I recently listened to an interview with author and professor Sean McFate. In the interview he discusses the changing landscape of warfare and what the US must do to keep up, particularly since we are still largely stuck in a mindset of conventional warfare. For those interested in this very insightful interview, it was on The Security Studies Podcast.
Obviously, a great deal has changed over the decades in warfare, but many philosophies and perspectives have remained the same. As I listened to the interview, I found McFate’s words to ring true for emergency management as well. We have had some changes in focus from civil defense, to natural hazards, to terrorism, and now toward what seems to be the most comprehensive all-hazards perspective we’ve ever had. We’ve also had changes in technology and methodologies, but we still seem stuck in a lot of old ways of thinking. Emergency management isn’t linear. In fact the lines are blurred so much that it’s hardly cyclical (another old way of thinking).
McFate espoused that high-level warfare strategies should span administrations and leadership changes. They should be durable and adaptable. In the interview he discussed 10 new rule of war, which were summarized from his new book. As such, I offer 10 strategies for improving emergency management. You will see that most of these items aren’t radical. The fundamentals of what we do in emergency management must certainly persist, but some perspectives do need to change. Here’s what I have to offer:
- More incentivization for data-driven hazard mitigation and resilience
There are a few items to unpack in this one. First of all, fully bringing the concept of resilience on board and marrying it up hazard mitigation. Where there is some overlap in the two, there are also distinct differences. Ultimately, however, the ideal end state for the two is the same: eliminate or significantly reduce hazards and impacts from those hazards. The more we start discussing hazard mitigation and resilience together, the more we will see the linkages between the two. Hazard mitigation funding, likewise, needs to be broadened to incorporate concepts of resilience.
Another key item here is making these projects data-driven. Let’s do a better job of quantifying risk in relatable terms. Risk needs to include not only immediate potential impacts, but also cascading effects. Once we have that impact data, then root cause analysis is important. Some of this is regulation, some engineering, some human behavior. Also keep in mind that this needs to truly be all-hazards.
Lastly, incentivization. Incentivization isn’t just funding, and gold stickers are not tangible incentives. Make it meaningful. Also make these incentives more immediate. It’s great that mitigation measures can result in a locality paying a lower percentage in the event of a future public assistance declaration, but that could happen years from now, or it might not. That’s still good to include, but let’s be real – tax payers and law makers don’t just want to dream about the reward, they want to enjoy it now.
- Ground preparedness in reality
I’ve seen a lot of preparedness activities (planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercises) based on someone’s “good ideas” instead of actual data and needs. It’s no coincidence that I just mentioned data in the previous point. How many jurisdictions actually use all that data from their hazard mitigation plan, generally synthesized at significant expense, for other emergency management needs? It’s quite a rare occasion. Why? Most practitioners view hazard mitigation to be a totally different animal. It’s not sexy response stuff, so they don’t see a need to pay attention to it. Instead, they fully dismiss what was done for hazard mitigation planning and do their own hazard analysis. It seems to be a no-brainer that we should do better at developing one system to meet both needs.
Needs assessments take time and that has a cost, but leadership should be making informed decisions about what preparedness needs exist. Absent conducting a needs assessment, the wrong decisions can easily be made, which results in a waste of time and money. Most every emergency management agency has a story of time and money wasted on knee-jerk reactions.
Needs assessments should be applied to every aspects of preparedness. In planning, we want to minimize assumptions and maximize data. If an incident of the type you are looking at has never happened in your jurisdiction, make comparisons other similar jurisdictions. Training programs should be based on identified needs, and individual courses should be developed based upon identified needs. Probably a good opportunity for me to mention that ICS Training Sucks (but a realistic training needs assessment would fix it). Similarly, the objectives we identify for exercises should be grounded in recognizing what capabilities and plans we need to validate.
Observation: When we look at the 32 Core Capabilities from the National Preparedness Goal, Threat and Hazard Identification is a Core Capability sitting in the Mitigation mission area. If threat and hazard identification is so fundamental to what we do across all of emergency management, why isn’t it a common capability along with Planning, Operational Coordination, and Public Information and Warning? Perhaps that needs to change?
- Boost regional efforts and coalitions
It’s interesting that everyone talks about how emergency management is a collaborative effort, yet in practice so many are resistant, reluctant, or negligent in working collaboratively. Sure, it’s often easier to write a plan yourself, but the end result likely isn’t as good as it would be from a group effort. In healthcare preparedness (yep, that’s a part of emergency management, too), they have been using regional healthcare coalitions. These coalitions cover all aspects of healthcare, from hospitals, to clinics, to private practices, nursing homes, and EMS, along with health departments.
There is certainly precedent in emergency management to work collaboratively. There are required collaborations, such as Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), as well as those emphasized in practice, such as in plan development. LEPCs are great, and often under-utilized in a lot of areas. In some areas, especially those with heavy industry, they are large and busy, and can’t really take on any more than they already do, but in other areas they have much less to do and could certainly work with a dual purpose as a standing emergency management coordination or advisement entity. Regardless of how it’s done, build a local or regional EM coalition. The relationships and perspectives, if properly organized and tasked, will reap some great benefits. Don’t forget to make them regional, if that makes sense for you. Disasters don’t give a damn about the funny lines we draw on maps. And don’t just make these groups about meetings… actually engage them in meaningful preparedness activities and other aspects of emergency management.
- Embrace scholar-practitioners
One of the items McFate mentioned in his interview was embracing scholar-practitioners. Now I’m not the kind of person to espouse that a practitioner is any better than a scholar, or vice versa. They each have an important role, especially in a profession like emergency management, where there is a lot of theory (more than most people realize) and a lot of application. That said, we don’t have to pick a side. You can be whoever you want, in fact you can even do both. Does being a practitioner mean that you have to be a full-time emergency manager? Nope. Being a scholar doesn’t necessarily mean you must be a professor or a student pursuing an advanced degree, either. I would absolutely argue that regularly reading some research papers or a book on related topics, or even this blog, makes you a scholar. If you have interest beyond just direct application, and like to think or discuss broader ideas in emergency management, that makes you a scholar.
I think it is scholar-practitioners that have that capacity to advance our profession more than others. Not only is this group doing, but they are thinking about how to do it better. If they come up with an idea of how to do it better, they have the greatest chance of actually giving their idea a try. They are also the ones most prone to share their lessons learned, both successes and otherwise.
- Understand emergency management as a social science
Speaking of theory, we need to recognize emergency management for what it is. While specific applications of emergency management may be within niche areas of practice and academic disciplines, most of emergency management is really a social science. Social science is fundamentally about the relationships of people. That is what we do in emergency management. There are aspects of social science that may apply more than others, such as sociology or public health, but we also need to embrace political science.
In application, emergency managers need to become more astute in politics. Not the partisan running for office type of politics, but politics as an aspect of governance, policy, and relationship building. As an emergency manager, it’s your job to understand what every agency and department does in your jurisdiction, and how they fit into the function of emergency management. Yes, you can espouse the benefits of emergency management and business continuity to them, but how do they fit into emergency management? Some connections are easy to make, especially the public safety ones or extensions of that such as transportation, public works, and public health. But many are quick to dismiss administrative, support, and social welfare agencies. The better you understand them and are able to champion their involvement in emergency management, the stronger coalition you will build.
- Mindset: always in the disaster space
I mentioned in the introduction that the lines between the phases of emergency management are blurred. We used to teach (and some still do) of distinct phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Sure it’s easier to teach about these when we put them in their own box, but that gives the impression to many that we only do one at a time. The reality is that most jurisdictions are certainly doing mitigation, preparedness, and recovery right now – and maybe even some element of response.
The main point here is that we need to change mindsets of people. I’ve had plenty of people ask me what emergency managers do when there isn’t an active disaster. I certainly have no problem satisfying this common curiosity, but the simple fact that they ask means that we aren’t promoting enough of what we do. We need put ourselves and others in the mindset that are always operating in the disaster space. It doesn’t need to mean that there is always a disaster response we are involved in, but we need to be very clear that we are active every single day in disaster-related work.
I’ll take this one step further, and that’s to suggest that the primary function of every government agency is emergency management. Consider that we have roads not only for ease of everyone’s transportation, but so that we can more quickly and efficient respond to save lives and property. Our public works departments provide potable water and sewage systems for public health purposes, which is part of the greater emergency management family. I could give examples for every government agency. The administrative departments support those agencies and the implementation of their missions.
It’s also worth mentioning here that since several of these agencies have involvement in our infrastructure that we need to seriously step up our investments in infrastructure, which not only make it better and more effective and efficient, but also more resilient (tying back to my first point)
- Step away from tactics
Far too many emergency managers still focus on tactics. In defense of that, it’s easy to do, especially if you come from a public safety background. I still think it’s important to understand tactics. That said, an effective emergency manager needs to think less about implementation and more about strategy and relationships. There are plenty of tacticians out there. One more isn’t needed. What is needed is someone who can step back and see the forest for the trees, as they say.
- Private citizens won’t prepare, but volunteers can be engaged
We need to let citizen preparedness go. I’m not saying we should give up on our message of individual and family preparedness, because it can make a difference, but we need to recognize that most citizens simply won’t do it. This is a concept that has largely evolved out of society. In the days of civil defense we were engaging a different generation of people. We also presented them with a credible and scary threat that was being put in their face all the time. Now is not that time. Sure, there are models of citizen preparedness that still work to extraordinary lengths, such as in Cuba, but government oppression and a cold war mentality contribute significantly to that. Our society has evolved to an extent of individuals not having the time, wherewithal, or interest in preparing themselves. Sure there are exceptions to every rule, but largely, society has an expectation of being provided for by the government.
Citizen engagement, on the other hand, is still a great reserve that we can spend more effort tapping. Trained, organized volunteers can accomplish an incredible extent of activity. Volunteer management is no easy task, though. Programs need to be developed and promoted, volunteers recruited and trained, and organizations sustained. Volunteers must be given purpose and don’t forget about the critical link with government… how will this happen. Religious institutions, corporate and union volunteer groups, and entities such as CERT are all great. We just need to do a better job at incentivizing, managing, and engaging.
- Plan better for recovery
Ah, recovery. Everyone talks about how we need to do it better, but too few resources are applied to making that happen. Remember that preparedness starts with a needs assessment and planning. We can identify estimates of disaster impacts from which we then extrapolate reasonable benchmarks of performance within the core capabilities of recovery. The problem is that most recovery plans are written at too high a level and generally not followed through on. Why? Maybe because the emphasis is always on the life safety aspect of response plans. Certainly that’s important (and we can still do so much better with our response plans), but most recovery oriented plans fall incredibly short. It seems that most governments that even bother to write recovery plans only do so to the extent of the plan being a framework. They identify what the goals are, what agencies are involved, and provide some high-level objectives. Typically no strategy is provided and the management of the recovery function is rarely mentioned, despite such a focus that we have on incident management.
I just recently had a discussion with a client about recovery exercises. They were approached about the need to conduct more of them. Smartly, they responded by putting the focus back on the requester by asking if the recovery plans were ready to be exercised. Once the requestor took a moment to consider, their answer was no. Remember that (in most cases) exercises validate plans. We can conduct an exercise in the absence of a plan, but generally that only confirms the lack of a plan. Plans establish the standards of performance that we use in exercises and in real life.
- Use technology to the greatest extent, but prepare for austerity
Ah, technology. It’s a wonderful thing, until it doesn’t work. I’m a big fan of the efficiencies that technology provide, especially when technology is developed to solve a specific problem, not to create new ones. Processes should dictate technology needs, not the other way around.
Technology is mostly a data tool. It helps us to communicate more quickly and efficiently; access, organize, and transmit data; visualize data; and collect data. More specifically, we use technology platforms such as EOC management systems and GIS. These have allowed us to make significant strides in what we do and how we do it. I’ve used dashboards, databases, maps, 3D models, simulators, and more to do my job.
I’ve seen some emergency managers simply not embrace technology. And I mean at all. Not even a computer. I understand how they are able to function, and though they may have brilliant minds for emergency management, they are simply not able to do much without an assistant to research, type, print, and even communicate for them. While I’m seeing this less and less, there are still some of these folks out there, and it’s not just older generations, either.
There are many who have a reasonable literacy of technology, but still aren’t embracing inexpensive or even free resources that would make them more effective. This is even more important for the majority of emergency managers, who are typically one-person offices with few resources. Maybe listing some of these resources will occur in a future post of mine.
Despite the wonders of technology, I often advocate procedures for going dark (i.e. when your technology fails). After all, we are emergency managers, are we not? Every EOC that uses a technology tool to manage functions within their EOC should absolutely have a low tech back up, procedures and training in how to implement it, and an annual exercise to test those procedures and keep people in practice. Carbon paper and gas station maps are your friends.
Well there they are: 10 strategies for improving emergency management. As I stated in the introduction, there really isn’t anything revolutionary here, although some concepts might be a bit controversial, which I am happy to embrace. Perhaps I missed an important point or have a poor perspective on something. I absolutely welcome your comments and feedback, as always.
© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP