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The Role of Local Officials in Emergency Management

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

By Erin Mullenix
September 22, 2015

Communities across the United States are susceptible to many types of disasters and emergencies that can have devastating effects. Recent examples in most states illuminate the crucial role of local officials during emergencies and disasters. They also push us to prepare our local communities in advance, incorporating careful planning and communication.

Generally, response efforts and emergency management plans are created to address many types of hazards, so that public officials are prepared with a plan adaptable to various potential hazards. It is important that communities work together with their city, county, state and federal partners before a disaster occurs to get familiar with their roles in disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Almost every emergency management agency communicates, “all disasters are local.” What does that mean?  In its simplest form, it means that at least the initial response effort lies in the hands of local officials and responders. However, clearly large disasters will far exceed the capabilities of many smaller local governments and require assistance from other levels of government. Local officials need to know how to engage and escalate assistance. This is why it is important for local officials and local emergency management agencies to coordinate and practice local response plans during both disaster response and recovery, but also before a disaster occurs.

A few years ago, the tiny community of Blencoe, Iowa (as well as several other small communities in western Iowa), braced for flooding. Locally, the city collaborated to prevent further flooding by involving local coops, farmers and drainage districts in the effort to minimize impact and damage. The city designed, engineered and built a berm around the city to attempt to protect it from floodwaters. Their communication and planning helped avoid further loss to the community. These collaborative efforts are particularly helpful in rural, smaller communities (like Blencoe) with limited resources. The response and recovery efforts far exceeded local capabilities. Having local officials begin the emergency management process early was invaluable.

Examples like Blencoe demonstrate why being prepared and having a plan is important, and why that plan cannot simply sit on a shelf. According to Darrell Knecht, President of the Iowa Emergency Management Association (IEMA),

“Disasters begin and end in our neighborhoods and home towns. Local emergency managers help to ensure emergency responders in each county are ready for emergencies and disasters. We also encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own preparedness.” 

IEMA and similar agencies work diligently to share that message before the next disaster occurs. This allows for careful thought in a less emotionally intense environment. According to the Safeguard Iowa Partnership’s Executive Director Dutch Geisinger, “The few minutes it takes to educate our employees and our families could be the difference between success and failure during a crisis situation.”

What can local officials do now? The following steps within each of the four major emergency management areas can help:


  • Understand why it is important to mitigate future disasters, to an appropriate level.
  • Coordinate with state or federal mitigation programs, where possible.
  • Understand and prevent the particular risks that the community may be most prone.
  • Talk to surrounding local areas to coordinate plans and learn from their experiences. 


  • Check that an emergency management plan exists and is up-to-date.
  • Read and understand the local emergency management plan. Question any items as necessary.
  • Practice the local emergency management plan regularly.
  • Reach out to your local resources to understand how you can support emergency preparedness before disaster occurs.
    • Become familiar with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS). These frameworks are recognized across the U.S. and organize plans for facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications related to the emergency management process. 


  • Understand that disasters begin locally and how to get assistance from state or federal resources, if necessary.
  • Know the order of priorities and the person/persons in charge.
  • Identify your role, powers and limitation during response.
  • Understand the basic financial aspect of emergencies. 


  • Understand your role during damage assessment and recovery.
  • Become familiar with local resources available for recovery. Know what it means to request disaster declarations at the local, state and federal levels.
  • Lean on other communities who have recovered from similar disasters before for advice and support they may be able to offer.  

Author: Erin Mullenix is an experienced research and fiscal analyst at the Iowa League of Cities. In her role, she provides a wealth of local government finance research and support to local communities. Prior to this position, she was an emergency preparedness planner at the State of Iowa. Her areas of study were in public administration, industrial engineering and Spanish. Erin can be reached at [email protected].

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