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Regional Action Requires Coalition Warfare Approach

You can’t go it alone, regionally.

Most of the time, agencies and jurisdictions are planning and acting as solo actors within their own jurisdictions. Which is OK, but when it comes to taking action outside of your jurisdictional boundaries, you need willing partners to work with.

This is the essence of my May Disaster Zone column in the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin.

See below:

“Regional Action Requires Coalition Warfare Approach”

By Eric Holdeman

Watching the war in Ukraine play out and how NATO has pulled together to oppose the Russian aggression has remined me of the benefits and challenges of coalition warfare.

Developing a functioning emergency management program is not easy. There is always going to be more to be done then there are staff and other resources to do the work. The turnover in personnel who you work with causes a never-ending requirement to build relationships and engage those people in planning, training and exercising.

However, I believe it is not enough for you to just have a well-functioning individual organizationally based emergency management program. It you are going to build a disaster resilient community you will have to engage with other regional partners in collective action.

There is not enough space in this one article to make the full case for regional information sharing, coordination, partnering and collaboration. What I do want to lay out of you is the need for a “coalition warfare” mentality when designing your regional approach.

We all favor unilateral action. Even spouses who have been married for many years will sometimes have an endless debate on “where do you want to go out to eat?” We are by nature selfish people who want to have our way. Somewhere in our development cycle we learn to share toys and to play nice with others. Then we grow up and become emergency responders, emergency managers, etc. and forget everything we learned in kindergarten.

Regional action cannot be forced. There are no unwilling partners in coalition warfare and there will be none in regional emergency management actions. When it comes time to form a regional emergency management partnership for common action, be it planning, training or exercising—it is invitational by nature. “Would you like to be part of X?”

For them to join you in regional action the other parties will have to see a benefit in it for them and their organization. They will have fears about “just what is s/he up to?” “What are they trying to pull?” “What am I getting myself into, and will the benefits be worth the work I’ll put into the effort?”

If you expect to have regional efforts, you will need regional relationships. No one is going to partner with someone they don’t trust. This relationship building effort may take years to accomplish. You will have some agencies and jurisdictions immediately join your regional partnership, and others will hang back with a “wait and see” attitude to see how this all plays out in the end—before they join.

Just as in coalition warfare, you start by working with those nations/organizations that you know best with whom you have an established relationship with their leadership. And, just because you are personal friends, does not mean that they will leap at the chance to partner with you on a regional activity. They have their own goals and objectives to meet. Remember, regional activities are on top of their normal workload, so it is not an easy sell.

“Shuttle diplomacy” will be needed to get the coalition put together in the first place and continue throughout the duration of your regional endeavor. There is little that is static about our emergency world. It will require you to communicate in person, verbally, and in writing with all your partners as you seek to build the coalition. Getting out of your office and sitting in theirs is a great way to show your interest in joint action. Understanding their fears, concerns and needs is critical to putting together a lasting partnership.

You will have to give up unilateral control to achieve joint action. The larger your organization is, the harder this will be to accomplish. When you are ‘bigger” you are used to having it your way. Compromising does not come naturally to larger organizations. If you are the larger organization looking to now work regionally with your partners, there will be great fears about what you are up to. You will have to conquer their fears and build trust through personal relationships.

I’ll leave you with this one example. Many years ago here in Washington State, King and Pierce Counties collectively acted to do regional mitigation projects as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Program called Project Impact. It started with both counties agreeing to combine separate grants they had received and collectively managing the funds together. The hitch was who was going to control the “gold?”

King County (my jurisdiction) being more than twice the size of Pierce was the one to be “feared” due to how we collectively had acted politically in the past with our regional neighbors. In order to achieve a regional coalition, I compromised and gave our $300K in funds to Pierce County to be administered by their staff. We hired one coordinator who we shared but worked out of the Pierce County Office. Pierce County ’s fears of getting the short end of the stick in the deal were assuaged by these agreements. I felt comfortable because we had a formal agreement on how decisions on the allocation of resources would be made. I also had to do a hard sell to my boss on why we were giving “our money” to this other county to administer.

The partnership between King and Pierce Counties grew over the years with other joint agreements and coordinated actions. It began with an “average” neighbor to neighbor relationship and grew into a strong bond that withstood some challenging moments. But then, that is what coalition warfare and regional action is supposed to do!
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.