Integrating Emergency Management in Local Government

I think we’re all pretty familiar with and confident in the ability of typical emergency services organizations to properly and appropriately address ‘routine’ responses – that is, those that last a few minutes to a few hours. It’s the extended operations, those that last many hours, or even into days, weeks, and months that traditional response organizations have difficulty with.

The incidents – generally categorized as Type 3 or higher – have very different dynamics. The requirements of these incidents are different. We can’t just roll our usual response, or even throw everything we have at it at one time. We need to rotate resources. We often need resources which are not used to using. We need to provide close support to our resources. Typical emergency services are practically all Command and Operations. Planning and Logistics, much less Finance, are virtually non-existent in the first responder world. Of course, this applies to not just response, but emergency management activities comprehensively.

A true integration of emergency management is absolutely necessary at the local level. Every jurisdiction should identify, and with the approval of the chief executive, how this will happen. What will the triggers be for this? There should be a recognition that this isn’t about taking anything away from the fire chief or police chief – in fact this is about giving them access to greater resources. These chief officers and the leaders beneath them are expected to be experts at the things they deal with 97% of the time. It needs to be accepted that someone else can help guide them through the other three percent.

Again, this is just within the realm of response. Most agencies have little to no active role in mitigation, recovery, or other emergency management tasks – much less the knowledge to take them on. Granted, some don’t explicitly have those activities as part of their agency’s charter, but all do go beyond response to some extent. Emergency management needs to permeate the activities of every agency. Someone should be thinking about it, coordinating with the jurisdiction’s emergency manager, and advising their own agency’s leadership. Of course, this transcends response; it applies to all phases and mission areas of emergency management, with focal points appropriate to the mission of each respective agency.

Planning

This is one of our biggest gaps in preparedness at the local government level. Sure, some first responder organizations have plans for extended and complex incidents – but how well are the plans written? Are they up to date with contemporary practices? Are leaders at every level familiar with them and ready to implement them? Are these activities exercised? The answers to these questions tend to lean toward the negative.

Organizing

<This point is really the crux of my thoughts on this topic. Properly staffing emergency management functions is a considerable path to success.>

Deliberate planning efforts need to include emergency managers, who must be given proper authority by the chief executive to take action and access needed resources. This also means that to be most effective, an emergency manager should absolutely not be placed within another organization. Absent good and confident leadership from that organization, their actions will almost always result in bias filtered through the leadership of the home organization. The emergency manager, during an extended response, becomes a considerable asset to Command and to the jurisdiction as a whole. While they are not there to assume Command, they are there to coordinate internal and external resources to support Command, as well as being familiar with the plans to an extent Command may not be and to support thinking beyond the initial response.

As mentioned earlier, I also believe that most government agencies should have someone responsible for emergency management in their own agency. For smaller jurisdictions this is likely not going to be a full time job, but with an individual tasked and responsible for emergency management at the agency or department level, that helps ensure proper attention to the matter – across all phases and mission areas. Certainly, mid-sized towns and larger should have less difficulty with this, beyond establishing protocol and incentivizing. We already have common practice in various agencies for personnel that hold certain qualifications, such as fire department personnel becoming paramedics. This is often incentivized with a stipend or an altogether higher rate of pay, along with time being given for maintaining the certification and other related professional development. Think about how effective agencies would be if each had someone responsible for emergency management. As well as benefits to the jurisdiction. And yes, even volunteer EMS and fire departments can do this (I served as the designated ‘crisis and emergency manager’ for a volunteer EMS organization for a period of time).

Training

This needs to cover a broad span of things we might consider training. The softest is more at an awareness level – socializing the plan. Making sure that people are familiar with it to the extent necessary. This isn’t just chief officers and department heads, either. Often, they aren’t the ones who need to have early recognition of a situation’s applicability to plan. This socialization needs to take place all levels of leadership.

Being familiar with a plan isn’t enough, though. Being able to implement the plan is largely contingent on targeted, effective, and persistent training – and certainly beyond the awareness level. What training is needed to implement the plan? Who needs to be trained? To what extent of proficiency?

Exercises

If you follow my blog, you know I’ve written on the benefits, ways, and means of exercising to a considerable extent. ‘nuff said. If not: lots of information here.

Let’s be honest, nothing here is a novel approach. A good number of local jurisdictions (I’ll also include counties and parishes in this definition) already implement some version of this. It certainly is a best practice that a lot of jurisdictions are missing out on. Sure, it takes some work, and proper authority, and meetings, and buy in, and training, and more meetings… but what in our world doesn’t require these things?  I think one disaster should clearly show the benefits of this to any jurisdiction.  It’s interesting though, that despite being aware of other practices, so many jurisdictions are stuck doing the same thing they’ve always done. In many ways we are hurt by tradition, apathy, and indifference as much as any disaster. If jurisdictions aren’t prepared to effectively deal with disasters, how well do you think they will do? This doesn’t even require that much structure change or direct cost – just deliberate action.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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