Musings on the Illusion of Certainty

Emergency Management Once Removed

May 2023

By Jim Mullen

“The great deception of life is to assume that what is so today will be so tomorrow” (former Senator Bill Bradley, writing in ”Time Past, Time Present).

Bill Bradley was a US Senator, a Rhodes Scholar, a basketball star as a collegian (Princeton) and professionally (New York Knicks). Perhaps my modest stint as a college basketball player made me more attentive to such an individual’s viewpoint (it certainly was not because of a scholarly connection!).

Change is natural. When I joined Seattle city government in 1975, the “thought leaders” that ruled the City’s Executive Office of Policy Planning initially had firm ideas about the city’s parks system; these young, mostly Ivy League – educated transplants were advocates of the city’s parks as “contemplative areas” – so ballfields and swing sets were discouraged as new parks were developed.

What changed? They got married, had kids and suddenly ballfields, swing sets and noisy play areas were more desirable!

Emergency managers have seen changes in their own midst over the years: once  comprised of mid-career folks from related professions (military, law enforcement, fire service) and sometimes just individuals from other professions cast into emergency management roles by happenstance, now  colleges and universities and professional associations offer a menu of academic degrees and professional certifications to educate and train the upcoming generations.

When I became Seattle’s Director in 1992, emergency management seemed essentially a reactive discipline, mobilized only during a crisis or its immediate aftermath. Mitigation was discounted as an obstacle to economic development.  Community preparedness was confined to periodic messaging about “preparing” – guidance on how best to minimize the impacts of a disruptive event was often complex and overwhelming. Response was the most exercised function, but was limited to those professions (fire, police) that traditionally handled issues on scene. Recovery, virtually ignored in disaster exercises, was often elusive post disaster – outside resources were frequently too slow to arrive, and were too quick to depart before a complete “recovery” was achieved. And when I raised a question about possible disruptions to the national supply chain at national conferences in the early 2000s, citing our national economic dependencies, several of my colleagues responded that such a broken supply chain scenario was very unlikely.

All that has changed. Proactive mitigation initiatives and aggressive outreach to prepare the community now are recognized as vital. The “response” definition has expanded to include a variety of actors from various professions, all of whom have a role in alleviating physical and economic suffering and damage. Recovery systems are receiving more, if belated, attention. And COVID-19 brought the significance of an interrupted supply chain home to anyone paying attention.

Senator Bradley was on to something. Today’s realities may not be tomorrow’s. A pandemic and an insurrection took many by surprise, but the lesson from those events is that our disaster response systems must be flexible enough to enable us to prepare to pivot promptly to a new reality – always.

Subscribe to the Blog Feed
HINT: The RSS feed works in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari but a free extension is needed if browsing in Google Chrome.

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.

Information on this Blog is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not engaged in rendering professional advice or services. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with an professional adviser. Opinions expressed here represent the viewpoints of individuals authoring the blog and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Center of Excellence.