Commentary

“Emergency Management” – A Misnomer

by Chas Eby

“Emergency management” is a term broadly defining a field that includes federal, state, and local government agencies, voluntary organizations active in disasters, and private sector stakeholders that conduct a variety of activities to prepare for, mitigate against, respond to, and recover from incidents. However, “emergency management” does not accurately describe the discipline or represent the most valuable skillset of emergency managers and their agencies: complex problem solving.

Chas Eby headshotEmergency managers require the ability to perform complex problem solving and enabling other agencies to conduct their operations more efficiently and effectively. In order to increase relevancy, accurately portray their best characteristics, and move toward the future of emergency management, federal, state, and local government emergency management agencies should emphasize their problem-solving ability and focus on building up and supporting other agencies within the whole-community emergency management system while reducing risks regardless of cause.

Problem Statement

Emergency managers typically are relied upon as the subject matter experts for incidents such as hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, wildfires, and floods. Emergency management agencies may even focus their programs and personnel on the specific hazards that affect them most often. Potential issues may arise by developing an agency’s mission around specific hazards, even ones that are common to an area. Hazard-specific planning increases emergency management agencies’ vulnerability to one-off incidents, black swan events, and disruptive threats with cascading consequences. Emergencies are not perfectly predictable. For this reason, many emergency managers have adopted an all-hazards planning approach, per guidance in the National Response Framework. But perhaps an all-hazards approach is too narrow a scope for the mission of emergency management.

Proficiencies in Emergency Management

The term “emergency management” squanders the competencies of emergency managers. These professionals are uniquely capable of conducting coordinated, effective problem solving for any issue or incident that is multidisciplinary in nature. These attributes may well have been learned through experiences responding to complex emergencies such as large-scale weather or manmade disasters. In any case, broad support and connections across disciplines and the ability to conduct efficient coordination are necessary qualities for resolving or planning for complex situations. Emergency managers are uniquely qualified to lead interdisciplinary coordination for such work, which could include problems such as emerging agricultural, environmental, and public health threats and social issues that necessitate collaborative work among multiple agencies, organizations, and businesses.

Although many agencies have expertise in and a mission focused on their respective disciplines, emergency management’s subject matter expertise is building the linkage between and across these disciplines. Emergency management is the discipline best suited to lead a coordinated and efficient multiagency and multisector response to the aforementioned issues. These areas would be in addition to natural, manmade, and terrorist-caused disasters, which inherently impose complex problems.

“Emergency Management” – A Misnomer
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Evolving Nature of Emergency Management

This is not an argument for emergency management becoming the subject matter expert for every issue, incident, or plan. Rather, the emergency managers’ subject matter expertise is the problem-solving process and coordination of multiple agencies, resources, and information from a variety of sources. Emergency management agencies should primarily focus on two areas – increasing consequence management capability and reducing risk caused by disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local emergency management offices must be able to effectively manage the consequences of complex situations. These capabilities can be increased by emergency managers focusing on a variety of areas that are hazard agnostic, which include, but are not limited to:

  • developing a consistent and efficient multiagency planning and operational process;
  • conducting stakeholder outreach and building relationships with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations;
  • honing training, exercise development, and resource management expertise and enabling other agencies’ personnel to build their skills in these areas;
  • advocating for new and improved emergency management and homeland security policy to elected officials; and
  • strengthening local first-responder systems.

By shifting the scope from managing emergencies to performing problem solving and enabling other agencies to better perform their subject-matter-specific operations, emergency managers ensure an effective unity of effort within their jurisdictions. In some instances, emergency managers may be able to quickly set up the necessary processes through established systems, like the National Incident Management System to organize a response and the plan development process to develop multiagency strategic plans, and then extract themselves from the long-term operational component of the issue at hand.

In addition to increasing consequence management capabilities, emergency management should also focus on risk reduction, in addition to already-occurring activities such as planning, training, and exercising for incidents. Threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences of disasters are affected by a number of factors that can be influenced by government agencies. Disaster risk reduction is the effort to reduce the overall severity of disasters. Interestingly, the majority of projects conducted by government agencies that reduce risk from disasters are neither led by nor are ostensibly related to emergency management. These areas include: chronic public health and social issues; transportation, water, and energy infrastructure; climate change adaptation; and community and economic vitality.

The agencies charged with conducting projects in these areas may not consider them linked to disaster risk reduction. However, the successful completion of these projects reduces the public’s risk. For example, a transportation department that installs more efficient storm drainage systems in highways could be reducing the risk of flooding. Concurrently, an environmental protection department working on climate change adaptation in a nearby area could also be reducing the same risk.

The role of emergency management agencies is to seek and prioritize projects and activities aimed at reducing overall risk from disasters and to coordinate the seemingly disparate groups working on these projects in order to create a synchronized effort. It is unlikely that the genesis of each individual project has anything to do with emergencies. However, the combined effort coordinated by an emergency management agency reduces the risk associated with a future disaster.

Of course, multiagency coordination across a broad scope of issues requires well-trained and available human resources in emergency management. Emergency management agencies need to be fully funded in order to effectively lead. It would be challenging to successfully conduct coordination with inadequate staffing. Furthermore, if other disciplines face human resources shortages or budget cuts, it will become even more necessary for emergency management to intensify coordination efforts for complex problems and cascading incidents that affect the nation, states, and communities.

More Than Just “Emergency” Management

“Emergency management” is a limiting name. Any emergency management agency that is solely focused on coordination and support activities before, during, and after disasters is missing the point – emergency managers bring more to the table. These professionals are experts in performing complex problem solving, enabling others, and conducting multiagency coordination for a multitude of issues, whether or not they are emergencies.

Chas Eby is the director of disaster risk reduction and chief strategy officer at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), where he oversees the directorate charged with reducing the state’s risk profile with effective emergency management programs. Previously, he was the external outreach branch manager, where he developed strategy and oversaw programs that included disaster recovery, public information and outreach, digital engagement, individual assistance, and community and private sector preparedness. Prior to joining MEMA, he was the chief planner for emergency preparedness at the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (DHMH). He received a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School. He previously graduated from Boston College. He has completed the National Emergency Management Executive Academy and is an adjunct professor teaching both bioterrorism and public health preparedness and homeland security planning and policy at Towson University. Follow him on Twitter @chas_eby.