“Whither Emergency Management?”

Emergency Management, Once Removed
By Jim Mullen

Prompted by a series of racially charged incidents involving the use of force by police, the Seattle City Council is intent on reducing or “redirecting” SPD’s budget resources. Among the Mayor’s counter – proposals is the transfer of the all-civilian Office of Emergency Management OEM “somewhere” outside of SPD’s budgetary control. Clearly there are many important issues under review: but where should OEM go?

Responsibility for organizational placement of the emergency management function rests with jurisdictions’ elected officials. Yet most elected officials in most jurisdictions only take “notice” of emergency management during a crisis.

As Director of Seattle’s OEM from 1992-2004, I can attest that OEM’s organizational placement in the Seattle Police Department (SPD) was little more than an afterthought. By 1992, OEM was lodged in the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), its initial assignment under the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) having proven a miserable failure.

After a 1996-7 budget crisis “reorganized” DAS out of existence, a return to SFD was a non – starter:  to quote the -then Fire Chief: “we don’t understand you; you will never be our priority.” Thus, OEM landed in the Seattle Police Department by default. While “tolerated” (barely) within SPD in crises (windstorms, landslides, earthquakes, civil disturbances) requiring our involvement, acceptance of our presence was welcomed, albeit grudgingly.

Asked where emergency management in Seattle  should reside in the City bureaucracy, I carefully responded “if you have access to the tools and resources to be effective, your location doesn’t matter; without that access it also doesn’t matter.“ Admittedly, that self-preservative response (my position was “exempt”) begged the question.

Placement of a civilian-managed emergency management function within a department comprised of mostly sworn personnel risks diminishing an important, and distinctive, public safety mission. When General Fund cuts are required the “sworn” mission (understandably and predictably) takes precedence within fire, police, or military agencies. Even in stable budget cycles, “second – tier” status has the added impact of limiting necessary growth within the emergency management team to meet emerging challenges.

During my tenure (2004-13) as Washington State’s Director of Emergency Management, within the State’s Military Department, the 100% civilian EMD routinely bore the brunt of mandated General Fund reductions for the Military Department. While clearly “second tier” within the Military Department when budget reductions were mandated, EMD’s placement was at least consistent with the Adjutant General’s (Director of Military Department) legal emergency management responsibilities.

From the comparative safety of semi – retirement, here is my preference:  ideally, the emergency management director should be appointed by the Executive, confirmed by the jurisdiction’s legislative body. The director’s term of service should not coincide with the appointing executive’s term of office. A professional search process should alleviate political patronage concerns and would strengthen the status of the appointee.

Emergency management’s placement must never be a political bargaining chip in any jurisdiction. Only “noticing” emergency management during a disaster is governmental malpractice; establishing the appropriate environment to maintain and strengthen jurisdictional readiness between disasters should be a priority for decision-makers.

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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.