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IAEM Disaster Zone: The COVID-19 Emergency Manager

How does this writing compare to your personal experience?

by Eric Holdeman / July 26, 2020

The column below was written and submitted on June 8, 2020. Some of the suppositions have come to fruition, like the South and Southwest getting their turn in the COVID-19 bucket. 

How your jurisdiction has involved state and local emergency management in the coronavirus response will determine how busy you have been and how busy you will be in the future.

Perhaps, just perhaps, you might get wrapped up in the vaccination priorities that are still to be determined — and I'm betting, there is a shortage of needles, since we have not really managed the supply chain to any degree.  


IAEM Disaster Zone Column, July 2020

The COVID-19 Emergency Manager

It has been an interesting first six months for 2020. Many a politician has said, “We could never have imagined having something like this happen!” Which means they were not involved in the pandemic flu planning and exercises that many jurisdictions have done.

Some have likely called the coronavirus pandemic a Black Swan event. Something unimaginable happening. I recently read about Black Elephant disasters. I like this term much better than Black Swan. The Black Elephant disaster is one we know is coming, but everyone "in the room" ignores that Black Elephant because of it being unlikely, costly to prepare for in time, effort and money. Thus—the possibility of the disaster is absolutely there, we are just ignoring it for multiple reasons.

Which brings us to our experiences with COVID-19. Depending on the jurisdiction, you might have been following the news about the disease and coordinating with public health. Perhaps your Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated on a limited basis to serve as a coordination center, helping out where and when you could.

But then—everything changed! The change was when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was given the National Strategic Stockpile (NSP) which has been a Health and Human Services (HHS) mission. Boom! If FEMA has the mission—that means, you now are involved in the national stockpile too!

As an "operations guy" that has always been my forte. Situational awareness, information sharing, operational employment of resources, etc. The other major mission of an activated EOC is management of logistics; people, equipment and supplies. In this case the logistics mission centered on all things medical that were needed to respond to the pandemic. Initially that meant Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), masks, gloves, gowns and any other associated materials. The equipment in short supply was the ventilators needed to breathe for people when they were placed in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and just providing oxygen was not solving their ability to stay alive.

Since those initial hectic days of trying to establish priorities for the distribution of equipment and supplies that were shipped, things have mellowed out to become more routine. As the crisis has waned in some areas of the nation, like the Northeast, other areas of the country are heating up with more coronavirus cases. If you are in those Western and Southern states, your term in the meat grinder may still be coming. At least by now, on the national front there should be a system that is functioning with the majority of the kinks in the processes worked out that are being used for distributing supplies.

This prioritization and distribution of supplies was the subject of several Pete Gaynor, FEMA administrator’s, unprecedented messages to every emergency manager in the United States. He said it much more politely than this, but basically—“get off your duff” and get the equipment distributed when it arrives in your jurisdiction. Don’t just sit on it—complaints were coming into FEMA about not having supplies that you already have in your hands for distribution.

One thing that our joint COVID experience has provided is a better understanding of our system for identifying our needs (not exaggerating them) and then submitting them up the chain to ultimately have them, resourced via the city, county, state or federal government.

Hopefully you have also "bonded" with your public health brethren. The pandemic flu planning that should have occurred back in 2009 and H1N1 era was a good baseline for those still employed and in the emergency management business.

While we have many organizations with which to have relationships, it is public health that is the critical one in a pandemic. The challenge then to come is maintaining those relationships. Which is another topic for a future column.

I would just remind you that we are not out of the coronavirus "disaster zone" just yet. As I write this in early June the results of states opening back up and widespread protest marches happening across many cities has yet to be determined. Keep you guard up and be ready for "Round 2!”


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

He blogs at


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