Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management

There have been a number of efforts to further the expansion of diversity and inclusion in Emergency Management recently. A great step forward has recently been made by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), by organizing their own internal Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) within the agency. Their press release states it is the first of its kind across the nation dedicated to reducing barriers to assistance and equality in disaster relief and emergency management. They will provide subject matter expertise, strategic leadership, and technical assistance to VDEM and other Emergency Management partners.

Diversity and inclusion are equally important internally to Emergency Management as they are externally. It starts with deliberate intent from leadership and inclusion in the strategic plans of the organization, with personnel across the organization made familiar with goals, specific approaches, and given examples of what to do and how to do it. Whether you establish a specific unit within your Emergency Management organization or not, the effort must permeate the entirety of the Emergency Management practice, regardless of those efforts originating with the Emergency Management agency or elsewhere. Consider your own internal matters, such as hiring, partner agencies and organizations, and your own personnel practices and relationships. Large agencies should ensure that their staff reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. It’s not just a matter of race and gender, but ethnic and cultural background, languages, disability, and other factors.

We need to examine how we deliver programs. When I took over a state training and exercise program, I had the realization that many of the training locations we used across the state were not accessible. The most basic but significant barrier being that facilities were either up flights of stairs or down flights of stairs, with no elevators. While we didn’t have any complaints, it was still wrong; not to mention in violation of the federal funding used for training which required adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I sought the advice of an organization that advocates for persons with disabilities and developed ADA-consistent standards for the selection of our training facilities. Those not meeting those standards were immediately discontinued.

Community outreach efforts, which may also crosscut to other lines of effort such as training, hazard mitigation, and disaster recovery; need to be inclusive. We must always consider our audiences and how they will be reached and communicated with. There is no single solution, therefore multiple solutions should be made available. We need to not only consider languages and accommodations for hearing impairments, but also the inherent distrust that some cultures, particularly refugees, may have of government. We need to address technological barriers as well – not everyone is on Twitter, much less following your account. Even the simple ability to relate is important. While it’s important to dress professionally (I’m seeing some EM agencies wearing tee shirts… which I think is far too casual), a suit and tie is often too intimidating, too ‘government’, and too impersonal when working with community members.

Our planning efforts must identify, acknowledge, and address the diverse audiences and communities we have, the barriers they may have relative to the plan, and how we will work toward supporting those communities. Hazard mitigation and disaster recovery efforts are where some of our biggest gaps are when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Our existing policies and procedures are great, and applicable to a large percentage of the situations and people who need help, but they also unintentionally (I’m being optimistic) leave some people behind. We need to ensure concerted efforts to assess and meet the needs of traditionally underserved populations, which not only includes vulnerable and small rural communities, but urban communities as well. We also need to consider a customer service perspective in these efforts; remembering that while WE know the rules, policies, and procedures, the people impacted often do not. Persons impacted are confused, overwhelmed, and traumatized. This requires special care, deliberate outreach, and helping them through the bureaucracy we seem to thrive in. In regard to hazard mitigation, the long-established standard of community participation is important to ensuring that we are not only meeting needs we may not fully be aware of, but also not creating unintended consequences by any of our approaches to addressing known problems. Reflecting back on our community outreach efforts, we all know that most requirements for advertising public meetings do NOT reach across the entire community. We need to make better efforts.

Diversity and inclusion should somehow be on the agenda of most meetings. We should always consider who we are aren’t including or not reaching and how we can do better, regardless of the activity. Do we need to do something different internally? Is there an external partner that can support our efforts? Are we unintentionally creating barriers? If someone is not able to go through the process as we have prescribed it, is there an alternate means of doing so? We also need to recognize where law and regulation create barriers, and work with elected officials to advocate for meaningful changes.

Emergency Management has always been about engaging different stakeholders through our coordination activities. Diversity and inclusion then seem an easy bridge to cross, yet far too many Emergency Management agencies and efforts continue to be dominated by able-bodied white men. It’s (mostly) not a knock on that demographic (of which I am a part), but we need to recognize the benefits of the different perspectives offered by others, as well as the need to better serve those who have consistently been underserved by our efforts, through error or omission. We have long espoused ‘whole community’ in our efforts, yet we often aren’t practicing what we preach.

I think the VDEM ODEI may serve as a model for other states and larger local Emergency Management offices. I hope to see them spreading lessons learned, speaking at conferences, and being embraced by FEMA as a new standard of practice in Emergency Management. For those Emergency Management organizations that are perhaps too small to include a new organizational component for this, they can still incorporate the concepts into what they do, along with establishing partnerships with organizations that can support these efforts. We can and must do better!

What other efforts toward diversity and inclusion does Emergency Management need to engage in?

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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