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Restructuring for Resilience

July 17, 2009

Recently, a public safety policy analyst in the city manager’s office of one of the United States’ 10 largest cities called me seeking advice about the restructuring of their emergency management office.  The worldwide fiscal crisis has had a profound impact on local government budgets, and theirs, like many others, has forced tough choices about key functions.

Before calling me, it seemed, certain decisions had already been made.  These included how many staff positions they had money to fund.  The vision and mission for the emergency management program and the duties of the remaining staff remain up for grabs though.

Our initial discussions focused on where emergency management should sit within the city government.  I am among those who believe it does not belong in traditional public safety agencies, such as police or fire departments.  For starters, this often creates turf conflicts.  But more importantly, it can lead to a loss of focus on the wider needs of the community rather than the priorities associated with specific incidents.  As such, this arrangement often produces a tactical rather than strategic focus, which isolates emergency management policy in a way that militates against the integration of prevention, mitigation, and preparedness into practice across business units, sectors, and communities.

This often means a stand-alone agency should exist.  I prefer to see the function as a direct report to the chief political or administrative official of the jurisdiction, but exceptions exist when the jurisdiction has already centralized some other key functions that promote resilience, such as risk management, external affairs, and public liaison activities.

The logical next questions surround defining the mission, determining reporting relationships, and assigning roles.  I am a big believer that the focus of emergency management programs should be on resilience, not preparedness.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, resilience requires emergency managers to recognize that we can’t manage emergencies, we only keep them from managing us.  That puts the emphasis on building relationships and developing the individual, organizational, and social capacity to anticipate and adapt to sudden, discontinuous changes in our environment regardless of their source or intensity.

If, as is the case in the city whose official I’ve been speaking with, you have very limited resources, you should employ them in a way that builds capacity and leverages resources in three strategic areas:

  1. Internal business units and key decision-makers;
  2. Other levels of government and neighboring jurisdictions; and
  3. External constituencies or stakeholders, including businesses, institutions, schools, and voluntary, faith-based and community-based organizations.

A director or manager overseeing the emergency management function should have a high tolerance for ambiguity and complexity as well as strong leadership skills, especially the ability to think strategically, communicate effectively, and build effective networks.  The primary focus of the leader will be on facilitating and leveraging changes that promote adaptation.

Key support positions should engage their respective partners through planning wit hthe goal of integrating continity, mitigation, and response planning into the routine business processes of the jurisdiction, especially budget and performance management processes.  This approach avoids organizing and staffing the emergency management function in a way that duplicates capacities that exist elsewhere.

Building an effective emergency management capacity on a very tight budget requires public officials to view it as a core function and key responsibility of government.  This means everybody has some responsibility for preparing and responding when disaster strikes.  The challenge then is not how to make do with less, but how to engage what already exists in a way that improves eveyone’s ability to react and adapt as conditions change.

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