One of my favorite parts of writing this newsletter is getting to revisit voices you’ve heard from in the past, as it’s something I rarely get to do in my work for other outlets. The time I spend speaking with people tends to offer a window into just a sliver of their lives; these return conversations allow for more insight into how their experiences evolve overtime, hopefully providing a more complete story. Disasters don’t come to a tidy “end” for most people – and that can include those who work on them.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article for Insider
about burnout in the emergency management field (if you don’t know what an emergency management professional does, you’re not alone – I heard that question a lot after publishing this piece, and it actually inspired me to write this explainer
As a reminder, at that time in 2021, emergency managers were in the thick of setting up clinics and other initiatives to administer the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. It was both a hopeful moment for many who had been coordinating pandemic response for more than a year and a stressful one, piling a host of new responsibilities on an exhausted workforce. Some told me they saw “no end in sight” as they looked ahead at a summer of hurricanes, wildfires, and heat waves.
Others warned of an anticipated “brain drain” of talent, having seen an unusual number of their colleagues quitting. They feared for what that would mean not only in their workplaces, but also for the greater public.
“During the thick of all of it, everybody fell back on emergency management,” one East Coast emergency management director told me at the time, adding, “None of us are getting the funding or the resources or the personnel to actually be able to be better prepared.”
Now, just over one year later, some of those sources say they were right to be worried.
I started reaching back out to the emergency managers I spoke with last year out of curiosity, wanting to know what has or has not changed for them in the workplace. Not all of them responded; of those that did, all were still in the emergency management field. But multiple people told me they had seen an unusually high exodus of colleagues in the past year.
For example, the director quoted above described a sort of revolving door of talent in her office. Another emergency manager told me they’re spoken with newcomers to the profession who they felt were “thrown to the wolves” and have since left the field entirely, as well as with longtime emergency managers who chose to take early retirement. I was also directed to job boards with hundreds of postings, including high-ranking roles in areas that are soon to be facing heightened wildfire and hurricane risk.
It’s worth noting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was already struggling
to fill its ranks before the pandemic. Then, in May 2021, the New York Times
reported about burnout specifically within the agency, writing that its “human resources” were “in short supply.”
In a Congressional hearing
last month, Commissioner Deanne Criswell said that “recruitment and retention” remain two of the agency’s highest priorities.
“The field of emergency management is at a pivotal moment. We are seeing tremendous change in the landscape of risk and in our professional roles,” she testified. “While our mission has not changed, our operating environment has — 10 years ago, we managed an average of 108 disasters a year. Today, we are managing 311.”
When I first started researching this topic, I put out a call for sources on social media and received an outpouring of responses. So, I wanted to end today’s with another – if you work in this field and are interested in sharing your experiences, you can always reach me by responding to this email.