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Reflections From My Journey As An Emergency Manager



In my 22-year odyssey as an emergency manager, I’ve been fortunate to work in many aspects of the profession. Roles at FEMA, Red Cross, Regional Catastrophic Planning Team, Walgreens Co., Sony, and others have provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of organizations at the local, federal, state, NGO, disaster relief and corporate levels.

Five years ago, I had the privilege of working with the Native American community in a collaboration to develop and publish a groundbreaking Native Family Disaster Preparedness Handbook. This project provided me with a practical education about the unique challenges and issues faced by Tribal communities, one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. when it comes to preparing for natural and human-caused disasters.


Throughout my travels I’ve come to understand many truths about the people, processes, and perils faced by responders, managers, planners, and practitioners that make up the emergency management profession. I have also had the chance to witness the trauma of survivors, and many heroic acts of those tasked with mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.


While I do not consider the knowledge and expertise I’ve gained to be anything extraordinary or special (indeed there are many fantastic individuals throughout the profession), I do believe that the opportunities I’ve been given in this field provide a unique vantage point from which to develop some key theories.


Lately I took some time out to reflect on my career and examine lessons learned from the many facets of the occupation of emergency management; where it has been, where (in my humble opinion) it’s going in the future, and what has to change in order to prepare us for the challenges of the future.


Here are (for what it’s worth) a few of my observations:


The public sector must become more entrepreneurial in encouraging and supporting new ideas. While the doctrine and foundational principles of emergency management (e.g., NIMS, National Response Framework, NFPA, etc.) are sound and necessary to maintain the integrity of best practices, they are too often taken literally by the people tasked with executing plans, practices, and processes at all levels. What that means, for example, is just because the 6-step planning process is a guide, every plan doesn’t have to look like every other plan. Thus many plans are steeped in doctrine, but devoid of effective actions to change outcomes or substantially improve capabilities. In a nutshell, planning has become a rubber stamp, checking all the boxes but not stretching the limits of our imagination to create plans and programs that will be actionable, comprehensive, or sustainable.


Agencies must find ways to reward excellence, and weed out mediocrity. Unlike in the private sector, it is much more difficult to hire, promote, and replace government employees. That can be a good and bad thing for emergency managers. The good news is the turnover is very low in public agencies, providing continuity and consistence of programs and providing stability. The downside is often that poor performers are embedded in the culture, and there is little opportunity to replace marginal employees with good ones. The other result I have witnessed is that very few new ideas or promising practices are implemented, and senior EM leaders are often content to “check the box” on programs because of budgetary constraints and lack of a genuine top-down commitment to improvement.


I’ve had more than a few EM’s that say they would like to do more but they don’t have the political capital in their organization to push too hard. There’s a “just get it done” mentality in the public sector that contrasts starkly with the private sector attitude of “how can we do it better”. Of course I understand government and business are two very different animals, but much can be learned from the private sector with regard to rewarding and recognizing creativity and excellence among public workers.


New standards must be adopted to balance experience with education and training. This is a hotly debated area among practitioners and EM managers. The rapid growth of the EM industry over the past decade, and the increasing number of emergency incidents, has resulted in a new influx of emergency managers. Standards for EM certification by organizations such IAEM have done much to stabilize and set benchmarks for professional development. Nonetheless, the true value of education and training or real-world experience remains problematic. The number of degree related programs has increased markedly both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. While this phenomena has resulted in a larger pool of potential EM professionals, many would argue it has also diluted the quality of workers who could actually manage a disaster in a real-world situation.


Striking a balance between education, training, and experience remains a challenge. To add to this factor, a lack of diversity and flexibility of many programs creates a void in which some practitioners are unable to break through the glass ceiling to be recognized and supported effectively. An example is the Native American community, where many Tribal EM’s deal with disasters and emergencies daily, yet most are unable to meet rigid standards for education and certifications because of limited resources and culturally relevant training.


Another common complaint I've heard from many new emergency managers is the lack of mobility and opportunity to work on diverse aspects of the field. Many have said they feel stuck in jobs that don't offer the chance to broaden their experience and thus make them more marketable in their careers. They want to learn and do more but are often discouraged from doing so by internal silos that keep them from expanding knowledge outside their department or workspace.


Private sector partnerships should be more than just a handshake and a cup of coffee. In the private sector, many companies are beginning to recognize the value of sound emergency management principles and plans. Many, however, still view emergency management as an extension of business continuity, rather than as an entity that requires practical skills beyond business impact analysis or IT disaster recovery. For today’s EM’s, this means we must work harder to educate, inform, and engage private sector partners in the process of planning, training, exercises, and education. Public-private engagement has to be more inclusive, even if it means extending already limited resources to meaningfully engage businesses.


The assumption that companies are prepared to handle response and management of major incidents is a mistake that will ultimately cost EM’s in the long run. Unprepared employees, inexperienced managers, and ill-considered planning will make EM response and recovery efforts harder, and detract them from caring for the most critical needs of the affected community. Caution: don’t expect private sector companies to take the first-step, they simply don’t know enough to feel comfortable reaching out to government agencies. You’ll find, however, most companies are eager to engage once they understand the benefits to their bottom line of increased employee productivity and safety that can be derived from having an effective emergency management program.


Non-governmental organizations should to be valued as more than a necessary evil. NGOs providing disaster relief, and other essential services are an important part of the trilogy of effective emergency management. Despite many efforts to change the way these organizations are viewed (VOADs/COADs) there is still a huge disconnect in many communities.


The integration of faith-community partners remains a work in progress. More than donations management and disaster relief, faith-based entities have largely been left on their own to prepare disaster plans.


Many emergency managers treat their volunteer agencies like distant relatives rather than members of the family, engaging them only at the family reunion (disaster), but not having any real relationship otherwise.


According to Vivian Eason, EM Director of Washington State’s Thurston County, people think FEMA is going to ride in on their white horse and save the day. “But that’s just not the case anymore. People rely on the faith community during times of need, so they are increasingly important partners in emergency management,” she said. Still, few have created comprehensive emergency plans, and many places of worship have never performed something as simple as an emergency evacuation drill for their own facilities or members.


Although the Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides guidance to faith partners, staffing and programmatic support from the federal level is still insufficient for the number of faith organizations that need to be prepared. Hartford Institute estimates there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations in the United States.


While there is some great work being done in the faith community by organizations such as the Ready Faith Network, and the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and others, more must be done. Small NGOs such as clubs and community organizations are largely ignored. Groups like the American Legion VFW and YMCA remain as untapped resources that can have immense value, but have never been asked to the table.


The Whole Community concept adopted by FEMA a few years ago is in my opinion too broad, and lacks the focus needed to ensure communities are operating from a clear set of measurable preparedness objectives. I’ve seen communities that are creative and fully engaged in community activities that include underserved populations, i.e., seniors, youth, and access and functional needs populations. I have also seen more than a few communities that are struggling to understand and implement effective preparedness programs of any kind.


Who's disaster is this anyway? Early in my career at FEMA, I was tasked with organizing and deploying community relations teams to a major disaster declaration. In fighting erupted among some of the teams over assignments, as often happens in these situations. Frustrated and at a loss to come up with solutions that would restore order (of course I could have just kicked everyone in the butt and sent them on their way) I tried to come up with a solution that would preserve team cohesiveness, while getting the work underway.


I decided to go out to a local T-shirt shop, and have some shirts made that said “Who's disaster is this anyway? I placed them in the office, and required anyone who complained about their assignment to wear one while they were not in the field. The lesson here is that we as EM practitioners are all too often caught up in our own problems, challenges, and self-importance (too many egos and logos) to remember the noble purpose of our profession….to serve the survivors.


Final thoughts. Lately, as I read some of the posts on LinkedIn (in particular from some of my colleagues in public safety), I’ve become increasingly disappointed and disturbed by the vitriolic, and sometimes emotionally charged politicization of the profession, rife with commentary about personal political views and opinions. Not surprisingly, this is fairly commonplace on other social media given the highly charged political climate which has divided our society into an “us vs. them” mentality. From repeating snide remarks about the water crisis in Flint, to crude and insensitive commentary about the disaster relief system, the increase in divisive rhetoric has crept into every facet of American life. Sadly our profession is not immune.


Emergency managers are a unique and rare breed of individuals. Like firefighters, police officers, and other public safety professionals, most of us take tremendous pride in what we do to prepare, protect, and respond to emergencies in the communities we serve. But as with our counterparts we should never forget that it is the public we have agreed to serve, not ourselves or our personal agendas. As EM’s we must always be vigilant not to let our own fears, biases, and self-images detract or deter us from the honorable calling of our chosen career.


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