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The Role of Ethical Behavior in Emergency Management

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were not only noteworthy for their destruction, but for their revelation of decisions made by public organizations and the impact these decisions had on groups with low socioeconomic status (SES). It has been proposed that the root of better decision making is linked to the moral maturity of the individual. Recent research has examined the relationship between education, gender, age and ethics training against the moral maturity of Florida emergency planners. With ethical maturity level as the dependent variable, analysis showed a significant difference between males and females, where females had higher post-conventional scores than males regardless of educational levels. Also interesting was that post-conventional scores for males rose as educational levels rose. However, there was no significant difference revealed between post-conventional scores when age and ethics training were the independent variables.  The results of this research may have significant implications for organizations before, during and after a disaster. While empirical research has shown that higher education is positively associated with higher levels of cognitive moral development, the research has shown that it may only apply to males.

The significance of these results must be considered as today’s public sector professionals face much more ethical challenges than ever before.  They are tasked with complying with the established standards of their profession in an ethical manner in an ever-changing, dynamic environment.  This all occurs in a routine, professional, office-type setting of an organization.  In fact, it has been said that in this calm, office setting, public sector professionals face the wicked problems of public administration.  Yet, what if that calm, office setting is interrupted by an immediate change to the setting where not all of the usual players are involved and new organizations are now part of the landscape in dealing with an immediate and drastic situation such as a disaster?

The challenge of emergency management in the United States is the population’s expectation of who is running the show.  According to Jonathan Walters in a 2010 Governing article titled “FEMA: Making a Comeback,” the general public expects that the federal government will “ride in” to save the day when, in reality, an effective emergency management structure’s foundation is a combination of a well-developed local response capacity with some help from the state.  Walters also states that no two disasters are ever the same, because each disaster has unique quirks that may require different intergovernmental responsibilities and relationships.  This aspect is identified in a white paper prepared by the National Homeland Security Consortium in October 2010, where “the impending change of federal, state and territorial leaders in key positions can create instability.”  Melvin J. Dubnick and Jonathan B. Justice stated in their unpublished paper titled “The Evil of Administrative Ethics” that it is the quandary of “the possibility of two or more choices (where the choice between what is judged to be ethically legitimate or even obligatory today) versus the possibility that the same activity will be condemned tomorrow.” To complicate the situation further, these intergovernmental responsibilities and relationships often are based on power—who has it and who does not.

Emergency managers are committed to an ethical responsibility to prepare and respond to emergencies in ways that protect the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable as stated by Scott Somers and James H. Svara in their 2009 article in Public Administration Review titled, “Assessing and Managing Environmental Risk: Connecting Local Government Management with Emergency Management.”  This position was further verified in a March 2010 interview conducted by Marty Pastula with Craig Fugate, the current FEMA Administrator, where Fugate stated that “we (FEMA) have a duty to the taxpayers, and if we cannot hold ourselves to that standard, how can we expect the public to trust us in very complex disaster responses where we’re making decisions and our ethical motives are called into question?”

However, examples abound of poor decision making that negatively impacts certain groups.  Minorities, especially blacks, Hispanics and immigrant workers, suffered most from South Miami disasters caused by Hurricane Andrew; the poor in Louisiana suffered (and continue to) in Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, low-income groups suffered during the heat wave in Chicago. Aside from the administrative failures are the difficult ethical issues of allocating resources between the haves and have-nots. In some cases it is the haves versus the have-nots, where only the poor are the focus for providing assistance while the middle class are forced to fend for themselves according to a July 11, 2010 South Florida Sun-Sentinel news article titled “No Aid Middle Ground for Haiti’s Middle Class” by J. Charles.  Examples of other disparities are the allocation of swine flu vaccine to certain groups and not to others, racial disparities in disaster trailer distributions in New Orleans as stated by Thomas Craemer in his 2010 article in Public Administration Review titled “Evaluating Racial Disparities in Hurricane Katrina Relief Using Direct Trailer Counts in New Orleans and FEMA records.” There are also the decisions on the eradication of certain diseases in certain parts of the world as reported in the May 2010 article, “Does Ethics Require the Elimination of Diseases” in the Natural Hazards Observer published by the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The ethical maturity of decision makers during times of disasters has serious implications.  Regardless of new technology to enhance emergency preparedness, human resource management or institutional resilience, critical decisions will need to be made at critical times often without the benefit of senior managers to ask for guidance and approval.  By understanding what may cause low ethical maturity, further research could go into addressing how to raise it, possibly through training and/or requiring or implementing higher educational levels for emergency managers. It will be imperative for all to be ethically sound in order to maximize their effectiveness since the disasters that emergency managers will face in the future only will become more complex and require greater intra-organizational and inter-organizational cooperation.


To read more articles on emergency management, check out the most recent edition of PA TIMES in print.


Author: Romeo Lavarias


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