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Emergency Management Calls All to Serve

By: Thomas E. Poulin

There has been an on-going debate about public administration over the years, discussing the value of public service, as well as how to recruit and retain public servants.  The debate recognizes that there are differing views on the matter, noting that there will be those who prefer serving in other sectors of society for any number of reasons. This represents the reality of a diverse, market-based economy. However, emergency management is somewhat different. In the end, if it is to be effective, everyone from all sectors must engage, which is an immense challenge for public administrators, regardless of their field.

Emergency management is a poorly named field.  To many, based solely on its name, it is about managing an emergency – coordinating resources addressing an emergency or disaster during the event. In reality, emergency management is more aptly defined as a program aimed at making communities more disaster resistant and resilient. Comprehensive emergency management involves four phases. Mitigation includes those efforts aimed at minimizing or eliminating risk. Preparation involves activities to address the potential consequences of risks that cannot be mitigated. Response revolves around activities during a crisis, often making it the most visible of the phases. Last, recovery deals with those activities aimed at returned the community to a state of normalcy, ideally linking efforts to mitigation functions as a means of making the community better prepared for the next event. Clearly, the scope of emergency management is broad, which creates a challenge for emergency managers – they cannot achieve emergency management goals in isolation.

The goals of emergency management are to make the community disaster resistant, where the impacts of a disaster will be minimized or eliminated, and disaster resilient, meaning the community will be able to rebound from the disaster psychologically, socially, and economically in an effective and efficient manner. These goals are wide in breadth, with the focus on the community. Therefore, to be achieved, the entire community must be involved. That is going to include all aspects of public administration.  While the debate concerning how public administration recruits and retains public servants recognizes that not everyone will feel the call to public service, the debate about involving everyone in emergency management suggests that, without the engagement of everyone, failure is likely. The call to serve goes to everyone, and all should respond.

Clearly, this may not be evident in day-to-day events. The vast majority of emergencies in our communities are handled locally, with little disruption to the lives of the population. Often, the resolution of an emergency requires only a few workers from a few agencies. Vehicle collisions are handled by law enforcement and emergency medical services agencies, usually with no more than a minor, temporary traffic disruption affecting the community at large.  House fires or petroleum spills are usually handled by the fire department with their efforts unnoticed only a block or two away. Because of this, emergency management is often viewed as a public safety, response-oriented process, but that is a limited view.

For a larger event, where a natural or human-action disaster may impact the community, the engagement of all those in public administration will be necessary. Elected and appointed officials will be called upon to help create and prioritize goals. And, while public safety agencies will be involved throughout the process, all organizations, public and private, will be called upon to participate. Planning and zoning agencies can contribute by developing plans to limit risk by controlling or limiting land use. Regulatory agencies can contribute by insuring high-risk behaviors are monitored and controlled. School systems can contribute by preparing themselves to operate evacuation systems and disaster shelters – ideally including basic emergency management principles into their health curricula. The private sector can contribute by developing their own continuity of business plans, doing what they can to protect themselves. Non-governmental organizations such as volunteer groups devoted to the needs of special needs groups or animals can help by developing their plans and integrating them into the local emergency operations plan, helping to shoulder the burden. Public works and public utility agencies can contribute by developing systems that are resistant to disaster, as well as by making plans to restore services quickly after an event, which will likely mean having contingency arraignments with private utility companies. Social services systems can contribute by identifying at-risk populations, insuring disaster plans address their needs, as well as by preparing themselves to provide mental health support during and after a disaster. The list can easily go on, covering all public administration functions, as well as functions provided by the private sector and non-governmental organizations. The key word in all of this is “contribute.” No one agency, no one individual, no one sector can effectively and efficiently address the needs  of a disaster, let alone a catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Success will only be achieved if all those in public administration hear and answer this call to serve, contributing as best they can.

What, then, is the role of the emergency manager in all of this? In the United States, emergency management is frequently a secondary function nested within a larger agency – commonly fire or law enforcement. It is also not uncommon for the emergency management function to be a “dual hat” role, where the emergency manager also has another job function, which may or may not be directly related. In the majority of settings, the emergency manager may have no staff. None of this is to suggest that emergency management as a primary function has to be expanded, especially given the limited resources of local and state governments. It does suggest that, to be effective, the emergency manager role must change.

Lucien Canton, a noted author on emergency management programs, suggests that the emergency manager’s role is not to direct a response, but rather to serve as a technical expert in emergency management, to facilitate comprehensive planning efforts, to act as a communications nexus, bringing interested parties together, and to serve as an educator for the entire community.  By acting in such a manner, emergency managers can help all public administrators to integrate emergency management into their planning and operational efforts, helping them to make the community more resistant and resilient to disaster. In the end, they may find that this effort may not be as daunting as appears at first glance. The concept is not to create a new system for each agency, but for public administrators to integrate emergency management concerns into their existing planning and operational processes, preparing them to expand or modify their primary roles during a disaster. In doing so, when a disaster strikes, public servants will stand ready to serve their communities in an effective, efficient, and sustainable manner.

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Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, serves on the core faculty of Capella University’s School of Public Service Leadership. He may be contacted at [email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

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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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