Don’t Accept Mediocrity in Your Emergency Management Program

Let’s quit playing games with the structure of campus emergency management and demand accountability.

One basic question we should all be asking in assigning the duties for emergency management is oversight.  

Who does the campus police chief or fire official, environmental health and safety director, or other public safety-related officials in a university campus report to? Generally, this is a vice president or vice chancellor position. 

The emergency manager should also be reporting to this person, not a police chief or fire chief, or any other department director. As one of my colleagues told me, “By definition EM is an umbrella function. Pushing EM under anything only serves to limit a function that should not be limited.” I wholeheartedly agree.

EM Job Descriptions Are Ill Defined

Most emergency managers are experienced, subject-matter experts addressing mass warning, comprehensive preparedness plans, hazard mitigation strategies and disaster recovery (under the Stafford Act). They run comprehensive exercises and exercise design teams using the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), and training staff to manage all of the positions in the campus emergency operations center (EOC). This all stems from the question: “What is it we actually do?” I have found that if you ask 10 different people, you will probably get 10 different answers. It isn’t rocket

If you want to be a police officer or firefighter, you will need to pass a battery of pre-hiring tests, an oral board, and once you complete a background and psychological examination; you complete a long comprehensive training academy. Upon completion of the training academy, you are then assigned to a lengthy field training process under a field supervisory professional, and then complete a rigorous probationary period that takes approximately two years. Most of these programs are defined by state laws and rigid certification processes. The laws require cops and firefighters to work in fire and police departments, so why are our emergency managers not working in emergency management departments? 

Disasters are not big emergencies. They fall well above the skill level of basic first responders. A university campus needs someone in place who truly understands every aspect of the incident command system, EOC and disaster operations, disaster recovery and other complex missions. These are far and beyond the basic skill sets of a police, fire and other campus department directors. These disciplines may understand and have expertise in field operations, but in emergency management there are many, many more critical functions other than first response. 

Ego, Rank Shouldn’t Determine Who Leads EOCs

EOC directors must know every single EOC position under their authority and every function (operations, planning/intelligence, logistics, finance/admin – easily over 25 individual positions) and how to oversee an EOC action planning process. Yet many police, fire and campus department directors are taking lead roles as EOC directors, not the emergency manager.

This means the person with the most training and credentials in the room isn’t running the show. It means someone with lesser experience and knowledge in charge. Is that appropriate? It many instances, it seems to be.  The people assigned to run the EOC may have absolutely no idea of the roles, responsibilities and priorities to which they are assigned. In many instances, it’s ego and rank that define who runs a campus EOC. That is not how EOC management is supposed to be run, or what we teach in the basic principles of the incident command system (where rank and title do not define command). And yet, that is exactly what is happening because the people making these appointments also have no real idea of the complex issues that need to be addressed.

In many instances, only after major mistakes are made, do people come to the realization that the emergency management office should be restructured or become a lead agency. It happened at Virginia Tech in 2007. It happened at Florida International University (FIU) following a homicide and major failure of the mass notification and warning process where the EM was based in the police department. In the aftermath of a candid after-action report, an independent EM office was established at FIU. (Other related articles are here and here.)  

Campuses Must Make Difficult Choices

We need to quit playing games with the structure of campus EM programs and start demanding accountability. Emergency management is not a school science project. We need to define, certify and accredit emergency managers. Then once we truly define the program, we need to empower the campus emergency managers and let them direct and oversee their programs just like any other campus safety program director. 

Until we create and define programs that are standards-based (NFPA 1600), reporting to the campus administration, we will never achieve the accountability that is needed to define our jobs and role we fulfill in organizing the campus’ resources and cooperators to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of major emergencies. Campuses need to start showing some courage and stop making easy choices that undermine our profession and ultimately marginalize our emergency management programs and the entire response and recovery organization.

University presidents and chancellors and their underlings are allowing non-credentialed, and unqualified department directors to oversee critical functions that are the domain of professional emergency managers.   The parents of students attending our universities, the alumni, administrators and the public in general should be outraged this nonsense is allowed to occur.  They probably don’t even know this is happening.

Don’t Take EM for Granted

We have a problem: it’s the ho-hum and blasé attitude about how improperly the emergency management role is structured and organized in many of our nation’s universities. Higher education as an institution should know better, and yet, it is allowed to continue unabated. Emergency managers need to be appointed at the same level as any other public safety function and be recognized for the expertise and critical role they serve in supporting, coordinating, and managing disaster and crisis management at our nation’s campuses.

Campus Safety Executive Editor Robin Hattersley Gray recently spoke about the shame of being ill-prepared for earthquakes. How about our campuses not being structured to deal with a major crisis? That is where the outrage should be directly. We’ve got people running our emergency management programs that have no business doing so. When dangers strike, who do you want running the show? The pros or the novices? Let’s do something about it.

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About the Author


With more than 30 years experience, David is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) currently administering the emergency management program at Santa Clara University in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area's Silicon Valley. David managed the UCLA Office of Emergency Management for seven years and pioneered the development of the campus' award-winning "BruinAlert" system. David championed development of emergency plans, policies and procedures in the aftermath of Virginia Tech in 2007 and consults higher education institutions on emergency management issues. David is a subject matter expert in mass casualty incident management, emergency notification systems, comprehensive plan development, emergency organization, EOC design and operations, crisis communications, threat and vulnerability assessment, disaster recovery, grant administration and auditing. In 2009, David and other campus emergency managers provided consult in the development of the first incident management course developed by FEMA/EMI specifically for higher education (IS-100HE, Introduction to the Incident Command System (ICS) for Higher Education). Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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