Why Emergency Managers Should Focus on Sustainability (Opinion)

Community sustainability should go hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability to mitigate the impacts of disaster.

by Charisma Williams / July 11, 2012
Image from Shutterstock Shutterstock.com

Green: it’s more than just a color, it’s a movement. Its integration into the field of emergency management should be no exception, and it would seem only logical that community sustainability should go hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability to mitigate the impacts of disaster. However, this does not seem to be the case. In the process of responding to disasters, emergency management professionals scarcely have the time to evaluate whether the life- and property-sustaining measures being undertaken are environmentally friendly. In the midst of massive efforts to clear debris from streets and roads in order to get citizens back in their homes, it is doubtful that many public works officials are consumed with the thought of, “I wonder how much of this rubble is recyclable.”

While sustainability may not be the foremost concern during a disaster, what about in between disasters? Does sustainability even have a place in the planning and mitigation phases of emergency management? If not, what is the reason? Is it that green measures present an alternative that is cost-prohibitive? Or could it be that sustainability simply has not been placed high on emergency managers’ lists of priorities? In 2008, BioCycle magazine reported increasing efforts and federal incentives to recycle vegetative debris, primarily wood, either by composting it or shipping it to Europe for use as biomass fuel.  Others saw a practical use for the debris right here at home. In its December 2009 newsletter, Behind the Hammer, the Mennonite Disaster Service highlighted the ways it reused debris, (or “reclaimed building materials” as it called it) to help reconstruct disaster-ravaged homes. These examples are a great start, but more can be done. What about materials being used during the response phase? How is the emergency management community greening its practices? Moreover, is there a market for sustainable emergency management products that will provide both efficiency and environmental friendliness?

We can count environmentally safe firefighting foam agents, continued development of the solar powered EOC, and the introduction of the cargo bike as an eco-friendly method of transporting supplies during disaster response as just a few small victories in the green movement. Still, we have so much further to go. It’s time to tap into the ingenuity of this new generation of emergency managers. It’s time to re-evaluate traditional response practices and see how they can be refined to satisfy not just the needs of the public, but of the planet as well. Sustainability should not be an afterthought — rather, it should be incorporated as a part of the emergency management community’s best practices. In order for this to occur, we must change the way we think about sustainability. We must view greening as less of a fad and more of a fact of life. It cannot be an afterthought, but rather must be incorporated into the way we think about every phase of emergency management.

It is no accident that this commentary presents more questions than answers. One person, or group of people, will not provide the definitive solution. Rather, it is with dialog and an open exchange of ideas that the emergency management community will bring sustainability to the forefront of our efforts to protect our respective communities, as well as provide eco-friendly assistance to these same communities in times of a crisis.

Charisma Williams is an emergency management analyst in Crystal City, Va. She is currently completing her M.S. in engineering management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.