Note: We’re going to do one of my favorite things today and get into the disaster-bureaucracy weeds. So, if you’re unfamiliar with the basics of emergency management, I highly recommend checking out this edition about what emergency managers do and the local/state/federal structure in place before you read on.
The reason I like to get into this stuff in MWOF is because it’s the kind of context that can be difficult to fit in your average news story, but when I’ve covered communities after disasters, I’ve regularly heard about the steep learning curve of trying to navigate such systems for the first time in the midst of recovery. So, by introducing it in these dispatches, I hope to help foster a basic understanding of emergency management.
Okay, explanation over—for those who didn’t run screaming at the promise of wonkiness ahead, let’s get into it!
Tomorrow marks the two-week birthday of Oregon’s newest cabinet-level agency—the Oregon Department of Emergency Management
. To be fair, the state having an emergency management agency is nothing new, but it is newly independent: before July 1, Oregon’s then-Office of Emergency Management was actually part of the Oregon Military Department.
This isn’t unusual—a number of state and local emergency management offices are housed within other departments, as is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security. Oregon Department of Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps told me earlier this week that he actually underwent similar transitions twice before in his career at the local and state level in New Mexico.
“This does a lot of things for us as a standalone department in terms of advocating for our needs as opposed to being lumped into another large organization that may have competing priorities,” Phelps told me by phone earlier this week. “[Emergency management], it’s not a subset of another government function. It’s not part of the fire service or it’s not a law enforcement function, it’s really something that needs to stand on its own.”
Phelps described emergency management at the state level in Oregon as being historically “grossly under-resourced.” By that, he means they’ve typically had “about 43 full-time positions,” which he compared to the “115 or 120” full-time employees in the state of Washington, which has a similar risk profile. A combination of disasters in 2020—Covid-19, as well as historic flooding
—stressed this shoestring team and put a renewed focus on their work, Phelps believes.
The state legislature proposed and approved the move from office to department during its 2021 legislative session, and in the months since, the state’s emergency management staff has more than doubled to 93 full-time employees. That includes new regional hires across the state, who will build relationships and work to support county emergency managers and community members in their preparedness and response efforts. Each region will similarly have dedicated coordinators for hazard mitigation and recovery to focus on things like helping with grant applications and developing projects. The goal, Phelps says, is in part to ease some of the burden local emergency managers often carry as they juggle multiple responsibilities.
Phelps says they’re currently in the process of hiring an inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) coordinator, who would review their existing programs through an equity lens and assist efforts to diversify the workforce. The department has also been given a full-time employee position for a tribal liaison to build relationships and partnerships with the state’s tribes, providing support while recognizing their sovereignty.
“Our experiences, especially with Covid and the wildfires, really showed the inequitable impact of disasters in our communities, especially those that are historically marginalized,” Phelps said. “We found that a lot of the federal programs that exist to help disaster survivors have not been built to assist those who need the help the most, whether it’s due to language barriers, accessibility issues, immigration status, or just distrust of the federal government.”
Overall, Phelps hopes the transition will allow the agency to better address those underserved populations and become more proactive about risk reduction, both through the work of those new hires and their improved ability to collaborate with agencies like the Oregon Health Authority, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Transportation, which are now on their same organizational level.
“The flooding, the severe wildfires—they were not anomalies. These were indicators of the types of disasters we will continue to face as our climate changes, as our demographics change, and as our environment changes,” Phelps said. “We certainly had to go through those really difficult experiences to get to this point, but we’re certainly in better position now in terms of the resources we have and our position in state government to prepare for, mitigate against, and respond to emergencies and disasters.”