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Turning to 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
February 6, 2015

If you direct the labors or resources of a public organization, you might someday be pivotal in the response to and recovery from emergencies or disasters. In my decade as an emergency manager at the federal level, I’ve worked with hundreds of federal, state and local public administrators upon whom much responsibility suddenly fell. Most, in the moment, excelled. They had help, of course, but their passion, their professionalism, their expertise in their field made them indispensable to the survivors and communities they served. And almost every one of them, after the long days made them weary, said a version of “I wish I had known.”

You are a public administrator, perhaps an emergency manager, but likely you’re someone who should choose to act now to be ready for emergencies. Some reading this column might be able to confidently say they are ready. Others haven’t begun the process of understanding the potential of their organization’s role in emergency.

Buller febEmergencies, disasters especially, are about our potential to be humbled by crisis, catastrophe and the suddenness of the disruption to lives. But disasters are also about another kind of potential, the energy which comes when the need is great and people, organizations and government respond.

As a public administrator, someday you might be the pivot. You might be the one who can turn the labors and resources of an agency toward meeting disaster-caused needs. Whether you are prepared or preparing for that day – this column is for you. No part of government is immune to disaster, no field can escape harm. Don’t think that your line of work, your department or your locale is exempt.

This column is about emergency management, but it’s for public administrators. It’s about what you need to believe, know and do. I believe that good public administrators:

  • Ensure that the essential functions of their agency or department are continued despite the disruptions caused by emergency.
  • Integrate their plans and actions into the larger structure of emergency management.
  • Invest the time and resources required to build resilience into their organization.
  • Step up when emergencies occur, providing leadership and know-how.

I’m going to give you one example that displays how emergencies of all types affect broad areas of public administration. Last year, the number of Central American immigrants skyrocketed to the extent that the subject became daily national news. Unaccompanied children especially overtaxed the system. On behalf of Health and Human Services, the federal interagency marshaled resources in terms of new partner agencies. The Department of Defense temporarily provided dormitory space for thousands of children.

The risk exposed? Overloading the unaccompanied children care system through sudden increases in immigration.

The answer? Relationships with partners.

The lesson? Know the risk and plan for a scalable system to account for sudden surges in demand for agency services.

A few simple questions can assess your readiness for emergencies. See how you do on these:

  1. Do I know the most likely risks to affect my community and my organization?
  2. Am I ready, personally, to meet basic family needs during emergencies, allowing me to serve my organization?
  3. Do I know what organizational functions must continue even during disaster?
  4. Has my organization built relationships with additional partners to ensure effective coordination of emergency response?
  5. Does my organization have an emergency plan that addresses all the above?
  6. If so, has the plan been exercised?

Some administrators can answer ‘yes’ to all of these and kudos to them! Most people answer ‘no’ to all of them. The foundation of developing readiness and resilience lies within those questions. For example, the importance of knowing your risks.

My challenge to anyone who cannot answer ‘yes’ to these questions is to consider personal preparedness first, then connect with emergency management at the right level or maybe even within your own organization. You should ask: what might I be doing during an emergency? And, who might I be working with when calamity strikes?

In next month’s column I’m going to argue that emergency management is the hub – one of the best interconnectors of government at all levels and certainly the connector that binds almost every critical government service into one paradigm. As a public administrator, knowing about this hub can increase your success at plugging into it.

Author: Anthony Buller, CEM® has a decade of experience as an emergency manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He can be contacted at [email protected]. The views expressed are those of the author and not FEMA.  

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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