What do Emergency Managers DO, anyway?

EMScholar: What do Emergency Managers DO, Anyway?

New and interdisciplinary means unspecialized

The cool thing about Emergency Management (EM) is that its a fairly new discipline. We can trace EM traditions as far back 1881 (1859, internationally) when nurse Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. But the government didn’t start getting involved in earnest until the 1950s and ’60s with the advent of the Civil Defense brigades (designed to help during blackouts and air raid warnings). FEMA itself was founded in 1979–fairly recently as far as social institutions go. Also right about this time, research into geology and meteorology was gaining steam and, like many disciplines, it’s taken a few decades for the research to mature enough to support a professional discipline. Today, there are many different kinds of EM courses including many certificate programs, 154 Masters programs, and only one Doctorate program (although there are a few more doctoral programs with emphases in Emergency Management–like public health or public administration). As a comparison, GradSchools.com says there are 379 doctoral programs in Biology (in America)– a field of study orders of magnitude older. So, because Emergency Management is new, it’s not very specialized. In America, we basically have two concentrations of EMs, : Homeland Security–who deal with terrorism and civil unrest- and everyone else.

Another reason Emergency Management is so unspecialized is because so many different things affect it. For instance, countries who are chronically poor don’t develop good infrastructure or other public services (like disability insurance, food stamps, or even decent hospitals). So when an earthquake hits, their damage is often far greater than in developed countries (think Haiti). Similarly, climate change makes disasters more frequent and stronger than before while new technologies (ex: social media) change how people respond to both the chronic and acute changes. You can see how there are many different sub-areas of research.

Unspecialized means we do everything:

I love that Emergency Management is so unspecialized because it means that my days are always different. I intern at my city’s EM Office and we have hundreds of projects going at any one time. Last summer, we ran a Get Ready campaign to encourage private businesses in the area to develop an emergency plan. We also did a kid’s program for the Boys and Girl’s Club chapter. Then we worked on finding all the fire gates (gates that provide access for fire trucks on to public or private property), identifying who was in charge of plowing them, and marking it all down on a city-wide map. Last winter, we trained and activated Community Emergency Response Team members to help with a local festival and set up “warming sites” for people who lost power during a winter storm. We also updated our Facebook page frequently to keep the community abreast of more storms and other non-urgent information. The fall before that, the department finished its comprehensive emergency plan which took 3 years to complete and describes all the hazards that are likely to occur here and what are plan is for handling them. We also wrote some grant requests to see if we could rebuild our river bank to account for flooding and to buy some trailers to transport our heavy equipment.

Super cool tree is super cool. *click*
Sometimes we donate Christmas trees for a charity auction as a PR thing. This tree was decorated with emergency supplies and caution tape for garland. I personally glued a ton of pasta wheels together to make awesome stars. You can see one right above the beef jerky.

But a small budget means we can’t do it alone:

It is an unpleasant fact that city and country budgets are under a lot of pressure from all sides. Decision makers are often not willing to allocate a large budget to EM depts when more salient needs are felt (like economic development for instance). So, EMs have to be creative. Most of our job–in truth–is networking. The more networked a community (the more connections people have with other people in the community) the stronger it is. I see my job as mediator mostly. For instance, in the fire gate example above, most of the gates bordered private and public land. The land owners thought it was Public Work’s responsibility to plow (it’s on a public road), Public Works wanted the land owners to plow (because they have enough to do), and the Fire Dept just wanted them clear in case they needed to get in. Who’s jurisdiction is that? No one’s really, if the city hadn’t had an EM dept, it might’ve been completely dropped.

More and more, American EMs are realizing that disasters are handled better when people who are practiced at a particular task do it. The Red Cross is really, really good at leveraging donors. The Salvation Army is really, really good at inventorying donations. The Army Corps of Engineers is really good at clearing roads and rebuilding levees. Amtrak is really good at transporting refugees. Local church groups have easily-activated volunteers. Why reinvent the wheel? Why not coordinate with other groups to get the work done right and efficiently. That’s what I do, mostly. I coordinate their efforts. I hound decision makers for more money and educate citizens. I make plans and wrangle helpers. I talk to people.

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