Planning collaboratively using a functional needs approach

By: Susan Gilbert

Planning for the diverse and complex requirements of at-risk groups is a significant challenge for emergency practitioners. There has been a tendency to group people with disparate needs and varying capacities into a broad “special needs” or “vulnerable populations” category (Kailes & Enders, 2007). Compounding the problem, groups considered to be at-risk have been diversely identified as the very old, the very young, the poor, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, the socially isolated, the seriously ill, single-parent families, people with limited psychosocial coping capacity, tourists (Buckle, Mars & Smale, 2000), residents of group living facilities, renters, ethnic minorities, large households, and the homeless (Morrow, 1999), among others.

Because of the wide variation in, and lack of consensus on the composition of at-risk groups, these terms have become essentially meaningless, contributing to imprecise planning, inadequate resource allocation and, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, deaths (Parsons & Fulmer, 2007).

The functional needs framework ([FNF] (Kailes & Enders, 2007), which is emerging as a better practice in the United States, provides emergency managers with a practical planning tool with which to plan for the diverse and variable requirements of all members of the community. Kailes and Enders have recommended an approach based upon common functional requirements designed to guide all phases of emergency planning and to improve resource management. These five common functional categories are: communication, medical needs, maintaining functional independence, supervision, and transportation.

In the fall of 2008, the Public Health Agency of Canada supervised a research study entitled  Planning Collaboratively with People At Risk Using a Functional Needs Framework. The study, conducted by Susan Gilbert, was designed to investigate how Canadian emergency practitioners plan for and with people at-risk in their communities and focused on the following questions: Are Canadian emergency managers aware of the FNF? Are they using the FNF? What are the barriers to using the FNF? How do emergency managers who are not using the FNF plan for and with at-risk populations?

Fifty-seven research participants from four existing Canadian emergency management networks were invited to participate in the study: two Ontario-based community emergency managers groups, the Council of Emergency Social Services Directors, and the National Emergency Social Services Network.  Participants from these networks were chosen because planning for at‑risk populations falls within the general mandate of community emergency management and within the specific mandate of Emergency Social Services (ESS).

Study findings revealed that two-thirds of emergency social services (ESS) practitioners were aware of the FNF, whereas less than one quarter (21%) of community emergency management coordinators (CEMCs) were aware of it, suggesting that planning issues as they relate to at-risk populations is currently viewed as an ESS responsibility, rather than a broad-based emergency management consideration.

The study’s second finding is that most (92%) emergency practitioners are not using the FNF in their planning work. The most common reason given was that practitioners do not believe that they know enough about the FNF to use it in their planning efforts. It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of participants reported that they would consider using the FNF in future as a basis for planning for and with at-risk populations. The barriers to using the FNF appear to relate primarily to the lack of resources to implement the FNF into practice, such as planning templates.

Thirdly, when at-risk populations are considered in planning efforts, these efforts are neither consistent nor formalized. Practitioners noted that they plan in a general way for at-risk people, or on an ad-hoc basis, or when an emergency reveals the need to consider specific groups of people.

Collaborative planning strategies—that is, planning for emergencies with at-risk people and the advocacy groups that support them—are also not consistently employed. Collaborative efforts, such as inviting at-risk groups to participate in emergency training and exercises, invitations to participate on committees, take part in focus groups, and provide input on operational issues such as the purchase of emergency supplies for people with disabilities, are strategies used more often by ESS planners (68%) than by community emergency managers (26%).

Finally, the study concluded that that there is a significant lack of clarity with regard to whose responsibility it is to plan for and with at-risk people.

Based on these findings, the study recommends four key recommendations to improve planning for people at-risk in Canadian communities: (a) that the federal and provincial governments endorse the FNF; (b) that FNF-based training, tools and templates be developed; (c) that provincial FNF pilot projects be initiated; and (d) that collaboration with people at-risk be embedded in all community emergency management planning efforts.

A view of people from a “special needs” perspective is not a clear or comprehensive lens through which to plan for people at-risk in Canadian communities. All Canadians, at some point in their lives, may have a functional limitation caused by or coinciding with an emergency. Adapting community emergency planning to reflect a function-based approach will help emergency managers to ensure that all members of the community are included in preparedness, response and recovery efforts.


Buckle, P., Mars, G., & Smale, S. (2000). New approaches to assessing vulnerability and resilience. Australian Journal of Emergency Management,15(2), 8-14.

Kailes, J. & Enders, A. (2007). Moving beyond “special needs”: A function-based framework for emergency management and planning. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 17(4), 230-237.

Morrow, B. (1999). Identifying and mapping community vulnerability. Disasters, (23)1, 1-18.

Parsons, B. & Fulmer, D. (2007). The paradigm shift in planning for special-needs populations. Retrieved December 11, 2008 from

Susan is a recent graduate of the Masters in Disasters and Emergency Management Program at Royal Roads University.

Susan Gilbert

Gilbert Consulting