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Reasonable or Unreasonable Expectations: Accountability in Emergency Management

For decades, there has been a call for greater accountability in government. This is appropriate, given that, in a democracy, the government derives its powers from the people and should provide services that meet public expectations in terms of quality and quantity. An interesting aspect of this debate is that it presumes that the expectations are reasonable and that any assessment of efficiency and efficacy will be based on credible rationale, which might not always be the case. In emergency management, this issue has been somewhat problematic, as many are unclear where reality and myth collide.


Reality versus Perception

Emergency management is a relatively new discipline, largely emerging over the past few decades. It is not well understood by many in either the public or the private sectors. Like many governmental functions that occur outside of the public’s eye, general knowledge of it is based upon what is seen in the media, either in the news or in public entertainment. This has contributed to a belief that emergency management is largely reactive to the needs of a disaster instead of being proactive, with a strong planning component. This has also contributed to a second belief that, at some point, an individual will have complete authority to make any decision that is necessary to resolve an issue, with access to funding and resources without constraint by law or practice. Additionally, this has contributed to a third belief that many flaws in a response are due to corrupt individuals working to achieve their ulterior goals, as opposed to pursuing the public good. This is not to suggest that emergency management is perfect, but not recognized as such. It is simply to suggest that emergency management might be held accountable, by some, for failing to act in a manner inconsistent with the established systems that govern it.


Emergency Management – The Policy

Emergency management is a multi-disciplinary field, seeking to make communities more disaster resistant and resilient. Within the governmental setting, it is a function shared between the local, state, tribal, and federal governments. Based on the National Response Framework and the Stafford Act, emergencies are primarily local events, with systems that are flexible and scalable to meet the needs of an event. The disaster response model calls for local first responders, either governmental entities or volunteers, to respond first, with the state coming in upon request after local resources are exhausted. The federal government’s role, except for narrowly carved exceptions such as terrorism, is to assist the state governments, if requested, and then only if state resources have been exhausted.

Upon arrival on an incident scene, emergency response organizations from both the public and private sectors are expected to work together in an effective and efficient manner. They will organize themselves using a flexible structure that combines elements of scientific management and contingency theory titled the Incident Command System (ICS). The ICS structure is developed and staffed, based on the needs of the incident, and is reflective of a military staff model. To support effective multi-organizational operations, agencies at the local, state, or tribal level, or those in the private sector, are encouraged to use the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which supports efforts to standardize training and operations, as well as to build relationships, for a diverse group of entities. Federal agencies in the executive branch are required to adopt NIMS, but for others it is only encouraged.

While most, if not all, organizations may have concerns related to emergency management, the role is not always considered a primary function. The majority of emergency managers in the United States find their functions housed in either staff support roles, or in some subsidiary function within a larger department, such as fire or police. It is not uncommon for those whose primary function is emergency management to fill a mid-tier or lower-tier position in extant organization charts, with limited staffing, funding and authority. During an emergency, or even after a disaster has been declared, most have limited authority during the event, with their roles primarily being an advisory one to the elected or appointed officials of the community.


Emergency Management – The Perception

As noted earlier, the public’s perception of emergency management, often shared by the media, the general public and elected officials, may be influenced by how emergency management is depicted in the media including popular entertainment. An examination of films over the past few decades depicts emergency management in the following manner:

  • Government has a major role in dealing with disasters, with the federal government having the greatest responsibility. State governments are rarely mentioned, and there appears to be no individual responsibility for members of the public to prepare themselves.
  • The military, usually the active duty forces, not the National Guard, are involved in almost every disaster, often with a leading role in decision making and response.
  • During a disaster, authority is often vested in a single person who can make whatever decisions have to be made. He will have full authority to do as he wishes, without review or approval by any authority, and will have full access to staffing or funding as he deems fit. The person that holds this level of executive authority does not have to be the president or the governor.
  • In many instances, the efforts of emergency management are inconsequential, with the final resolution being dependent on the heroic efforts of the citizens or those acting outside of their normal roles.
  • Ulterior motives play a significant role in hindering effective response, whether it be a concern for profit, the pursuit of status or attempting to keep some error from becoming public.
  • Emergency management is wholly reactive, with no pre-event efforts to mitigate or prepare for an event. Planning is virtually non-existent.

Those knowledgeable about emergency management may be amused by some of these depictions, especially as many are in direct conflict with the reality of the field.


The Effects

Emergency management, like any government function, may have its flaws. Whether it is based upon the influences of federalism, with divided or overlapping jurisdictions, or the co-existence of limited funding and a desire to provide high quality services, emergency management faces the same challenges in creating a coherent approach to the field as do fields such as health, transportation, or education. Viewed from the outside, if emergency management is influenced by what is depicted in the popular culture, then it is destined to fail in the vast majority of cases. This is because even if emergency managers operate as designed by legislative bodies representing the interest of the public, they will be viewed as acting contrary to the “reality” of public perception, where unlimited authority and funding are the rule.

Again, none of this is to argue that emergency management is perfect. Like any government program, it will have its limitations and its flaws. Like any government program, it should be critically assessed for effectiveness and efficiency, with those responsible for either success or failure held accountable in an appropriate fashion. However, this critical assessment should be based upon a realistic understanding of the challenges, frameworks and process of emergency management, which emergency managers must communicate to those who will be making such assessments. Without a clear understanding of the system any analysis of emergency management may be flawed, hindering efforts to improve the system in the long run, as fixes are applied to what is not broken, thus wasting time, energy and effort.


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.safetybasement.com/Disaster-Management-s/595.htm.


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