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What is the Correct Role of an Emergency Manager?, Part 2

This is the final installment of a two part series.
To read Part One, click on the Related Articles link at the end of this article.

Adam Sutkus, Phyllis Cauley and Nicole Ugarte

Finding #2: Emergency management professional standards are needed in California.

  • The emergency management profession is at the point where law enforcement or fire services were a long time ago. In California, law enforcement did create peace officer standards, fire services manages its field through FIRESCOPE and other mechanisms, and there are state standards for a variety of other professions.
  • There is a tremendous benefit to having continuity and consistency in the profession.
  • Change does not happen unless it comes from the top; the standards need to come down from the state. This can be a challenge when there is a constant change over with new administrations.

The issue of standards for the field has come up regularly over the past several years and it seems to be emerging as a critical area for the evolution of emergency management given the recent challenges highlighted in this exercise. Potential actions include focusing on the needed sponsorship of the effort by a key agency (in our state it would be the California Emergency Management Agency–Cal EMA), in order to mirror efforts taken in past years for the law enforcement and fire services. Continuity and consistency are also critically needed in the field, especially given the forces pulling on it from budgetary, reorganization and expectation perspectives. The directed pursuit of standards for the field is called for now to help transition the field to its new structure and protect it from dilution and confusion.

Finding #3: The emergency management function should drive organizational structure.

  • Emergency managers have to be given the authority to carry out their responsibility. Right now they are seemingly responsible for everything but not in charge of anything and do not have budgetary influence to address priorities.
  • Currently emergency managers use the following strategies to educate and get buy-in from executives and elected officials–have as much face-to-face contact as possible; involve them in disasters and training and exercises; communicate on a broad spectrum of topics; focus on issues that get their attention, i.e., risk, liability, finances; and attempt to work their way into the executive team–at least enough to be sure they are heard.
  • If the emergency manager position is not under the chief executive, then the position will erode. An umbrella organization like emergency management cannot be placed under something else.
  • If emergency management is not a stand-alone office, its programs get pushed aside because of other priorities.
  • During an activation, the emergency manager should be speaking for the executive and carrying out multijurisdictional and/or multidisciplinary responsibilities. If the emergency manager does not have that authority, it is hard to carry out these duties and the structural confusion directly relates to added public risk during a disaster.
  • Without state-level direction, the emergency manager, especially in small counties, will be placed where it is least costly. Placing a contingency that the homeland security money goes to the emergency manager only if they can have direct day to day access to the executive is one strategy.

A recurring theme that emerged in this project’s dialogue and has been seen nationally (with the creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security and FEMA’s placement there) regarding the need for executive contact by the emergency manager. Currently, budgetary and organizational inertia is pulling the emergency manager further away from the executive decision maker where a closer relationship should develop. It would be hard to imagine this changing without strong leadership from state and national sponsoring agencies—such as Cal EMA and FEMA—to advocate clearly the need for executive contact with the emergency manager, and this step should occur. The same logic applies to the need for local departments of finance, personnel, and risk management to have a much better understanding of the emergency manager’s role. Again, these critical conversations should be initiated by both executive leaders and emergency managers.

Finding #4: Champions for emergency management are vital to the profession’s future.

  • Emergency management has evolved since the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Both positive and negative changes have occurred.
  • Funding has increased, but there is more administrative work, the distribution and administration of funding is not optimal, and the funding process seems to be political.
  • There is heightened awareness of emergency management issues, but there are also more requirements than resources and unrealistic expectations (e.g., availability of care and shelter; readiness of agencies; media expectations of emergency management agencies).
  • The emergency management practice has received recognition and support, and there is increased coordination among partners. There is a movement back to all hazards. Systems and training are being institutionalized. However, there is limited participation at the executive and elected level; the public does not see its own role in preparedness; and too many contractors can equal less staff gaining critical emergency management knowledge and experience.
  • Key elements of a near-term vision for the emergency management profession include being part of the executive function; enhancing the profession through credentialing, college degrees, and competitive compensation; and being recognized, supported, empowered, financed, and staffed. (Example: the Certified Emergency Manager—CEM—designation is a useful national standard but it does not reflect many of the detailed work elements needed by the modern emergency manager.)
  • Cal EMA is an advocate for law enforcement and fire services, and emergency management needs Cal EMA as its champion. If that support from the top is not there, nothing will happen.

Through the dialogue for this project, CESA members clearly advocated the need for executive sponsorship for the profession. Tangential but equally important is the need to have partnerships to accomplish medium and long term goals for the field by promoting change. Primary among these groups in our state is the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties, as well as the International Association of Emergency Managers nationally. Creative and transparent partnership with these groups to pursue redefining the field and advocating change externally to all public administration professionals will be key to helping the field evolve proactively.

The visioning effort in 2010 by CESA has gone a long way towards uncovering themes and trends affecting the field, and sets the stage for additional work in 2011 and beyond to strengthen the field by ‘drilling down’ on specific issues and recommending changes. The CESA organization is taking a leadership role in California and nationally to critically examine the evolving field of emergency management. The work is not yet done, but now the internal evaluation and restructuring of the field by emergency managers for emergency managers can continue transparently on specific identified problems—with a goal of making the field stronger and more effectively able to protect benefit continuity and public safety.

ASPA member Adam Sutkus is a managing senior mediator at the Center for Collaborative Policy at Sacramento State University, where he manages the project portfolio on Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Email: [email protected]

Phyllis Cauley is a subject matter expert in emergency management with CCP, following a long career in California Emergency Services.

Nicole Ugarte is an assistant facilitator at CCP and has worked on numerous emergency management policy projects, as well as land use, water issues, and organizational development.

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