As emergency management gropes towards becoming a profession, I see more and more discussions based around the conflict between those with years of experience and limited formal education in emergency management and those with limited operational experience but considerable formal education. Unfortunately, it’s usually framed as an either/or argument which obscures several key issues.
As any personnel manager will tell you, success in a job depends on three things: knowledge (education) related to the job, specific skills required by the job (experience), and the ability to apply those knowledge and skills to the job. While ability grows with experience, it is because we are increasing our knowledge and learning new skills. Further, the mix of knowledge and skills can compensate for each other to a certain degree. That is, job skills learned in one job can be transferred to a new one, potentially offsetting knowledge requirements. Conversely, a broad knowledge base can sometimes compensate for lack of experience. While this is a bit oversimplified, the point is that both knowledge and skills are important and work together.
So why do see a conflict every time the discussion over education comes up? The problem is that we personalize the argument with a false logic. For example: “I don’t have a degree and I’m doing the job just fine therefore degrees aren’t necessary.” Yes, but your years of experience may be offsetting your lack of formal education in emergency management theory. What about the reverse? “I have a degree and I’m doing just fine without spending thirty years as a first responder.” Fine, but your knowledge may have given you an edge that compensates for previous experience.
The root of the problem, as many of my colleagues have pointed out, is that we still don’t have agreement on what constitutes the core knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary be an emergency manager (actually, we don’t really have a great deal of agreement on the term “emergency manager” either). Note that word “core”. There will always be exceptions that prove the rule. You may believe that your forty years as an underwater messkit repair technician in the Swiss navy may be just what your jurisdiction needs but it shouldn’t be a core requirement for the profession. Until we stop personalizing the argument over which is better, education or experience, and recognize that our ability to do our jobs depends on both, we’ll never make real progress towards being recognized as a profession. It’s not about you; it’s about the profession.
It is sad to read that many of the communities in the Philippines have had to resort to mass burials in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. The news reports speak to hundreds of unidentified remains being placed in mass graves by officials citing concerns over the spread of disease. The use of mass graves or cremation in mass fatality events is not unusual in itself. Where local and regional forensic systems and experts in the processing of remains are not available the task of dealing with mass fatalities defaults to untrained responders who respond with good intentions but limited knowledge of how to deal with the dead. Fearing the spread of disease, these responders generally turn to mass burial or cremation.
This is unfortunate because burying hundreds of victims in mass graves has a profound effect on the survivors and on those family members who will never know what happened to their loved ones. It is also unfortunate because it is largely unnecessary. Research by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others, such as Dr. Joseph Scanlon, have demonstrated that disease is generally not a concern in disasters where most of the victims suffered traumatic injuries, the exception being if the bodies are in contact with the water supply.
In a 2007 article in the International Review of the Red Cross Dr. Morris Tidball-Binz, forensic coordinator for the Assistance Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross, noted that, "It is increasingly acknowledged worldwide that the proper management of the dead is a core component of any humanitarian response to catastrophes..." In its publication, Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations, the World Health Organization expressly forbids both cremation and mass burial in its guiding principles and states, "Every effort must be taken to identify the bodies."
So how does an untrained responder deal with mass fatalities? Recognizing the need to provide guidance to responders the Pan American Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross, with the participation of the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies published Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: A Field Manual for First Responders in 2006. The manual addresses concerns about the risks of infectious disease and provides practical guidance on the recovery, storage, and disposal of remains. Among the techniques available is the use of temporary burial where the bodies are marked for later exhumation and identification. It’s a fine distinction easily overlooked by the media, which may well be the case in the Philippines.
Processing mass fatalities is something to which many emergency planners give only limited thought. Yet it goes to the heart of our mission to give comfort to the bereaved and to provide the dead with dignity and respect.
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In my last post I asked the question, "Is emergency management a profession?" Today I'd like to turn that around a bit and ask a more fundamental question. "Do we need to be a profession?" Surprisingly, there are a large number of emergency managers who consider the issue of profession versus discipline to be the equivalent of the old argument about how many angels can dance on the head of pin.
If we truly become a profession, the expectation would be that we would, through the process of certification or licensing by a professional body, control entry to the profession. We would also expect to see the enforcement of standards through some sort of disciplinary process. And among those standards would be requirements for college education in a specialized body of knowledge and the requirement for continuing education.
These are frightening concepts for many. If such a system had been in place over the past ten or twenty years, many current emergency managers would have been deemed not qualified for the positions they hold. Yet clearly, they've been doing the job and doing it well. What does becoming a profession offer them?
Another concern is the issue of whether every jurisdiction needs an emergency manager. Assuming we reach the level of profession, members would expect salaries commensurate with their education and training, salaries that might be cost-prohibitive for many smaller jurisdictions. If the main focus is the emergency plan, as it is for many smaller jurisdictions, do you really need a fully qualified emergency management professional?
The simple fact is we have not been doing our jobs as well as we think. A number of surveys show that emergency managers tend to focus on response issues at the expense of mitigation and recovery planning. Despite voluntary standards such as the Emergency Management Accreditation Program and initiatives like Whole Community, many emergency managers do not have formal, enterprise-wide programs. Research findings are still not influencing our programs as they should. Requiring adherence to professional standards could help address these problems.
The problem is that we often speak of the emergency management profession in monolithic terms. Instead, we need to think in terms of levels: entry level, journeyman, and master for example. Not every jurisdiction needs a master but everyone should have an entry level emergency manager. We also need to take a long term view; you do not develop a profession overnight. Gradual change which recognizes the contributions of current emergency managers is critical. At the same time, we need to understand the old adage, "A rising tide floats all boats." Becoming a profession will have some economic benefits in job creation and security but, more importantly, it will help us better serve our communities by increasing our commitment to professional standards.
In a recent edition of Emergency Management, my colleague Eric Holderman wrote an opinion piece in which he stated that while emergency management has many of the trappings of a profession, it is not a profession. Eric based his position largely on the fact that outsiders do not truly view emergency management as a profession.
I agree with Eric's view and with his reasoning. However, I'd like to push things a bit further by asking why we are not yet recognized as professionals. I think the answer becomes obvious when one considers some of the key elements required of a profession:
Definition and core competencies One of the long-standing problems with emergency management is that until the development of the Principles of Emergency Management we had no agreed upon definition of what we do. While we now have a definition agreed to by our professional organizations, that definition is still not universally accepted and, indeed, is largely unknown outside our discipline.
Coupled with this problem of definition is our continuing lack of an agreed upon set of core competencies. Core competencies drive education and form the basis for job descriptions. An excellent model exists in New Zealand but because it was "not invented here" there has been resistance to adopt and modify this model for use in the United States.
Specialized Body of Knowledge The basis of any profession is a body of knowledge unique to the profession. It is only recently that we have begun to accept that our specialized body of knowledge is not merely the technical practices embodied in FEMA guidance and state and Federal legislation but also the theoretical knowledge developed through years of social science research. However, we still lack a cohesive theory of emergency management that binds together this research and can be used to guide our professional interactions.
Board Certification One of the hallmarks of a profession is a mechanism for distinguishing members of the profession through a certification process. This is one area where we have made considerable progress with the Certified Emergency Manager program. However, the onerous nature of the certification process means that the actual number of CEMs is small and does not constitute a sufficient critical mass to influence hiring. Like the definition of emergency management, the CEM is not well known or recognized outside our discipline.
Code of Ethics The current Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct of the International Association of Emergency Managers is an improvement over the previous version but it is still a work in progress. The Code is lengthy and cumbersome, provides only limited guidance on ethical decision making, and does not specify penalties for failure to comply with the Code (the process for dealing with ethical violations is available on the IAEM website but does not specify what constitutes an ethical violation).
If we have not yet made the transition to a profession it is because we still have a lot of work to do in these four key areas. We need a better sense of who we are and what we do. We need to encourage and increase certification without sacrificing our standards. But above all, we need to do a better job convincing decision makers that emergency management is best left to professional emergency managers.
One of the common misconceptions I find is confusing the emergency manager's role with the function of an emergency management program. This misconception has been with us for some time and has been reinforced by its appearance in many documents and books. It has also contributed to our focus on response at the expense of other emergency management strategies
As near as I can tell, this misconception started with a misinterpretation of material in Tom Drabek and Gerald Hofner's excellent 1991 book Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government (A new version was published in 2007 by Bill Waugh and Kathleen Tierney). The book identifies a number of emergency management functions that should be performed by governments (e.g. warning, evacuation, sheltering) and is clear about these being collective rather than discrete tasks. That is, they are the responsibility of the government and not a single individual. Unfortunately, FEMA subcourses and subsequent publications identified these functions as those of the emergency manager.
Why is this a bad thing? First, it misses the point of what emergency managers really do. Each of the common functions ascribed to emergency managers are actually performed by someone else. For example, evacuation is generally the responsibility of law enforcement agencies and sheltering is normally handled by human services departments with support from volunteer organizations. Emergency managers don't usually perform these functions; we make sure they get done.
Secondly, accepting responsibility for functions over which we have no control and have no direct resources sets us up for failure since we really can't perform all these functions alone. Essentially, it lets other agencies of the hook for response planning. This not consistent with our standards such as the Emergency Management Accreditation Program standard which espouse an enterprise-wide approach and ultimately is detrimental to the communities we serve.
Finally, identifying solely with these functions makes it really easy to appear redundant. If our sole mission is response planning and other agencies really do all the heavy lifting, why are we even necessary? Emergency management programs are chronically underfunded as it is. Do you really want to provide this type of ammunition to those seeking further cuts?
If we are to avoid this, we need to accept that our role as emergency managers is not to do the work but, as noted in the definition adopted in 2007 by most national emergency management organizations, "...to create the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters."
In his book, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-congratulation as a basis for social policy, social theorist Thomas Sowell talks about the tendency for many in government to treat those that disagree with them as not only factually wrong but morally wrong as well. Those who disagree with the 'anointed" do so not because of incorrect facts or mistaken beliefs but because they are inherently evil. Since the publication of Sowell's book in 1995, this situation has only grown worse.
Yet it is in open dialogue that we progress to solutions. It is through understanding each other's positions that we can reach common ground. Disagreement is neither disloyal nor inherently evil.
This Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle included an article entitled Rim Fire exposes systems' risks written by Spreck Rosekrans, executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy. Restore Hetch Hetchy is a community group advocating for the removal of a dam on the Tuolumne River and the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its original condition. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir provides drinking water for 80% of 2.6 million San Francisco Bay Area residents and generates 1.7 billion kilowatts of electricity a year (roughly 20% of San Francisco's needs). As you would expect, Restore Hetch Hetchy is not particularly popular and is viewed by many as a "fringe" group.
Rosekrans' article, however, resonated strongly with me as an emergency manager. During the recent fire in Yosemite, the Hetch Hetchy reservoir was threatened and one of our power generation plants was damaged. Rosekrans uses this as an example of just one of many ways our water systems are vulnerable and why over-reliance on single sources pose a considerable risk. He makes a strong case for developing alternative sources of water and increasing the efficiency of our delivery systems.
I don't particularly agree with Rosekrans' goal of restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley. While intriguing, I think it will prove too costly and impractical. But since we both appear to agree on the need to create more sustainable water sources, there may well be some common ground where we could work together to advance both of our agendas.
So the next time you start to let politics block your ability to hear what someone else is saying or find yourself writing off a community group as a bunch of kooks, stop and reconsider. Focus not on your differences but on the areas where you agree. It's possible you may find an ally you never knew you had.
One of the banes of the emergency management profession (but a source of joy to consultants!) is the evolving plan format. With every change to Federal planning seems to come an unspoken implication that we must adapt local plans to mirror how the Federal government is doing business. This is not only wrong, it eats up local planning resources that could be used on projects with higher priorities for the local government.
The current rush is to adopt the Emergency Support Function concept. However, while this system works well for the Federal team, does it really help local governments?
If we really look at the ESF concept from a planning perspective, we've been using it for years. The basis of any emergency plan is the identification of the functions to be performed and the assignment of responsibility for those functions. This is the functional planning approach we have used since the Civil Defense era. The ESF concept merely formalizes these relationships. This can be very useful in gaining commitment to the emergency plan and ensuring that supporting plans are developed collaboratively.
The problem comes when we try to operational the concept. I experienced this first hand when we first tried to convince FEMA to adopt ICS in the 90's. Since Federal agencies operated discretely, ESFs as operational units worked fairly well. However, the concept does not always work well at the local level where fewer players are present in the emergency operations center.
If we compare older documents and plan formats such as CPG 1-8 to current guidance, we actually see very little difference. Our current guidance is more sophisticated and expands planning into areas we have previously neglected (e.g. functional needs) but the basic concept of identifying functions and assigning responsibility remains the same. If we also recognize that Federal guidance is just that - guidance - we can refocus on basic planning concepts and stop making so many changes.
Certainly, we should adopt new planning ideas and concepts. This is why we review plans on a regular basis. But make changes, not major revisions that in the end merely bring the plan into alignment with current fashion. We've got more important things to do.
One of the dangers of taking a narrow view of disaster is that one can sometimes fail to notice the effects that the disaster can produce outside the affected area. It is easy to deal with what is directly in front of us but not so easy to see beyond and disasters, unfortunately, do not respect geographical boundaries.
Marc Reisner's last book, A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate, describes how an earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area could produce a water crisis in Southern California. A large earthquake could cause the collapse of the levees protecting the Sacramento River delta islands which lie below sea level. The resultant flooding would create a salt water incursion extending past the point at which freshwater is removed for shipment to Southern California, severely affecting drinking supplies and agricultural irrigation in the south. The combination of the earthquake in the Bay Area and agricultural loss in the south would be devastating to the state's economy.
The Rim Fire currently raging in the mountains of California could produce a similar ripple effect. The fire is threating the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, the source of drinking water for 2.6 million Bay Area residents. The problem is not immediate - the risk of contamination by falling ash has been addressed by diverting water to back-up reservoirs and by the fact that water is drawn from well below the surface of the reservoir. However, the long term effects of burning off the local vegetation could lead to future landslides and sediment inflows that could both affect water quality and reduce the holding capacity of the reservoir. California is experiencing a drought with lighter than average rainfall this year. Reduction in Hetch-Hetchy capacity would have severe consequences to both drinking water supplies and hydro-electric power.
The point of these examples is that a disaster could well produce a cascading effect that creates a crisis in a geographical area far removed from the affected area. This means that an effective emergency manager needs a deep understanding of the various dependencies that can affect their organization or jurisdiction and cannot focus solely on local risks. Many times the true risk lies farther afield. As always, a broad perspective and vigilance are the keys to countering these risks.
"I'm sorry I didn't educate (the County Commissioner) on what exactly the Emergency Department does and how it works..." These words were spoken by an emergency manager just after the County Commission voted to place the Emergency Management Department under the County Sheriff's Office as a cost-saving measure. Aside from reducing the size and operating budget of the department, the move also will cost the emergency manager his job.
Sadly, this complaint is a common one. As budgets get tighter, elected officials look to reduce costs by eliminating or merging functions. Unfortunately, emergency management is viewed as a job that can be done by anyone, particularly anyone in public safety, encouraging the perception that emergency managers are a luxury rather than a necessity. Luxuries get eliminated from tight budgets.
Why is this so? One can argue that we have done it to ourselves. There are two main reasons why we have fostered this impression on the part of our elected officials.
The first is that we have allowed emergency management to be identified solely as a response function. Many emergency managers are either uncomfortable with or feel that don't have time to deal with mitigation and recovery issues. If our only function is to craft an emergency plan, no matter how complex, then there reasonable arguments can be made that any of the other key plan partners could take on the job. This was the argument used by the County Commissioner in this case, "The fact is if we have an emergency in (the) County, the Sheriff's office, (the) Police Department, firefighters, (the) National Guard--they are all going to be participating..."
The second reason for emergency managers being considered superfluous is that we have not done a good job of educating our elected officials on just how we add value to the community. As important as basics such as planning, training, and exercises are, they are perceived by elected officials as cost-generating rather than value-added propositions. This excerbated by the belief of many elected officials that disasters will not occur on their watch. Unless we can couch what we do in language that demonstrates value to the community, such as risk reduction savings and return on investment, we stand little chance of changing this view.
So are you viewed as the "fire extinguisher" that is only used in a possible disaster that no really believes will occur or can you demonstrate that you add value in areas important to your community? Do you only talk to public safety responders or have you built relationships with elected officials and influential community groups? How you are perceived by your elected officials will ultimately determine your success.
One of the core tenets of modern emergency management is a commitment to all-hazards planning. But just what does this mean? NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs lists some 45 separate categories of potential hazards. Does all-hazards planning mean we must plan for each one?
The question is not an idle one. Many emergency managers believe that all-hazards means planning for every possible eventuality. The simple fact is that this is impossible. No organization or jurisdiction has sufficient resources to do this, even if it were possible to foresee every hazard. There is always the unexpected.
There are two components of all-hazards planning. The first in the concept of risk analysis. The first Principle of Emergency Management, comprehensive, states that one must "consider and take into account all-hazards." NFP 1600 echoes this by saying that the hazards identified in Annex A should be "considered during the risk assessment." The third Principle of Emergency Management, risk-driven, encourages the use of risk analysis to assign priorities and resources.
Instead of dissipating limited planning resources on all possible hazards, risk analysis instead focuses on community vulnerability to specific hazards. This allows planning resources to be dedicated to those risks (not hazards) that are most likely to affect the community.
The second component of all-hazards planning is the development of the capacity to deal with multiple hazards through functional planning. This is based on the assumption that certain core functions, such as warning, evacuation, and sheltering, will be needed in most disasters and will be to a large extent be handled the same way. This creates a baseline capability that can not only deal with anticipated risk but can be modified to deal with the unexpected.
All-hazards planning is a sound and proven concept. But it does not mean that one must plan for possible hazard. It does mean that one should consider all possible hazards as part of a risk analysis. Using a risk-based approach to planning, coupled with functional and prioritized contingency planning, makes the best possible use of limited resources.
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