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Understanding the Elected Officials Role in Emergency Management


Purpose or Rational:


Disasters are extreme test of a community’s leadership.  Policy Group members, whether they are Mayors, City Managers, Council Members or other Positions bear the direct and ultimate responsibility for their jurisdiction’s safety and survival. As has been demonstrated across this country, Elected Officials often do not have a clear understanding of their role(s) as Policy Group Members *(PGM’s) during a disaster. With the increasing State and Federal requirements as well as the greater public focus on the performance of elected officials during disasters, it is becoming increasingly important for Policy Group members to become engaged and educated.

Policy decisions, the importance of their timing and the possible ramifications (both legal and political) of poor choices are all key components of needed training.  Although we do not want to scare Policy Group Members into not taking action, it is important that we do stress the critical thinking that must be done to justify decisions.  From a basic understanding of the Incident Command System (ICS) to an understanding of how cascading events can rapidly change the demand of an incident, there are basic skills that must be developed. Clear, methodical and informed decision-making can limit damage as well as legal exposure and are important parts of the overall emergency management process.


The purpose of this book is to help readers develop the skills and tools needed to work proactively in all four phases of emergency management. In larger communities, with dedicated emergency management staff, this will add to the quality of emergency management programs.  In smaller communities without dedicated staff it will help those policy leaders become champions of building strong programs. 


*Policy Group Members include Elected and Appointed Officials as well as Department Heads whose disciplines include Emergency Support Functions (ESF’s).


Policy Leadership in Emergency Management


“Leadership is not about being the best, it is about making everyone around you better.”


Elected officials have a critical and important role to play in emergency management.  That role is not stepping in and directing response, it is not even giving orders during times of emergency. That role is simply doing everything they can to make emergency management in their community the best possible.  That means ensuring that the staff are qualified, effective and trained. That also means making investments in building community capacity.  These investments are in time, financial support and engaging all aspects of the community.  It also means recognizing the fact that emergency management is a continual process, not just writing a plan and placing it on the shelf. 

There are many things that can be learned from the mistakes of others. The community that budgeted ¼ FTE for an emergency manager, figuring they could do other work as well.  The community that thought police and fire were all they needed and then were hit by flooding. In this book, both success stories and failures will be discussed along with asking the reader to honestly analyze their own community. In the back of this book is a self-scoring test that will help with this analysis. However, the one thing this book will not do is just give you a fill in the blank template to use to develop a quality emergency management program.  As every community is different, with different resources, different hazards and most of all different community components, it would be impossible to develop a one size fits all plan.  This book will require the reader to think, to honestly assess and to take action to address gaps as they find them.


When disaster strikes:

Just as you walk into city hall, the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm warning with likelihood of heavy straight-line winds, hail and the likelihood of tornados. You turn on the TV and the news is showing video of devastation in a community only a few miles away. The weatherman then shows a frightening weather map, showing a long line of storms heading directly towards your community. The weatherman urgently warns anyone in the path of these storms to take she lter. Right then the power goes out and as the sound of a modern city starts to fade, a new rumbling sound draws your attention to window where you now see a ½ mile wide tornado drawing a bead on city hall.  What do you do?

Or perhaps instead the emergency is an earthquake that occurred in the middle of the night, throwing you out of your bed an onto the floor.  As the room shakes you can hear the sounds of breaking glass and buildings crashing to the ground.  You hear a loud explosion off in the distance as well as the screams of children.  What do you do?

Maybe the disaster your community is facing is flooding caused by almost 30 inches of rainfall as a result of the remnants of a hurricane. The nearby river now has already reached out of its banks and is now swiftly flowing down Main Street. Even more alarming, the new fire station that was built almost five foot above the record flooding that occurred after the last big storm is now under four foot of water. What do you do?

The answer to what you do, depends somewhat on the person, somewhat on the position they hold and somewhat on preparations they have made.  Just as every disaster is different, the response needed to respond to disaster will always be different as well.  What is not different is the fact that your community is in peril and the citizens are looking to you for assistance. Now the question is not what do you do, but do you have the knowledge, skills and capacity to assist your community?  Some leaders do. Many more leaders do a relatively good job stumbling through. Unfortunately, there are many leaders in this nation who when faced with disaster, do not only lack a clear understanding of what to do, they are not sure of even who to turn to. That is the purpose of this book, to help the reader recognize their current capacity to face disaster and then identify what they need to do to improve that capacity.

The fact is some policy leaders are never tested by disaster.  Their constituents were lucky enough to have never had to deal with the disruption of even a smaller event. However, that does not mean that community will never face disaster. In reality every community in this nation faces the possibility of disaster impacting the lives of its citizens. In reality it is the responsibility of every elected official to recognize how disasters could impact their community and more importantly, what they should do to build community capacity for response and recovery. This is true of large vibrant communities such as Tuscaloosa Alabama, and is just as true of small residential communities such as Pacific Washington. The only difference is the amount of resources that may be available to the community to prepare for, respond to and recover from any emergency event. However, policy leaders are in a unique position to help their communities be better prepared and have significant disaster capacity. Properly trained and engaged, policy leaders can be the most important component of emergency management in their communities.


Although every disaster is unique, there are certain steps community leaders can take to prepare their community in an all hazards fashion. It has been said that a disaster will test the type of leadership that community has. If that leadership has been proactive the leadership of that community will most likely be seen in a positive light.  If instead the Mayor has that deer in the headlights type stare, it is more likely the leadership will seem incompetent. Although it is easy to pass the responsibility off to someone else, or worse yet just place emergency management on a back burner, policy leaders who do this are violating one of one of their most sacred oaths; to protect and serve in the best interest of their community.

The world of emergency management is sometimes complex, often repetitive, but is almost always challenging. Some communities hire skilled and well-trained emergency management professionals to do most of the work, but if a policy group member has no understanding of emergency management, how will they know what right looks like?  The idea of this book is not to turn mayor’s and city council members into emergency managers, but to provide them enough perspective for them to be an effective partner in building local emergency management and recovery capacity.

Every disaster begins and ends as a local event. At its onset, local officials are the first to feel the impacts and when everyone else leaves, local officials will still be there. It is important that local officials understand what their role is and what it isn’t.  They need to know what is needed, as well as who they can call when resources run short.  Who are their community partners and what capacity does the “Whole of Community” have to first respond and then recover from a disaster event? These are just a few of the aspects of emergency management that officials should know.

In some communities’ local officials turn the responsibilities for emergency preparedness over to a member of their staff.  In some cases, this might be the Police or Fire Chief or a person who works under them. They may be very good at their jobs and in no case, do I want to make anyone doubt their ability to perform these functions.  However, that does not relieve elected officials from their responsibilities to both prepare themselves and their communities.  Even if they have dedicated staff that do all of the planning, manage the response and facilitate recovery, their appropriate involvement can and typically makes those programs stronger.  Officials who are involved can be inspirational to the community and transformational in the way their community looks at disasters. In the case studies provided in this book, examples of that type of transformational leadership will illustrate this point.  It is my hope that by reading this book, elected officials and other policy leaders will see a bit of themselves and possibly adopt some of the concepts presented.


A calm voice in the storm

A person only needs to look back in history to see examples of positive and negative leadership during disasters.  When a leader appears confident, speaks in a steadfast and reassuring manor, they can prove to be a calming voice in a turbulent storm. Winston Churchill showed this in World War II, Rudy Giuliani showed this September 11, 2001. Regardless of politics, in the aftermath of the 2001 Terror Attack on the World Trade Center, Mayor Giuliani appeared to this nation as a confident and competent leader who was ready to help his city and this nation recover from a traumatic event.  In his book Leadership, Rudy Giuliani wrote “It is in times of crisis that good leaders emerge”.  Despite any mistakes he made before, during or after that day, the perception of the public was he was America’s Mayor. However, it does not take a 9/11 type event to become a leader; when a disaster or tragic event occurs, having a calm, confident and knowledgeable demeanor can be a big part of providing the leadership a community in a disaster needs. Even if inwardly shaken to the core, a calm voice will help reassure a shaken public who will then be less likely to act out of fear and panic. These are traits that come from the personal confidence developed by being engaged and building skills prior to the onset of disaster.

How does a leader develop the knowledge skills and abilities to exhibit a quiet confidence in times of disaster? It is not typically something that comes naturally. Proactive engagement in the emergency management process, clear perceptions of what communities need to do before during and after and most of all confidence in the team that surrounds you is a start.  Participation in training and exercise programs as well as taking advantage of FEMA training programs is a start. However, without a clear perception of emergency management, and how disasters impact their community, it may be difficult for them to recognize why their appropriate engagement is so important. So this is where the journey will begin.

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