Emergency management has an identity crisis. If you ask 100 different emergency managers what emergency management is, you might be lucky if half provided a similar answer. It might closely look like this one from the International association of Emergency Manager’s, “The managerial function charged with creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to threats/hazards and cope with disasters.” I think you will find, as you survey emergency managers, that individual definitions depend on an emergency manager’s conceptual framework. It depends on their background, the jurisdiction size and level, level of education and experience, and even areas of interest. Even most experienced emergency managers getting together for a cup of coffee or cold barley soup can go 10-rounds over the question.
To add insult to injury, the very term appears to be a contradiction of terms. Law enforcement is pretty straight forward, people who enforce laws. Firefighting refers to fighting fires and has expanded into numerous other types of rescue, including, in many cases, providing emergency medical services (which is another term which seems to properly encapsulate the actions provided). But emergency management isn’t as clear. In fact, most dictionary definitions infer that management has direct authority, charge, and dominance. As emergency managers, we know this is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, most of the time, we are coordinating, begging, borrowing, or stealing to achieve “management.”
The simple fact is that there is no universal definition or understanding of what emergency management is. As such, how is the emergency management community supposed to educate, advocate, and implement programs of emergency management? How are we, as emergency managers supposed to go in front of Congress, or Governors, or city council members and explain it? How are those elected officials supposed to support us if we cannot define it?
If a lack of definition wasn’t bad enough, there is also a lack of consistency of organizational placement for emergency management offices. Unlike other public safety counterparts who typically benefit from the autonomy of having their own department, emergency management offices rarely have this privilege. At the local level in California, emergency management coordinators or offices can be found as part of the police department, fire department, city manager’s office, and I have even heard of them being placed within public works. The lack of consistency displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of emergency management and de-values the importance of that role. At the State level, we also see this inconsistency. State emergency management offices are nestled within state police departments, national guard organizations, and other random organizational structures.
With a lack of understanding of emergency management and the lack of consistent organizational placement, it is no wonder why we have, as a discipline, also failed to be consistent with qualified personnel decisions. All too often we see people from law enforcement, fire, or another discipline placed into the role as an emergency manager. There is a fundamental assumption by hiring managers that emergency response and emergency management are one and the same. It is flawed logic. It is akin to saying that the fire battalion chief is a good firefighter so maybe we should make them a lieutenant with the law enforcement department. There is also an epidemic of assigning the role of emergency management coordinator to low level, untrained, administrative personnel as a collateral duty. During a disaster, these personnel have little to no credibility, authority, or influence among the leadership within the jurisdiction. Outside of the disaster, it is even harder for such people to accomplish mitigation or preparedness activities because there is no legitimate authority.
Definitions, organizational placement, and staffing confusion are just a part of the perplexity and resulting degradation of emergency management. There are several other issues that also contribute to the mayhem we call emergency management. The problem is systemic. There is no one solution. Reform on a grand scale may be the only way to remedy the problems of practice for emergency management. Perhaps a great starting point would be statutory reform. Most state statutes are the foundation of emergency management down through the local level. If all states revised state statutes in an emergency management reform movement, uniform definitions of emergency management could be implemented, organizational placement within government could be addressed, and requisite qualifications of emergency managers could be established. This reform would be a great start to giving emergency management the emphasis it needs to improve mitigation, preparedness response, and recovery from all-hazard threats.
Randal Collins, Ed.D., CEM is the Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of El Segundo, CA. He has served as the President of the All-Hazards Incident Management Association, Inc since 2012. Randal also owns his own consulting firm, Leader’s Intent, LLC. Randal completed his Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership from the University of Southern California.