by Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Tactics are knowing what to do when there is something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.” Savielly Tartakower (professional chess player).

While I lacked the patience or even the inclination to play chess, Tartakower’s observation struck a responsive chord when I stumbled upon it recently. Over the course of my career, I attended – mostly through compulsion – many formal strategic planning sessions/exercises/workshops. Now, they were not all bad, but most resembled exercises in “group write,” with attendees debating alternate phrasings of the “plan’s mandated objectives,” probably just to pass the time. Nevertheless, I typically went along, endured, and even participated as best I could, even though I often felt those hours constituted a part of my life that was lost forever!

The National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), of which I remain a proud member and Past President, had a practice of reviewing and, if necessary, revising its strategic plan almost every year. Now, I accept that it is important to take stock of an organization’s direction every so often. Strategic planning has its place. Still, focusing on long-term strategic goals should not draw attention from critical issues requiring immediate attention.

In the first of my nearly two years as NEMA president (Iowa’s new governor foolishly dismissed our President three months into his tenure), NEMA’s Executive Board met in Lexington, Kentucky – a standard agenda item was an annual review of our Association’s Strategic Plan. Now, I might have “gone with the flow” once again – except for an emerging threat in Congress that year (2011) to both the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) and the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP). EMPG, based on a 50/50 state and federal match, is the life’s blood of local and state emergency management; without it, emergency management would be doomed as a discipline. HSGP (allegedly) funds 100% of the nation’s homeland security effort (“allegedly” because there has never been a full accounting of the local and state dollars expended in support of homeland security!). The tension around federal funding levels for state and local government mounts every time federal budgets are under stress.

In 2011-12 federal grants were stressed. I waived the strategic plan portion of NEMA’s Board agenda, saying we needed to do tactical planning to save EMPG and counter misinformation circulating in Congress – unchallenged, and worse yet, reinforced by FEMA officials – that the HSGP funds doled out to states and locals were not spent quickly enough. I said we needed to have a proactive, tactical discussion. And we did.

I assured my colleagues that strategic planning would return – my successor would obviously be more cerebral – he is/was (!) – And therefore would return to addressing the Association’s strategic imperatives. Responding to the pressing need to do something rather than produce another iteration of long-term aspirations, the tactics we employed “checked” Congress’s potentially destructive programmatic reductions. EMPG survived; the “bad rap” on HSGP spending was countered, effectively, with facts. “Tactics” had prevailed, this once!

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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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