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Chapter 16.2 Preparing for disasters and emergencies

Plans and planning

Photo: Mervin V. Gutierez/Caritas/CAFOD 2014;

[:en]Disaster preparedness plans can take several forms, ranging from a broad mitigation and preparedness strategy to detailed contingency plans for responding to a particular threat. In most plans, the operational priorities are to save lives, meet people’s emergency needs (principally medical care, food and shelter) and restore essential facilities (hospitals, water and sanitation, power and transport). The focus should be on the planning process rather than the production of specific written plans. A written disaster preparedness plan is not an end in itself, and a plan is much more than a document. Emergency response cannot be effective without well-functioning managerial and operational systems, structures and procedures. Planning and plans develop the capacities, tools, understanding and collaborations to stimulate warning and response action and to make that action effective. Constant practice, review and dialogue between partners are required for this. Case Study 16.1 (Building up preparedness capacities) illustrates the benefits of strategic disaster preparedness planning and coordination.

Box 16.1 Contingency planning

Contingency planning involves planning for specific situations by developing scenarios, deciding appropriate objectives for response and working out how to achieve them. In practice, the term is used interchangeably with other, similar terms, such as emergency or disaster preparedness planning. The simplest way of differentiating is to see contingency planning as focusing on specific problems, within the broader scope of emergency planning, whereas the latter consists of a much wider range of activities designed to ensure effective disaster response, including defining organisational relationships and chains of command, developing standard operational procedures, establishing and maintaining facilities and capacities, stockpiling and training staff and partners.

R. Choularton, Contingency Planning and Humanitarian Action: A Review of Practice (London: ODI, 2007),


Case Study 16.1 Building up preparedness capacities

Mozambique suffers frequent floods and cyclones. Floods in 2000 and 2001 affected over four million people; the 2000 floods also cost the country a fifth of that year’s gross national product. The government subsequently strengthened its preparedness and response capacity, setting up a structure to coordinate disaster management at all levels, from central government to local administrations and communities. A new national disaster management agency (INGC) was created in 2000, followed by a national emergency operations centre and three regional centres. International donors gave support to train staff and equip the national headquarters and regional centres. The new structure was based on Latin American models, and specialists from that region were brought in to give advice. In 2006 the government published a comprehensive strategy for disaster management and vulnerability reduction.

In February 2007 there was severe flooding in the Zambezi river basin and the southern coast was hit by a cyclone. The two events forced over 300,000 people from their homes and tens of thousands lost their crops; essential infrastructure was badly damaged. Actions coordinated by the INGC and regional emergency operations centres prevented many deaths and evacuated more than 200,000 people to temporary camps and resettlement sites established after the 2000–2001 floods. Whereas in 2000–2001 Mozambique had depended heavily on foreign aid and international agencies had led the response, in 2007 the government coordinated response efforts and did not appeal for international assistance.

The improved emergency preparedness structure enabled informed and rapid decision-making during the crisis. Simulation exercises in October and November 2006 also contributed to the effectiveness of the response. The government stockpiled relief supplies against the threat of floods, key staff were moved to the regional operating centres well before the waters arrived and communities monitored water levels. Because disaster preparedness had been made part of the school curriculum there was better awareness of flood risk and the appropriate actions to take.

C. Foley, Mozambique: A Study in the Role of the Affected State in Humanitarian Action (London: ODI, 2007),

Plans by formal emergency management institutions can be complex and detailed. In low-income or remote communities a more pragmatic approach to planning may be required, based on an understanding of local priorities, resources and capacities within the community and its ways of working.+For example, Practical Action Latin America, Technical Brief: Emergency Preparedness Plans, 2005, Whatever the contents of the plan (or plans, or planning), it should have the following characteristics:

  1. The objectives and activities must be set out logically and systematically. Plans should be presented clearly and written in language that is easily understood.
  2. Planning should be realistic, based on existing organisational structures, operating systems, human resources and funding mechanisms, acknowledging their capacities and recognising their weaknesses as well as their strengths. A high level of adaptability will be required during disasters. Plan for likely problems within response organisations as well as on the ground. Creating a preparedness/response system that can deal with the full range of disasters a society is likely to face will take a long time. Planning should reflect this.
  3. Roles and responsibilities must be defined clearly. This is often done through legislative provisions and government administrative orders, but official mandates may be too generalised, so there is often a need for separate agreements and protocols between agencies. Existing arrangements can rapidly become outdated, so partners must monitor them regularly and adapt them if required. For organisations working at local level, it is particularly important to establish the extent of decentralisation in the plan and the corresponding extent to which they are allowed to make their own operational decisions.
  4. Governments usually take the lead in disaster preparedness planning, but plans should integrate the skills and capacities of a wide variety of agencies – official and non-governmental, including community groups and groups and organisations not normally involved in disaster management (see also Chapter 4). This institutional ‘architecture’ should be set out clearly. The plan should be flexible enough to incorporate emergent groups that spring into action after disasters (see Chapter 6). Local people are the main responders in the immediate post-disaster period, and disaster workers should support their efforts, not duplicate or undermine them.
  5. Good coordination is vital – vertical (between local and higher authorities) and horizontal (between different agencies operating at the same level). National and local emergency operations centres play a key role in facilitating this. Disaster preparedness planning does not have to be centralised. There needs to be some centre to coordinate operations, but disasters cannot easily be controlled from a single point, and decision-making should be delegated where possible.
  6. Decentralisation of responsibilities allows for disaster responses that are more rapid, better informed about local needs and able to adapt or improvise where necessary. Organisations operating locally may need to develop their own preparedness plans, especially where there is little likelihood of support from government or external agencies, perhaps because the government is ineffective or the area is very remote. But in most cases, some degree of coordination with official agencies is vital to make the most of available capacities and avoid duplication of effort. Plans may also have to be translated into local languages in order to engage local people and their organisations.
  7. Plans should be ‘owned’ by everyone involved. For a plan to work, people must believe in it and be committed to it. At government level, enabling legislation and adequate resources (especially funding) are key indicators of commitment, as is support from a senior figure such as a president or prime minister. Some of the indicators set out in Chapter 2 may be helpful in assessing the commitment of other agencies.
  8. Where there are institutional weaknesses, strengthen existing structures rather than creating new ones. The latter approach adds to the bureaucracy and creates confusion between organisations with similar mandates. The arrival of international relief teams after major disasters often creates ad hoc, parallel structures that confuse the situation even further and overwhelm local agencies and systems.
  9. Plans must be based on reliable and comprehensive information covering all relevant aspects of hazards, risks, vulnerabilities and capacities. Analysis of past events and how they were managed is a central part of this information base, but it is also important to anticipate events that are likely to happen in the future, which may be very different from those in the past.
  10. Planning must prepare for extreme events and chaotic situations. These will require a different scale and type of response than routine emergencies. Although smaller events can be disastrous at local level, major disasters are quite different in their scale and often in the nature of their impact.
  11. Planning must reflect the needs of the community, especially the most vulnerable. This means that vulnerability and capacity analysis is essential in advance. Preparedness plans are usually much more aware of the vulnerability of critical facilities and infrastructure (e.g. emergency command centres, hospitals, power and water supplies, roads and bridges) than that of the human beings who live within their remit. When a disaster strikes, needs assessments need to be as quick and accurate as possible, and take the most vulnerable into account.
  12. The aim should be effective and timely response: providing what is most needed, when it is needed. In the aftermath of a disaster, people’s needs and priorities may change rapidly. Disaster managers must be able to identify and react to this.
  13. Planning should include plans for early recovery. Emergency response and humanitarian relief focus on reducing suffering and loss of life, but do not necessarily stimulate sustainable post-disaster recovery or prevent a return to previous conditions of vulnerability and risk (see Chapter 17). Many preparedness plans include mitigation and recovery, but this may be only for form’s sake. In practice, emergency systems usually do not have the capacity to undertake these complex, long-term tasks.
  14. Regular review and updating of plans, systems and procedures is essential. It is a good idea to do this soon after an event or, where hazards are seasonal, such as floods and cyclones, at the end of the season. It is also important to test plans in normal times, through emergency exercises, simulations, practice drills and public awareness days.