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Emergency Managers as Incident Commanders During Natural Disasters

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

By Romeo B. Lavarias
August 19, 2022

Disasters impact communities across the nation differently due to the diversity of the threats, hazards, population and environment. Impacted populations have been able to handle them due to their past experiences with them. However, due to the range of personnel and organizations that are needed to coordinate the saving of lives, stabilizing the incident and protecting property, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was created in 2004 for jurisdictions and organizations to share resources, integrate tactics and act collaboratively. But the institutional knowledge and experience to address disasters under NIMS is leaving due to the exodus of personnel attributable to retirement, resignations or people deciding not to work any longer (Great Resignation of 2021). To maintain the expertise necessary, the author argues that emergency managers should become the incident commanders for natural disasters in their respective jurisdictions versus their fire and/or police chiefs.

Under NIMS-ICS the role of emergency manager is not even listed as a position in a jurisdiction’s “Incident Command”.  It is proposed that the emergency manager is “behind the scenes” to ensure the NIMS-ICS matrix is operational and to guide and/or advise all personnel in the Incident Command. Outside of a disaster, emergency managers are often housed within either their jurisdiction’s police or fire departments. It stems from the idea that since police and fire departments deal with emergencies, emergency managers would be appropriate in those departments even though disaster scholars have long stated that emergency managers should be located next to their mayor, city manager or county manager’s offices since emergency management is a year-round effort.  Nonetheless there are numerous reasons why this should change:

  • Today’s emergency managers deal with all five phases of emergency management (protection, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation). Police and Fire departments primarily are response organizations. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, police personnel will ensure traffic flow due to downed streetlights, protection of property and curfew (if mandated) and fire personnel will treat and transport those that are injured but that is all.  Oftentimes, the fire/police chief will be the incident commander under the NIMS—Incident Command System framework. However, the major effort of getting a jurisdiction back to normal is outside of their expertise and experience.
  • After the immediate needs after a disaster, a jurisdiction’s efforts shift towards recovery. This could mean debris clearance led and conducted by the Public Works Department; social needs efforts (residents displaced from their homes) led by the Social Services Department; maintenance and repair of water/wastewater systems by the Utilities Department; expedited building permits by the Building Department; and financial reimbursement handled by the Finance Department. All these efforts are out of the expertise and experience of the police and fire departments. However, emergency managers are tasked throughout the year to ensure that these departments have the necessary resources and training to conduct their respective assignments before, during and after a disaster.
  • Police and Fire Departments are primarily response organizations. All their trainings and exercises are conducted along these lines. So, they tend to practice the “low hanging fruit” type of exercises and trainings because that is what they are most familiar with, and will often do well in. On the other hand, emergency managers must design exercises that stretch the resource and personnel capabilities of their jurisdictions to better prepare them for the unexpected. This takes training and experience that is outside the norm for police/fire chiefs.
  • Police/Fire chiefs also tend to rely on their past experiences in dealing with past disasters on current disasters. However, the natural disasters of today are on a scale never seen before in terms of size, impact, frequency and ferocity. Emergency managers understand that “if you’ve been to one storm, you’ve been to one storm”, meaning that each disaster situation is unique, and thus requires a flexibility of disaster experience and knowledge to address it. Many police/fire chiefs are not aware of the latest techniques, technology, etc. as they apply to emergency management.

FEMA’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan outlines their efforts to build and place their organization in a better position reflective of the new types of disasters the country is facing to be able to help all communities in times of disaster. FEMA’s success will require that public administrators help their respective communities understand the ‘new normal’ as it pertains to the unique disaster environment that we are now experiencing. Emergency managers are uniquely trained for all five phases of emergency management and are in a better position to get their jurisdiction back to normal as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible. The author proposes that one of the ‘new normal’ recommendations proposed in this article is to have emergency managers placed as the incident commanders during a natural disaster in place of their police/fire chief. 

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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