Emergency management is not about managing emergencies; it is about not letting emergencies manage us. Too many practitioners assume the disciplined application of the incident command system will restore order, but disasters don’t pay attention to what we say and have relatively little regard for what we do. People, on the other hand, pay attention to both, and they are particularly aware when the two are not in sync with one another.
Communities look to emergency managers not so much to manage the emergency per se — after all the worst is usually over by the time the response begins, but rather to provide them with some assurance that someone knows what’s happening, cares about how it affects them, and is doing something at a minimum to make sure matters do not get any worse. This is where contemporary approaches to emergency management have tended to let us down.
Despite the modesty expressed immediately after an event, such as the cliche: “we’re not heroes, we were just doing our job,” emergency responders tend to take far more credit than they deserve when things go well and have accepted far too little responsibility when they do not. Recognizing that the role of emergency responders is less about responding to the disaster than helping people take care of one another, adapt to the new conditions, and re-norm their communities puts their roles in a different perspective, one that few communities have embraced and many if not most emergency responders are reluctant to accept.
Not too long ago, before homeland security emerged alongside emergency management as the label for what these agencies do, we referred to such programs as “civil defense.” The whole concept of civil defense accepted that nuclear war, the hazard du jour of the Cold War, would overwhelm (if not annihilate) communities and their local response capabilities. As such, communities needed a system of preparedness that would allow survivors to regroup, re-norm, and re-establish their communities in the aftermath of such horror.
It may be evidence of apathy or perhaps hubris, but today, despite evidence that events falling far short of nuclear armageddon completely overwhelm our response capabilities, we cling to the notion that government, not the community, has the primary responsibility for putting things right. Civil defense, properly understood, perhaps expresses the idea better than emergency management: Emergency managers’ first and most important goal is to defend civil order by demonstrating that the physical violence accompanying an event has neither disturbed nor destroyed the capacity of the society to adapt and renew itself. We can do this best by working with communities to develop and deploy social capital.