While noting that context matters and explaining how it matters (e.g., local hazards, legislation), Alexander’s approach to how to develop and write an emergency plan is for the most part, context-independent. Further, while the book recognizes mandated responsibility for emergency planning by civil authorities, the idea of emergency management as being a distributed function within society, with other entities (e.g., industry, schools) also having responsibility for emergency planning is acknowledged. In this regard, there is good value in Alexander’s newest book for a broad audience who have interest in or responsibility for emergency planning.









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