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Increasing Considerations for Equity and Diversity

If you have not started this journey, begin soon.

Equity and diversity are two topics that are getting more attention in our emergency management world. There is still much work to be done on both of the above topics.

See my thoughts on the subject in my International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin July Disaster Zone column, shared below:

Increasing Considerations for Equity and Diversity

Most of the time I write about topics that I have great familiarity with. Typically, this comes from practical experience across a lifetime of living and actual lessons I’ve learned from the past, as a leader and emergency manager at the federal, state and local levels. The topics of equity and diversity are not ones that I have experience in purposefully promoting as an emergency manager. However, I’ve certainly observed how they have grown significantly as a focus area for emergency managers and their goals of serving all of communities in a more equitable manner. Thus, I’ll share a few observations about the challenges and opportunities of integrating the two considerations of equity and diversity into our emergency management world.

Our profession of emergency management is not one that has hundreds of years of history. Since we only date back to the civil defense days we are what I call still in our formative years. The recognition of emergency management as a separate discipline requiring an educational system and research arm is relatively new.

We have learned that disasters can have an inordinately severe impact on different segments of our population and community. The old, the very young, the poor and populations made up of a wide variety of minority communities. We are a nation of immigrants and one with a history of slavery and yes, racism. All immigrants have faced challenges when arriving in the United States. The Irish were not welcomed with open arms. The Poles and Italians did not settle in the most desirable parts of town. The movie Gangs of New York dramatized just one segment of that discrimination and conflict that have plagued our towns and cities.

Immigrants and economically disadvantaged people can live in undesirable and unsafe housing. They live in those areas prone to flooding, in structures that have little to no disaster resilience and when those homes are impacted by a disaster, they don’t have property insurance or renters’ insurance. They are living paycheck to paycheck with no financial savings whatsoever. Their house fire is not an emergency or a disaster, for them it is a catastrophe.

As a broader emergency management community, we are waking up to the fact that we cannot treat every segment of our community the same way. There are those people who are self-sufficient and have the economic means to weather a disaster, primarily because of their superior financial position. This gives them a better start with disaster resistant housing, property insurance and the financial capability to recover from the impacts of a disaster.

So, what are we doing, what can we do? The first thing is to recognize the situation in our own areas of responsibility. Where are the geographic areas of our jurisdiction that have higher populations of economically disadvantaged? Older people, minorities, and substandard housing. Where does our hazards mapping indicate the most severe impacts of disasters will occur? How much overlap is there between the two mentioned above?

The real challenge comes with trying to have a more positive impact for those communities that are most at risk. I think one of the building blocks of making progress towards that goal is to have our emergency management staff reflect the populations present in our community. Do you have a significant Spanish speaking community? How many Latino staff do you have onboard, and can they speak and write Spanish? Minority communities will be drawn to people who look like them and speak their languages. It will require work on all our parts to recruit great candidates and nurture them along the way. This won’t happen overnight, but the sooner we start the better.

Then the key to everything dealing with emergency management starts with building relationships—in advance of a disaster. Fire, police, hospitals, businesses, the military and yes—minority community leaders. Like everything worth doing, it will take time and effort. There can be suspicions on the part of these communities. Who are you? What do you really want? Do you really care? Are you “looking to use this relationship” for your own good and with nothing in return for the people the community you are contacting.

The one thing I can assure you is that like with all relationship building, you must not wait to do this work until after the disaster. While it might be tough before the disaster, it is going to be even harder when emotions are running high, and the trauma of the disaster is impacting everyone. You won’t have the time and resources to devote to the task and those needing help will feel neglected—as they have been neglected in the past.

Think about your own personal situation. Examine where you might start on this life career-long journey of building disaster resilience for everyone, especially those who are the most vulnerable.


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.