By Natalie French, alumna, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University
Working in the field of emergency management is not for the faint of heart. Being faced with incidents where the lives of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people may be in jeopardy can be overwhelming. This stress can be amplified among emergency managers who don’t have the staff or resources to help support their emergency management responsibilities.
In many jurisdictions, emergency management falls under the purview of individuals with other responsibilities. For example, emergency management in some municipalities is overseen by the fire chief, sheriff, police chief, or another first responder who acts as the emergency manager on a part-time basis. This can be extremely challenging as emergency management requires significant time commitments to adequately plan for all the phases of disaster response including preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.
One way jurisdictions that are facing a lack of resources—whether human or material—can enhance their emergency management strategy is by building strong partnerships. This requires emergency managers to identify key stakeholders among public and private entities, as well as build a network of citizen volunteers.
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Building these partnerships requires emergency managers to conduct a comprehensive outreach effort long before a disaster strikes. This means making phone calls and setting up meetings with public and private leaders, seeking out community members as volunteers, and holding public information sessions. All these efforts must happen long before a disaster strikes.
Build Partnerships with Private Sector Partners
The private sector offers crucial partnerships for emergency managers as—in many cases—these entities control essential services such as power, communication channels, and food distribution. Emergency managers should meet with leaders of local electric and fuel companies, grocery stores, and communication infrastructure providers such as internet and cell phone providers. Communication companies are critical partners as they can help create an emergency communication contingency plan and may even provide additional cell phone equipment for responding agencies at a low cost.
It is essential for emergency managers to have strong working relationships with these entities and it is recommended they establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to ensure response expectations and plans are clearly defined.
Community Volunteers and Stakeholders
It’s also important for emergency managers to reach out to and engage community leaders. These may include prominent business professionals, faith-based organizations leaders, or retired residents who are eager to be involved in community activities. These volunteers can be of great assistance especially in municipalities where emergency management is a shared responsibility and/or has minimal support staff.
Community leaders can serve in a variety of volunteer positions from coordinating outreach efforts, completing administrative duties, taking on specific response activities, or assisting the community in applying for flood mitigation assistance. Engaging a strong group of volunteers can free up essential time for emergency managers so they can focus on other priorities and tasks. In addition, managers should consider setting up Mitigation Steering Committees that include members of the public to help their communities in hazard mitigation activities, which results in a safer community that will be less dependent on funds from external sources.
Local community members and organizations can also be effective during an emergency response because they know and understand the nuances of the community. They know the needs of residents as well as community vulnerabilities and are able to provide situational awareness to emergency managers and first responders during a response. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a great national program that will train members of the public in assisting first responders with the immediate aftermath of an incident.
Build Relationships with Neighboring Jurisdictions
It is essential for small towns and cities to have mutual aid agreements with other local agencies and surrounding jurisdictions to assist during and after a disaster. It’s also a good idea to have such agreements with county and state government agencies. During large incidents, many local governments do not have enough resources—whether it is personnel, equipment, supplies, or more—to handle the response and recovery. Mutual aid agreements with county and state entities will exponentially increase their resources when the demand can overwhelm their capabilities. The aid could come in the form of helicopters, K-9 units, urban search teams, boats, extra personnel, and even providing help to local law enforcement and fire rescue with planning and exercises as part of their preparedness actions.
In addition, after disaster strikes these relationships can help provide the necessary platform to apply for FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA). States across the nation need local governments’ input (county, municipal, township, etc.) to be able to reach the necessary thresholds to apply for FEMA’s PA.
How FEMA Promotes Partnerships
The need to build stronger, local partnerships has been an ongoing message by the federal government and one that has been reinforced after every major disaster. In 2011, FEMA published a foundational document titled, A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management, which aimed to increase individual preparedness as well as promote the engagement of community partnerships.
This document emphasizes the need to leverage and strengthen social infrastructure, build networks within the community, and identify available assets. In previous major disasters, more often than not, problems were not due to supply shortages or slow response. Instead “they resulted from failures to connect with and benefit from the strengths of existing, familiar patterns of community interaction and assistance.”
One of the most important elements to FEMA’s approach is emphasizing the need for the public to lead, not follow, when identifying community priorities. To adequately respond to an emergency, members of the local community must be empowered to take action.
Emergency management will always be a complex and ever-evolving responsibility. However, by expanding public and private partnerships, increasing a network of local volunteers, and enhancing community awareness and engagement, emergency managers can provide an effective strategy that builds resiliency within a community.
About the Author: Natalie French graduated in 2016 with a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University. During the first half of her professional career, Ms. French worked in news production for various networks including NBC, Fox News, PBS, and Univision. Since 2002, Ms. French switched her career path and worked in Public Affairs for local governments and public entities in South Florida. Currently, she is the City of Doral Police Department Media and Emergency Management Specialist. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.