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Disaster Zone Column: Too Important to Leave to the Professionals

The pandemic created some negative learning experiences.

Yes, the pandemic is almost three years old. Feb. 27 here in the United States was a day of reckoning as the number of cases began to climb.

My February “Disaster Zone” column for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) is below. The initial response to the pandemic was confusing at best in most places here in the United States. Previous flu pandemics might have helped a bit, but there were twists and turns in this event that caused odd things to happen. One of those was policy people inserting themselves into operational matters. That happened by them coming to work “operational issues” out in an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), or taking over the operational coordination completely with the EOC being sidelined. Or, in one big-city case, setting up a parallel organization responding to the pandemic, uncoordinated with the normal emergency management and EOC operations.

The sad thing is that in most of these cases, people worked their butts off and thought that what they did “was the way it should be done.” They will take that learning with them into the future and it may resurrect itself in some future disaster — wherever they are in the future. Time to “right the ship” as best we can if those things happened where you are.

See my recent blog post and video on what roles policy folks should play. It could be helpful to you.

IAEMDisaster Zone” column, February 2023
Too Important to Leave to the Professionals

Yes, believe it or not, we have reach the three year mark for the COVID 19 Pandemic. It seems eons ago that we started the pandemic odyssey. There were plenty of twists and turns along the way—few of which we envisioned happening to the emergency management community. What did happen in many jurisdictions was that elected officials and senior appointees decided that this event was too important to leave to the professionals.

It did not start out that way…but at some point early in the pandemic as political leaders took the step of shutting down schools, sending government workers home or taking other policy level step concerning social distancing, the policy level of governments became operationalized to the point, in some cases, of becoming “operations” for the response to the pandemic.

Never say never and never say always or everywhere. Admittedly my viewpoint I’m sharing here was not formed by a national survey, but from personally participating in three detailed pandemic reviews, closely following the national events and then many, many private conversations with local emergency managers and a number of state emergency management directors.

The larger the jurisdiction, there was more likelihood of elected officials inserting them into operational matters, or simply taking over the operational response from emergency management and public health. I found that the smaller counties fared better in working with their elected officials. Maybe the fact that most smaller counties have only five and sometimes only three county commissioners. Fewer hands mucking about in the stew.

Certainly the politization of the COVID response created havoc with pubic information and public health’s ability to have everyone “stay on message.” That went out the window very quickly because of national level “activity” on the topic of COVID and how to protect or treat a person experiencing symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had two precipitating events that basically ended up neutering them for two full years. One was the Deputy Director getting out early and warning that this could really be a serious pandemic. It was not what the Presidential Administration wanted as the message and the CDC was muzzled quickly. Then there was the debacle with the initial test kits not working and then not allowing other medically competent organizations to develop their own. Another nail in their coffin.

I don’t have all the answers on this, but because the requirements for social distancing required policy level action/decisions, it appears to have sucked them into operational decision making. In some cases emergency management organizations were sidelined completely, or there were two competing efforts that were ongoing.

I do think that Governors and big city Mayors had a desire to show that “they were in charge and directing the response.” Again, they did not have the information or training that allowed them to discern when they crossed the line into operations.

Maybe, what we do as emergency managers is too fuzzy for them. In most, if not all organizations, capturing the elected official and doing what I call “putting the bell on the cat” is difficult to accomplish. Trust me—I’ve been there. There are some big political cats that can roam around and they don’t want to be corralled into just policy decision making when they would rather be out putting traffic cones on the street to show that they are in charge.

I do think that a great deal of “negative learning” happened as these actions evolved and now a generation of elected leaders and the senior policy people who serve them think, “This is how it is done!”

More Incident Command System (ICS) training is not the solution. Perhaps attacking the topic obliquely is the solution—not head on. Take different scenarios, not the pandemic and have discussion points and policy conversations about what is the role of policy people and how they can use emergency management and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to implement what they want to be accomplished. We will need to nudge them on this topic, not hit them over the head.


by Eric E. Holdeman, senior fellow, Emergency Management magazine
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.