Preparedness & Recovery

Regional Emergency Management Requires Coalition Warfare Approach

Emergency management programs need regional relationships.

by Eric E. Holdeman / February 5, 2009

Developing a functioning emergency management program isn't easy. There's always more work to do than staff and other resources to do it. The turnover in personnel causes a never-ending requirement to build relationships and engage those people in planning, training and exercising.

But it's not enough to have a functioning program based on an individual organization. Building a disaster-resilient community requires teamwork with regional partners.

We all favor unilateral action. We're by nature selfish people who want to have our way. Somewhere in our development cycle, we learn to share toys and to play nice with others. Then we grow up, become emergency responders and emergency managers, and forget everything we learned in kindergarten.

Regional action can't be forced. When it's time to form a regional emergency management partnership for common action - be it planning, training or exercising - it's invitational by nature.

For others to join you in regional action, the other parties will have to see a benefit for them and their organization.

To have regional efforts, you'll need to build regional relationships. No one is going to partner with someone they don't trust. This relationship building effort may take years to accomplish. Some agencies and jurisdictions will immediately join your regional partnership, and others will hang back with a wait-and-see attitude before they join.

Just as in coalition warfare, you start by working with those nations/organizations that you know best, the ones you've established relationships with. They may not immediately leap at the chance to partner with you on a regional activity. They have their own goals and objectives to meet. Regional activities are on top of their normal workload, so it is not an easy sell.

"Shuttle diplomacy" will be needed to get the coalition put together in the first place and continue throughout. There's little that's static about our emergency management world. It will require you to communicate in person and in writing with all your partners as you seek to build the coalition. Getting out of your office and sitting in theirs is a great way to show your interest in joint action. Understanding their fears, concerns and needs is critical to putting together a lasting partnership.

You will have to give up unilateral control to achieve joint action. The larger the organization is, the harder this will be to accomplish. When you are "bigger," you're used to having it your way. Compromising doesn't come naturally to larger organizations. If you're the larger organization looking to work regionally with your partners, they'll be apprehensive. You'll have to conquer their fears and build trust through personal relationships.

More than 12 years ago, King and Pierce counties collectively took action to do regional mitigation projects as part of Project Impact. It started with both counties agreeing to combine separate grants they had received and managing the funds together. King County (my organization) - being twice the size of Pierce - was the feared entity.

To achieve a regional coalition, I compromised and gave our $300,000 in funds to Pierce County to be administered by their staff. We hired one coordinator who we shared, but he worked in the Pierce County office.

The partnership between King and Pierce counties grew over the years with other joint agreements and coordinated actions. It began as a neighborly relationship and grew into a strong bond that withstood some challenging moments. That's what coalition warfare and regional action is supposed to do.