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A City Manager Turned Emergency Manager

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

By Anthony Buller
April 3, 2015

In her career as a city manager, Shea Christilaw participated in a review of her jurisdiction’s entire emergency operations plan, balanced the desires of property owners, supervised avian flu planning and merged volunteer and municipal fire departments. Shea is an experienced, educated, former city manager who, like many, has worked on emergency management issues. Now, she works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helping partners plan for and conduct recovery from disaster. She works across the spectrum in recovery, making sure that all pieces are integrated, which includes working with communities. I’ve learned from her. I interviewed Shea for this column because I hope you will too.

“My first goal as a city manager, my overarching goal, was to ensure a viable and sustainable community,” Shea begins a conversation about her prior experiences. “And that’s not so different from what we do, and are concerned about, with emergency management. But I worked on emergency management issues as a city manager without knowing about the resources available like training and technical assistance. Looking back it’s easy to see where connections would have helped me. And even now it’s easy to identify where connections are lacking.”

Why are local government leadership and emergency management resources often disconnected?

Shea explains that simple differences in language can lead to missed opportunities. For example, emergency management names programs and services with conventions that do not tap into traditional public administration, social and emergency services disciplines. Consider “long term community recovery,” which is often synonymous with community redevelopment, but in not being named as such often leads to program administrators failing to see the potential in tapping into educational, professional and grant making resources. With just a name, connectedness is challenged.

Unrecognized criticality is another reason. Shea suggests, “We should all, at the varying levels of government, realize how critical we are to each other.” Let’s assume that someone believes this – what does it mean practically? “We’d invest more in educating each other and building relationships. We’d make time for one another. We’d reach out for assistance or with assistance. And we’d commit ourselves to understanding the other.”

Openness and empathy helps build connections. According to Shea, the single biggest area where state and federal partners need to connect, understand and find empathy for local managers lies within a category titled “capacity.” Pre-disaster, taking advantage of opportunities to prepare and mitigate may not be possible simply because of bandwidth among community staff. Post-disaster, the resources of the community are even more strained while the demands on staff increases exponentially. “With empathy there might be more action,” Shea suggests.  “After all, in the vast majority of local governments, the emergency manager has a different primary role – fire chief, for example. Or, in the most rural of areas, the role may be filled by a volunteer.”

What actions should public administrators take to connect local government leadership to emergency management resources?

“Look for ways to spread awareness,” Shea answers. She encourages public administrators and emergency managers alike to join and connect with networks such as the American Society of Public Administration (ASPA) or the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). But federal and state government can better use these networks, she suggests. “Agencies should be asking if they are working hard enough to use networks to spread messages. ASPA, ICMA and educational institutions provide access to thousands of local leaders.”

“Speak in terms that are understood by public administrators,” Shea offers as a second action. As described above, language can be a barrier. But if partners work to frame their programs in more traditional disciplines and draw connections by doing so, additional networks might become available.

“Invest” is Shea’s third point on action. But what should we invest in? “It would be helpful if we invested in creating more empathy among federal and state program staff.” Perhaps under the rubric of customer service training, program administrators might learn to better understand their critical partners. Creating more mechanisms for state or federal agency staff to stand in the shoes of partners might help. “But really, at the end, it’s about capacity. We [federal, state and some grant-making partners] need to offer attractive, understandable, flexible, scalable support to capacity-challenged local leadership. Assistance has to be tailored to meet the unique needs of each locality. This takes investment.”

Helping federal, state and local governments plan for recovery is what Shea does today. She provides resources, training, guidance and expertise. She’s brought her years of local experience to the federal level and improved the assistance provided. “Our first goal should be to help. Creating sustainable, resilient communities is an overwhelming task. No one entity wants to take that responsibility. So we all need to. Together.”

In next month’s column I’m going to give some lessons learned about the importance of engaging the executive of impacted jurisdictions before, during and after emergencies.

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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