City Managers and Elected Officials Play a Key Role in Disaster Response

The city/county managers should play a huge role in facilitating relationships and responsibilities and help elected officials understand that they should be included in preparation and training.

by Jim McKay / April 12, 2019

City and county managers play vital roles in emergency management and so too should elected officials. But the effectiveness of these officials in their roles is variable and depends highly on where they are in the country.

In a report published by the International City/County Management Association, Ron Carlee examines — through interviews and his extensive experience — the roles that local managers and elected officials play before, during and after a disaster, and shares best practices.

In the report, Leadership and Professional Local Government Managers: Before, During, and After a Crisis, provides a deep review of the role of the city/county manager, and why their coordination with one another, as well as officials is vital when responding to a disaster.

Carlee, visiting assistant professor of public service at Old Dominion University, while county manager in Arlington County, Va., served as interagency incident commander during the attacks on 9/11, the 2002 Washington, D.C.- area sniper attacks and the county’s response to Hurricane Isabel.

Obviously, officials in cities prone to wildfires, floods, hurricanes and the like are going to be more prepared and schooled in emergency management because they have to be. In some areas that don’t face regular crisis, the preparation is absent.

“Some elected officials get very good training and are very open to it and there are others who can’t spell ICS,” Carlee said in an interview with Emergency Management.

Elected officials have a duty to understand the threat and stay abreast of any response because they are the spokespeople that the local residents expect to hear from. “That is their role and it’s a critical role,” Carlee said. “There are elected officials that don’t understand their roles and don’t know want to take over operationally and it’s not their job. That’s where the city/county manager gets put in a difficult situation.”

When elected officials understand their roles, they often visit the local EOC, not for operational reasons, but to see what’s happening and who’s doing what so they can represent that accurately to the public.

Carlee said of the people talked to, opinions were split about having elected officials in the EOC. And again, locality matters. “You have very small communities like Lyons, Colo., and Gatlinburg, Tenn., that had major [disasters] and in those communities, everybody knows everybody,” he said. “They all work together, and everybody is a part of the team.”

The report is mostly aimed at county/city managers and their critical roles as facilitators. Carlee said emergency management response works best when the county/city managers and the local emergency manager are “joined at the hip.”

It works well when the managers divvy up responsibilities and understand it’s not who’s in charge but who’s in charge of what. And that must be decided prior to a crisis.

“It works well when the emergency manager (or whomever is handling these responsibilities) is running the operation side of it and keeping the manager informed and the manager is opening doors and working the seams of government, meaning the operations people have what they need and don’t run into interference.” Carlee said.

A bottom line in talking with Carlee was that there is substantial room for improvement when it comes to training for officials. He related an experience when he was county manager in Arlington in 1999, just prior to Y2K. He said the preparation for Y2K helped during the response to the attacks on the Pentagon. In fact, if not for Y2K and the preparation, they would not have been prepared for the 9/11 attacks.

“We would have been totally unprepared,” Carlee said. “Literally, until 2001, in the history of Arlington, there had never been a major crisis.”

Those communities that don’t regularly face crises can have limited planning and training, even among professional staff and officials, Carlee said. “That’s why the recommendation is given that something can happen at any time, including in very small communities, and it becomes very important for the city/county manager to take the initiative and try to get elected officials to try to understand how things work.