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Social Equity Drivers for 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
December 19, 2021

In my column from October 2021 titled Equity in Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs), I offered one option for improving social equity outcomes in EOCs. That option was to have a champion for equity present and empowered to affect decisions, outputs and outcomes. This single option is not enough. Over the last 18 months I have been pursuing my MPA at the University of Colorado-Denver, and every chance I get I have been focusing my research on equity in emergency management. I intend to do my thesis on the topic. After hundreds of hours of research and many papers and assignments, I still struggle with the following: What are the drivers of social equity in emergency management?

I cannot find a resource that lists the various lines of effort we should undertake in emergency management to improve social equity outcomes. There is content around social equity, but where is the list? Or the checklist? Or the self-assessment to determine if your emergency management organization has baked in social equity concerns? I cannot find it.

This column will kick off a series exploring the drivers of social equity in emergency management. I’m using the word “driver” to mean efforts, the outcomes of which should improve social equity considerations. Social equity of course, “Is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice in the provision of public service.” Justice is the key here, being what differentiates equity from equality. See the prior column linked to above if you want to read about why social equity matters in emergency management.

After all my research to date in social equity drivers in emergency management and applying my 17 years of emergency management experience, I have come up with the following list. In this column I provide the list and describe each driver a little. In subsequent columns I will dive into each driver in more depth. Please note that some of the following apply to both the personnel administration within an emergency management organization as well as how that organization approaches delivering public services (e.g., diversity is important both for personnel administration and in community engagement and inclusion). The social equity drivers in emergency management include:

  • Culture: An organization must establish an environment where equity is embraced and those that stand for equity are empowered instead of voiceless. Good actions should be rewarded. Bad actions should not be tolerated. Staff and stakeholders must sense that the organization is walking the talk.
  • Understanding Community: Most emergency management organizations have sections of their major plans describing the community or jurisdiction they serve. But understanding community goes far beyond being able to list community demographics. Understanding your community includes understanding vulnerabilities and needs. A step further: to be fully informed, we must understand the historical and the ongoing inequities.
  • Legal Compliance: Emergency management decisions affect the rights and interests of people within the jurisdiction served. Civil rights laws apply to every phase of emergency management. As an example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a cause of suit against jurisdictions both before and after disasters (before: failing to adequately plan; after: failure to adequately respond). Legal compliance should be considered a baseline driver for social equity. It applies to both personnel administration and service to the public.
  • Equipping Staff and Stakeholders: Organizational staff and stakeholders (whether incorporated into the emergency management system or as a member of the served public) deserve clear policies and procedures, training and exercising around social equity considerations. Further, practical assistance provided to the public to equip them for disaster must be performed with equity in mind. Equipping staff and stakeholders thus applies to both personnel administration and service to the public.
  • Equity Champions: In many organizations that are speaking about social equity, the duty is made everyone’s responsibility. Practically, this means that no one is responsible. Much better to also identify a champion for social equity: someone trained, empowered, available before, during and after events and able to take a stand to promote equity considerations. The champion would hopefully be someone with an operational mindset that can help solve inequities constructively instead of just pointing them out. This can apply to both personnel administration and service to the public.
  • Diversity and Inclusion: The emergency management organization should achieve the practical goal of diversity by looking like the community served, hopefully in personnel and staff, but at least by engagement and inclusion of diverse community members and organizations. Further, a real sense of inclusion should be present as reflected by the above-mentioned culture. But far beyond this baseline, diversity also applies to the scope of efforts to engage the whole community within the jurisdiction in meaningful ways. Diversity and inclusion thus applies to both personnel administration and service to the public.
  • Practice: 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.

As I said, I’ll explore these drivers in subsequent columns. During the series, I cannot promise that they won’t adjust somewhat. Feel free to send comments to the email below if you see things I have not incorporated.

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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