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Practice Social Equity in Emergency Management

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

By Anthony Buller
August 22, 2022

What makes an emergency management organization more likely to achieve the promises of social equity? Social equity of course “is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice in the provision of public service.” In this series of columns, I am suggesting that there are drivers of social equity that emergency management should pursue (see the graphic). And specifically, in this column, I am exploring the importance of actual application, or the practice of social equity.   

As I wrote in the introductory column of this series, “Decisions must be implemented in a way that promotes social equity. Staff and stakeholders must see that meaningful, measurable and visible efforts are taken. These decisions and efforts must result in improved outputs and outcomes. Putting all this into practice applies to both personnel administration and service to the public.”

To get to equity, practitioners must recognize, assess and act in a way that recognizes long-standing and continuing inequalities. This column will briefly explore the practical application of social equity by providing an example of social equity in action. This is an overt example of racial bias with minor edits just to anonymize the story.  

Jane is an early-career state emergency manager and she is assigned to work with federal officials in conducting damage assessments after severe thunderstorms rolled through a county in her state. The initial meeting with state, federal and county officials was odd this morning. The local emergency manager, who happens to the be the County Sheriff, seemed to want the assessment process to promote his own reelection campaign—sort of a “look how important I am” tour of the county. The track of storm damage was easily mapped out and the team started visiting homes and businesses that were impacted. But a large swath of the county was not on the Sheriff’s list—he seemed to be intentionally ignoring certain areas. The federal officials started asking about those areas and the Sheriff became agitated and abrupt, stating that the teams would not be visiting those areas. The federal officials asked more questions focused on making sure all the damage in the county was counted, and the Sheriff grew upset, called a halt to the assessments and departed.   

Jane called her boss back at the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Her boss told her to listen to the Sheriff—that the Sheriff is in charge, but that she should know that this particular Sheriff had a reputation for racial bias. Jane explained this to the federal officials who decided to go check out the ignored communities without the Sheriff. Jane was stressed, but the federal officials seemed right—all damage should be counted.

Arriving at the previously ignored area, the team found more substantial damages than in the affluent areas the Sheriff toured them through. They spoke to many survivors who were thrilled to see the state and federal teams. The damage in the ignored area in fact put the county over the threshold to receive federal assistance and without it the county would likely have remained ineligible.

Back at the state office of emergency management, a crisis was brewing. The Sheriff had called and ranted about how he was disrespected and that he would arrest the federal and state assessment teams. That didn’t happen, but when the teams returned to the EOC they walked into accusations and threats from state and federal leadership. Jane was appalled and even scared. People were saying she would lose her job. Suddenly she felt she hadn’t done the right thing. But then something amazing happened.

One of the federal officials calmly told their state and federal leadership: “You can be as angry as you want—we cannot control that. But we can control, and we did control, what we do in the face of overt, obvious racism. That Sheriff told us not to assess specific areas. But we assessed all the damage—that’s our job. If you come after us for making sure that damages in predominately black and low-income areas were counted, then you’re supporting racism. It’s illegal—we will be proven right in what we did.”

The crisis ended with those words. Jane never saw any negative actions against her for supporting counting all the damage. The state and federal assessment team made a meaningful, measurable (literally) and visible effort to address inequity. The county was eligible for assistance and the state and federal officials made sure that services were provided in all areas of the county.

This example shows how emergency managers can practice social equity. The next column will summarize the series while also continuing the theme of practical application. Then, the final column will link the entire series to the emergency management concept of “whole community,” which purports to be the means of achieving equity.


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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