Recalibrating Emergency Management: Lower The Bar

The overall sense I came home with from the 58th Annual IAEM Conference was our need to adjust how we think about Emergency Management.

(Part 1 of a 4-part series)

Going to a conference and coming home with a new idea is good. Going to a conference and coming back with a new perspective on something you thought you already knew about – that is better. Going to a conference and coming back with that prickly feeling something has changed but you just can’t quite put your finger on it … that is thought-provoking.

This much is a given: Emergency Management is changing. The question is how much and in what direction. During the 58th Annual IAEM Conference in San Antonio, Texas earlier this month there were discussions about those intractable issues that never go away: metrics (how do we measure what we do), a personality-driven office (sooner or later I have to go on vacation), using social media (it’s really a mindset, after all).

But the overall sense I came home with was our need to adjust how we think about emergency management; even for things as straightforward as how we approach community preparedness.

When FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was taking questions after his keynote speech, someone in the audience asked him what we could do to get our communities to understand they need to be better prepared. His answer was swift. He said “Lower the bar“. I’d have to say there was a ripple of surprise through the audience.

Yes, Fugate has been preaching the ‘strengthen the communities’ message and ‘the public can’t look to the government for help’ message. But this message was directed to us Emergency Managers. has a list of 27 items recommended for a family emergency kit. Maybe some of you work in communities where families can afford the several hundred dollars to do that. I’ll bet most of you don’t.

“It isn’t what you can do but what your community can do,” he said. We should start with something simple, like … does a family have a plan to let each know they are ok after a disaster or emergency happens? If we can get our communities thinking at that level – and then we can raise the bar.

How else can you simplify the process of getting your community prepared? The Florida Division of Emergency Management has a password-protected online tool for families to prepare a disaster plan. (Do you suppose it is a coincidence that Fugate was the EM Director in Florida before he went to FEMA? Probably not, because the City of Boston has one, too.

Many of my colleagues don’t think this is a valid viewpoint –the public is too convinced they can rely on the government to help them immediately and sufficiently.

I posed this question about ‘lowering the bar’ to my class of Master’s degree students in Emergency Management and lots of the replies mirrored the ones from my colleagues. A few were more thoughtful, like this one from Richard Soloman (a Captain with the Beverly Hills FD):

Abraham Maslow, in the Hierarchy of Needs (HN), identified the five levels of human development: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization. Director Fugate may be alluding to the current state of our country and the effect it is having on people's psyches. Many people are worried about their next meal, or losing their job, or home soon, and the thought of assembling an emergency survival kit, earthquake provisions, etc. may seem too daunting. Fugate is correlating survival (HN, level1) with preparedness (HN, safety: level 2) with their need for family (HN, Love/belonging: level 3) effectively combining the lowest two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy and encouraging them upward, without creating more stress…”lower the bar".

Pretty smart, huh? Can we, as emergency managers, open our perspectives enough to believe an approach we HAVE been using might not work NOW?

There was also a presentation at the IAEM conference by Kelly Discount and Andrea Tennison of EMPOWER (Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment). They presented a case study of partnering with a local Girl Scout troop in the D.C. to help them earn a badge, and turning it into a Youth Education Initiative, with a toolkit and a public safety announcement on YouTube that is just too cute!

Is using kids to get the message across now a stale idea? Or do we just have to change our perspectives. Another student in my master’s class put it this way:

After all, it was through education and the clarity of successive generations that we were able to change our views on smoking and on wearing seat-belts. We can do the same with expectations for individual responsibility for emergency preparedness

The point is whether we,as emergency managers, can challenge ourselves to look beyond our biases and really have a new perspective on what we do.



Recalibrating Emergency Management:

Part 1:  Lower The Bar
Part 2:  Challenge Your Expectations
Part 3:  Information Is Not The Same As Intelligence
Part 4:  Leverage Your Expertise