Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 18, 2012

Taking the Helm of Emergency Management

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 18, 2012

A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm. – Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People (1882).

Conceptually, the Whole Community approach to emergency management that FEMA has been advocating and which is the focus on  A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action, December 2011, make sense. The premise is simple and as FEMA clearly and succinctly states: “A Whole Community approach to building community resilience requires finding ways to support and strengthen the institutions, assets, and networks that already work well in communities and are working to address issues that are important to community members on a daily basis.”

FEMA recognizes that big government is not the answer for emergency management. Homeland security, in and of itself, is a local issue. Disasters and attacks are not addressed by bureaucrats in D.C. but but by the local,state, and tribal law enforcement and first responders, affected families, NGOs and others who are on the front lines when either nature or bad actors strike.

That said, I join my fellow HLS Watch blogger Mark Chubb in being a little uneasy about the Whole Community concept. My concerns, though, stem from a different place than those he expressed. My concerns stem from the quoted premise above that we should be looking to find ways to support and strengthen those entities that “already work well” in communities.  As detailed in the December document, this premise is put into action through “Pathways for Action” that give simplistic suggestions for emergency managers to put into place as part of their Whole Community efforts. A few examples?

  • Educate your emergency management staff on the diversity of the community and implement cultural competence interventions, such as establishing a relationship with a multi-lingual volunteer to help interact with the various groups.
  • Identify a broad base of stakeholders, including scout troops, sports clubs, home school organizations, and faith-based and disability communities to identify where relationships can be built and where information about the community’s needs can be shared. Partner with groups that interact with a given population on a daily basis, such as first responders, places of worship, niche media outlets, and other community organizations. These groups/organizations have already established trust within the community and can act as liaisons to open up communication channels.
  • Identify barriers to participation in emergency management meetings (e.g., lack of childcare or access to transportation, and time of the meeting) and provide solutions where feasible (e.g., provide childcare, arrange for the meeting to be held in a location accessible by public transportation, and schedule for after-work hours).
  • Have an open house at your emergency operations center (EOC) and invite the public. Invite schools for field trips. Explain the equipment, organization, and coordination that are used to help protect the community.
  • Leverage existing programs, such as the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA), to strengthen emergency management skills in the community. Offer Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training to PTA members.

My struggle is with the premise that communities are essentially “successful, connected, and committed.”  Not all communities fit that profile.  Sadly, some communities are more about struggle than success and a Whole Community approach means little if there is little to nothing to build upon.  What do you do when there are few strengths on which to build? In many instances, those communities that struggle most are the ones that are with the most vulnerable populations who need the most assistance.

To be complete, the Whole Community concept and the approach advocated by FEMA in its document needs an appendix or a part II to discuss what should be done when communities fail. Who is at the helm then?  I’m not advocating that this be a federal government function per se but the alignment of how to help the most needy when the “community” cannot (or, in certain locations, will not) has to be effectively addressed if we are to address emergency management. Otherwise, chaos will certainly prevail in communities that have little capability to respond.


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Comment by Mark Chubb

April 19, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

Jessica, I think you’re spot on when observing that different communities have widely varying capacities to engage emergency planning constructively. That seems to me one of the best reasons to use this approach as the default setting rather than the top-down approches typically employed.

If we’re willing to meet people where they are and employ patience, we can develop something much more important than a plan for dealing with disasters and emergencies. We can help build the sense of community that some places find lacking.

You seem to be using community in a more inclusive way than I think FEMA does sometimes. Communities are not the same as jurisdictions. They are defined not only by geography, but also by many more complex and subtle cultural distinctions. Whole community planning may be really be a multi-step process: 1) Identify distinctive communities, 2) engage each community, 3) identify common issues, interests and beliefs, 4) inventory resources and capabilities, 5) cross-pollinate communities with common or overlapping interests, 6) exercise and evaluate combined capabilities, and 7) wash, rinse, repeat.

You also seem to identify another issue that often gets overlooked: leadership. Communities of interest may or may not have a clear sense of who leads. Some take for granted the roles of others. This is another pretty important reason government should not assume it always has a mandate to intervene even when it has the authority to do so. Government officials need to know when to lead, when to follow and when to get out of the way. Too often their experience and preferences dictate which approach they will rely on even when a mix of all three may be appropriate.

Thanks for engaging my argument. Your take adds important insights and good food for thought.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Wholeness embraces strength and weakness

April 20, 2012 @ 12:11 am

[…] where many Americans reside are not what is traditionally meant by “community.”  In yesterday’s post Jessica wrote, “some communities are more about struggle than success and a Whole Community […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 21, 2012 @ 1:57 am

Some communities seem to be building blocks for HS other do not and probably worth close study for reasons why?

Pingback by Wholeness embraces strength and weakness | #UASI

April 23, 2012 @ 12:50 am

[…] places where many Americans reside are not what is traditionally meant by “community.”  In yesterday’s post Jessica wrote, “some communities are more about struggle than success and a Whole Community […]

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