The Contrarian Emergency Manager

Going into the new year, I’ve changed the title of my blog to The Contrarian Emergency Manager. It’s a moniker I don’t take lightly, and I feel it reflects many of my positions and attitudes on our field of practice. Emergency management struggles with a number of issues, including a bit of an identity crisis, accountability (mostly to ourselves), and complacency. Yes, we have an incredibly hard working, dedicated slate of professionals and those who have been reading my blog know that it’s a rare exception for me to sling mud at any persons specifically. Our culture, systems, perceptions, and attitudes are what I endeavor to shed light on. Some positive, some negative, some simply are what they are.

Perhaps one of my most consistent pursuits has been to crack open some of the things which emergency managers are too accepting of. Through the years I’ve ranted about things like ICS training and National Preparedness Reports. The state of those, and others, is simply not good, yet not holding accountability for those responsible for them coupled with a complacent attitude about the current state of them has us stuck in the mud. It is not a role of emergency managers to look at things differently than others and to solve problems?

Words have meaning and provide us with some interesting lexicons and perceptions. The word ‘contrarian’ seems to often have a negative connotation, one of someone who is constantly a nay-sayer. In reality, it’s defined as someone who challenges the norm, which I think is often a healthy reality check. Complacency is an enemy of which we must always be vigilant. Challenges, to serve proper purpose, should also be constructive. I’ve worked with and for obstructionists. People who aren’t challenging norms or providing constructive feedback; these are people who dig in on anything that opposes their opinions and perceptions. Obstructionists thrive in negativity. While I’ve pointed out many of the things in emergency management I feel need to be fixed, I’ve also celebrated accomplishments. In holding myself accountable, I endeavor to give thoughtful critiques to the subjects about which I write. Simply saying something is bad is superficial and not at all helpful. I like to dig deeper, give some thoughtful analysis, and explain why I have the opinions I do, and as often as possible, provide my thoughts on alternative approaches which could lend improvement.

Emergency management is a practice that often thrives on theory, despite some harsh realities of implementation and impacts. We do many things a certain way because that’s how they’ve been done for years. We do other things because there is no convenient alternative. There is much we accept simply because we don’t really take the time to peel back some layers. We like to think things are better than they are, even though we live in a world of ‘what-ifs’. Perhaps doing so is overwhelming to some, but we need to remember that our work impacts the lives of real, actual people. Our work is more than just words in a plan or a training certificate or a pat on the back after an exercise. We may not perceive that impact because we aren’t putting water on fires or stopping bleeding. That, unfortunately, is a reflection of attitudes that others have of us. Our work is just as important, if not more so, because we address the big picture of emergencies and disasters.

Emergency management is an amalgamation of a field, inheriting practices from partner public safety disciplines and other sources. Those practices may work well in those disciplines, but they may not for us. Change and evolution can be difficult pills to swallow. I feel that often as a culture we’re also afraid of being critical. I think this stems from the essence of emergency management – collaboration. By nature we must work well with other agencies and organizations because that’s how emergency management as a concept works. Our fear of offending holds us back. Let’s not equate critical thinking and analysis with making offense.

I’ve railed on FEMA pretty hard over the years on things like ICS training, doctrine, and other matters. They unfortunately become the target because they are the action agent at the center of so much in emergency management. They are, however, heavily influenced by politics, priorities from external entities, and (lack of) budget. I get quite a bit of feedback from folks at FEMA, which I greatly appreciate. It’s a rare occasion they can comment publicly or in writing, but the phone calls I receive from professionals in FEMA are encouraging. Believe it or not, I’ve been thanked, with sincerity, for many of the perspectives I’ve offered. I’m told that I’ve been able to unknowingly serve as their proxy for fights they aren’t allowed to take up. I know I’ve pissed some people off, too. That’s generally not my intent, though that’s a reality I accept. My goal is to satisfy most of the people most of the time with thoughtful diatribes.

The goal of what I write is to encourage the emergency management community to consider our attitudes, practices, perceptions, and ways of thinking. For some of our practices, the status quo may very well be fine; but we should pull back the curtain and shine a light on others. There are many areas in which I feel we can do better and be better.

As we start the new year, please remember that your thoughts and feedback are always appreciated. The absolute best way for us to learn is through dialogue (the topic of my wife’s doctoral dissertation).

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

The Contrarian Emergency Manager

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Hot Topic: Emergency Financial Managers

The recent and ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan has resulted in the term ‘emergency manager’ being used quite often in relation to this incident – but not in a way we are used to.  Instead of speaking of a profession or position that is concerned with coordinating resources for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery; they are instead speaking of an emergency financial manager.  An emergency financial manager is someone who is, as I understand it, appointed by state government when a jurisdiction goes into receivership (i.e. they are bankrupt).  This ABC news article provides some background of the system.

Unfortunately, there are a number of documents out there that refer to these emergency financial managers as emergency managers.  To be honest, much of the public doesn’t have a good understanding of what emergency managers do, and this certainly lends to mucking that up even further.  This link has some explanation of what an emergency (financial) manager should be and the laws under which they are authorized.

Last week, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) published a press release which pointed out this difference and urged a more careful use of these terms.  The release can be found here.

While I applaud IAEM’s effort, I think they need to continue this further.  The term ‘emergency manager’ seems to be used in place of ‘emergency financial manager’ in government documents, which are the source documents used by the media and others.  I would urge IAEM to use its lobby power within the states which have these laws and regulations to ensure that the proper terminology is used, encouraging amendments to these documents as necessary.  Being soft handed doesn’t always work, and change won’t often happen unless it is more strongly encouraged.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP