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Characteristics of Effective Emergency Managers (Part 2)

How many characteristics does it take to define an effective emergency manager? A recent research paper suggests the addition of seven more. But are we just compensating for the lack of a true competency framework?

In my last blog I reviewed nine common characteristics of emergency managers found in a survey of the current research literature by researchers Jenna Tyler and Abdul-Akeem Sadiq. These characteristics are technical and substantive knowledge, professionalism, interpersonal relations, management, leadership, legal and ethical behavior, problem solving, communication, and cultural and environmental awareness. While these characteristics seem comprehensive, in their paper, The Essential Skill Set of a Resilient Emergency Management, recently published in the Journal of Emergency Management, Tyler and Sadiq argue that there are other characteristics that have received less attention. They offer an even more comprehensive list based on the concept of a “resilient emergency manager”.

Tyler and Sadiq acknowledge that “resilience” is a term with many definitions and attributes. However, there is agreement on the goal of resilience: Increased resilience better positions a community to deal with disaster. They extend this concept to individual emergency managers: The more resilient the emergency manager, the better prepared they are to cope with disaster. Unfortunately, they define a resilient emergency manager as one who has the ability to perform the skills that Tyler and Sadiq attribute to a resilient emergency manager rather than offering a more detailed definition.

According to Tyler and Sadiq, a resilient emergency manager should be able to:

  1. Adapt to changing conditions
  2. Make agile decisions
  3. Function interoperably
  4. Mobilize resources
  5. Scale programs, policies, and procedures
  6. Develop robust collaborative networks
  7. Build redundant emergency management systems
While I cannot disagree with the importance of the skill sets identified by Tyler and Sadiq, I’m not sure what they add to our understanding of the skills and competencies required of an emergency manager. From my perspective, the skills called for by Tyler and Sadiq are already contained within the characteristics they identified in their review of existing research. For example, agile decision-making and adaptability would seem to be included in leadership while mobilizing resources and program administration is part of management. This suggests that we are merely slicing the apple thinner and are no closer to agreeing on what constitutes the essential skill set for an emergency manager.

It seems to me that the real issue is that we still lack a competency framework that defines the role of emergency managers. Lacking such a definition, researchers are at a distinct disadvantage when trying to identify essential characteristics and required skills and competencies. Emergency management is not monolithic; emergency managers are called on to fulfill many different positions at varying levels, making defining a single set of characteristics applicable to all extremely difficult.

I believe the value of Tyler and Sadiq’s paper lies in its refinement of existing characteristics rather than as an addition to them as Tyler and Sadiq suggest. I certainly agree with their recommendation that emergency management education programs focus on essential skills as much as they do on emergency management topics. However, until we fully define the roles of emergency managers with an accepted competency framework, I’m afraid we’re doomed to keep arguing over endless lists of skills and competencies.

Lucien Canton is a management consultant specializing in helping managers lead better in crisis. He has been in turn a professional soldier, a private security manager, and an emergency manager before becoming a consultant.