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Coronavirus and a Stressed Emergency Management System

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By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

When major emergencies happen, the lessons learned become focal points as scholars and practitioners work to understand the myriad facets of what went wrong during a disaster.  These lessons are important, because they help us to improve future emergency management efforts.

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Rarely, however, do we hear about the positive attributes of disasters for how they positively test the emergency management system. This concept was further developed by Donald Kettl in his book, System Under Stress: The Challenge to 21st Century Governance.

The coronavirus pandemic is definitely stressing American emergency management and rapidly changing the daily lives of Americans. But at the same time, it also highlights how well American emergency management is functioning.

In his book, Kettle observes that events such as September 11, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis caused considerable stress to the U.S. emergency management system. Kettl further notes that “when problems happen, they want a government that can respond, quickly and efficiently.” He essentially argues that major emergencies give us insights into understanding what the government can and can’t do well where policies, administration, and infrastructure is concerned.

The Impact of Federalism on Emergency Management

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we have learned just how well our emergency management system is designed. We also better understand where further tightening is needed in regard to emergency management efforts.

Federalism refers to the way a country is structured, including local, state and federal levels of government. Emergency management is well versed in federalism, because so much of emergency management is governed by various policies from local, state and federal levels of American government.

Many political scientists argue that federalism and the various issues with collaboration between the local, state and federal levels of government during Hurricane Katrina created ample problems in managing this disaster. Article after article has highlighted how these issues helped to create the chaos that resulted from Hurricane Katrina.

Since then, the restructuring of emergency management curbed many of the communication, leadership and collaboration problems once seen in American emergency management. More collaboration between levels of government and government agencies has taken place, ultimately helping the American government to manage emergencies much better. William Waugh and Gregory Streib also famously argued that “collaboration and leadership are [needed] for effective emergency management.”

Federalism and the Coronavirus Response

In the wake of the current pandemic, the federal government has declared a state of emergency. Also, several states, towns, cities and counties have declared a state of emergency.

The message from the federal government has remained consistent from the federal level all the way down to local governments. It has shown just how well the government is working to help its citizens.

On a fundamental level, the coronavirus pandemic has also tested the American system of government and shown how well collaboration has worked between government agencies and the local, state and federal levels of government. Over the next few weeks and months, we will understand more about the overall management of this pandemic and the various policies that have impacted it.

Allison G. S. Knox teaches in the fire science and emergency management departments at American Military University and American Public University. Focusing on emergency management and emergency medical services policy, she often writes and advocates about these issues. Allison serves as the At-Large Director of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and as Chancellor of the Southeast Region on the Board of Trustees with Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society in Social Sciences. She is also chair of Pi Gamma Mu’s Leadership Development Program. Prior to teaching, Allison worked for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. and in a Level One trauma center emergency department. She is an emergency medical technician and holds multiple graduate degrees.

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