How to Destroy Your Emergency Management Program

Today, I attended a meeting that made my head spin – sadly something more common than it should be.  In this case, the topic was emergency management, something I am normally passionate about.  On this occasion, though, the focus drifted far off track at times, even into the absurd.

The meeting was a community emergency planning group, facilitated by city employees.  In the past, I’ve found the meetings to be either boring or just overwrought with fear mongering.  Boring, for example, when local officials present excessive detail about fire department response.  A leaking truck turns into an accounting of only one agency’s role and with all the attention on the fire department work, there was no accounting for the impact on the community or even other responders such as law enforcement tasked with redirecting traffic around a closed and busy interstate.

Then there is the fear factor.  Speakers have focused on various what-if scenarios and the ensuing death and destruction without any assessment on how likely the scenario could occur in real life.  It reminds me of those who take the fear-uncertainty-doubt (FUD) approach to law enforcement or security.  That is to say, creating fear of the unknown and using that fear in order to promote their agendas or get projects approved.

Then the meeting today lapsed into the unrealistic.  The speaker, a government employee, presented the risks of earthquakes in the area.  He was a very good speaker and I really enjoyed the part where he discussed man-made risks, such as fracking.  However, at one point, he mentioned that some buildings, such as schools and hospitals, should be designed to be earthquake resilient and that it was not expensive at all.  He added that it would add about 5% to the cost of the building.  Every design, remodel or construction project that I’ve been involved with has been ‘value engineered’ to cut the budget, with management looking to eliminate every non-essential (and sometimes the essential) for savings.

From a business perspective, if I tried to make the argument to add 5% more into a new building cost just to make it earthquake resilient, I would be tossed out of the conference room.  Especially since the recommendation was based on an earthquake that happened 150 years ago about 50 miles away.  That includes buildings that are part of the critical infrastructure of the community.  I could see the argument for nuclear power plants as absolutely no risk should be tolerated due to the consequences.

The meeting then moved into the mode of semantics over substance.  There was an announcement that a citizen response group would now use the word “community” instead of “citizen” as emergency response planning was not just for citizens, and non-citizens lived in the community.  If I were visiting in Europe, I would not expect them to change wording for a group like that to accommodate visitors or ex-pats living there.  Certainly, this was an attempt to take a politically correct approach with illegal immigration.  I had to wonder how many illegal immigrants opted not to join solely based on the word citizen versus community (and I am betting none).  Furthermore, there was mention that emergency operation centers had to be ADA compliant.  Again, the focus shifted from the real challenges of handling life and death disasters to meeting various regulations and requirements, well intentioned, but out of place, at least as a priority.

On to the surreal, as the discussion turned to details about how the committee helped businesses recover following a disaster.  The example given was a restaurant whose liquor license expires during a community-wide emergency.  To help the business survive, the city could graciously give an extension to keep the restaurant open.

Imagine a city devastated by a hurricane or earthquake.  As the community struggles to rebuild and recover, rest assured a restaurant with an expired license could continue, at least with a temporary extension.

Emergency management is a very serious part of the modern world.  To be successful, emergency planners should follow basic business principles focusing on realistic scenarios and practical responses to general hazards.  Changing terms or phrases strictly for political reasons undermines disaster response and can actually make community members suspicious about the true effectiveness of the program.

As for me, I probably will not attend another meeting of this group.  And I know that I am not alone.  The room used to be packed, but was less than 1/3 full today.


Eric Smith, CPP is the leading authority on organizational self-defense and, on occasion, likes to add his two cents. 

He has extensive experience in law enforcement as well as security management.  Eric is available for staff education and security awareness training as well as business coaching to help organizations provide safe workplaces.  To learn more visit 

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