Emergency planning, decision-making to prepare for the second wave of COVID-19

We need to immediately begin contingency planning for the challenges we may face later this year, while still providing daily operational planning and decision-making


This article is reprinted with permission from Homeland Security Today

By Robert Lewin

“Planning is everything, the plan is nothing.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower, General of the Army, 34th President of the United States

Surfside, Fla. Police Sgt. Jay Matelis, right, hands out a pair of cloth protective masks to a resident as she drives through, Monday, April 13, 2020, in Surfside.
Surfside, Fla. Police Sgt. Jay Matelis, right, hands out a pair of cloth protective masks to a resident as she drives through, Monday, April 13, 2020, in Surfside. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Seasoned disaster managers recognize that it is not just the best decision that needs to be made, it is the execution of those decisions.

Across the world, leaders not normally accustomed to emergency decision-making are being confronted by a catastrophe that has or is about to strike them. It is that moment when they must adapt their normal business-as-usual planning and decision-making to an emergency decision and planning process. Moving to an emergency planning and decision-making process will make the difference between a COVID-19 emergency response that is flatfooted and reactive to one that is nimble and responsive. This process must be used at the local, state and federal levels of all agencies and organizations engaged in this fight. Lives will be saved.

Plans once written are often not opened when the emergency is occurring. This is because it is the planning that is more important than the plan. The effort of planning is continuous; plans are never done. Engaging the decision team in the planning process will make a difference when the implementation of the plan is necessary. There are three important plans that must be developed simultaneously for this pandemic emergency at all levels of government and organizations:

  1. Action plans that are created for each operational period, generally for a 24-hour period to a week. These are tactical plans to promote specific actions.
  2. Contingency plans that are developed for the long view. They require a very strategic level approach and require predictions. The predictions should include both what is the most likely situation to occur and what is the most dangerous situation to occur. Within the contingency plan, a set of decision points should be determined that guide the actions to take as the situation develops.
  3. Recovery plans should be developed to ensure both government and communities are successful at recovering from this catastrophic emergency.

When we plan for the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, we must use the 1918 pandemic to guide us. The second wave of the 1918 pandemic that struck in the fall of 1918 was exponentially worse than the first wave in the previous spring. The virus had mutated and was more virulent than it was in the spring of 1918. It killed 195,000 Americans in just the month of October.

The heroic people who were battling that pandemic did many things right, they also made decisions that later proved ineffectual and even harmful. They also knew that imposing lockdowns was the best way to fight the spread, but too often leaders were not prepared to impose them. While there are differences between this pandemic and the 1918 pandemic, there is much to consider. The most important consideration at all levels of governments and agencies is that while we need to respond to the current emergency, we simultaneously must start doing contingency planning for the next wave, as it may be much worse.

We also must stand up recovery planning now. Any emergency manager who has been through a disaster knows that the day after the disaster strikes is the day you must stand up your recovery team. Recovery brings hope to a community. In an emergency, hope is oxygen.

Decision Points

In the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.” Thus, instead of identifying an exact target date of when businesses will open or when schools will convene, it is prudent instead to identify specific criteria as decision points of when to consider changes.

The contingency planning must include decision points and prescribed actions. They are called decision points instead of trigger points on purpose. A trigger point means a response or change will be triggered automatically. A decision point is the moment when the unified command decision team must immediately come together to determine if in fact a change or actions are justified. Most often a modification to a prescribed decision is chosen. Humans must always be part of the decision process so that they can ensure the data and intelligence has been ground-truthed. Decision-makers can act as a brake or accelerator as needed.

For example, schools may be able to safely open before a vaccine is available, but COVID-19 may have a second or third wave. Therefore, each school district will have to prepare to once again implement protective measures, including closing schools again. This could occur in the fall or early winter. Thus, the school district must maintain a posture of getting students safely back to school, while simultaneously preparing for another interruption. We can plan to return to normal while simultaneously preparing our communities to return to a lockdown posture.

Unified Command

The importance of unified command is to ensure that the personnel fighting the fight and the communities who are part of this fight are being led by one set of objectives. All emergencies tend to cross jurisdictions, none more so than this pandemic, therefore a unified command at all levels of government providing one desired end state and one set of objectives is essential to success. A unified command should not just make a decision, it should also provide the intent of the decision.

Intent-Based Planning

A system developed by Mission-Centered Solutions recognizes the need to make sure all decision-makers are operating under the same common operating picture, that they all see the situation the same way. Once they have a common operating picture, they need to look at the pandemic situation in a strategic way so they can provide clear objectives to the leadership operating at the tactical level. The leaders in the field need to know what the desired end state must be so that they can execute the tasks necessary to achieve that end state.

Mission-Centered Solutions' intent-based planning.
Mission-Centered Solutions' intent-based planning.

Decision-Making

Decisions made during an emergency do not have the luxury of time. In emergency decision-making, the emergency is coming at you, the fire, the storm, or the disease. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” This does not mean making a knee-jerk decision. It means making decisions based on the real situation with imperfect information.

Leaders must have good situational awareness, referred to as SA, before making a decision. You will never have as much as you desire or are used to having during non-emergency situations. Therefore, it is important to utilize General Colin Powell’s 40-70 rule. Once you have 40% to 70% of the intelligence and data, you must make a decision. If you make it before you have 40% of the information you are impetuous. If you wait for more than 70% you have waited too long and missed your opportunity to make a difference.

Decision and Action Cycle

The process for leading during an emergency is to follow a simple decision-and-action cycle:

There are six steps to the decision-and-action cycle.
There are six steps to the decision-and-action cycle.
  1. What should the end state be?
  2. What objectives are required to achieve the end state?
  3. What tasks need to be done to accomplish the objectives?
  4. What resources are necessary to accomplish those tasks?
  5. What direction and support are needed in the field to achieve success?
  6. Evaluate to see if the end state is still relevant or has it been accomplished? If not, begin the cycle again.

Leader’s Intent

In any emergency, including this one, the situation is always dynamic and top-down tactical decision-making will be detrimental to success. Leaders at all levels must provide leader’s intent and allow the people closest to the action to adapt and exercise initiative, as long as they are meeting the leader’s intent.

A leader should provide the following information in a clear and concise way.

  • Task: What is the objective or goal of the assignment.
  • Purpose: Why the assignment needs to be done.
  • End state: How the situation should look when the assignment is successfully completed.

An example of how leader’s intent would be used is in the delivery of essential personal protective equipment (PPE):

  • Task: Provide PPE to the facility with the greatest need based on the following priority within the next operational period: hospitals, first responders, defined essential workers, etc.
  • Purpose: If we do not provide the proper PPE it will result in the unnecessary transmission of the disease resulting in more casualties.
  • End state: All hospitals, first responders and defined essential workers have required PPE and the transmission rates have been reduced in hospital workers, first responders and defined essential workers and the people with whom they come in contact.

Conclusion

Emergency planning and decision-making has never been more essential in the protection of so many at one time. Leaders now pressed into being disaster managers need to quickly adapt their methods of leadership.

With a real threat that the disease will have a second or third wave, we need to immediately begin contingency planning while still providing daily operational planning and decision-making. It is now time to determine what resources we will need this fall if there is a deadly second wave.

To do contingency planning now, we need to understand the situation, know our desired end state, create objectives and tasks, and identify what organization and resources will be necessary to handle this looming catastrophe. Hopefully, we will never use the plan, but hope is not a plan.


About the author

After retiring from government service as the director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management and the fire chief for CAL FIRE/San Luis Obispo County Fire, Robert Lewin is now a principal at Resolute Associates LLC providing a range of emergency management consulting including numerous efforts in support of the COVID-19 emergency. Lewin is a Type 1 Incident Commander and served many years on incident management teams. He has held command positions both in the field and in Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) on some of California’s most complex incidents including fires, floods, earthquakes, human and animal diseases, and on special assignments. Most recently he led the actions of the EOC during the Thomas Fire and resulting Montecito Debris Flow. Robert is a Cal Poly graduate in Political Science, an Allan Hancock College graduate in Fire Science and completed the Executive Leadership Program at the Naval Post Graduate School. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM).

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