Organisational preparedness and planning for disaster response

Before planning can be done it is important to identify and engage with a suitable range of stakeholders.

Humanitarian preparedness should be viewed as a multi-stakeholder activity. An agency developing preparedness in isolation is unlikely to significantly improve the overall response outcome in the event of a disaster. Where action is undertaken collectively by:

  • National and local government representatives
  • Scientific and technological organisations - government, research and private
  • Donors
  • Communities and CBOs
  • Other humanitarian agencies (international, national and local).

There is potential to be transformative, resulting in different ways of carrying out coordinated activities at an earlier stage and with better outcomes.

These partnerships may already exist from Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) or development activities, so extending these to include humanitarian preparedness and response is a logical step. Christopher and Tate (2014) show that developing a shared view of risk and developing complimentary preparedness and planned response activities will result in a more efficient and agile humanitarian system.

Contingency planning is based on risk assessment (Metcalfe et al. 2011) and the development of impact scenarios. Aims and objectives for the response are set and actions that will achieve them are defined (Twigg 2015). The benefit of scenario-based planning is that it demands a thorough and balanced analysis of the environmental, physical, social, political and organisational context. However, scenario development should not overshadow the planning. Given the level of uncertainty associated with projecting future events, a scenario should focus on key elements that influence impact and response.

Planning scenarios should develop some evidenced detail about the following key elements:

  • Hazard (magnitude, location, affected area, duration, warning time)
  • Exposure (number of people affected in the area)
  • Physical impacts (on natural environment and physical structures, infrastructure and services)
  • Human impacts
  • Economic impacts (markets, income, livelihoods, savings)
  • Soci-epidemiological impacts (public access to healthcare, sanitation, information/communication, education, psychosocial support, religious needs, burial etc)
  • Political impacts (governance issues, instability etc)
  • Organisational impacts

Having defined multiple possible disaster scenarios, a series of common planning assumptions can be created. These are consequences which usually result, irrespective of the causal event. Common planning assumptions are particularly useful when any public availability of detailed scenarios may be politically sensitive. Common planning assumptions may be grouped into:

  • Humanitarian need (number of people requiring shelter and food, disease outbreaks etc)
  • Operational challenges (impacts on capacity to respond, access/logistics, communications, staff security)
  • Wider political and social consequences (instability, unrest, displacement)

Scenario research will provide an estimate of probable lead time into the event and may indicate precursors or thresholds for action for slower onset emergencies. In order to maximise the potential for anticipatory or early response, agencies should develop a monitoring strategy for changing conditions, comprising:

  • Agency assessments
  • Local observations
  • Shared information from other agencies and organisations
  • National or global forecasting or early warning centres

Monitoring will allow an agency to move to a state of amber alert or heightened readiness during cyclone season or, using food insecurity early warnings provided by GIEWS - Global Information and Early Warning System, to prepare to deploy food aid early after the rainy season.

Plan aims usually cover three priority areas that should be covered by a series of objectives and performance indicators. These are:

  • Ensuring the safety and security of your staff
  • Maintaining ongoing critical services that your organisation may be providing (business continuity) within and beyond the emergency zone
  • Responding to the emergency itself

In addition, it is good practice to plan for exiting and or the shift to recovery and recovery planning.

A simple but effective way of approaching response planning is to use the 4Ws.

  • What needs to be achieved?
  • When does it have to happen?
  • Where do things need to be?
  • Who needs to make it happen?

IASC model of emergency response planning (2016)

Preparedness and planning is a never-ending process, revisions are made based on lessons learned from exercising or similar events responded to in the sector.

Levine (2011) identifies a list of 14 common failings of humanitarian emergency response plans, ranging from a lack of impact targets, lack of internal financing mechanism and inadequate integrated procedures to deal with staff security.

Your task

Read the humanitarian emergency response preparedness approach outlined by IASC.

Or if you have extra time available read the full version document of the humanitarian emergency response preparedness approach.

What do you understand the relationship between Minimum Preparedness Actions (MPA) and Advanced Preparedness Actions (APA) to be?

Based on your own experience or case study reading, can you provide any examples of MPAs and APAs?


DIfD (2017) Saving Lives, Bill, Resilience Reform: The UK Government’s Humanitarian Reform Policy.

Levine, S. (2011) System Failure? Revisiting the Problems of Timely Response to Crisis in the Horn of Africa. commissioned and published humanitarian practice network; Overseas Development Institute.

Metcalfe, V., Martin, E., Pantuliano, S. (2011) Risk in Humanitarian Action: Towards a Common Approach? HPG Commissioned Paper.

Twigg, J. (2015) ‘Preparing for Disasters and Emergencies’. Disaster Risk Reduction: Good Practice Review 9 16. humanitarian practice network, Overseas Development Institute.

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This article is from the free online course:

Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

Coventry University