You’ve Just Lost Your Top Emergency Management Employee. Now What?

Departments must be prepared for when important members of their teams leave.

As I look back on what I’ve accomplished as a campus emergency manager (EM), one thing is clear: I can’t do this job alone. I rely on many, many people to get the job done. There are many key people who have a great impact on how I do my job, and how we come together as a team in crisis.

So what happens to the team when a major player leaves? In universities across the country, using a football analogy, we move to the second and third string players. There are layers. Unfortunately, in emergency management, there aren’t always as many layers as we would like.

This year I saw some changes with new people coming in and many experienced people leaving due to retirements. Some just left because a better opportunity came along. My training schedule is under higher demand due to employee evolution. This brings up the issue of having a good organizational succession and training plans.

Many of the people I rely on have decades of skill and experience; institutional knowledge that is not easily replaced. I work with people who have been on campus on average of 15 to 20 years, 30 years, even 40-50 years of experience in some locations. They know every nut, bolt and minute element of the campus. In some instances, the knowledge and experience cannot be replaced. When a key official leaves or retires, it can severely impact an institution. These folks provide excellent guidance to the EM team.

Learning the Nuances of a Campus Takes Time

I have been on my campus for nearly five years, and I am just now mastering the vastness of the campus community – 175 buildings and growing; a new medical center across the street, new research labs, and many new changes. It never ends. Five years means I am exiting my novice period and becoming a pro at the higher education and academic level.

The dynamics of change can bring in many challenges to a university campus. When a person leaves, a void is created. Knowing how nature hates a vacuum, that void will be filled. How the void is filled can create some political and organizational challenges. A good succession plan or strategy can help smooth out some of the wrinkles. We all know at least one person in our organizations who holds great skill, wisdom, knowledge and experience. In this knowledge, there is great respect. Often these people are considered irreplaceable. In a literal sense it’s not true, since we can all be replaced (some more easily than others), but you get the point. 

Those so-called irreplaceable gems are great assets nonetheless. They often do the work of many people. Their presence in a crisis establishes a level of calm or gravitas that carries the entire room. If we do not have redundancy of comparably skilled and qualified staff, the departure of just one irreplaceable staff member can devastate a campus EM program and the crisis team. It could take many months or a year or more to correct if succession, training and mentoring strategies are not undertaken well in advance.

We should be preparing for the future; we need to ensure our staff is up to the task at hand, especially working in an emergency management role or function. We need to have veterans mentoring those newly entering the profession.  We need to build good teams with varying levels of experience.  In simple terms I learned from my daughter’s pre-school teacher, “you get what you get, don’t throw a fit!”

Get Your 2nd and 3rd String Team Members Ready

With the departure of several key people in my own institution, succession is on my mind. I recently attended my annual EM conference and issues like succession, mentoring and managing risk were common themes. We must all look toward the future.

The success I have in doing my job is made somewhat easier because the team I work with has great skill. If the people replacing those who leave do not have similar skill sets, the ease and fluid nature of the team will be challenged. If one person comes in lacking key skill sets or experience (the weakest link), especially in emergency management-related functions, the ability to manage a critical section or functions is lost. The entire institution could suffer during crisis. It’s like relying on only one star kicker to kick that winning goal, and if he goes down, who then will we have to work with?

Businesses often follow the ethos of seeking advantage using the weakest link or rivalry to capture market share or increase profit.  In a campus setting, the weakest link often sets the course for failure – a team may often only be able perform as well as its weakest link. We can reduce our vulnerabilities, risks, and potential for failure by making sure we have a plan and staffing layers for succession in critical campus positions, especially as it relates to emergency management.

There is one chaos element we all work with: the people we train. Those we expect to be there in a crisis could be absent. They may be sick, on vacation, out of the area and simply unable to be recalled. We need to make sure we have people who can respond and take charge, and more important, when the need for a second or third string player is made – they can rise to the challenge. If not, we lose the game. 

Unfortunately, in this serious game (emergencies), when we lose, people suffer. That’s why its important our campus administrators take their crisis roles seriously – people’s lives and campus mission may depend on how we train, prepare and respond to the challenges that may be placed before us.

The problem is we never know when we will get the call from the coach.  Readiness never takes a break or holiday.  When the coach taps you on the shoulder and says, “get in there, you’re up!” – will you be ready?

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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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