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Is a Lack of Institutional Knowledge Plaguing Emergency Management?

As boomers retire, are they taking all this knowledge with them? Should they?

As the emergency management field grows and evolves, it does so in the face of a warming climate, a proliferation of new technologies and a changing of the guard as baby boomers retire and are replaced with younger workers.

Some say those younger workers aren’t provided with the knowledge of their predecessors, creating a situation of having to reinvent the wheel or as one emergency manager called it, “discovering fire and wheel.”

“It’s frustrating on my end,” the emergency manager said. “I say that people continue to ‘discover fire and the wheel.’ There is little mentoring that is going on as the boomers retire. A whole new generation of emergency managers is entering the field with no knowledge of what was done in the past or what is good, if not a best practice.”

Some in the field say some new emergency managers are repeating what might have been done years ago instead of looking back at documentation to see what has and hasn’t been done before, thus the need to “relearn” things that might have been common practice.

“We haven’t really prepared for succession in terms of having a group of people with a lot of institutional knowledge and a lot of activation experience and I think that’s probably our biggest challenge,” said Curry Mayer, emergency manager of Bellevue, Wash., who has been in the field for more than 25 years.

She said there’s a huge group of emergency managers that have been in the discipline for a long time and there’s a middle group and another group of younger people on the rise. Though it sometimes depends on location, the lack of activation experience is the biggest issue for the younger group.

Mayer said developing relationships and training and exercising are important, but some emergency responders in certain regions are lacking activation experience that can’t be duplicated with training and exercises.

“There’s nothing like a real disaster,” she said. “You can do as many exercises as you want, but if you don’t have the opportunity to really do 12-hour shifts for a long period of time without a break then you’re not in the same kind of environment.” Those people should look outside of their regions to get some experience during a real disaster, if possible she said.

There are other factors limiting the incoming emergency managers, including a lack of interest in public service and a desire for work-life balance, Mayer said. “When I was in my 20s, that was not a thing I even thought about. It was like, ‘How am I going to get the experience?’”

Mayer said there might be, among newer professionals, an overreliance on technology. She said the field went from having few electronic tools to having everyone reliant on electronic tools that oftentimes don’t work during a catastrophe. “I think we’ve lost some of the problem-solving, figuring things out without using electronics.”

Glen Woodbury, director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., isn’t too concerned.

“You hear people say we’re losing institutional knowledge. Is that any different from 10, 20, 50 years ago?” he asked. “It’s not necessarily any more dramatic in any time in history when you have a profession and people age and retire or move on and people come in and there are gaps in institutional knowledge.”

Woodbury said he likes the idea of transferring institutional knowledge by conversational methods rather than dictatorial methods and says the younger generations are well-equipped to take on the challenges in their own ways.

“It is said, often pejoratively, they are always on their smartphones or watching video games or YouTube,” he said. “So let’s talk about how to separate fake news. I would argue that people growing up in this environment are learning to discern between what is true and what is not. They do it intuitively.”