IAEM Disaster Zone Column: Sisyphus Rock Rolling in Emergency Management

Are we continually making progress in our emergency management programs?

(Friday, February 19th)

At times it can be "two steps forward, one step back." Progress can be slow and steady and then when a significant number of people transition out of positions, it can be "one step forward, two steps backward." A favorite saying in the Holdeman household is, "It is what it is." I'm looking at the quote right now here in my office. There is another one outside on the garden fence.

Given that we will continue to have a transition of people in and out of emergency management positions, we need to make the most progress we can when the team is in place and functioning well. Then we hope, as departures occur, the rock of progress doesn't go in reverse, in the wrong direction, very far. 

IAEM Disaster Zone Column

February 2021

Sisyphus Rock Rolling in Emergency Management

Just so we are operating at a baseline of information, let’s define who Sisyphus was in Greek mythology. He was the guy who was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. Through the classical influence on modern culture, tasks that are both laborious and futile are therefore described as Sisyphean.

This later modern culture element is the one I’d like to highlight, not wanting to attribute “self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness” to anyone in our profession.

The goal we have for our communities is to make them more disaster resilient. We set out to do this by establishing plans to guide our disaster response, and then train our staffs and partners on disaster response protocols. Then we conduct various types of disaster exercises to practice how we will respond. To enable an effective response, we have a pre-established location to operate from that most organizations call the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). I prefer the term Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) since that better describes what happens at that location. At this point, we are rolling the emergency management program rock up the hill and making good progress.

In addition to the above we make efforts to reduce the impacts of a variety of disasters by establishing mitigation programs that are available to individuals or jurisdictions. To do this we have to have an active grant application effort to fund mitigation activities.  The rock is being rolled uphill and we feel good about what we are doing.

More planning is done. Specific hazard plans are needed, e.g. pandemic, continuity of operations (COOP), dam, etc.  While not accomplished everywhere, disaster recovery plans are starting to get done at the state and local levels. These require additional efforts beyond the standard disaster response planning. Now we are beginning to strain to make progress in rolling the EM rock uphill.

Beyond our own local jurisdiction we can plan with other organizations outside of our jurisdictional footprint. They may have been included in some of our other planning, but these regional plans are more difficult to accomplish because they involve many more players coming to the table and bringing different ideas and goals that they want to accomplish that might not be in synch with what you envision being done. To be successful these regional plans will take an extraordinary effort on the part of everyone. We have not reached the tippy top of the hill, but we are nearing it and everyone is dogged tired. We pause to rest and concentrate our efforts on just keeping the emergency management rock where it is.

While not preordained, the next thing that happens is that the people holding the emergency management rock in place start to peel off. Some retire, others take new jobs in other locations, and others just leave the profession. Worse yet, if any of these departures include what I’ll call “sparkplugs” who are the people who convene others to work together—their departures are much more significant. The rock at this point starts to roll in the “wrong direction”—downhill!

The more people departures there are both internal to your jurisdiction or in regional partners, the faster the rock rolls downhill. The first thing to go is the regional planning effort. It is natural that new staff first look inwardly to what the needs of their agency requires.

It can happen that a significant disaster comes along that preoccupies everyone’s attention. It can become the complete focus of individual and organizational efforts, say a pandemic for instance. Planning, training and exercises go by the wayside as the focus becomes very singular. This doesn’t have to be all bad in itself. These events are opportunities to build up community relationships and bring organizations into the emergency management effort and— later, add them to the group of people pushing the rock back up the hill.

How far the rock rolls backwards down the hill is likely tied to the number of people departures and the loss of relationships and institutional knowledge that walks out the door with them.

Over time, there is more stability in the workforce and the emergency management rock starts to roll upward again, inching its way forward based upon a new cadre of people pushing, pushing, and pushing, until the process repeats itself all over again. Only later in time to roll backward.

In the United States Army it is engineer units which are the ones who build roads, bridges, airfields, etc. When something big has to be moved and it requires a group of people to put their backs and muscles into the task, there is a command given so that everyone works in concert with one another, it is “Lay hold, heave!” All you rock pushers out there, get the team together and, “Lay hold, heave! Move that rock up the hill!


by Eric E. Holdeman, Senior Fellow, Emergency Management Magazine

He blogs at www.disaster-zone.com  His Podcast is at Disaster Zone

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