Let’s Count Our Assets

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

One of the advantages of being in semi-retirement ( as an independent consultant) is that between contracts there is often time to reflect on issues that have an impact on our profession. But you also have time to watch old movies.

It was alleged by some of my friends, and they may not have been kidding, that if it were not for having watched movies like Office Space and Princess Bride I may never have had enough material to give a presentation or a speech about emergency management. So in this missive I turn to Princess Bride to discuss the major question we will face if we have a major disaster – like that earthquake and/or tsunami we all know is coming.

In the movie, the princess is being held captive in a castle. The heroes – a pirate, a swordsman and a huge man played by Andre the Giant, are trying to find a way to breach the castle defenses, storm the castle, overcome 60 guards protecting the drawbridge, rescue the princess, avenge the swordsman’s father, and bring a satisfactory resolution to the whole proceeding. As they survey the situation, the pirate as the acknowledged leader asks “what are our assets” and after some quibbling determines that they have enough to succeed. And they do, despite all the preparations that have been made to keep them from achieving their goal.

That is a question that is universal for emergency managers contemplating the challenges they will encounter following a major disaster. What are the assets that can be activated on short notice that can be counted on to perform satisfactorily, whatever the odds?

The least appreciated assets in emergency management terms in our state are the men and women in the Military Department’s Emergency Management Division (EMD). Despite horrendous and out of proportion budget cuts in staff and other support during the financial meltdown of 2009-2013, and despite the constant struggle to maintain a high level of readiness, the state is in good hands when the chips are down in a disaster. For some reason (the hours are long, but the pay is low, I once said), EMD has lost a number of excellent professionals to other jurisdictions and even other state agencies, but there have always been highly motivated and qualified individuals to step in. These are people, though out of the limelight, will come to work to help others even if they too are victims – this happened more than once in my experience as director – it is not uncommon.

EMD was often a favorite target of some local emergency managers – we had a responsibility to monitor grant expenditures, for example, and to arbitrate funding decisions that affected homeland security allocations. While a city (Seattle) emergency management director I found myself supporting EMD’s leaders when others attempted to enhance their standing by criticizing the EMD staff. Later, as EMD director I learned that my instinct to support EMD staff and management was the right approach, and refused to turn the other cheek when my staff was attacked or criticized from outside or even within state government, because I knew that EMD personnel always answer the call when the situation demands smart, compassionate, professional action.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in the evaluation of an emergency management program. The question the assessment began with was “ has emergency management directed sufficient resources to meet its legislated mandate to manage a catastrophic event?” I helped alter that question by posing this one: “what evidence is there that those who make budgets have ever inquired as to what resources might be required to fulfill that mandate?” In my 21 ½ years leading city and state emergency management offices I was seldom asked what resources I needed to accomplish any mission, except right after an event had occurred. At times, I was ordered not to put such requests in writing, and it remains a bit mystifying that I was not disciplined or fired when I put said request in writing anyway. In most instances the request was ignored.

We have a great asset in the staff of EMD, but they need to be recognized and supported. If the state legislature ever gets around to deciding how to support local emergency management with more than rhetoric, it should also address the long term planning and staffing requirements of EMD.

It’s not enough to say, as a character in Princess Bride cheerfully says to the three heroes “Good luck storming the castle!” And that character whispers as they depart that they really don’t have a chance. But the safety of our state should not be trusted to “good luck” – EMD and their local colleagues need some friends inside the “castle” (or legislative and executive branches) who will lower the bridge and instruct the guardians of budgets to ask how to incrementally provide what is needed.

Do nothing, and EMD and local emergency management will still do heroic work, but they will know better than anyone how it could have been better. But just as in my first blog I urged that government start planning for recovery and restoration in advance of the next major disaster, I strongly believe that strengthening the civilian arm anchoring agency for disaster management should be a priority of serious elected and appointed officials.

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