I recently attended a FEMA continuing education class in another part of the country. The class was held in the emergency management offices of the state and, like so many others, said offices were located in a secure facility behind armed security guards and locked doors. We couldn’t even get out of the offices without being physically let out by yet another guard. This made me think back to the days when I worked for my State’s Emergency Management division, which, like the one whose class I just attended, was located on a military base and required me to show my ID and be interviewed by a gate guard every single workday. Naturally this got a little tiresome.
Working on base was an isolating experience. There were no restaurants or stores a civilian could utilize, and the base was too far out of town to go anywhere for lunch. Worst of all, members of the public could not simply stop in to get their questions answered, nor could they easily participate in the emergency management process. We got no visitors at all. We were trapped in our little bubble of government process all day, every day; no ideas in, no ideas out.
I wonder if this model, so ubiquitous in the field, is serving us well? Emergency management is a new enough field that there is still an undercurrent of uncertainty about it and its place in both business and government. We still see many people holding emergency management positions (even in government) without having any training or education in emergency management. Their only emergency management training is on-the-job, and it’s not likely they’d question something like whether tucking them into a secure facility is logical. Since emergency management is tangentially related to security (and was forcefully dragged under the Homeland Security umbrella in the early 2000s), the assumption was made at some point that emergency management must be somewhat of a secret process, one to which we must limit access, and few emergency managers question that assumption.
You can probably guess that I think this is the wrong approach. Emergency management at its core is meant to make communities more disaster resistant and more resilient when disaster damage does happen. This can only be accomplished when the public knows how to prepare and how to help themselves. Gone are the days when government emergency management pretends to be able to help residents when disaster strikes; in this oft-quoted article, a local official comes right out and finally says that they won’t be able to help people when the “big one” strikes. I’m not a fan of that article in general because of its breathlessly inflated scare tactics, but I’ll get to that in another post perhaps! At least it did one good thing: it confirmed to the public that they had better learn how to survive on their own in a disaster.
Naturally this has chilled a lot of people to the bone, and who can blame them? We hide emergency management offices away from them, and then tell them we can’t save them during a disaster. It can’t be long before the people start wondering what it is that all these emergency managers actually do, and why we are all paying their salaries if all the public gets is the statement: “We won’t be able to help [you]” and “there is no long range plan.” Wow! After fifteen years in the field, I’m pretty informed about how emergency management works, and even I am a little shocked that a disaster-prone state doesn’t have a long-range plan. But now that the cat is out of the bag, we need to help members of the public prepare instead of hiding away from them.
In my projects, I advocate personal preparedness training for clients’ staff. They seem to really love it and it gets them thinking about what they will do when a disaster strikes. They might not indulge in perfect preparedness, but they’ll have ruminated on it a bit and will have been empowered with a little information about what they might want to do to protect their households and survive the disaster without expecting government assistance. They feel better even with just one personal preparedness class; imagine how well they could prepare themselves if they were even more informed about emergency management with the help of official emergency management agencies?
To me, the ideal emergency management office is not a secure facility tucked away from the prying eyes of the public. It’s an office easily accessible to the community it serves, and is primarily dedicated to two goals: 1) Supporting other emergency management efforts throughout its jurisdiction (for instance, a State should directly support Local emergency management, and Local emergency management should directly support resident and business emergency management, and so on), and 2) Providing information to the public about emergency management and personal preparedness.
This doesn’t mean just publishing a list of supplies to buy, it means helping the public fully understand the hazards in their community, what is being done to prepare for them, and what the public can do for their own part. Public input on emergency management plans should be more actively sought – I don’t know about you, but the only public meetings I’ve ever even heard of related to emergency management topics are ones I’ve held myself. We should move emergency management offices out of the secure dungeons (I’ve seen emergency management offices that are literally underground) and into the hearts of the communities they serve. The public should be able to easily stop by, look at maps and plans, get help assessing their own risks, and to observe the emergency management process and understand it better. With a few exceptions, the process should not be a secretive one. There’s no reason to hide disaster planning from the public eyes, (with a few exceptions). The more informed the public is, the better a disaster response will go. The more secretive we stay as emergency managers, the more likely we are to face a populace who neither trust nor respect our message – especially when that message is “we can’t help you.” We should be soliciting support and assistance from the public in disaster planning, rather than trying to do it all in isolation and then drawing the dire conclusion that we can’t respond as well as we would like. Who knows – the public might really have some great ideas (and I think they would)!
I envision an emergency management process so efficient and inclusive that consultants like myself will not be necessary (naturally, I hope that this happens just about when I’m ready to retire). While many of my clients are businesses, I don’t really believe that businesses should have to hire consultants to help them prepare for disasters as they do today. Our well-staffed emergency management agencies should be able to do that, and if we let the public in, we’ll have their help.