Who Needs to be Educated About Emergency Management? Who doesn’t?

By Jim Mullen

Emergency managers often lack the political clout, or even the bureaucratic standing, to have much of an impact on policy decisions societies make. We’re there to try to mitigate, within our means, prepare the community and ourselves to the extent limited funds allow, coordinate a multi-disciplinary response, and manage (steer?) the process of recovery. And then we assess our performance and start over. Far too often, we fail to educate the public that mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery are their responsibilities too.

For years, emergency managers landed in their roles by accident or happenstance following careers in the military, or fire and police service. Others, mostly generalists from other government positions, found themselves thrust into positions of responsibility where their only “preparation” was performing competently in other positions. Striving for a “one size fits all” emergency management pathway places undue limits on the growth and blossoming of the discipline. After all, we are not the Pipefitters Union, renowned for how difficult it is to make it into the ranks of pipefitters (for them that’s probably necessary!).

Not infrequently articles, commentaries, and opinion pieces on various platforms trumpet the necessity of training the “next wave” of emergency managers. The demands for more structured education and training have intensified. Some have suggested that central sites, like the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) are the best places for the principles of emergency management to be instilled in prospective candidates. Others have pointed to academic programs, longing for a standardized set of course and training regimes that would provide for commonality of knowledge and approach. None of these paths, or even all taken together, are bad ideas.

I have sometimes lamented this fixation on “credentials”. During 30 years working in close quarters with emergency management staff, I encountered many different persons with a variety of skill sets, experiences, and motivations. That breadth of experience is a strength of emergency management.  For emergency managers, confronting a seemingly endless and evermore intense series of disasters, it seems the broadest possible array of skill sets and experiences is necessary. But we should remember that the public we serve is also facing that same seemingly endless series of disasters, affecting their respective professions and personal circumstances in profound ways.

One reason why there are fewer opportunities for that “next wave” of emergency managers is the failure on our part to educate the public, writ large, of the importance of building capacity to “mitigate, prepare, respond to, and recover from” among all citizens. Is it possible that we have missed our most important audience in our educational outreach? And when we have reached out beyond government circles, have we been communicating how businesses can become more resilient by attracting employees whose attributes include knowledge about basic emergency management?

Are we too narrowly focusing on preparing students for a career in emergency management, or are we preparing students and trainees to take emergency management principles into whatever workplace they enter? When that proverbial door to government is not opened for our graduates and certificate holders, how can they leverage what they have learned from us in a perhaps unrelated job altogether?

Years ago, when the HSEM Center of Excellence was being critiqued because of a concern that there were so few jobs in the discipline In Washington State (a really narrow perspective) to “justify” the Center’s continued existence, it struck me that emergency managers  would consider it a welcome change  to not have to explain EVERYTHING to EVERYBODY about what emergency management can and cannot do before, during and especially in the aftermath of a disaster!

I am suggesting that a Homeland Security /Emergency Management Center must not train students only for positions in formal public safety positions. What organization would not benefit from having emergency and risk management expertise among the skills sets of its personnel? What neighborhood would be better off if they did not actively help each other during a disaster, with at least a rudimentary understanding of the challenges the government faces in easing suffering and restoring services? Outreach from the “center of excellence” must target individuals, families, the media, private industry and government with its emergency management and homeland security message. The circle’s core is just fine; but just maybe we need to extend education to the outer ring.

The potential upside is staggering. Imagine this: before an event there exists an emerging consensus about mitigation measures to minimize potential negative consequences, and acceptance of preparedness measures to withstand a disruptive event. What if response efforts could be rendered less difficult because mitigation and preparedness had occurred, thus  recovery was less challenging because fewer crucial services and structures were damaged? And a flow of more knowledgeable people continuing to emerge from higher education reinforcing those concepts.

Who needs to be educated about emergency management principles? The better question might be who doesn’t? The public is smart enough to understand that. The question is – are we smart enough to teach them?

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