Contingency Planning in Emergency Management

I would like to share with you a guide (job aid) that I used throughout numerous “all hazard” emergencies as a Type II qualified incident commander on multiple Type I emergency incidents.

I’ve worked with many incident commanders on numerous “all hazard” emergencies. Some were experienced, while others were very inexperienced. Those who were experienced focused their command thought process toward the “next” and those who were inexperienced focused their command thought process toward the “now.” Those incident commanders who continue to reside in the “now” will struggle and fail in the seat of command.

Incident commanders focusing their actions toward the “next” will set themselves up for better success in the command and control contingency planning world. I love the quote from Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” I can tell you from experience that I’ve been punched in the mouth on numerous incidents and came out saying, “I’ll never do that again.” These are the “doors of failure” that every incident commander will experience. The challenge is, do incident commanders have the courage to talk about it and share the experience? In my experience, opening these doors of failure provided me with the best education, which no advanced degree could ever have provided.

The need to think in the “next” (contingency planning) is a critical skill set for all incident commanders. Many incident commanders suffer from “task saturation,” meaning too much to do and not enough time to do it, and they snap. They let the incident run them and fall behind the 8 ball, always trying to play catch up. I sure hope we haven’t forgotten what the chaos looked like up and down the East Coast during Super-storm Sandy, another example of how critical contingency planning is in the “all hazard” emergency environment for emergency managers and incident commanders. Super-storm Sandy presented emergency managers and incident commanders with an ever-widening scope of problems and issues that had to be dealt with. As the storm progressed, plans had to be changed to fit the changing situations.

Here are some ideas and processes that I used while sitting in the seat of command, attempting to command, control, manage, lead, and communicate during small to large scale “all hazard” emergency events.


Organization — A diagram and brief description of the organization needed to manage the contingency or event.

  • Resources — Resources that will be utilized to manage the contingency will need to be identified.

~May want to identify the specific resources or a more generic “type” of resource.

~Resources may be pre-staged on stand-by for assignment or may be reassigned from other areas of the incident.

Objectives — Objectives not already in the Incident Action Plan (IAP) and specific to the contingency issue should be identified.

~Be sure to include any specific or special instructions and specific safety information.

~Resources assigned to the contingency plan prior to implementation may be assigned to tasks such as recon, outside agency coordination, tactical planning, public relations, etc.

Communications — A communication plan will need to be identified for contingency resources. If frequencies need to be shared, ensure that contingency resources have a high priority and exclusive use when possible (i.e., share tactical frequency with a smaller, less active division on the other side of the incident, etc.).

Maps — Maps with appropriate symbols will need to be included. Be sure to include “new” division breaks and staging areas, etc.

Decision Points (formally trigger points) — A statement relating to what will need to occur that will initiate the implementation of the contingency plan. For example, “If the fire passes this point” or “If the fire spreads to exposure D,” then these actions are initiated from the contingency plan.

Designate or Identify the ONLY Individual(s) — Designate or identify the only individual(s) who will initiate the contingency plan. This might include the IC, operations, division, a designated lookout, etc.


• Always include all assisting and cooperating agencies in the planning process and briefings. This is especially important when large area evacuations are required and existing plans may conflict with your contingency.

• Effective communication and individual discipline are critical for maintaining control of resources when incidents are rapidly escalating.

• Establish adequate staging areas. They will be needed to quickly move resources into and out of tactical assignments. Clear briefings for staging managers are critical.

• The use of “phantom” (not staffed) and “skeleton” (minimally staffed) divisions, groups, and branches can be helpful in maintaining control while rapidly moving resources. For example, an unstaffed division with only a division supervisor can be rapidly put together when resources are quickly fed from a nearby staging area. Conversely, a division can rapidly release resources to another need if personnel are already aware and prepared for this event during the operational period. Note: these examples will have much greater success if the person(s) assigned has the past experience, knowledge, and skill sets for performing these duties.

• Contingency plans should continue to be improved upon as long as resources are available for that assignment. In addition, contingency plans, by their nature, will be used when events are rapidly escalating and should be as simple as possible in their instructions. Feedback from contingency resources and others is critical to ensure they understand their assignment(s).


The following are some examples of when contingency plans might be appropriate:

• High rise fire

• Hazardous materials incident

• Evacuations

• Train derailment

• Rapid or forecasted changing in the weather

• Large area structure protection

• Flooding

• Hurricane

• Earthquakes

• Large wildfires

• Multi-casualty

Note: All command officers, captain to chief, should complete the I-300 course offered by the New York State Office of Fire Prevention & Control (OFPC) or State Emergency Management Office (SEMO).