AMU Emergency Management Original Public Safety

Weather Forecasting Is Better, So Why Not Emergency Management?

By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

A recent article in the Washington Post explained how Hurricane Laura was forecasted so well with precision and accuracy. In doing so, the forecast gave emergency managers and residents enough time to prepare effectively for the incoming disaster.

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So if weather forecasts have improved, why aren’t emergency management operations getting better? The answer, unfortunately, lies in the overall structure.

First responder professionals have studied the various facets that go into major disasters like Hurricane Laura. The answer is simply that emergency management is a wicked problem.

According to Stony Brook University, “In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term ‘wicked problem’ in order to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems. Unlike the ‘tame’ problems of mathematics and chess, the wicked problems of planning lack clarity in both their aims and solutions. In addition to these challenges of articulation and internal logic, they are subject to real-world constraints that prevent multiple and risk-free attempts at solving.”

Emergency Management Operations Improve at an Incremental Rate

Emergency management cannot match the speed of technological advancements. Instead, emergency management operations improve at an incremental rate and are better in some areas of the country than in others.

If we look at emergency management as a whole, we can follow the various cycles of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Further, we can say that FEMA does a tremendous job training emergency management professionals on the various cycles.

Beyond this though, there are many facets to mitigation and preparedness operations. For mitigation, it takes a substantial budget and often many grants (some of which are not made because of financial constraints) to deal effectively with disasters. Further, preparedness operations will always confront people who can’t or won’t evacuate because of a wide variety of circumstances. Thus, notification of a storm is one thing, but working to get people out of its way is another. Also, working to change building codes and make required renovations on buildings are costly.

It’s Not as Simple as a Weather Report to Mitigate Large-Scale Disasters

Thus, it’s not as simple as a weather report to mitigate large-scale disasters. Preparedness of operations takes multiple organizations to roll out effective emergency management plans, and even then, not everyone can get out of a storm’s way.

While many of us look to the effectiveness of these plans, they don’t always work well because emergencies evolve in different ways. Plans can seem to be foolproof and solid, but they can easily go sideways if the circumstances aren’t right.

Instead, recovery operations can take a particularly long time. The United States tends to do response rather well, but the recovery process may take years, if not decades to complete. Response is the most complicated phase of emergency management.

The only thing complicating operations more are the various components of society. Large-scale emergencies greatly affect the overall infrastructure, networks of people and the emergency operations of a community. Its fabric can be damaged, and this alone makes emergency management a wicked problem.

Emergency management, ultimately, is a complicated web of numerous issues and policy constraints. A simple weather report does not have lasting effects on emergency response. Where emergencies are concerned, resources need to be gathered, various agencies need to assist, and nonprofit agencies often come into play, while large numbers of volunteers are required to help in the response and recovery efforts.

Emergency management continues to get better, but the sheer amount of resources needed is always a problem.

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 an Intermittent Emergency Management Specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, as 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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