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Understanding Tactical vs. Strategic Planning


Last time, I provided a quick primer on the five phases or activities of emergency & disaster Management: planning, mitigation, response, recovery, and adaptation. This time, I'll talk about the differences between tactical and strategic planning.

The best example to use would be the difference between weather and climate. These two things are often mixed up, but the difference is pretty straightforward:

Weather is what you see when you look out the window; climate is the sum of all weather.

So preparing for weather and preparing for climate change require two different types of thought processes. Preparing for weather requires tactical planning: Do I have adequate supplies? Is my machinery in place? Do I have backups of critical systems? As my colleague John Pennington noted yesterday, we do an awful job of tactical planning at the personal level, which is why there's a run on the supermarket for toilet paper every time there's a weather event. As emergency managers, we do a much better job at the organizational level, and that's why the news carries mostly positive stories about effective response to Snowmageddon-type events.

Preparing for climate change, in contrast, requires strategic planning. And if we're awful at tactical planning at the personal level, we're truly horrible at strategic planning. Our ability to envision the future beyond a few days is incredibly weak. So we are good at understanding what to do during this weekend's snowstorm. But if one introduces the idea that this type of snowstorm used to be rare and is now likely to be much more common, that type of forecast or proclamation tends to be met with disbelief, denial, or outright hostility.

That poses a significant additional challenge for the EDM planner. For example, certain neighborhoods in the Miami area are flooding at an increasing rate. Response personnel block dangerous streets, help with temporary evacuation and lodging, and so on in support of their neighbors. But what happens when you have to move an entire city? Who's planning for that? Who's budgeting for that? The answer is, of course, no one--because we can't envision that type of future coming true. But it will. It is. We just can't see it yet.

So to the rugged individuals out there: In-between the events that make up the daily routine of your lives, try out some tactical planning. The next time a snowstorm or an earthquake happens, surprise yourself by knowing where your flashlight is, having a stocked first aid kit, a sealed bag of rice and other nonperishables already in the cupboard, and and not having to go to the store. It'll give you a warm fuzzy feeling.

To the EDM professionals out there that protect and serve the public: The old adage that: 'when you're up to your ass in alligators, it's difficult to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp'--is and always will be true--but set aside some time and energy for strategic planning as well. Enlist those that are good at it--they do exist--and put them on your team. Preparation and mitigation are cheaper than response, which is cheaper than recovery. You'll be doing the budget of humankind a favor, and better serving your public as well.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.