The Emergency Manager’s Dilemma: Should You Take Your BlackBerry on Vacation?

Since disasters don’t take holidays, should you disconnect during time off?

by Eric Holdeman / July 28, 2010
Photo: Badsey's Photography. CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

You’re packing for vacation and your spouse turns to you and says, “You’re not taking your BlackBerry with you — are you?” How should you respond?

I can give you the “by the book” guidance on vacations. Vacations are meant to be times of renewal. The expert’s advice is to disconnect from work and find an activity or form of relaxation that you enjoy. It might be a service project associated with your volunteer organization, or just sitting on a beach watching the waves come in while you read a book. Sounds heavenly — right? 

The other recommendation is that you take at least two consecutive weeks of vacation. The first week is to decompress from work and the second week lets you actually relax. The goal is for you to return to work relaxed, refreshed, ambitious, creative and energized.

Enter the emergency manager’s dilemma: Disasters don’t take a holiday. In fact, I’ve always called Thanksgiving and Christmas “disaster magnets.” It’s rare that emergencies happen on a weekday during normal work hours. Disasters wait for weekends and the middle of the night to pop into your life and ruin a good sleep or time with the family.

Directors of emergency management programs carry a special burden. I believe that you can delegate authority for people to carry out the organization’s missions, but like any elected official, the buck must stop somewhere. As emergency managers, you can’t delegate responsibility for what happens — when you’re there or on vacation, you’re responsible for what gets done or is left undone. 

The other reality is that as the director, you’re expected to be there when disaster strikes. If you’re on vacation and a disaster occurs — get home as fast as you can. When there’s a disaster in progress, perhaps even “winding down,” do not leave town for a planned vacation. The family may not like it, but tending the home fires at the emergency operations center will keep you employed. Leaving town sends the wrong message to your boss, elected officials, the media and the public. This is what we do as emergency managers — and you must be there to do it. Monitoring events from afar won’t cut it. 

Given the above, what do you do when vacation time comes knocking on your door? Do you disconnect, leave town and all your cares and worries behind, or stay plugged in electronically? There are three possibilities for staying plugged in:

  1. Monitor e-mail so you can, at a minimum, know if a disaster or significant emergency is happening that might need your attention.
  2. You go beyond that to monitor e-mail traffic so you’re abreast of projects and their progress so that when you return to work, you don’t have such a steep mountain of e-mail to read and respond to?
  3. You are actively plugged into the network and responding to e-mails as though you are at work. People don’t know that you aren’t in the office, but “on vacation.”

I prefer to stay connected and actively monitor e-mail traffic so that junk e-mails are tossed and I’m up to speed on what’s transpiring while I’m gone.

Another alternative, and a solution to the “be connected or disconnect” dilemma, is to vacation someplace exotic where there isn’t any cell phone reception and or free Wi-Fi at the hotel. Then the choice becomes easier. You’ll have to trust those tending the farm and accept the fruits of their labor when you walk through the door.

If nothing else, it will allow you to honestly say, “Earthquake? What earthquake?”


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