Don’t Accept Mediocrity in Your Emergency Management Program

Let's quit playing games with the structure of campus emergency management and demand accountability.
Published: July 6, 2011

If we are going to discuss the proper role and placement of the emergency manager in Higher Education (HE), we need to enter a new paradigm. We need to disrupt the status quo; we need to be bold, fearless and innovative, and most important – we need to resist the temptation to accept mediocrity in any form. I’ve been reading a lot about change. People resist change; actually they fear it. I was reading Josh Linker’s Your New Job: Disruptor, and the primary point was, “Today, we live in a world where playing it safe is irresponsibly dangerous.” I agree.

Many workplaces are re-examining the organizational structure of their emergency management (EM) programs due to retirements, promotions and changes due in part to a sustained economic crisis. In some instances, the restructure occurs after a major failure of the emergency response system. A recent Center for Collaborative Policy study has emergency managers discussing organizational changes that empower and make our EM programs more accountable. The recommendations to make our EM offices independent in some instances are being rejected. Why? The fear of change and a deeply engrained culture that embraces, “We’ve done it this way for a long time, so why change it?”

Data, Best Practices Aren’t Driving the Decisions

In determining placement of the EM program at universities, campuses are not consistently conducting studies, polls or research on emerging trends, best practices, reviewing after-action reports, or other quantifiable data about its structure and organization. In some instances, higher education is not interested in best practices, only what fits into existing cultures.

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If the purpose of a higher education institution is to seek excellence, why aren’t best practices being recognized and incorporated into EM organizations and structure? Key attributes and characteristics of the emergency management position are not being routinely examined.

The decisions on the organizational structure of EM programs are in some instances being made solely on feeling – what feels right or good. This should never be the basis for establishing a public safety function.  Many institutions opt for the status quo, finding comfort in placing emergency management into a complex, layered bureaucracy embedded into departments with conflicting missions, roles, duties and priorities.

Some campuses overlook and ignore adopted standards, best practices and good recommendations. The California Emergency Services Association (CESA), and other recent leadership actions taken by some of our major universities (Boston College, Penn State, The George Washington University, Indiana University and many others) sought program excellence and established independent EM program organizations. There is an opportunity to raise the bar; instead some of our institutions are lowering it (by choice).

Related Article: The Center for Collaborative Policy: redefining the role and placement of the emergency manager in an organization  

Emergency Managers Must Be Respected

In past blogs, I wrote about the need for our nation’s universities to address succession plans for key staff, emergency response staff credentialing, training, crisis management and following standards. These have always been important issues but became magnified as a result of the Virginia Tech incident. Our campuses need to know how to respond in a crisis. Emergency managers play a major role in crisis response and management.

For the last several years, campuses have been reexamining how emergency management is performed, how these positions are organized, and are restructuring EM positions so they are efficient and accountable. Without the access and support of a chief executive, emergency managers will never get the professional respect they deserve. Emergency managers must have the ability to properly manage campus resources, provide efficient planning, promote good organization, and be granted the authority and accountability that allows them to perform in a wide variety of hazard situations.

A basic question every higher education institution must ask is, “Why are we in the 21st century still struggling for the proper placement of an essential and critical function (emergency management) on our nation’s campuses?” 

The Center for Collaborative Policy article emphasized one major point: “The local emergency manager is a chief advisor to the jurisdiction’s chief executive with respect to organizing the jurisdiction’s resources and cooperators to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of major emergencies and disasters. Each jurisdiction will make their own decisions, but they need a clear idea of what the expectations are.”

It is a rare occurrence when the emergency management office assumes an independent role or function. Based on decades of my own experiences, having worked for many different disciplines (fire, police and facilities management), the work of an emergency manager in higher education will almost always assume the culture and mission of the agency to which the EM program is assigned. These actions continue to significantly marginalize our profession. In addition, the lack of awareness of incident management principles and standards by our supervisors can erode program excellence.  

Report to the V.P. or Vice Chancellor

If your boss does not understand the principles of the Incident Command System (ICS), NFPA 1600, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), or comprehensive emergency management, exercise design, and crisis management, then how can he or she realistically be expected to oversee the emergency management program with any credibility? The answer is that person can’t.

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Strategy & Planning Series
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Strategy & Planning Series