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The “Whole Community”—Those Unruly Teenagers

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, 2021

The Whole Community concept is really growing up. While a lot of work remains to include everyone in emergency management, emergency managers themselves understand and mostly embrace the concept.

What is Whole Community? Simply stated, when emergency managers say the term, they are talking about everyone in their community, usually with the community represented by the groups people belong to (demographic, faith-based, organizational, etc.). Even more, Whole Community is a call to action so that the profession includes everyone, and then properly reflects their roles in planning. The Whole Community concept is beautiful in that it encourages us to engage diverse partners, bring them into the emergency management sphere and respect their views, needs and capabilities.

Whole Community is also like engaging unruly teenagers. They don’t listen all the time. They react in surprising ways. They ignore even things in their own best interest. They can monopolize your time. But you don’t want to neglect your unruly teenager. Instead, you work harder to connect, help and shape.

This column points out that engaging the Whole Community can distract an emergency manager from other core functions, and specifically one core duty: engaging the executive (Mayor, County Executive, Governor, President). I wrote a PA Times column about engaging the executive and why emergency managers should do so. Here, I take it one step further and suggest that in the never-ending effort to engage the community, we cannot neglect our executives, or they will be the unruliest teenagers of them all.

In my experience, the great emergency managers become great in part because they know that a core function of emergency management is to meet the needs of their executives. They understand both the obvious and the subtle points of the relationship. I will share three broad lessons about executive engagement that I’ve seen repeated in cities, counties and states across this nation. These lessons you’ll see are couched in terms of an honest look at why the executive matters to the success of an emergency manager—and that official’s goals of engaging the Whole Community.

Lesson 1: Executive Are Not Emergency Managers

When bad things happen, decisionmaking rolls upward at least a couple steps in an organization. This means that it’s possible, even likely, that authority will fall on those without much emergency management experience. The executive, sometimes even when meaning well, becomes disruptive. This truth is precisely why it is important to plan with, train and exercise with our executives. We cannot make them emergency managers, but we can help them fit into their roles and confidently do well during crisis. If you are an emergency manager, and your executive thinks you are not dedicated to helping them do well, then that executive can disempower (remove or minimize) you. The best reason to engage and equip the executive is to make it more likely that plans are followed, and that those with experience retain their roles. We need to honestly admit that the executive holds the keys.

Lesson 2: Executives Hold the Keys

Before, during and after disaster there are stakeholders with the power to say, “No.” Great emergency managers work to forge their relationships in ways that lead to, “Yes.” This goes far beyond you being empowered or disempowered during an event. This ties into whether your emergency management organization fares well in the competition for scarce jurisdictional resources. It ties into whether your plans are followed or tossed out the window. It links to whether executives are an obstacle or a resource.

Lesson 3: Executives Are a Resource

Executives should be viewed as a critical partner through all the phases of emergency management. Like any stakeholder, the emergency manager needs to be focused on building trust. When trusted, the executive becomes a resource before, during and after disasters. They will say the right things at a press conference. They will be more likely to help with budgets, resources, permissions and other organizational roles. The best way to build trust is to make sure that executive knows that you know they are a (if not the) key customer.

When engaging the Whole Community, we must recognize that a key part of our relationship-building efforts needs to be internal to our own organization and especially with the executive. Remember, they are not emergency managers; they hold the keys, and they are a resource.


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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