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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
September 19, 2022

This is the ninth in a series of columns exploring: What makes an emergency management organization more likely to achieve the promises of social equity? This column is the first of a two-part conclusion. In this one, the whole list of drivers (or interventions if you prefer) is provided as a tool you can use to assess your organization.

Social equity of course “is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice in the provision of public service.” There are drivers or interventions that promote social equity (see the graphic below). To again approach the question above: ask yourself, for your organization: “Which of the following are we doing well?”

  • Culture—an organization must establish an environment where equity is embraced and those that stand for equity are empowered instead of silenced. Good actions should be rewarded. Bad actions should not be tolerated. Staff and stakeholders must sense that the organization is walking the talk. We are an organization that has: (a) clear statements of equity principles, (b) equity champions, (c) admitted past inequities, (d) taken action for equity, (e) built integrity and trust, (f) open dialogue about equity, (g) transparency and accountability, (h) customer experience as a mission and (i) welcomed feedback.  
  • Understanding Community—most emergency management organizations have sections of their major plans describing the community or jurisdiction they serve, but to achieve social equity much more is needed. We are an organization that, when considering our community, we understand: (a) demographics, (b) vulnerabilities, (c) where, how and with whom to partner, (d) the “first concerns,” (e) historical and ongoing disparities, (f) empowerment of others, (g) the strength of cooperation and (h) the importance of action.  
  • 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. We are an organization that has: (a) engaged counsel, (b) trained staff, (c) empowered staff, (d) stayed current with the legal landscape, (e) documented decisions and (f) developed and followed plans.
  • 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. We are an organization that has equipped staff with: (a) knowledge, (b) resources and materials, (c) empowerment and (d) connection. We are an organization that has equipped stakeholders with: (a) knowledge, (b) inclusion and (c) resources and materials. 
  • 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. We are an organization that has: (a) an equity champion who can throw the flag during any emergency management phase and advocate for the most vulnerable, (b) leadership committed to a mission of equity who will listen to the equity champion and (c) staff who are empowered to pursue equity on their own and identify and share equity shortfalls or opportunities with the equity champion.
  • 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. We are an organization that has: (a) statements of principles, (b) honest inclusion, (c) fair personnel practices, (d) planning to promote equity within both personnel administration and service delivery, (e) assessment mechanisms, (f) advisory groups and (g) accountability.
  • 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. We are an organization that: (a) reduces barriers to employees making equitable decisions and (b) rewards equitable decisions.

The next column will be the very last in this series and will consider 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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