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Leadership, Equity and Emergency Management

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

By Tracy E Rickman and Md. Shahriar Islam
May 8 , 2023

Next-generation leadership for emergency management requires a diverse set of skills, competencies and expertise as citizens’ and communities’ expectations run high before, during and after an emergency. There is high demand for highly competent leaders to deal with emergencies. Recent conversation on this subject has gained urgency as the next generation “meta-leaders” concept receives more attention. Meta-leaders are those who evolve as a leader and adapt to rapidly unfolding, high-stress and high-stake situations to lead other personnel effectively. Meta-leaders know how to involve numerous stakeholders to effectively grasp overarching problems and broad perspectives on potential solutions. The recent attention to equity in public service and management has pinpointed a need for leaders who believe in equal access, less administrative burdens and attributes tied to procedural equity.

When we discuss emergency management, we need to have an initial understanding of the leadership goals and actions related to gaining the most viable solutions. Emergency management equity highlights the practice of how risks are managed. Emergency management’s broader goal includes having citizens capable of coping with disasters and navigating various hazards brought about by emergency conditions. The more straightforward emergency managers become, the better the outcomes. Emergency managers and responders tend to process emergencies as defined by FEMA: preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.

A recent challenge for the meta-leader unfolds as citizens ask for equal access, zero discrimination and burden, and procedural fairness. Public sector leaders now must make decisions through FEMA’s lens, as well as through equity’s lens, acknowledging that disaster aid often does not favor underrepresented groups.

Our country has the best emergency management system in the world. The majority of our first responders sacrifice their own needs to help others. One only needs to remind themselves of September 11 to remember the countless number of first responders who tried to help others escape the twin towers. Law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics all worked to aid their fellow citizens. They were not concerned about race, socioeconomic standing or sexuality during that disaster; they were striving to help “people.” The meta-leader can support a better integration of equity into emergency management by providing recruitment, marketing and hiring practices for future first responder candidates who have similar desires to help when needed. First responders see people in need and act. Federal, state and local governments need to advance equity in hiring practices to ensure a commensurate cross section of a community is being served, while attributing responders as part of that community at large.

In an emergency, can those needing assistance be treated equitably? A meta-leader must ensure that happens, focusing on gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion and disability – perhaps all at the same time, related to the same person. Meta-leaders need to understand victims’ identities and past experiences, and acknowledge that not all victims have been treated fairly in the past, which could affect their expectations in future emergencies. Those in marginalized communities may not be as open to accepting help as others.

The emergency manager can become a meta-leader through evaluating victims’ needs, understanding the victims’ viewpoint (especially when paired with a rescue attempt) and creating an action plan long before a crisis occurs. It is essential to conduct victims’ needs assessments prior to an incident to ensure marginalized people experiencing multiple intersections of their identities, are not left behind.

Effective emergency management is possible when meta-leaders provide the same response for everyone across different identities, understanding that intersectionality views can hamper emergency responses or enhance them. When you prepare an emergency response plan, make sure you identify the demographic identities of the community and think through how those identities are connected with economic, cultural, educational and social marginalization. Such a practice will allow meta-leaders to make a list of specific groups who will need more aid to cope with risks and hazards. A pro-identity approach for equity may play a pivotal role in ensuring better emergency management. Such an approach also will grow more transformational leaders who change from traditional models to more be more inclusive.

Tracy Rickman is assistant professor in public administration at Tarleton State University. His research includes public safety leadership and emergency management. He is a scholarly practitioner who has experience in emergency response in both the public and private industry and is a veteran of the United States Air Force. He can be reached at
[email protected].

Md Shahriar Islam is assistant professor in public administration at Tarleton State University. He studies behavioral public administration and management focusing on trust in government, public service delivery and social justice. Additionally, he is interested in examining the relationship between public management, mass violence prevention, and diversity and equity. He can be reached at [email protected].

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