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Demystifying Disasters: Part One

My World's on Fire
Demystifying Disasters: Part One
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #71 • View online
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I am really excited (and nervous!) to share the first edition of “Demystifying Disasters” with you. I created this series to answer some questions about disasters that I’ve come across regularly while reporting on them, and we’re going back to basics here—no acronym left un-explained, no assuming understanding of past disasters or jargon—because I want this to be a resource for anyone with any level of knowledge on this subject.
Today’s newsletter is all about what an emergency manager does and why it’s important to understand the role these officials play not only in disaster response but year-round. Emergency managers with local, state, federal, and private sector experience informed this piece, as well as some from outside the United States. All but one requested to speak “on background,” meaning our conversations were on the record and I can quote them, but they will not be named due to constrictions of their roles and their desire to speak freely. 
At the end of the newsletter, I’ve included a few links to further your learning, including the first steps towards identifying your own area’s emergency managers.
Now, let’s get into it:
Introducing Emergency Management
The people who plan for your worst day
That’s the simple way a number of emergency managers summed up their jobs: they’re the people who not only imagine the worst-case scenario but also hold meetings, gather resources, and run drills to prepare for it. 
“It’s mitigating, preparing for, planning for, responding to, and recovering from all hazards that might impact our jurisdiction and its residents,” elaborated one local emergency management director.
All hazards is a term you’re likely to hear when you dip a toe in the emergency management world, and it means that they’re accounting for a range of scenarios, from natural hazard-triggered disasters like hurricanes or wildfires to acts of terrorism, hazardous material spills, or pandemics. 
In fact, many emergency managers played a large role in Covid-19 response. One I spoke with works specifically in a Public Health Emergency Preparedness Role, which they described as being at the “crossroads of emergency management and public health.“ For them, the pandemic has meant “nonstop” running, at first to get personal protective equipment (PPE) from state and national stockpiles to their local healthcare professionals, and more recently, coordinating vaccine distribution.
Another emergency manager told me it’s frankly difficult to determine what they don’t do these days—her department has worked on public health, public safety, homeland security, disasters, and public works during the past year. 
Locally executed, state managed, federally supported
Part of the reason it’s so hard to really pin down a general description of an emergency manager is that the responsibilities of this role can be vastly different depending on where you look. I’m going to focus for now on emergency managers who work for the public, since that is likely who is most relevant to readers like you. 
The title of this section sums up the structure of emergency management in the US: it’s largely operated at the local level, with the state and then federal offices available to offer assistance. But that can look quite different depending on where you live—particularly in areas with fewer resources, your local fire chief might also be responsible for emergency management, or the job could be a volunteer role. That means, in some places, you might call 911 to reach your local emergency manager. But in larger or wealthier communities, it’s likely there is a dedicated team of professionals to fill those roles. So, those emergency managers will typically not be the actual first responders running out to the scene of the disaster but instead will be working behind the scenes in emergency operations centers, or EOCs, to support first responders’ efforts and coordinate aid for residents. 
It’s only when those local responders run low on resources or when a certain degree of destruction has occurred that they will start calling up the chain, one local emergency manager explained.
“We have to do damage assessment and have a certain amount of damage before we can go up to the state and obviously to the federal level,” she said. 
And even if that is approved: “The local level still always retains the responsibility of the response, and it is still our duty to serve our residents that are in our area. FEMA does not come in and say, ‘Okay, this is a federal disaster. I’m running the incident.’”
FEMA refers to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is the federal arm of emergency management and likely the one you’ve heard the most about since it tends to make headlines during large-scale disasters. But those I spoke with stressed that it’s important to understand FEMA will likely not be there when a disaster hits by design—the agency can only provide that sort of support after damage thresholds are met and disaster declarations are made.
“The word ‘disaster’ does come with some connotation in the emergency management world,” the state emergency manager told me. “It might feel like a disaster, but if the President hasn’t said there’s assistance available, technically, that’s not a disaster for us.” 
His role at the state, he explained, is about making sure the department has “all the latest situational awareness that we can make actionable decisions from.” He also noted that tribal nations can be the exception to the local to state to federal system, as they can choose to go directly to the state or directly to FEMA for assistance. 
So, what does an emergency manager actually do?
Many emergency managers pointed to a misconception that they only work during times of crisis—the local director told me that even a local firefighter asked her what she’d do with all of her “free time” as vaccination clinics started winding down. 
In Eric Holdeman’s experience, a “small portion” of the job is typically spent in disaster response. He’s worked in emergency management at the local, state, and federal level, as well as in nonprofit and private sector consulting, and now runs the Disaster Zone blog and podcast
Most of the time, he says, is actually spent in meetings. Some of those meetings will be with other emergency managers at different levels of government in hopes of establishing good communication and relationships so that you aren’t meeting for the first time in the middle of a crisis. 
“You want to trade business cards before you’re on the fire scene, right?” the local emergency management director said. “It’s so important to have those relationships established and know who to talk to and have that familiarity and comfort when you have to pick up the phone.”
An emergency manager also might meet with politicians or other government officials to help them understand the need for planning, mitigation efforts, or funding for emergencies in their jurisdiction. Other tasks for “blue sky days,” or days when there is not an active disaster to deal with, include writing emergency operation plans for your assigned area to outline things like sheltering or food and water distribution. Or, you could be working with partner agencies, like first responders, to do disaster exercises and put those plans to the test. There are also mitigation plans to make and grants to apply to, as well as volunteer management, social media, and public messaging.
And, as the state emergency manager pointed out, just because you complete those plans or exercises once doesn’t mean they’re done—you constantly have to adjust and adapt to changes in your community or in the world, like creating new sheltering protocols to respond to Covid-19. 
When a disaster does occur, the job is, of course, different depending on what you are dealing with, but it largely comes down to coordination and communication between first responders, agencies, officials, other emergency managers, and the public to carry out plans and get resources and aid readily available.
Some things they want you to know
Many of the emergency managers I spoke with pointed to the need for individuals to have insurance, particularly as we see worsening disasters due to climate change.
The local emergency manager put it bluntly: “Based on how our disaster recovery systems are right now, people cannot recover if they don’t have insurance.”
The state emergency manager explained that, even if people without insurance meet the threshold for government aid, it is typically a more drawn-out process than they expect. 
“The local jurisdiction has to start with damage assessments immediately following a disaster, and the first person who shows up at your door may not be here to fix your roof and maybe she doesn’t know what’s going on. And maybe the next person who comes will offer you a tarp,” he said as an example. 
He added that it also can be difficult for a person with no prior understanding of the system to know what sort of funding is even available—like that FEMA’s Public Assistance is actually not for individuals, and that the Small Business Association offers personal loans. These “oddities,” as he called them, can confuse someone trying to get aid, which is why he believes it can be helpful to connect with local or state emergency managers. He also hopes people can start to see preparedness as a less daunting task.
“I think we might oversell a little bit sometimes that preparedness is a science or effort, but it’s not, it’s just a mindset of having what you need ahead of when you need it,” he said. “Don’t worry about making a special grocery trip for your disaster kit, just make your disaster kit part of your normal grocery trip.”
That said, many acknowledged that inequity plays a significant role in their profession’s ability to address the risks faced in some communities, particularly those with real needs for infrastructure improvements and other investments, as well as where residents might not be able to afford insurance. In places that have historically been overlooked by officials, there can also be a lack of trust, the local emergency management director said, which can make it difficult for them to even access vulnerable individuals. She pointed to Seattle as one city that has been able to take a more community-focused approach, working to create “hubs” of resiliency in local spots residents are already comfortable visiting.
Finding funding for new initiatives tends to be challenging, though.
“The average elected official does not think about disasters—that’s an aside. They’re consumed with everyday issues,” Holdeman said. “So, a lot of times, you can be fighting for crumbs.”
And that’s particularly concerning for these officials considering the amount of work they have been shouldering during the past two years with Covid-19 and climate-related disasters. It’s a “different era” we’re entering, Holdeman believes, both due to climate change and new technology that will change previous plans (like considering how the needs of electric vehicles might impact evacuations). 
Overall, each emergency manager urged anyone reading this to check out their local or state emergency management agency websites to learn more or to even reach out to those professionals with any questions. The local director told me she still has an email saved from someone who moved to the area in 2019 and wanted to learn more about how to prepare for local risks, because it made her so happy to receive it!
This tool makes it easy—just select your state, and you’ll get sent right to the its office of emergency management.
If you want to learn more…
  • Here is FEMA’s official breakdown of what an emergency manager does. 
  • For a deeper look into not only the role of emergency managers but the larger landscape they function in and challenges they face, check out this webinar from Climate XChange.
  • Earlier this year, I wrote about the burnout many emergency managers were experiencing as they continued to manage Covid-19 responses while trying to prepare for and cope with compounding disasters. And I revisited that topic on an episode of COVIDCalls this summer. 
As always...
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire.
I want to sincerely thank the sources that took time out of their busy schedules to explain to me in deep detail the information I’m sharing with you today. I also want to encourage all of you reading this to reply to this email and let me know what you think about this new series. I’m really eager to hear your thoughts on what was helpful, how I can improve it moving forward, and any questions you still have on this subject or for future editions.
For those of you who offered to speak to me for this series and haven’t heard from me yet, please know that I do plan on being in touch! I’ll be sharing the next topic in an upcoming newsletter, and I’ll be looking to conduct more interviews at that time.
Putting together this edition took hours of interviews and effort, so if you did find it valuable, I really hope you’ll share it with others in your community or on social media. And if you have the means, you can support future newsletters like it by joining my Patreon, which only costs a few dollars each month (and includes additional exclusive content, including behind-the-scenes looks at my reporting).
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
Colleen
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