Game-Changing Trends Beg Evolution of Emergency Management Planning

Emergency management will change as the population shifts, funding streams change and threats like terrorism evolve.

by / April 20, 2011

Emergency management can be a reactive field, responding to crises and planning for events similar to those that have already happened. But the field will change as the population shifts, funding streams change and threats like terrorism evolve.

“The world is changing,” said Dave Kaufman, director of FEMA’s Office of Policy and Program Analysis. “None of us has to look very far to see evidence of the changes in the world around us.”

FEMA recently spearheaded the Strategic Foresight Initiative, in which the agency used its expertise and that of others in the emergency management community to “launch an exploration of how the world is changing and what it might portend for emergency management,” Kaufman said. “Historically the field of emergency management has not always done a good job of looking ahead and trying to understand the ways those changes are taking place, and what the implications are.”

The initiative identified a number of factors that are driving change in the field. Three key issues are: changing demographics, an aging population and the aging of the country’s infrastructure. Even more important, these factors interact with one another, making it even more complicated to anticipate how emergency managers must adapt.

Changing Demographics

The United States’ population is growing, but the growth isn’t evenly spread across regions. Recent census data show the U.S. population shifting toward the South and West — areas that are vulnerable to hurricanes and earthquakes.

In Florida, for example, a majority of residents live near the coast. The natural beauty and recreational opportunities understandably attract people — but there’s a downside.

“Where there’s water, there’s danger,” said Lee Clarke, a sociology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Rivers flood. If you move to the ocean, there’s a risk of tsunami or hurricane.”

This trend suggests that emergency managers will need to be able to feed, shelter and in some cases evacuate increasingly larger groups of people in areas that are prone to wide-scale natural disasters.

Other changes in the population also could affect emergency planning. If a particular region sees strong growth in its non-English-speaking population, emergency managers may need to change their communication plans to ensure that everyone understands what’s happening in a disaster, said Tim Sevison, deputy director of planning and preparedness for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Some populations may trust government less overall, he added, which could require a different communication strategy. And although TV and radio have been effective for notifying people about emergencies, it could turn out that the younger part of the population would be likelier to respond to a text message.

Aging Population

One demographic change that stands out is the aging of the population. People ages 65 and older composed about 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2006. By 2030, this group is expected to make up about 19 percent of the population. This growth will affect the demand for emergency services and the supply of volunteers who provide these services.

An older population could need more help and a different type of help in an emergency, said Amy Donahue, head of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut. “The retired or geriatric population has a very different set of needs,” she said.

There will likely be more people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In a disaster, these people will need more help evacuating than younger residents. Some may need supplies of medication — and some could even be on respirators.

“When we identify shelter and evacuation needs, how are we going to take care of the people
who have special needs, who have disabilities?” asked Rick Cox, chairman of the board of directors of the International Association of Emergency Managers. 

Donahue said city planners should keep these issues in mind as they build new facilities to house, for example, Alzheimer’s disease patients. In some cases, those approving the projects “haven’t thought about whether the fire or [emergency medical] service can handle that burden, or the more complex issues like the evacuation of special needs populations.”

There’s another way in which an aging population will affect emergency management.

“The first responders are not the people in uniforms,” Clarke said. In the aftermath of an earthquake or other sudden disaster, ordinary people usually help those around them. But the aging of the population could mean more people who need help and fewer who can assist.

“How do you plan for increased numbers of people who are not as well equipped as a 30-year-old to look after themselves and others?” Clarke said.

Beyond the aftermath of a catastrophe, many emergency management plans include volunteers. “In a state like ours, the overwhelming majority of non-law enforcement emergency services are [provided by] volunteers,” Sevison said.

But retirees are less likely to be able to be volunteer firefighters, for example. 

Many areas depend heavily on volunteers for day-to-day emergency response and even more during disasters, Donahue said. “We could not pay for the service that we get,” she said. “But if the volunteer work force is aging, retiring and moving, where is that work force to offer those services?”

This is the positive side of the growing number of retirees: a huge group of experienced, skilled people who may be willing to volunteer. “How can we tap into this increased pool of people who may be looking for something to do?” asked Brian Scully, a strategic planning analyst in FEMA’s Strategic Planning and Analysis Division.

Aging Infrastructure

The population isn’t the only thing that’s aging. The United States’ infrastructure is as well. Bridges, railroads, highways, dams, the electrical grid — are all areas that have “an increased vulnerability that can take a regular disaster and make it more catastrophic,” Scully said.

“We have been, even during times of economic prosperity, fairly myopic about maintaining our infrastructure,” said Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant with Carnegie Mellon

University at its Silicon Valley, Calif., campus. “We like to build new things. Maintaining old things is less exciting and less politically gratifying.”

The current economic problems make it even more difficult to do the maintenance that could prevent an infrastructure catastrophe such as a bridge collapse or gas pipeline explosion — and that’s an area where emergency managers typically have little control.

“All we can do is go to our fellow agencies to ask if they are inspecting,” said David

Maxwell, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and past president of the National Emergency Management Association. “Emergency management is not regulatory in nature.”

Then, of course, emergency managers plan for the worst-case scenario. “If that bridge is not there, then how do we evacuate?” Cox said. “What is our plan if the utility system fails at the time when it’s most needed?”

However, Scully sees an opportunity to make the next generation of infrastructure even better able to withstand a catastrophe. “[At] the end of its natural life cycle, can we invest to make it more resilient, more efficient in the future?”

Other Factors

Changing demographics and aging population and infrastructure are not the only factors that could force emergency management to change.

Another is the budget climate — or as Cox put it, “the expectation versus what the community can afford.” It’s one thing to identify all the parts of the infrastructure that need to be replaced, but that doesn’t mean the money will be there to fix them or to ensure a robust response to a disaster.

“Doing more with less — that’s great if you can do it,” Cox said. “But unfortunately there are certain things that require people to do them.” At some point, the public’s expectations for emergency management may run up against the realities of constrained resources.

If government funding continues to shrink, some emergency services could be privatized. “That would be a fairly significant change,” Scully said.

On the other hand, continued budgetary pressures on state and local governments could force the federal government to assume a larger role.

Changes in communications and other technology have already caused significant changes in emergency management. “We did not have the tools yesterday that we do today,” Cox said. “Technology has really helped support emergency managers do their jobs today.”

It also requires an increased level of preparedness for when that new technology fails. “Technology is great. We use it, we embrace it, and we build redundancies to keep it from failing,” Cox said. “But if it does fail, then we’ll have problems if we are dependent on something and we don’t have a backup plan.”

And sometimes the efficiencies that technology allows come at a price. For example, a better ability to track inventory has allowed government agencies, like businesses, to order supplies as they are needed, rather than in big batches. But when a disaster disrupts the supply chain, the lack of extra supplies can be a problem.

“There are strong near-term incentives to squeeze the fat out of our inventory,” Botterell said. But the risks of doing so can put emergency managers in an awkward spot. “We wind up having to argue that some degree of inefficiency in all of our systems is a good thing, and there’s not a strong constituency for that point of view,” he said.

Improvements in communications have also gotten the public accustomed to having access to information in real time. This puts more pressure on decision-makers to act quickly and transparently, Scully said. However, it also gives government more options in terms of crowd-sourcing information.

Finally, the threats are constantly evolving. International terrorism wasn’t as prominent a threat before 9/11, but after the attacks it took center stage. It’s not clear how large a role it will play in the future.

“Just about every one of these drivers is a game-changing trend,” Scully said.


More crucial than any one factor, however, is the way these drivers of change interact with one another.

“We have in some places infrastructure already under stress, and people moving to those areas and aging at the same time,” FEMA’s Kaufman said.

A growing population can increase stress on the infrastructure — and infrastructure failures can complicate evacuation plans in case of disaster. “The ability to compound the disasters by continually adding population seems to be more focused on the earthquake-prone and hurricane-prone areas,” Sevison said.

There also are monetary implications: A growing elderly population can strain government budgets through pension payments and increased demand for services. “How does all that play into the amount of resources available for emergency management?” Scully asked.

The Future of Emergency Management

So how will emergency management change, given this complicated vision of the future?

One change that’s already under way but that many expect to continue is increased coordination and cooperation among local governments and other emergency planners, as well as among different levels of government.

This change was accelerated by the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, emergency management was heavily focused on helping law enforcement try to prevent the next attack, which brought increased emphasis on regional cooperation.

“We couldn’t face the post-9/11 threats,” Sevison said. “We had to look at cost sharing and resource sharing.”

Still, that doesn’t make local planning obsolete.

“Fundamentally disasters are local events,” Clarke said. “That means that planning and execution of disaster plans need to happen at the local level.”

Another certainty about the future is uncertainty. Even a trend as seemingly unstoppable as the aging of the population comes with caveats.

“The advancement of life-altering medications and treatments could significantly increase not only life spans, but the quality of life as we age as well,” Scully said. This could mean that the predictions of large numbers of nursing home residents needing help in an evacuation do not come to pass.

Because of all the uncertainties, one thing is clear: Emergency managers will need to prepare for multiple disasters and the multiple effects of those disasters.

“Plan A is: We’ll try to do it this way,” Cox said. “Then plan B and plan C. A good emergency manager has got somebody working on plan D.”

Margaret Steen Contributing Writer

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

Platforms & Programs