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Don’t Waste a Disaster

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
June 5, 2015

Most people run away from bad events like mice flee cats. But public sector managers don’t have the luxury of ignoring calamity and certainly shouldn’t waste the opportunities that come amid emergencies and disasters.

BullerMany public administrators are averse to engaging on disaster. They may be cognizant of resource limitations or feel constrained by limited authorities. These can be rational restraints on action. But many times a public administrator can act and yet chooses not to. Reasons might include simple risk aversion, limited time, the avoidance of precedent-setting, lack of knowledge and others. To the extent that administrators choose not to act in the face of emergency they are also choosing to discard the opportunity it presents.

The benefits of engaging during an emergency normally outweigh the risks. Let’s explore that idea. Instead of running away or avoiding engagement during emergency, what can a public administrator do?

Step up: activate programs and apply authorities. If it’s legal and it’s for the general good – then do it. This can apply to every level of government and through the various departments and disciplines. Some hesitate by waiting for too many approvals or by not acting until reimbursement is certain. But community resilience requires confident, empowered officials who fulfill their critical roles. Just make sure actions are coordinated with emergency management.

Engage: the window of attention closes very fast. Emergency draws attention and good public administrators will find new partners, improve relationships and take full advantage of how other officials, the media and the public are paying attention. We talk all the time about preparedness before disaster, but the window of attention is prime time to get people to listen. Anniversaries open the attention window briefly and good administrators carefully but effectively use reminders to improve preparedness.

Pilot: use smaller events as practice for larger. There are plenty of reasons to try to minimize the level of activation after disaster. We’re constantly pressured to match the precise level of resources required to meet the level of need. But when we cut too close to the bone we find ourselves drilling on the small events in ways that don’t apply to the big ones. We learn bad habits. So if able, execute plans and operate in the way you would on larger events.

Learn: conduct after action reviews. Question how things went. Ask what more could have been done. Apply those lessons learned to improve the department, government and partners. Too often administrators pivot back to the normal routine without institutionalizing lessons learned. This is especially important in places with high staff turnover.

Relate: events elsewhere can help you. Applying the hard lessons learned by other administrators is an important part of ensuring that your office acts within often-changing standards. Disasters inform many more people than just those being actively affected. An administrator can use events elsewhere to test their own systems. Often this can be used to acquire resources.

Resource: when responding to events, obtain necessary resources and then keep them. Good departments and agencies leave an event better equipped than when it began. This won’t happen as easily if the administrator fails to act at all.

Mitigate: rebuild in ways to reduce future risk. Always at least investigate if there are means and methods to reduce future risk. Maybe the school, as one example, simply shouldn’t be in the floodplain.

All public administrators, not just emergency managers, should consider acting before, during and after emergency. One of the best ways for an administrator to act before disaster is to meet their emergency manager. Second comes understanding and practicing for their role during a disaster. And then, when disaster comes, administrators should choose to act because the actions and benefits described above outweigh the risk.

In next month’s column I’m going to speak about the gap between public expectations during emergencies versus real capabilities and how we can close that gap.


Author: Anthony Buller, CEM® has a decade of experience as an emergency manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He can be contacted at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author and not FEMA.  

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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