Emergency Management: Tough to Do, Tougher to  Teach

by Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

During the Great Depression, a young Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) interviewed for a teaching position in Texas. During his interview, when asked, “Is the world flat or round” – he replied, “I can teach it either way!” He was hired.

It’s not easy for those that teach emergency management in the 21st Century. The integration of the four primary elements of emergency management – mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery already are tough but critical concepts for people immersed in day-to-day issues of government (or life) to absorb. Yet emergency managers must be able to convey to their colleagues the importance of looking beyond their daily issues and to understand and prepare for events that could turn their respective jurisdictions upside down – in a heartbeat. Merely understanding how those four elements make communities safer is insufficient. And there are very current “hot” topics for which there are no easy answers, and perhaps not even a consensus in terms of right and wrong. But first these must be analyzed and understood in terms of their roots in our nation’s history.

Of course, emergency management education must address requirements and mechanics of routine functions. There is also an “arts and crafts” aspect of the job, which may include navigating around the tendencies of elected and senior appointed officials to ignore uncomfortable pending problems. Government “arts and crafts “ segments, may include considering one’s options when asked, directed, or cajoled to do something that is probably wrong or at least ill-advised, or how to “make do” when well-founded recommendations appear to have fallen on deaf ears are dynamics that frequently assert themselves. Emergency managers should be prepared to recognize these situations.

Exploration of historical forces impacting current events is another inescapable responsibility of educators. Students must be instructed in the origins and the motivations of extremist forces active within our country. Why? Because emergency managers must be equipped to recognize and prepare to contend with ongoing threats to the social order, many of which are rooted in our nation’s history. Examples abound of said threats emanating from political movements, left and right, but taking the “neutral” (safe) path by ignoring or indulging “false equivalencies” with respect to current challenges emanating from the socio-political arena, as in suggesting that recent violent acts against the government have been equally undertaken by both sides is as lame an approach as LBJ’s self-serving response to that impertinent, ridiculous interview question.

Principles of recovery and response, preparedness, and mitigation, after action reports, improvement action plan development, incident command, exercise development are important features of an emergency manager’s education, but these alone are insufficient today. Avoiding predictably contentious, and a tad unpleasant, and perhaps inconclusive classroom debates won’t insulate students from these same issues once they are on the job, nor will it prepare them to confront them. There can be no bargaining with hard truths, as LBJ was disposed to do, and some things cannot be taught “both ways.”

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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.

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