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COVID-19 Impact on Emergency Management

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

By Romeo Lavarias
June 29, 2021

Plato wrote in his last major book, that, “Accidents and calamities . . . are the universal legislators of the world,” referring to the fact that disasters or crisis are focusing events that demand public attention to a policy failure or a problem. It is through this “lens” that governments’ effectiveness (local level to the federal level) is judged by the residents and citizens at each of those levels. COVID-19 gave an opportunity for governments to prove their effectiveness on response and recovery from disaster or crisis during the 2020 hurricane aeason, the most active season in the history of hurricane forecasting.

All levels of government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector work together to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to and recover from incidents (disasters/crisis) by utilizing the National Incident Management System-Incident Command System (NIMS-ICS) mandated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The NIMS-ICS provides a shared organizational process with a common vocabulary and operational systems that guide personnel on how to work together. It also allows adaptable, flexible and scalable options so organizations can respond appropriately to any type of disaster or crisis. Under NIMS-ICS, organizations would normally operate from an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which operates as a central command and control facility responsible for carrying out emergency/disaster functions at a strategic and operational level.

NIMS-ICS assumes that trained personnel work together for many hours and share eating and sleeping facilities in close proximity to facilitate faster decisionmaking. However, this was something taken away due to COVID-19 restrictions with mandated separation requirements, remote work, vaccination standards, temperature and wellness screenings, on-site COVID-19 testing, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), thorough cleaning of workspaces and areas, etc. The challenge now becomes how effectively governments can respond to and recover from disaster or crisis based on the limiting factors of COVID-19. The effort will require governments now to be more creative, flexible, proactive and honest with their efforts during times of disaster/crisis.

One aid that can assist governments is FEMA’s instructional guide, the, “COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance: All-Hazards Incident Response and Recovery,” that was issued May 2021. The FEMA COVID-19 Guide provides several appendices that governments may use in disaster response and recovery, such as the Appendix B: Preparedness Considerations Checklist, Appendix C: Response Considerations Checklist and Appendix D: Recovery Considerations Checklist. Each checklist provides issues and items to ensure better outcomes under COVID-19 restrictions. By acknowledging items on the checklists, governments can be assured that they have addressed as many aspects as possible.

These checklists come down to some very essential questions that governments and their emergency management departments must seek to answer:

  • What staff are truly essential to help lead the response and recovery of the area, and should their responsibilities be expanded (through cross training) to account for the staff that will not be in the EOC?
  • Should neighboring jurisdictions look towards combining efforts? Are there other partners that should be brought in to help make up for the lack of EOC staff?
  • Can we have some of the EOC staff perform their jobs remotely (telework)? If so, what physical measures should be taken, i.e. better internet access built into their work stations?
  • Should we develop pre-scripted messages and have them ready if needed for the most likely (and unlikely) scenarios?
  • What COVID-19 measures will be taken to ensure the safety of the staff who are physically at the EOC?
  • Most importantly, what measures will be taken if a COVID-19 outbreak should occur at the EOC?

In conclusion, before FEMA’s formal creation in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter’s Executive Order, emergency management was addressed in public administration research and writing. It was most aptly described in Dwight Waldo’s book, The Enterprise of Public Administration: A Summary View, where he stated:

“When editor-in-chief of the Public Administration Review, I tried to identify someone willing to organize a symposium on what I called alternately disaster management and emergency management. Again, even advertising for a symposium editor failed: not a single candidate. The reasons for our collective indifference I judged to be several, including a perceived lack of professional pay off in this area and vague sense that it is peculiar if not un-American to be looking for trouble. Most fundamentally I think this is involved: Administration is concerned with rationality, order, calculability, efficiency: how can these be applied to the unpredictable, the disorderly, the destructive?”

Waldo’s statements are an accurate portrayal of the environment emergency managers operate in and their attempts at mitigating the unpredictable, the disorderly and the destructive in an environment where order and efficiency are the primary objectives of an organization. While COVID-19 has added another layer of complexity to emergency managers’ challenging responsibilities, it does provide the emergency management field an opportunity to guide their respective governmental organizations to become more effective and efficient.

Author: Romeo is the Emergency Manager for the City of Miramar, FL and is an Adjunct Professor for Barry University’s Public Administration Program where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He is a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers. His research interests include emergency management, homeland security, ethics, and performance measurement. 

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