Applying Project Management to Emergency Management

Applying Project Management to Emergency Management

Applying Project Management to Emergency Management is a guest post by Darin Letzring.

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As the emergency management field matures into a profession, we can strive to look at standard processes to provide an expected level of quality for our work. The Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) and National Incident Management System (NIMS) / Incident Command System (ICS) provide excellent examples of professional work models for specific events. But how do we create a baseline of standards for our daily work? The answer lies in applying the principles of project management to our annual plans.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) ( has been a leader in project management principles since its inception in 1969. These principles and standard processes are outlined in the Project Management Book Of Knowledge (PMBOK) and can be directly applied to emergency management annual work plans and even multi-year grant cycles. Project management principles are not just for construction and information technology. The United States federal government recognized the importance of using project management principles when it created the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act that was signed into law on December 16, 2016.

PMI defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” Emergency Managers can create solid annual plans by thinking of each year as a project. The definition of a project doesn’t immediately sound like an annual plan, so let’s take a closer look to see why an annual plan can be considered a project.

An annual plan is “temporary” in that it covers a specific period of time, one year – fiscal year, calendar year, or multi-years if needed. The plan is not a continuous effort but has a specific start and end point. An annual plan is “unique” because each year of work in emergency management will have some aspect of uniqueness, whether a specific exercise, equipment fielding, or specific new task/equipment training. Finally, the “product” being delivered can be considered the value or growth in capability/capacity that is a result of the plan.

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Creating an annual plan accomplishes two important tasks. First, you write down your goals, which every study on goals concludes that writing them down greatly increases your chance of meeting those goals. Secondly, an annual plan that includes all of the sections of a project plan sets a baseline of standards for professional work on a daily basis.

How do we apply these project management principles to create an annual plan for emergency management? The process starts about a month before the year begins because we want the plan to be completed before the year begins. At this point, you will probably have a good sense of what you need and want to accomplish in the next year.

Begin by gathering your team to sit down and create a document that will be your plan. Even if you are the proverbial “department of one,” you can do this, although it’s preferable to get a few other people you work with to go through the process with you. This is a combination of the initiating and planning phases within project management. PMBOK calls this document you are about to create the “project charter,,” but for our purposes, it starts and remains one document called the annual plan. An investment of time and effort up-front to create this document will reduce stress and chaos throughout the year because you now have a plan for reference and support in decision-making.

Determine your leader(s), goals, objectives, and tasks. Be sure to include details that determine a way to measure success and completion of the goals and tasks. Maybe you have to field new equipment and train staff on that equipment. Maybe you have to update an operational plan or mitigation plan. Or, you just finished a major full-scale exercise and want to complete the improvement plan action-items and then re-exercise. Organize the objectives with tasks and sub-tasks, and this becomes the work breakdown structure. Now, organize these tasks sequentially and schedule them on an overall department calendar. It is also a good idea to write down and review your department values and mission and include that in each annual plan as a reminder.

With the foundation of your plan in place, you’ll want to look at budget requirements and risk management. These are important aspects of the plan and should be included in your document. These are elements that can change, and for now, you are setting a starting point. The budget can include all aspects, including salary, or it can include just the operations and maintenance items. Make the budget something that you will use and refer to throughout the year. The risk management section will review what could cause the plan to fail and how you will prevent or mitigate those risks. Additionally, conduct a stakeholder analysis by naming the stakeholders, which includes staff, elected officials, partner agencies, and the general public and detail how you will interact with them. Finally, write out the ways you will communicate with your stakeholders, which might include LEPC meetings, exercise meetings, press releases, and official reports.

You now have a nice annual plan that includes the department vision/values, mission, goals and objectives with tasks and sub-tasks outlined in a sequential manner and put onto a department calendar, a budget, a risk management plan with analysis and prevention/mitigation strategies, and a communication plan that will ensure proper communication of your activities. The initiating and planning phases are done, and you have set a foundation for success. Outstanding!

Now, at an appropriate time, you should hold a “kickoff” meeting to get your stakeholders together to build awareness and maybe even some excitement for the upcoming year. This kickoff meeting can also serve as a method for marketing your department and building your team of immediate and distant stakeholders.

After the kickoff meeting, you are into the execution phase that includes monitor and control processes. This means that you are working the plan, reviewing the activities against your measures of success, and adapting as needed. Be disciplined to hit your milestones on the calendar and the annual spending plan, but edit the calendar and budget as needed for the things out of your control. Try not to change the objectives and goals because that is how you will truly determine if you had a successful year. Be sure to maintain your documentation appropriately throughout the year. You will certainly keep financial records and meeting minutes, and also consider keeping your own log of activities and decisions for reference.

Communicate your progress at regular intervals using the communications plan you created in the initiating and planning phase.

At the end of the year, you will “close” the year, and it’s important to not skip this step, as you might get excited about planning the next year. To close the year, determine if you met all your objectives and all tasks got completed to the measure of success, and for those that weren’t met, make a determination to end that effort or continue in the next year. Ensure all of your contracts and financial elements of the year stay within that year if needed. Consider having a hotwash meeting for the year with the same stakeholders that were at the kickoff meeting. Conduct this hotwash the same way that you would do for an exercise, and the outcomes of that can lead directly into the next year’s planning effort.

You now have an outline for the basic method of relating project management process and principles to the emergency management profession on a daily basis by applying it to an annual plan. This might sound like a lot of extra work, but once you get the plan in place it is actually a time-saver and you will see a new level of success in your work.

The time investment of a proper initiating/planning phase is critically important in the same way that a full-scale exercise is only as successful as the planning effort put into it. Throughout the year, be disciplined to hit your milestones and stay on track by monitoring your calendar, budget, and risk. Remember to change the plan as needed for those things you can’t control. A final key to success will be communicating progress to your stakeholders.

For reference, the University of North Carolina provides more information and an excellent basic starting point for your annual plan in “Project Management Principles for Use in the Public Sector: Tools for the Everyday Project Manager.” The Project Management Institute has more information about project management, and provides many excellent tutorials and templates on various elements of project management.

I hope you can use this process to reach a new level of success in your next year of daily operations!

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Darin Letzring, CEM, PMP
Public Health Preparedness, Program Manager
Southeastern Idaho Public Health
Pocatello, ID



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