Managing Crisis

Emergency Managers Need To Understand Their True Role

Identifying with tasks rather than your true role leads to failure

by Lucien G. Canton / October 11, 2013

One of the common misconceptions I find is confusing the emergency manager's role with the function of an emergency management program. This misconception has been with us for some time and has been reinforced by its appearance in many documents and books. It has also contributed to our focus on response at the expense of other emergency management strategies

As near as I can tell, this misconception started with a misinterpretation of material in Tom Drabek and Gerald Hofner's excellent 1991 book Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government (A new version was published in 2007 by Bill Waugh and Kathleen Tierney). The book identifies a number of emergency management functions that should be performed by governments (e.g. warning, evacuation, sheltering) and is clear about these being collective rather than discrete tasks. That is, they are the responsibility of the government and not a single individual. Unfortunately, FEMA subcourses and subsequent publications identified these functions as those of the emergency manager.

Why is this a bad thing? First, it misses the point of what emergency managers really do. Each of the common functions ascribed to emergency managers are actually performed by someone else. For example, evacuation is generally the responsibility of law enforcement agencies and sheltering is normally handled by human services departments with support from volunteer organizations. Emergency managers don't usually perform these functions; we make sure they get done.

Secondly, accepting responsibility for functions over which we have no control and have no direct resources sets us up for failure since we really can't perform all these functions alone. Essentially, it lets other agencies of the hook for response planning. This not consistent with our standards such as the Emergency Management Accreditation Program standard which espouse an enterprise-wide approach and ultimately is detrimental to the communities we serve.

Finally, identifying solely with these functions makes it really easy to appear redundant. If our sole mission is response planning and other agencies really do all the heavy lifting, why are we even necessary? Emergency management programs are chronically underfunded as it is. Do you really want to provide this type of ammunition to those seeking further cuts?

If we are to avoid this, we need to accept that our role as emergency managers is not to do the work but, as noted in the definition adopted in 2007 by most national emergency management organizations, "...to create the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters."