The Blame Game

Emergency Management Once Removed

January 16, 2023

By Jim Mullen

Major disasters occur all the time, usually resulting in inquiries about the degree of advance warning, or the level of preparation of authorities for a worst-case scenario.  “Blame” most often accompanies catastrophic events when perceptions are that readiness or critical decision-making was deficient.  In the subsequent rush to judgment, the “blame” is frequently misplaced, or at least not shared proportionately.

Emergency managers can relate; they are often the first to be offered up for criticism when things go wrong.

A friend with considerable expertise in the public relations/information arena argues we should de-emphasize the ritualistic “blaming” process and construct the most insightful forward-thinking review of existing regulations, procedures, and resource development that we can, in anticipation of a future crisis. He has a point.

Evaluation of decisions made under duress, often with limited or conflicting information available, requires some emotional distance from the actual event for perspective. Dispassionate after-action reviews work best; those  who experienced the last crisis may just be best positioned to articulate and correct system flaws (if they aren’t preemptively offered as sacrificial lambs!). My friend cited recent disasters in California and Hawaii as examples of a rush to judgment by media  and politicians, (and survivors, whose losses and grief exempt them from any criticism).

An example from not so “way-back”: 2005’s botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina brought the wrath of the nation down on FEMA. Lost in the vilification of dedicated career disaster responders: unconscionable pre-Katrina behavior of FEMA’s “adoptive parent” agency – the Department of Homeland Security, which in the preceding months had systematically gutted FEMA’s natural disaster response capability while emphasizing terrorism -related preparedness, emerged unscathed.

Emergency managers are grownups, willing to accept accountability, but too often the peremptory rush to blame someone falls unfairly on them, serving to obscure the culpability of those above them for failure to provide the proper environment and resources for successful crisis management.

“Unforeseen” or “unprecedented” events are difficult enough to manage, not to mention what challenging events we can anticipate (we just don’t know where they will occur, or when). Natural disasters will  continue to bedevil our planet; if that were not enough, speculation that January 6, 2021, was merely a dress rehearsal for “new , more sophisticated” attacks on democratic government should  stimulate preparations not only in the Capitol Region but throughout the nation, and those measures should include a wide swath of government agencies. Emergency management’s plate, already overflowing, at least will have company if these challenges are to be met.

A rocky road awaits us in 2024 from both human and natural forces. The ”blame game” won’t absolve anyone who fails to prepare for it.

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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.

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.