I just returned from Orlando, where I attended (for the first time) the annual conference of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). While there, not only did I attend about a dozen sessions, but I also had the pleasure of volunteering at the Crisis Technology Center (CTC) hosted by the IAEM Emerging Technology Caucus.

By attending the sessions, having numerous conversations with emergency managers from across the country (and even a few from Canada), and engaging with others at the CTC, I noticed the following emerging themes from the conference:

1. Social media is a big topic, but lacks consistent implementation

Almost every session mentioned social media. Whether it was Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, photo-sharing sites, or other new technology, social media was constantly being mentioned. At the same time, it is clear that the emergency management field is still easing itself into the social media pool. For every social media enlightened emergency manager, I would estimate that there are about 10-15 that have no idea what social media is. In other words, the emergency manager that uses social media is still in the minority. Enterprising emergency managers, like those of us in the Crisis Technology Center, are trying to change that. Throughout the conference, the CTC answered countless questions and explained/demonstrated social media. While the field is definitely heading towards more open engagement with the communities we serve, new technology is still viewed with some skepticism.

In many ways, I think the reluctance of emergency managers to embrace social media is triggered more by differences in perspective regarding the role of emergency managers rather than simply a technology/generational divide. Personally, it seems like if you are an emergency manager that sees value in engaging with your constituents, you will embrace social media after overcoming the hurdles associated with new technology. On the other hand, if you don’t see the benefit of publicly discussing your job performance with the people that pay your salary, you may resist social media for as long as possible. Just a thought…

2. “Resiliency” is a buzzword, not a core competency

The title of this year’s conference was “resiliency”. I counted about 5-6 sessions that had “resiliency” in the title, but other than being mentioned in the title, sessions rarely mentioned the term again. In discussions I had with other emergency managers, resiliency was rarely mentioned. It seems like a good buzzword, but (as a field) we’re slowly adopting the topic and slowly growing to understand what resilience means to our programs and the whole community.

3. “Whole Community” has a real following

While resiliency wasn’t discussed much, the “whole community” concept was given plenty of airtime (and rightfully so). I don’t think most emergency managers fully understand resiliency (I know I definitely struggle with it), but the “whole community” idea has caught on and has a serious following. The idea of encouraging regionalism, empowering local emergency managers, and acknowledging that the Feds don’t have ALL the answers is very attractive to our field. The concept makes sense and has a catchy name. Whereas resiliency can be somewhat ambiguous, “whole community” serves to represent enough of a departure from current practice that it has garnered a significant following. While some understand that resilience and whole community are intertwined–I think that would come as a surprise to many emergency managers.  The take-away here is that “whole community” has earned recognition and acceptance for which resiliency advocates could only hope…

4. Capability- and risk-based planning vs. all-hazards planning

Risk-based planning and resourcing is gaining traction and was mentioned considerably during many sessions and discussions. I’m not sure what the impetus is for the change. My guess for the change are one or more of the following reasons:

  • Reductions in funding have changed local priorities from all-hazards plans to risk-specific planning. Rather than having general plans that cover many different topics, risk-based plans account for the incidents/damages that are most likely to impact your community.
  • It is too difficult to explain “all-hazards” planning to community members and elected officials who think we ought to just have very specific plans to address obvious risks
  • With the new THIRA process, the focus has clearly shifted to identifying and quantifying risk–it’s natural that planning follows the same evolutionary logic

5. More changes are coming

With the new THIRA guidelines, upcoming frameworks, PPD-8, and the new National Preparedness Goal and National Preparedness System, the emergency management field is still in a state of major doctrinal refinement. The major changes in doctrine pose significant increases in the level of effort required by organizations at all levels of the “whole community”–but it appears the changes will be positive in the long-term. I think the field will need to reconcile the emerging hierarchy of plans, goals, systems, and frameworks–but that will all come with time.

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This past week, the US was hit with Superstorm Sandy. I’ve been awed by the pre-positioning of supplies, the timely alert and notification, and the prevention of major loss of life. The loss of property was unavoidable, but it was the heroic actions of first responders and others that prevented a catastrophic loss of life. I know several emergency managers that literally walked to work during the hurricane to ensure as robust of a response as possible. Although terrible, Sandy brought out the best in Americans and I’m convinced that the damages from this storm can be an opportunity for the US to rebuild better than ever before.

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