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Equity in Emergency Operations Centers

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

By Anthony Buller
October 17, 2021

Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) are hubs where various governmental, voluntary and at times private-sector stakeholders convene to support the response to and recovery from incidents of all types. Though doctrinally EOCs are a support center to other incident commanders, EOCs in truth often are the place where important decisions are made. A few examples include: (1) whether to dispatch busses during an evacuation to support the relocation of those who have no private transportation; (2) where to place Points of Distribution (PODs) to provide critical commodities after disaster such as food, water, toiletry kits, etc.; and (3) where to send teams to conduct door-to-door outreach in communities. These decisions and more are often made at an EOC.

These sorts of decisions affect the rights and interests of people within the communities the EOC serves. From a legal perspective, these decisions may very well impact the civil rights of individuals. So, one of the fundamental reasons to care about equity in an EOC is to stay on the right side of the law. Sadly, that isn’t enough to promote equity.

President Biden issued an Executive Order (E.O) about equity. The E.O. defines equity as, “The consistent and systematic fair, just and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.” 

An example of how a federal agency is responding to that order is how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established a new equity platform. According to the FEMA site, the Agency already has some initiatives, but is also establishing an equity steering committee and working to incorporate equity principles into the 2022-2026 Agency strategic plan.

The Commonwealth of Virginia now has a Health Equity Leadership Task Force, which, “Is utilizing a novel data-driven approachto inform the COVID-19 Unified Command about at-risk populations and geographic areas of increased risk. This task force is the first-of-its-kind both in the Commonwealth of Virginia history and the United States to exist within an emergency response body. This Equity Leadership Taskforce is leveraging data and mapping techniques to apply a health equity lens to every part of the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response, putting our health equity leadership into action.”

The fourth ASPA ethical principle, “Strengthen social equity,” reads: “Treat all persons with fairness, justice and equality and respect individual differences, rights and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice and inequality in society.”

The problem is that despite all the above and more, there will times in any EOC when decisions are made that are inequitable (such as placing a helping resource in a politically powerful part of town instead of the part of town that has the greatest need). In the author’s experience these errors (and many other example types) are common and come about through: (1) practical concerns (maybe the only practical facility is in the politically powerful part of town); (2) expedience (the need to act fast and get help out there can lead to less deliberation); (3) ignorance (maybe emergency management practitioners are unaware that people in certain parts of town are less likely to be willing and/or able to travel to where the facility was located); and (4) intentions (sometimes, though hopefully rarely, resource and aid decisions are made based on prejudices).

The answer for most EOCs is either to not mention equity much or if mentioned, to say that everyone is responsible. Unfortunately, when “everyone” is responsible that means that “no one” is responsible. Many EOCs do invite representatives that check the “Whole Community” box, which means that those who are of communities may be represented in the EOC through a voluntary, faith-based or community-based organization. But again, there is a shortfall. In this case the shortfall comes because the few Whole Community representatives are often ill-equipped to meet the diverse needs of the “whole” in Whole Community (look at the definition in the E.O. for a reminder of the complexity of equity principles). Finally, attaching an attorney to an EOC has not proven to be good enough—the counsels tend to focus on practical legal matters—not operational and ground-based matters of equity.

A much better answer comes from the Virginia example, where equity issues are embodied in an actual role that has access to the operation as well as to the incident commanders managing a disaster or emergency. Better to have a professional. As we see levels of government embrace equity as a driver hopefully we’ll also see equity-focused professionals invited to EOCs.  

Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 17 years of federal service. He leads a team of emergency management professionals covering the western US for a federal agency. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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