Women in Leadership Profile: Frances Whalen
By Deb Moller
Every emergency manager knows that FEMA expects a “whole community” approach to preparedness. This guiding principle is sometimes seen as less critical than other doctrine. But it’s impossible to develop strong situational awareness, the foundation for effective planning and response, without engaging broad representation across a jurisdiction.
Most emergency managers struggle to operationalize this principle. They don’t have time for a lot of community events. They don’t have funding to make it possible. It’s a huge task. It’s hard to know where to start.
A colleague of Frances Whalen’s, familiar with this quandary, had a pat answer to the challenge of making community connected programs work.
He said, “Find the Frances’s’!”
Before Frances Whalen worked in the D.C. Mayor’s Office as a CERT Specialist, before she was an Emergency Operations and Information Specialist, before she’d ever considered working in emergency management, Frances was one of those people who weave together communities. She talked to everyone – at her daughter’s school, at church, in line at the grocery store. Every snippet of conversation built trust and expanded her own understanding of what the people in her area would need and could provide in case of a disaster.
If you find twenty Frances’s’ from across a community, you can build situational awareness that otherwise might require conversations with thousands of people. Because those Frances’s’ are unofficial repositories of the wisdom, concerns and experiences of their communities.
Frances started volunteering in high school. She never stopped. She volunteered as automatically as others brush their teeth – it was just something that was part of her life. Frances saw none of this as remarkable in any way.
The Frances’s never do. They’re just a little puzzled by all the people who never step up at all. But they’re too busy to worry about that.
The big change for Frances came when she saw an ad on the Washington D.C. Metro for a free Community Emergency Response Team training. Like a lot of Frances’s, Frances Whalen is always learning. She is eager to gain new skills, and willing to try new things. She didn’t expect the CERT training to change her life. But, like many people who come to emergency management in unusual ways, Frances found she loved everything about the training, By the end of the sessions, she knew that she’d found mission.
Frances reminds young people that the field of emergency management is vast – every organization needs help preparing for the unexpected. For people who don’t fit well into a military or police-type structure, there are many other options. She sees opportunities for a wide range of jobs for a more diverse range of people than is typical now.
Frances notes how important Linkedin has been in her work. No surprise, she volunteers as the Manager for Aspiring Emergency Managers Online Linkedin group, noting how heartening it is to see “people like me” in the field. She has also been encouraging by how often people not at all like her have reached out and offered help and encouragement. Another reminder that on good days and bad, we’re in it together.
So, if you have a nagging feeling that you could do better engaging the whole community, but aren’t sure what to do about it, remember you don’t have to talk to everybody. All you have to do is find the Frances’s’.