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Emergency Management During Transitions: How to Stay the Course

Much of the literature on emergency management stresses the importance of developing and maintaining a strategic vision. The same is true of public administration in general, with perhaps the greatest challenge being that such disciplines do not exist in a vacuum. Much of emergency management is in the public sector at the local, state, or federal level. Regardless of the level, the environment may shift for any number of reasons, including the potential transitions created by elections. In the United States, most political officers are elected for only two to four years, especially at the local level. The challenge for emergency managers is to be able to consistently seek improvements aimed at achieving a strategic goal in an environment of shifting priorities, where the future is very much an unknown. To meet this challenge, emergency managers need to be visionaries, entrepreneurs, open to any opportunity, and continuously engaged in public education.


Visionary: The first challenge in achieving a goal is to identify it. This might seem somewhat simplistic, but it is critical. If we are unsure what the future should look like, how will we know what to do, what direction to take, or what resources are needed? To be effective, the creation of this vision cannot be done in isolation by any individual, nor can it be done solely within the realm of emergency management. Ideally, it will be created in a manner that engages the community at-large.

The vision must revolve around two concepts. First, mitigation – the reduction or elimination of risks to the community. Second, acceptable risk – the level of risk the community is willing to accept. While both may be subject to change, it is the latter that is more likely to be affected by political transitions within the community. Emergency managers need continuously to scan the environment for such changes, but understand they are inevitable. They must keep their eye on the larger vision, ignoring what they consider problems, much as a painting must be viewed as a whole, with no concern for minor flaws created by an individual brush stroke, an indistinct line, or a small area of blurred color. It is the totality that is important, not necessarily small imperfections.


Entrepreneurial: Keeping the established vision in mind, emergency managers need to be entrepreneurs. While the political will might shift towards emergency management in the aftermath of a disaster, at many times it will not be at the forefront of the political mind. There will be other public needs with a greater sense of urgency, be it roads, crime, education, or another service. Emergency management should be proactive, which means emergency managers cannot wait for an opportunity to emerge – they must create them.

An example of this might be working with multiple agencies to achieve individual goals in a collective manner, where no one agency can succeed on their own. The City of Virginia Beach, Virginia, lies in the southeast corner of the state. As an oceanfront community, it has a large tourist area. That oceanfront area is highly developed, making it of concern to emergency managers worried about the effects of a hurricane. To mitigate against those effects, it was decided that a seawall needed to be built, but, the funding and will for such a project was insufficient to move it forward. In order to advance the project, emergency management partnered with other groups inside and outside government, including agencies involved with economic development and tourism, as well as with business groups along the oceanfront. The final seawall meets the needs of emergency management, but, as it integrates ocean-related decorations along the wall, decorative lighting, separate paths for pedestrians and bikes, and full handicapped access to the beach, it was able to generate a broad base of political support that was not present before.


Opportunistic: While emergency management should not wait for opportunities to arise, they must be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. If a disaster does strike the area, they need to be prepared to pursue any opportunities available, including recovery funding, preparedness grants, and mitigation grants. To do this, emergency managers must develop detailed plans, including budgets, for any number of projects. And, to be fully opportunistic, they must not try to achieve all of their goals in a single effort. They should develop plans for smaller projects, often sub-components of their overall vision. There is an old saying that a journey of a thousand steps starts with the first step. Similarly, the journey to a disaster resilient community may involve a thousand projects, each with a thousand components. Accomplishing the entire journey in a single step will be impossible, for any number of reasons. Therefore, emergency managers must strive to move forward continuously, one step at a time, taking advantage of any opportunity that avails itself, regardless of how small.


Strategic Educator: As noted earlier, the political environment may change with elections, and public attention towards emergency management may shift over time, especially as past events fade from the collective memory. This is a common issue with any public policy. It will not be possible to fully control for these transitions, but they might be minimized by continuing efforts towards education. Those in emergency management should insure their public education programs are not narrowly focused on the phases of emergency management. Instead of focusing solely on what can be done from a technical perspective, they must pursue efforts to make the public recognize the need for emergency management, valuing its success, much as they do for law enforcement, education, and transportation. This process will take time and, in many instances, be subject to infrequent success. The goal of these efforts is not to achieve a single success of epic proportions, but to develop a mindset among a broad spectrum of the population, including members of all political parties, that emergency management is an important governmental function that requires consistent attention, not just a function to implement as a disaster strikes. While emergency managers are unlikely to create a wholesale change in public attitudes, they may be able to create a public voice that will rise when drastic cuts to emergency management are suggested.

All government programs are subject to transitions created by political elections or a shift in community priorities. Emergency managers cannot control or avoid such transitions, but they can minimize their effects upon their programs. By being visionaries, entrepreneurs, and educations, taking advantage of any opportunity they can, they are more likely to develop programs that are sufficiently robust to weather the impacts of transitions.



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


Image courtesy of http://www.alertdisastercontrol.com/emergency.htm.



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