Preparedness within the field of emergency management can best be defined as a state of readiness to respond to a disaster, crisis or any other type of emergency situation.
Preparedness is not merely a state of readiness, but a theme that has permeated most aspects of emergency management as it has and continues to evolve in the United States and elsewhere. If one looks back into the history of the United States, they can see how the predecessors of today’s emergency managers focused upon preparedness. The fall-out shelters of the 1950’s and the air raid wardens, for example, were clear-cut cases of the government promoting preparedness for a potential nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. And in the early 1970’s, a study prepared by the National Governor’s Association described the importance of preparedness and called it the first step in emergency management.
In the last few decades, preparedness has advanced significantly. Its role as a building block of emergency management continues as the Department of Homeland Security strives to bring preparedness to the attention of American families. Today, we are well aware that no emergency management organization can function without a strong preparedness capability. This vital capability is built only through the efforts of planning, training and exercising.
A Systems Approach: The Preparedness Cycle
Emergency management has just recently been established as both an academic field and as an applied practice in the public and private sectors. It has thus far drawn primarily upon the fields of emergency medicine, fire suppression and law enforcement for many of its foundations. Although these distinct specialties are both tried and tested, they also are steeped in tradition — consequently relying less upon academic or analytic processes. Without a foundation that ties academia and structured analytic methodologies with tradition, the extreme complexity of emergency management, often requiring coordination between tens to hundreds of individual agencies and organizations, will not be effectively managed. Therefore, a systematic approach must be established for emergency management as a whole, and specifically in regards to defining the steps necessary to reach preparedness.
The diagram appearing below (Figure 2.1), which is often used in terrorism planning, depicts a planning process that establishes preparedness. The process begins with an assessment of the jurisdiction or business’ threats, be they natural or manmade, and works in a systematic approach towards a cyclical process that ultimately establishes organizational preparedness. This systematic and cyclical approach is defined by the continual evolution of the phases on the exterior ring—assessment, planning, preparation and evaluation.
Figure 2.1: The Preparedness Planning Cycle
In this depiction, the interior ring defines each of the steps that organizations must work toward in order to become prepared. The first step is to identify what types of disasters, or threats the jurisdiction, business, or other entity faces. Next, by assessing the current vulnerability, or level of preparedness, the organization can move towards determining the shortfalls that exist between current preparedness and the requirements to meet an appropriate preparedness posture. This improved posture may be determined through industrial standards set forth externally, by organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association, which sets fire safety standards, or the International Organization for Standardization (ISO - one of the largest developers of standards and certifications), or internally through the use of industry disaster and risk management experts. Local, state, and/or federal laws can also define a required level of preparedness through the use of statutory requirements.
Implementing enhancements or retrofitting incomplete systems allows for the bridging of these identified shortfalls. Exercises and training is then utilized to test how effectively the enhancements or new systems are meeting the standards determined in earlier stages and addressing the organization’s risk. If they are successful, then the objective goal of readiness or preparedness regarding the particular identified threats is met.
The cyclical nature of this system is fundamental defining and applying the successive steps to be taken after determining whether a jurisdiction, or any type of entity, is or is not prepared. Regardless of whether these standards are met, the entity must re-examine their threats regularly because both natural and technological threats change constantly. Organizational acceptance of the philosophy that defines preparedness as a dynamic state which can rapidly improve and/or diminish independent of known external factors, and in a short time or gradual timeframe, will provide the perpetual vigilance that is required to remain prepared. Using a systems approach can help to ensure that the overall emergency management system is prepared and, more importantly, that each of the individual functional areas are prepared as well.