Setting & Maintaining Realistic Recovery Expectations

There are many challenges as well as numerous nuances associated with disaster recovery operations that must be addressed by all levels of governmental, nongovernmental, and private sector agencies and organizations in order to ensure ongoing attention to all facets of the recovery effort, effectively building a resilient community.

Managing post-disaster recovery operations is a complex, interconnected, and fragile process. Failure to balance many moving parts can result in failure and lack of resilience. Managing involves pre-incident preparedness and planning, post-incident response operations, longer-term reconstitution and restoration, and mitigation. These elements are all interdependent for creating a successful “recovery posture,” or resilience. Furthermore, in order to successfully navigate all phases of a disaster cycle, government agencies are now being driven to incorporate nongovernmental organization and private sector involvement. In fact, many of the key components of successful disaster recovery either reside with or are largely dependent on private sector authority or responsibility.

The opening statement in the Executive Summary of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Disaster Recovery Framework (published in September 2011) stated, “Experience with recent disaster recovery efforts highlight the need for additional guidance, structure and support to improve how we as a Nation address recovery challenges.” There are many challenges as well as numerous nuances associated with disaster recovery operations. Disaster recovery managers at all levels of government as well as nongovernmental and private sector organizations must address these challenges and nuances collaboratively, both immediately and in the long term. There are two primary challenges for developing and managing an effective and successful disaster recovery effort: setting time frames and managing expectations.

Challenge One: Setting Time Frames

Perhaps the most pressing challenge for managing disaster recovery operations is setting and meeting time frames for conducting (and completing) recovery activities. Inherent in this challenge is setting realistic time frames that reflect the circumstances. It is both unwise and unreasonable to assume that recovery operations can be accomplished in a predetermined period of time. Yet, most expectations are expressed in terms of times or dates. For example, it would be extremely difficult to forecast or project restoration of power to an area in which significant environmental damage, as well as structural damage exists. Downed trees, tangled overhead wires, debris on roadways, and the typical disarray following many scenarios require insightful assessments and subsequent decisions. These decisions relate to objectives that are developed using the SMART template.

S-M-A-R-T is an acronym that captures the essential elements of a “good” objective as follows: 

  • “S” connotes “Specific”: The objective statement must clearly denote an intended outcome. 

  • “M” stands for “Measureable”: There must be a clear way to determine if, and to what extent, the success in meeting the objective can be measured. 

  • “A” reflects the need for “Action” involved in the activities undertaken. The objective must state what actions will be undertaken. 

  • “R” refers to the objective being “Realistic,” rather than a preferred outcome. 

  • “T” stands for “Time Sensitivity.” In other words, the objective should include some indication of when the activity can realistically be accomplished.

The primary operational issues confronting disaster recovery managers are challenges associated with interrelated needs – situations in which several actions must be accomplished in concert with each other, consecutively or concurrently. For example, it may be necessary to clear debris-strewn roads before power utility services could begin restoring operations, such as re-setting power poles and restringing cable. However, in many operational undertakings, a safety guideline for debris removal crews is to avoid working in any areas with downed overhead wires. Consequently, to restore power, debris must be removed, but such services cannot be performed until the power utility company neutralizes any potential power sources or verifies that the downed lines are not and cannot be energized.

This challenge may be further complicated if overhead lines include cable television and/or other communication wires. Highway, forestry, and other work crews that may be involved in debris removal are typically prohibited, by policy and/or standard operating guidelines (SOGs), from their operations until the various utilities have verified that their lines are not energized. In fact, as a maximum precaution, many SOGs stipulate that the cables must be removed prior to debris removal operations.

Thus, simply “restoring power” in a given area is complicated, so the time allotted for operational performance must reflect the time necessary to perform much more than setting poles and restringing wires. For example, clearing a roadway may entail using resources from the highway department, power utility company, cable television provider, and/or local telephone service provider. Based on lessons learned from major disaster response and recovery operations in the past decade, task forces may include multiple agencies conducting operations following an incident.

The key to making this single undertaking manageable rests with extensive advanced planning. The planning process should identify: (a) the potential for power disruptions; (b) the areas where there is a greater likelihood for power outages; and (c) an outage’s potential physical consequences. Most power utilities today have established predetermined priorities for power restoration. This “pre-incident triage” enables those responsible for emergency or recovery management to determine where the greatest efforts should be directed. In fact, as many jurisdictions are learning, pre-incident triage may also facilitate preventive or mitigative actions – for example, if a particular area is especially susceptible to downed power lines.

Two potential mitigation measures may be available: (a) clear trees sufficiently so that, under most circumstances, they would not affect power lines; or (b) install underground power services. These decisions must be agreeable to the affected communities, which include the general public. Not only must power utility companies have the resources, they also must be willing to undertake the mitigating method based on costs and other factors. However, the local government must concur with the proposed solution and facilitate the actions recommended by enacting legislative authorities when needed. Finally, consumers must be willing to accept potentially higher utility costs and/or potential inconveniences to support the steps recommended. Even when an idea seems simplistic on the surface, the interrelationships needed to support any changes and improvements may present implementation challenges.

Challenge Two: Managing Expectations

The second challenge to successful recovery management rests with managing expectations, which is multifaceted. First, recovery managers including incident managers, emergency managers, and others involved in operational roles must be both optimistic and pessimistic. As optimists, they must recognize and promote the notion that improvements will take place, however incremental that may be from time to time. As pessimists, they must recognize that the potential impediments are as numerous as the options for action and be mentally prepared for delays or setbacks. Consequently, recovery managers must balance their expectations with reality and avoid excessive optimism or pessimism internally. Sometimes old adages such as, “It is what it is,” or, “Just deal with it,” are the only ways to keep moving forward during recovery operations.

Second, it is extremely important that government at all levels (local, tribal, state, and federal) and private sector partners must work collaboratively before an incident to identify and share their expectations to minimize conflicting objectives and goals. It is far more productive to identify potential areas of conflict during non-emergent conditions and resolve disconnects than it is to attempt resolution under the stress or duress of a disaster scenario. Failure to identify and seek resolution inevitably leads to public conflicts that further complicate efforts.

Finally, it is vitally important for all parties to manage the expectations of the public. Giving false hope – or failing to provide realistic information about the recovery operations – to communities experiencing significant disruptions almost always breeds distrust and even contempt. During pre-disaster planning efforts, government and private sector (utility) representatives should confer – preferably in person – and develop mutual, reciprocal, and realistic expectations. Failure to set this baseline could result in misconceptions and “dis-understanding” (disregarding the importance of coming to an understanding). The net result of effective pre-disaster concurrence between government agencies and private sector partners should be an accurate and effective message for the public. The message should be generated before an incident occurs, and then conveyed regularly to the citizens.

Efforts Needed Now

Greater efforts are needed to manage public expectations, which can be informed in two ways. First, emphasizing that preparedness is necessary for recovery; as another old adage says, “Failing to plan is the same as planning to fail.” Recovery is not solely a government responsibility, nor is it a private sector (utility) obligation. Indeed, both have integral roles, but the third leg of a successful recovery effort rests with the citizens who must share responsibility for taking care of themselves to the extent possible and, when within their capabilities, support recovery efforts.

Second, the general public (citizens) must be educated on the critical importance of being actively involved in aspects of post-disaster recovery activities, which can support and contribute to recovery at the individual and family levels. This highlights the importance of an ambitious – even aggressive – public affairs or public information campaign, which can and should be shared by government agencies and private sector partners equally to establish realistic expectations for all.

The national campaign to “Make A Plan, and Build a Kit” is a valuable starting point and should be shared equally by the public and private sectors. Conveying this message to the public frequently and through multiple media outlets would improve its effect. It should not be solely relegated to public service announcements posted by an emergency management agency. The public expects to be reminded during September as part of FEMA’s “National Preparedness Month” or, through efforts such as Virginia’s annual hurricane awareness campaign in May – before the hurricane season, which begins in June. For many, though, these campaigns or messages have simply become reminders that Christmas is three months away or there is only one month until the Independence Day celebration.

Regular and recurring efforts can focus on initiatives that citizens can take to better prepare for a worst-case scenario. Coordinated and collaborative public awareness and information campaigns that are consistent, reinforced, and shared by all partners and stakeholders are needed to better manage citizens’ expectations when disaster strikes. It is preferable to say, “We’re telling you now, so we won’t have to say we told you so later,” than to extend messages only during times of duress.

Consequently, managing recovery operations is a complex, interconnected process. Effective and successful disaster recovery management is dependent on numerous moving parts, all of which must integrate and function as one larger machine when circumstances dictate. None of the many pieces can be treated as a discreet component, but they also cannot be overlooked or minimized. In order to maintain the “big picture” for success, two efforts must always be incorporated: setting and meeting realistic time frames for operations under challenging and often uncertain conditions; and managing expectations internally and with the public. Effective recovery management begins long before a disaster, continues through response, requires ongoing attention to all facets during the recovery effort, and ultimately builds more resilient communities.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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