Understanding the Role of Emergency Managers

I have had the pleasure of supporting Emergency Managers for a few years now and I've seen that they have a serious problem. Not many people understand their role. They are constantly selling their services to elected officials and the public they serve. It’s really easy to understand what Big Blue (law enforcement) does. They uphold our laws. They arrive in fast blue cars and carry guns and handcuffs. It’s also really easy to understand what Big Red (fire/rescue) does. They arrive in large red trucks, pull out hoses, and put out fires. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) also provide easy-to-understand support, to our communities. They provide triage and medical services until the patient(s) can get to the hospital.  All of these services are vital to our communities. What do Emergency Managers do? What do they drive, what do they carry, and what do they own? A video the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM) put together a few years ago does a great job of describing its role.

The reality is that Emergency Managers don’t usually own anything and their job is to work the scene behind the scenes. They don’t have tactical teams protecting our citizens or big red trucks with flashy lights that put out fires. They don’t usually carry guns (unless you’re from Texas) and they don’t arrest people. They’re rarely needed in a response to a normal, everyday event or incident. Whether it is a house fire, a high speed chase, or a normal 911 call for a suspected heart attack, Emergency Managers don’t have a role.

Emergency Managers are masters in planning, logistics, collaboration, communications, and coordination. They are vital to the success of any community handling large planned events, significant weather (think of the floods in Texas right now) and multi-agency/multi-jurisdictional incidents, etc. Their job is to coordinate and communicate across departments for senior leadership.  They anticipate what will be needed tomorrow, determine who has the resources, and advise senior leadership on the logical path forward absent cultural constraints of specific job functions. They promote Federal efforts such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command Structure (ICS) when other disciplines question these efforts because they know a level of consistency across operations will help everyone’s ability to provide mutual aid to their neighbor. As an Emergency Manager from a very large county mentioned to me recently, “In the world of Big Red and Big Blue...Emergency Managers are Big Purple. They’re Sweden.”

Emergency Managers have an important role in the incident planning, response, and recovery cycle. They’re vital in the design, organization, and execution of cross discipline planning and exercise efforts. When it comes to large response and recovery efforts, their value is in finding the right resources to apply at the right time, regardless of where they fit, the organizational structure, and to provide elected officials the information they need to communicate a holistic approach to their citizens.

My advice to elected officials is to give your Emergency Manager a voice. If your Emergency Manager has been set up with the proper authorities, she’ll be able to provide the coordination, communications, and situational awareness required to support you in making the right decisions. I realize this viewpoint will stir some pots. Across the country in smaller communities Emergency Management is often an 'additional duty as assigned’. Yes, that’s a problem as it’s often a person from fire or police who is already maxed out.

I know there are many views regarding the role of Emergency Managers and how best they can support their communities/citizens.  What’s your perspective? How can Emergency Managers do a better job of communicating their value?