Before I retired, the most difficult part of my job as an emergency manager was politics. You know what I mean – that competition for power and leadership. I managed, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.
There is something really sad about using disasters – or the possibility of disasters – as a token in a quest for authority. The same is true for those who use the lack of disasters as an excuse to cut funding for disaster-related programs.
There is a great article in the Boston Globe this morning about using the fires in Colorado as a political token. The Politics of Disaster by Juliette Kayyem. (Warning: The Boston Globe wants you to buy a subscription to see the entire article.) Kayeem makes a couple good points in her piece.
- One is close to my heart, she calls it “the sanity of building residential developments in areas prone to fire.”
- Another is the difference between politics and hypocrisy and used the example of the Colorado Representative who criticized the “generous use” of disaster declarations last year. This year, he is in line like everyone else, for Federal disaster relief.
- There is is the decreased funding for disaster response and relief, and the insistence that funding any disaster relief has to be offset by cutting something else that is "discretionary".
- This is the one that bothers me the most. Colorado is a swing state in the heated race for President. What gets forgotten, as Kayyem puts so eloquently, is that “disaster does not know swing states from the red and blue ones.”
What this really all comes down to is the argument about the role of the Federal government in disasters, and the problems inherent in defining that role by who is sitting in Congress or the White House. Kayeem puts it like this:
Federal relief, like any social contract, promises those who are overwhelmed by losses outside their control that there will be support for them. It is an insurance policy against tragedies that can occur in any corner of the country.
Using disasters as a political tool is just gambling with people’s lives and livelihoods. Last time I looked, gambling was illegal in Washington DC.
On the other hand, Emergency managers know it usually takes a disaster to prompt enough interest in disaster management to cut through the politics that keeps us from doing our jobs the way we want to do them.
It just gets old after a while. You know?
Like all good bloggers, he was expressing a point of view that deserves to be considered, and the replies brought out some really good extensions of his thoughts. The reply that made me stop and blink was the one that began, “Like a lot of youngsters’ who came into this profession in the 21st century …” <my emphasis>
I’m trying not to get irritated at that reader, but this attitude is part and parcel of what Adam was saying. When a worldview is so held by one of our ‘more experienced’ emergency managers that it doesn't allow for conflicting ideas and discriminates against a colleague because of the supposition of youth, then something surely is dead. Maybe intellectual curiosity.
Let me see if I can restate Adam’s premise: Everything changes when poked hard enough. Emergency management grew out of Civil Defense to become something different, it altered course for various presidential administrations, morphed with major events like Y2k and 9-11. We all embraced the concept of a system to manage incidents (whatever you want to call it). Our focus expanded to include all hazards.
The change we are seeing now is more cultural than technical. We have a much more skeptical public that embraces instant communication, transparency and social collaboration. As emergency managers, we have to accept and incorporate this cultural change into what we do. We have to be social engineering emergency managers.
What’s wrong with that? It’s just another hat we wear.
This reminds me of an exercise in English class way back in high school (and I’m definitely not one of those “youngsters”) . The teacher gave us this phrase and asked us to write an essay about what it meant:
The Truth is Subversive.
It took me all night before the lights came on and I realized it was a circular argument. The truth is what one believes to be true. When an idea or concept is powerful enough to overthrow or abandon that truth, a new truth emerges.
Let me state it in a different way: If you won’t change your mind on a certain subject, regardless of the evidence and information to the contrary … well, let’s just say the world isn’t going to wait around for you to catch up.
Paradigm shifts are good for you.
Great job, Adam.
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