Most emergency responders in the United States adhere to a structure for managing emergencies called the Incident Command System. This case study will look at how one of the key concepts from this system, planning cycles, can help you improve your internal communications.

About the Incident Command System

If you work for a hospital, government agency, utility or other organization that would be involved in responding to emergencies, your organization probably uses FEMA’s Incident Command System. ICS was developed in the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in 1970 where the lack of a unified structure for communication and coordination hampered the emergency response.

Communication professionals play an important role in ICS. This role is known as the public information officer and reports to the incident commander. Even if you don’t formally serve as the PIO for your organization, it is helpful to understand how the ICS structure works. Free online courses are available via the FEMA website.

Understanding planning cycles

Planning cycles, also referred to as the Planning P, establish a “continuum for incident action planning during both emergency and non-emergency operations.” For internal communicators, this concept can be applied to a variety of scenarios. Any incident, crisis communication, or even routine project, can be thought of in terms of planning cycles. 

For example, open enrollment occurs annually and therefore has a year-long planning cycle. There will be numerous stages within your planning that need to be mapped out but open enrollment usually only occurs once per year.

Recognizing the cyclical nature of a major internal communication like open enrollment can help you better plan and be more successful at executing your internal communications. You should be mapping out your planning for something like open enrollment months to a year in advance so that you’re prepared for the long lead times it will take to get the information you need and to execute on communications deliverables. 

For incidents and crisis communications, your planning cycle will be much shorter — most likely 24 hours. For more rapidly evolving incidents your planning cycle may be a matter of hours. It’s important to understand the planning cycle of any incident or project so that you can be prepared to deliver communications at the appropriate frequency.

Using planning cycles to improve inclement weather communications

When I worked for a major teaching hospital and university in Portland, Oregon, we occasionally had to communicate about inclement weather. Portland gets an average of 4.3 inches of snowfall each year — just enough to cause havoc in a city that is not well-prepared for winter weather. 

For many years, our communications related to winter weather were haphazard at best. We were out of practice and had no templates for communicating. When snow is piling up outside and employees are hitting refresh on your intranet (literally) waiting for permission to leave to beat the storm, it is not the time to be writing a message.

After a few years of being caught flat-footed and experiencing the wrath of 18,000 unhappy employees, I set out to create a better system for responding to inclement weather events. But as an internal communicator, I couldn’t do this alone. Reshaping our response would require coordination across operational and administrative functions. Thankfully, I had great colleagues across the organization — including a forward-thinking operational executive — who were willing to consider a new operational plan that put communications first. 

Step 1: Identify your planning cycles

As noted earlier, planning cycles can vary widely. For many incidents that use the Incident Command System, the planning cycle is 24 hours. This works well in a multi-day incident like a wildfire, earthquake or tornado. By following the “Planning P,” incident commanders and their teams are constantly thinking about their objectives for the next cycle and planning for the resources needed to accomplish those objectives. 

In the case of a wildfire, the incident meteorologist is constantly tracking the weather and providing that “situational awareness” to the incident commander. Based on this information, reports from the front lines, and other factors, the team will make a plan for the next planning cycle. They need to make this plan in advance to ensure they have the appropriate crews and equipment on hand to operationalize their plans.

In the case of inclement weather, 24 hours is much too long of a planning cycle. In some cases, an event may be over in one day. But it’s also not realistic to change operations with no advance notice. If operations are going to be modified, it will take some time — most likely hours — to return to normal operations.

Here are some things to consider when determining your planning cycle:

  • How frequently will the situation change? In inclement weather, this can be every few hours. 
  • How much advance notice do employees need to operationalize a change? Are there opening or closing procedures and how long do they take? 
  • If employees are sent home or asked to stay home, how long will it take them to get to work? Will the incident make it harder for employees to get to work or will they need to adjust their usual mode of transportation. For example, in a snowstorm, many employees may decide to take public transportation to avoid driving but buses may be delayed, canceled, or on snow routes, further complicating an employee’s ability to get to work.

If you’re planning for a routine situation, use past experience to guide your thinking. In the case of inclement weather, I was able to determine from past experience that employees would complain if we gave them less than two hours’ notice to be at work. This made sense given the time needed to commute in an inclement weather situation. After adding on the time needed to assess the situation, make decisions and communicate, I was then able to determine that a 4-hour planning cycle would work best for inclement weather.

Step 2: Work backward from the communications outcome

One of the most important lessons learned from this process was to start by thinking about what a successful communications outcome would look like and to work backward from there.

As I mentioned earlier, I observed that when we communicated two hours in advance of when employees needed to take action they were generally happy with the communication. I used feedback from comments on previous communications to make this determination. Armed with this information, I worked backward to determine the full planning cycle. 

  1. If an employee’s shift started at 7 a.m., that meant the communication needed to be posted by 5 a.m. to give the requisite two hours’ notice. 
  2. It generally took 30 minutes to finalize the communication and get it posted to our intranet and recorded on our inclement weather hotline. This meant the decision about modifying operations needed to be made by 4:30 a.m.
  3. It could take up to 30 minutes for what we called the inclement weather team — a group of leaders representing all aspects of the organization — to make a decision. This meant that we needed to meet at 4 a.m.
  4. A facilities manager was responsible for providing situational awareness. This involved driving the roads on campus, checking the forecast, checking with the local transit agency for service interruptions, and confirming the availability of crews to clear the roads and sidewalks. This assessment took about an hour, which meant they needed to begin their work at 3 a.m. 

This is how I arrived at a 4-hour planning cycle. From assessment to operationalizing the change, it took four hours. This meant that for the 7 a.m. shift change, we needed to start planning at 3 a.m. There were minor shift changes at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., which meant the planning needed to continue every four hours.

Step 3: Define your scenarios

Even if you can’t predict every nuance of a future event you can probably start to think through various scenarios. In the case of inclement weather, we used color-coded levels to categorize incidents and then defined each level. Green meant there was inclement weather in the forecast, yellow meant inclement weather was forecasted but hadn’t started, orange meant the weather had started but operations were still normal and red meant operations had been modified.

Once you have a system for categorizing incidents and a definition for each, map out your planning cycles and communications plan. For yellow, we used a 24-hour planning cycle as inclement weather events are generally forecast days in advance and employees only needed communication once a day to prepare. The yellow planning cycle mapped out when the assessment of the forecast was made when this information was relayed to the communicator and when the communication was posted. 

Once inclement weather began, the planning cycle shortened to four hours as noted earlier. The planning cycles for orange and red were the same but the messaging was different as in orange operations were normal and in red they were modified.

Step 4: Use processes and templates to reduce variability

In an emergent situation, you’ll be under a lot of pressure to deliver communications quickly. Our post-Twitter world demands that information be delivered instantaneously and the workplace is no exception. Your employees will demand information right away and seek out other sources if they’re not able to get it from the organization. That’s why it’s important that you be prepared to deliver information quickly.

In the case of inclement weather, we weren’t always fast at communicating. There were policies regarding curtailing operations due to weather and some operations had to continue as a hospital never closes, so the message needed to be nuanced. We created templates for each of the color-coded levels described above. This allowed us to quickly post communications once decisions were made.

And templates don’t just apply to communications. I mentioned earlier that decisions were generally made in 30 minutes and while this was often the case, sometimes it took closer to than hour. This delayed the communication, making it seem like the communication was a failure when really it was the decision-making process that came up short.

In order to address this, we created a template for the meetings. The template itemized each piece of information that needed to be discussed — road conditions, transit status, weather forecast, etc. — as well as the decisions that needed to be made on the call. By templatizing the decision-making process we were able to keep the conference calls to 30 minutes and consistently ensure the communicator had all of the information they needed to fill in the blanks of the templates.

Step 5: Continuously improve

It nearly a year to plan out these changes to how we managed inclement weather communications. We needed to engage stakeholders, create definitions and templates, and get buy-in for the changes. The end result was such an improvement over what we had before it would have been easy to stop there. But once we had a foundation for making improvements, we continued to build upon this work and make things even better. A core group of us met year-round to think of how we could continue to improve our inclement weather response.

In subsequent years, we refined our communications templates to address gaps or points of confusion. We standardized the language used to describe inclement weather to bring consistency to our communications. (It turns out there are a lot of different ways to describe snow and ice and individual standards for what is severe vary, so we focused on objective descriptors like “snow-covered.) We also designated road and sidewalks as tier 1 or tier 2 and created maps to show which would be cleared and which wouldn’t be. These incremental changes have continued to build upon the initial improvements.

Putting planning cycles into practice

As you think through the incidents and projects in your own world, I hope that the concept of planning cycles and the steps identified above will help you to improve your internal communications. 

As you work through this process you may face resistance. Some people will be afraid to commit to timelines or to make promises. Others will resist a communicator trying to make these kinds of changes. Try to frame the conversation from a communications perspective and If you need to, start small. Quick wins can help you gain buy-in for larger changes. 

Lastly, don’t sell yourself short. As communicators, it’s our job to strive for a successful communications outcome — even if it means influencing the processes and decisions that impact our communications.


1 thought on “Case study: How FEMA’s planning cycles can improve your internal communication

  1. Great points. I’ve often thought something similar as I drilled and put the ICS model into practice in real life. But one strength you touch on in your opener, is really the biggest structural strength of the ICS system in my opinion: it’s the direct approval path to the incident commander. This high placement of a direct line to management is really the structure we as communicators should be striving for.

    Within the APR process, the concept of having a “seat at the table” is emphasized as a measure of the importance of comms/public affairs (or it’s leader at least) within an organization. This concept is closely akin to the ICS model, in that it shows how much an organization believes in the importance of the role of comms, so much so, that it’s within the “inner circle” much the same way the PIO is within incident command.

    And from overlapping with you at the “major teaching hospital” in Portland, I remember the snow days well!

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