Assumption and Adaptation in Emergency Response: Evaluating the Strategic Guidance of the National Incident Management System

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Charles Chapman


This thesis presents a qualitative analysis of the current state of guidance provided by the federal government to state and local emergency response jurisdictions. The federal government drives a national incident management strategy by defining several categories that address response expectations for stakeholders: incident management, legal authority, funding, recovery, plans, policies, and procedures, among others. The national strategy, which comprises several documents, consolidates many plans, policies, and directives to influence local and state-level decision-makers through grant funding and post-disaster reimbursement. The federal funding process motivates jurisdictions to comply, and some specific sectors, such as critical infrastructure, dictate compliance through legislation.

The National Incident Management System’s strategy influences local organizations and jurisdictions with emergency response obligations to develop and adopt all-hazards emergency response plans to prepare for critical incidents and natural disaster responses. Plan developers use an assumption-based planning approach to imagine catastrophic scenarios and cultivate response options, but there are inherent problems with such an approach for emergency response.

This thesis reviews the literature regarding the national incident management strategy for incident response, assumption-based and adaptive planning processes, complexity and decision-making, and response implementation to determine whether a shift in the national policy could benefit local responders. The literature review ultimately illustrates that assumption-based planning is not an appropriate tool for developing new plans but is better suited to review existing procedures or as a training tool for responders.

This thesis also presents four response case after-action reports to determine whether pre-incident plans were beneficial to responders and jurisdictions had sufficient resources to respond to their incidents. The research design followed the model described by Kathleen Eisenhardt in her 1989 journal article, “Building Theories from Case Study Research.”[1] Each case selected was analyzed through the lenses of federal guidance, planning, complexity and decision-making, and implementation of the response. The study was conducted in a structured educational environment to satisfy the requirements of a master’s degree program.

The case studies indicate that pre-incident plans had little effect on the outcomes of each situation—although a team of responders was required to manage impacts and find solutions. In the City of Austin’s case, the emergency operations plan provided no response direction, and the one pre-existing plan, for point-of-distribution operations, remained unused. For Austin Water and the City of Evans, an incident management team (IMT) provided direct response coordination and managed overall response operations. For the City of Westport, responders acted as an ad hoc IMT.

The cases reviewed do not, however, refute all value attributed to pre-incident planning. Jurisdictions should conduct assumption-based planning for understanding the potential risks associated with their locations and services. All-hazards pre-incident plans aid the development of their response capabilities and should be used for training and exercising coordinated response teams. Teams can use scenario-based procedures as learning tools, exercising responses to simulated disaster conditions.

This thesis shows that pre-selected and pre-trained IMTs provide superior preparedness for disaster response and, when combined with a decision-making framework, are a dynamic, efficient tool. The analysis is an amalgam of the author’s experiences and theories, shaped by the reviews of current literature and case studies.

A change in the national strategy, from a focus on assumption-based planning to advocate for the development of local IMTs, would provide a mechanism for agencies and jurisdictions to respond. Local response teams that train and exercise together would provide the foundation for improved response efforts. The goal is not to eliminate pre-incident planning but to synthesize it with established local response teams—preferably, teams that have a working understanding of complex problem-solving, as presented within the Cynefin framework.

[1] Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, “Building Theories from Case Study Research,” Academy of Management Review 14, no. 4 (1989): 532–50,

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