2016: Changes, Challenges and Opportunities – Emergency Management, Once Removed (4)
By Jim Mullen
Later on this year, the people of this country will go to the polls and elect or re-elect mayors, governors, legislators, and of course, a new President of the United States. These elections will pose multiple opportunities and challenges for professional emergency managers, and their staff. The politics of one’s jurisdiction, the character of the leadership team selected by the people, and the particular hazards that communities and states and the nation face are all impacted by the politically charged outcomes of our electoral process at all levels.
Now, one would imagine that emergency management should not be affected by partisan politics. One might hope that the role of emergency managers and executive and legislative leaders, whatever their respective social and political philosophies, should never detract from the priorities of life safety, and protection of the economy and the environment that are basic to the mission of emergency management. Still, it can be unnerving to learn that not only does the emergency manager have to educate a key executive staff member who has become emergency management’s link, its voice, to a new regime; but imagine if that key person is ignorant or unconcerned with what you know, and feel compelled to share? And, of course, even a more familiar reelected Administration will frequently reassign or replace people, installing a new set of actors that must be educated on emergency management priorities. And, face it: these newly chosen “leaders” are not always individuals that the emergency manager would have personally chosen.
I’ll stop here to acknowledge three senior staff that always listened, absorbed my concerns and provided wise counsel and prompt action when necessary. At Washington State, Cindy Zehnder’s tenure as Chief of Staff for Governor Gregoire was part of a very responsive period during my time there, as were the two stints of Antonio Ginatta as liaison to Washington State’s Emergency Management Division. At the city of Seattle, Mayor Paul Schell’s assistant Walt Hubbard was a positive force as our public safety liaison during a very turbulent period. These three were remarkable, and while a number of others were acceptably responsive, some were much less so. And the attitudes of those senior personnel had a major impact on the operation of our emergency management team and our ability to fulfill our mission to protect the lives, property, economy and environment of the jurisdiction.
Administrations just cannot afford to screw up in a disaster, and simply must not evade responsibility for mistakes when those occur. And newly elected Administrations are often acutely aware, at least intellectually, that the survival rates of Administrations and emergency managers within jurisdictions which are perceived to have fallen short in managing a crisis is not good.
In my experience, newly elected executives, and newly appointed senior public safety staff have sought briefings early in their tenure that are intended to accomplish two primary objectives: the first is to describe the procedures and protocols currently being followed – basics like how we will inform leadership of pending problems, how the disaster declaration process works, current issues in the jurisdiction, etc. The second is an opportunity for the emergency management team to acquire a glimpse of how the executive team wants to proceed: the primary day to day contact person, the type of information and the form in which it can be presented most effectively to the executive for action, etc.
Truthfully, no emergency manager ever wants his/her jurisdiction to fall short of reasonable expectations of its citizens in time of crisis. That is why those initial briefings have to be clear, concise and pointed, and those being briefed need to pay close attention to what they are told. And even then not all of the critical information can be implanted in an Administration’s psyche in a single session, thus exercises and periodic reorientation is essential.
But it is often very difficult to explain all that to a newly minted Chief of Staff, or various policy analysts now sitting close to the executive, or often the executive him or herself. REMEMBER, THEY JUST WO N! And some interpret that victory as a sign that there are no more lessons to be learned, and applied. If they are lucky, they will never be confronted and smacked across the head by those lessons they refused to heed.
Among the lessons some never learn is that it is not the disaster that will bring you down, it is the failure to appreciate the tasks that are carried out on a daily basis by emergency management staff that can undermine the response and then the recovery mission. The gatekeepers that encircle the executive are necessary – a governor or mayor cannot afford to be dragged into the weeds around every significant issue; time must be managed carefully, but that is also why it is crucial that the staff around the boss be savvy enough to know what they don’t know, and show respect for what subject matter experts do know.
This is a matter of concern at all levels, local, state and federal. Mayors, county executives and even governors may arrive with little or no experience with emergency management issues, and only a modest grasp of what it takes to have a smoothly responding emergency management organization under their control. But, it is almost a guarantee that each elected executive at any level will greet their emergency management team with the statement that # 1 among their priorities is emergency management (of course they will soon understand and commit to others that education, the environment, jobs, etc. are also #1!). And the imminence and attention these other important issues possess is part of what allows long range reflection on emergency management priorities to recede into the background.
The problem is not that elected executives and legislators are uncaring, or insincere, in their commitment to emergency management’s public safety role. Most do care. The problem is that most do not inquire on a regular basis of their emergency management subject matter experts what they need to perform their mission. Of course, what an emergency manager says is needed often may not be entirely possible, but that executive has the duty to ask without that response being suppressed by departmental or budget overseers. Just ask, and understand the potential consequences of the jurisdiction’s emergency management capabilities being less than they need to be.
In municipalities, counties, and states once the 2016 general election results are certified briefings on emergency procedures and capabilities will occur. How many newly elected or reelected leaders will have been savvy enough to ask the right questions in advance? And how many will act on those initial briefings and follow up regularly?
Finally, for those who are willing to comment on these musings, thank you. Criticism in a constructive sense has never bothered me. And to paraphrase a comment by an author I just came across “what value is there for a writer if he is the only one interacting” (he said it better)? For those who might wish to comment privately, or suggest a new topic or an expansion on an earlier topic, I invite you to reach out to me at:
My New Year’s Wish is for a champion in the Washington State Legislature to step up, and support a significant, sustained state legislative financial contribution to local and state emergency management BEFORE a disaster reveals how derelict legislatures and executive budget writers in this state have been in recognizing the criticality of hazard mitigation, community preparedness, disaster response and recovery/restoration. And, also there is a compelling need to contribute and support the educational endeavors of current and future emergency managers in our state. As a former state legislator and friend used to say on the campaign trail, speaking about education writ large, “if you think education is expensive, think how expensive ignorance is” – a thought that can be easily applied to the casual dismissal of state general fund support for emergency management education. Even with other significant funding challenges, our state legislature and executive leadership cannot afford to remain passive about the threats to life safety, property, the economy and the environment. There are proactive emergency managers at the state and local levels: use them to help you make this right in our great state!
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