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What Is a Dereliction of Duty?

Acts of omission and perhaps commission.

As emergency managers we have numerous duties to perform. One of the most important ones is the duty to warn people of an impending disaster.

People confronted with a calamity may feel frozen to the ground and unable to move because of the possibility that the wrong warning message could be sent or the wrong action taken. They might debate the language that is to be used in a warning message. They also might not be confident in how to utilize the warning technology.

Some people also think that the safest thing to do is to “not rock the boat” by taking action. But by failing to act, you might be accused of dereliction of duty, defined as “the shameful failure to fulfill one’s obligation.”

Dereliction of duty has a military connotation in my mind, maybe because there is such a thing described in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ): “Dereliction of duty is a specific offense under United States Code Title 10, Section 892, Article 92 and applies to all branches of the US military. A service member who is derelict has willfully refused to perform his duties (or follow a given order) or has incapacitated himself in such a way that he cannot perform his duties.”

There is the popular idiom used to describe people who are not taking action when circumstances dictate that they should do so: “fiddling while Rome burns.” This means that someone had a duty to react to circumstances and yet they took no action — or actually ignored what was going on around them. This all stems from the popular, but likely not specifically accurate, story detailed here: “In July of 64 A.D., a great fire ravaged Rome for six days, destroying 70 percent of the city and leaving half its population homeless. According to a well-known expression, Rome’s emperor at the time, the decadent and unpopular Nero, ‘fiddled while Rome burned.’ The expression has a double meaning: Not only did Nero play music while his people suffered, but he was an ineffectual leader in a time of crisis.”

As we look at issues confronting our nation today and how people reacted or failed to act, make a mental note that when confronted with issues that require your personal attention, don’t be derelict in taking action to respond and definitely don’t be “fiddling” when action is needed.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.