A Perverse Meritocracy

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

A tsunami warning for the West Coast of the United States following the 2011 Sendai earthquake presented a  challenge in public messaging about the safety of our citizens because of false projections that toxic materials were en route to our coast. As Washington State‘s Emergency Management Division (EMD) director,  I  recommended that the state’s response be viewed credibly and headed by a state agency (Natural Resources or Health) that had relevant expertise and resources. My boss, the Adjutant General, took it to the Governor. He reported back that “EMD will lead it.” Protesting we lacked sufficient resources; I was stopped cold when he advised that the Governor’s “Office” said, “EMD will lead – they won’t (bleep) it up.” EMD met that moment. Proactive transparency with the media and public rendered it a successful non-event.

Emergency managers frequently are expected to accomplish the impossible, or at least the very difficult. Accustomed to doing more with less, I was privileged to lead emergency management staff over 21 years in Seattle’s OEM and at  Washington EMD just shouldered their burdens and fulfilled their obligations, often achieving remarkably positive results despite the resource challenges presenting themselves. Yet, perversely,  we were victims of our competence!

Washington  State’s legislature will reconvene in January. That means over the following few weeks, state agencies and the Governor will be identifying and narrowing down their legislative priorities for the legislature to consider. To be clear, I have no insight into what emergency management requests currently might be under consideration: but I do wish to repeat my oft-expressed view that elected officials do not have to contemplate the “unthinkable” because their emergency managers always are doing it for them. The work put in before that “next” event is unseen and often unappreciated, but it is happening.

Similarly, city and county elected officials will be undertaking reviews of their financial priorities over the next year. Despite the overall financial, physical, and emotional strain the COVID pandemic has delivered over two years now, it might appear unrealistic to use the upcoming budget deliberations at all levels of government to assess how to invest in strengthening emergency management systems. It’s not. That assessment should begin with an open-ended, no-fault invitation to emergency management leadership to detail their gaps, their wish lists and stress the benefits of making their respective jurisdictions better prepared for whatever comes next. Tired, or not, ready, or not, another crisis is just around the corner, and assessing where gaps can be closed now will save grief later.

Elected officials might benefit from an annual “no-fault” exchange with their emergency managers about resources they lack and what they foresee as the next set of challenges, irrespective of current budget limitations. And “electeds” should do more listening than talking!

Wherever a jurisdiction’s vulnerabilities can be identified, decision-makers must be clear-eyed about the potential solutions – it cannot hurt to ask their emergency managers what they need before they need it.