You Can Observe a lot by Watching – Emergency Management, Once Removed, December 2018

You Can Observe a lot by Watching

By Jim Mullen

“You can observe a lot by watching”
(Yogi Berra (former NY Yankee catcher, manager, philosopher)

When one retires, or in my case, semi- retires, Yogi’s comment begins to make a lot more sense. When you work in a particularly stressful or responsible job, dealing with emerging issues can limit one’s scope, a bit like being stuck in a traffic jam on I-5, wedged between trucks that don’t allow you to ever consider changing lanes, altering your speed or even find an alternate direction to take.

Early in my 12 years as Director of Emergency Management in Seattle, there was almost no interference while we established (ahem!) one of the more respected municipal emergency management programs in the country. Certainly there were violations of my/our space at times, but there also were opportunities to focus on the gradual development of community preparedness initiatives, substantially improve assessments of our response capability, establish a set of principles for financial recover post-disaster for the City, and finally, set a course for improving safety and stability through disaster mitigation programs for schools and residences.

Alas, that freedom was fleeting. After we were transferred under the Seattle Police Department, more interference occurred even as we regularly demonstrated our effectiveness in actual events. Relatively simple things, like securing earned overtime in disaster for staff or retaining authority to make even minor purchases, became mini-crises that drained staff energy. Even when we prevailed, such internal battles had the effect of limiting our ability to pursue creative initiatives.

At the state, where I served for 8 ½ years, the resistance asserted itself in the pettiness and jealousy of some, and only some, uniformed personnel or that worked for uniformed persons. These distractions had a price. Dealing with resistant colleagues as well as normal business impinges on planning and creativity, and thus some initiatives never quite acquire the traction to be implemented.

Two “unrealized” initiatives of mine still trouble me. One involves conducting regular disaster exercises with the general public, using online technology. It’s cheap and would demonstrate that the government genuinely cares about its constituents all the time, and not just during disasters (or elections!). And, it would circumvent the “white noise” that obscures the good work that emergency managers do every day to protect the public.

Another is long term recovery: sensible steps have been taken by the Governor to gather his state agencies to consider long term recovery issues, but even more thoughtful leadership would engage with local and private sector organizations to look comprehensively at the broader recovery challenges a major disaster might present. How many of these challenges have a legal, legislative or administrative solution that might speed up said recovery? We should try to find out in advance.

This is not meant to criticize those who currently carry the emergency management burden at any level. Nor is it intended to rebuke the Governor nor the leadership of the legislature (who probably could care less what I think). Simply put, there is more that we can do, that we should do.

Perhaps it is easier to learn, as Yogi suggests, by watching from a position “once removed” from the responsibility. But if we’ve been observing the lack of readiness to recover from wildfires and hurricanes in recent times, we may have some time to do more than just watch. We can act on some disaster challenges. Now.

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