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Friday, June 14, 2024

COLUMN: Five Challenges Facing Emergency Management

HSToday is proud to welcome Dan Stoneking, author of Cultivate Your Garden:  Crisis Communications from 30,000 Feet to Three Feet and  veteran communicator to the prestigious columnists at Homeland Security Today.  Dan has tremendous experience in crisis communications working at the Pentagon during the attacks of 9/11, as lead spokesperson for the National Guard in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina and other critical roles where communicating the right information matters most.  Dan will write about communicating during emergencies for both the public and private sectors and help us all understand the intricacies of assuring the safety, security, and preparedness of every citizen.  His column will appear in our weekly Emergency Management/First Responder newsletter.  Sign up for it here.

As I approach the end of my first year in retirement from emergency management, I have had the opportunity to look back with a fresh perspective and objectivity.  We are fortunate to have so many of the best and brightest working in this profession.  And we need them because many of the challenges are daunting.  Here are the top five challenges that I see facing emergency management this year.

Work-Life Balance

A key to any effective emergency management program is experience acquired through strong recruitment and retention.   Emergency managers do a stellar job in recruitment.  It is a noble calling to serve other individuals and communities.  It is the retention that poses the challenge at the local, state, and federal levels.  Disaster response and recovery can be a thankless and exhausting experience.  The hours are long.  Days run into days.  Staff are often away from their families for extended periods.  This causes a rift in their work-life balance at a time when other jobs can offer more stability.  And there are no easy solutions.  Moreover, it is not a problem that emergency managers can solve alone.   Disasters are not decreasing and staffing is not increasing.  As every department and agency vie for slices of the funding stream, emergency managers need a larger share.  If given the resources to hire more people, emergency managers could emulate the military model of cycling through deployment, maintenance, training, and steady state stages.   Until our field is sufficiently resourced, the cycles will remain respond, respond, respond, and respond.   And work-life balance, leading to reduced retention, will continue to erode experience.

Underserved Communities

Diversity.  Equity.  Inclusion.  Equal Rights.  Civil Rights.  Vulnerable.  Disadvantaged.  Underserved,  Words matter.  And each of these words mean something different.  Often the same word means something different to different people.  Collectively and individually, they pose a great challenge.  Partisan politics can obfuscate and complicate the issues and terms further.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines Underserved Populations/Communities as:

“Groups that have limited or no access to resources or that are otherwise disenfranchised. These groups may include people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged; people with limited English proficiency; geographically isolated or educationally disenfranchised people; people of color as well as those of ethnic and national origin minorities; women and children; individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs; and seniors.”

I would simplify that definition to “people who are not provided with enough help or services, or not given services that are of high quality.”

We can all agree that we want to provide high quality help to those who need it most.  The challenge lies in identifying, locating, understanding, and meeting the needs of those people.  It is a complex process that transcends any one disaster or geography.  The solutions will be gradual but require training, resourcing, staffing, and perhaps even legislation.

Stakeholder Engagement

As an experienced crisis communicator, I recognize the misperception that public information staff are merely “talking heads” who are asked to “put a spin” on the response and “take care of the media.”  In fact, crisis communications is just as much lifesaving (and often more so) as the operators, logisticians, and first responders.  Information can save lives and protect property.  Our stakeholders can repeat and relay critical information reaching vastly larger audiences.  This raises a few challenges.  There is no singular stakeholder.  We interact with the media, congressional offices, voluntary organizations, the private sector, and the general public.  Each of these need different information at different times in different detail.  This is compounded further by all the necessary mediums including television, radio, print, internet, social media, town halls and more.  Too often this role is assigned to just one person at the local, county and state level.  Like their counterparts, they are under resourced to accomplish this engagement effectively.

Mission Creep

This challenge is also occurring at the local, county, state, and federal level.  Emergency management is another term that can have nuanced definitions depending whom you ask.  But generally, at every level, it is about prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.  The threat may be either natural or man-made disaster.  While the type of mission creep may differ from level to level, the impact of creep remains the same – deteriorating the ability to address the original mission.  There are local and county emergency managers who are pulled into addressing homelessness.  There are state emergency managers who have been tasked with substantive roles in addressing Fentanyl and the Opioid Epidemic.  At the Federal level, FEMA responded to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, the border crisis, and the Afghanistan repatriation operation, none of which are covered in the Stafford Act.  There are arguments for and against each of these.  However, there is no argument that when the mission increases and the resources do not, performance suffers.  And that is a challenge.

Self-Reliance

It may seem intangible, and even a bit esoteric, but simply put, If more people who have the ability to take care of themselves did so, we could focus more on those who truly do need our help. That same self-reliance can also apply to those organizations and agencies more appropriate to addressing homelessness, drug epidemics, and international crises.  More self-reliance by others means less work for emergency managers.  Less work means a better work-life balance.  Less work means more time to help the underserved.  Less work means easier stakeholder engagement.  Less work and less mission creep empowers emergency managers to do what they do best.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge is to inspire self-reliance.

author avatar
Dan Stoneking
Dan is a strategic communicator. He is a writer. His expertise is born from experience, to include his role at the Pentagon upon the attacks of 9/11; as lead spokesperson for the National Guard in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina where he represented 54 states and territories; responding to the earthquake in Haiti where he helped establish the first-ever international joint information center; creating a coalition with the private sector to implement the first-ever National Business Emergency Operation Center; voluntarily deploying to Puerto Rico within hours of Hurricane Maria’s impact as the lead spokesperson, and much more. Presently, Dan is the Owner and Principal at Stoneking Strategic Communications, LLC. Previously, Dan served as the External Affairs Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 3, where he led an award-earning passionate team to improve information sharing and coordination between FEMA and the American public, to include media, private sector, as well as local, state and government officials during disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts. As Director, he led his team through countless disasters, the Papal Visit (2015), the Democratic National Convention (2016), and the response to the Jan 6, 2021, attacks on our Nation’s Capital. That position followed and built upon a career in both the corporate and government arenas focused on strategic and crisis communications, to include roles at FEMA Headquarters as Director, Private Sector and Deputy and Acting Director of Public Affairs. Graduating from the University of New Hampshire, with a Bachelor’s in Interpersonal Communications, he later returned to the same campus and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching (Secondary English). Dan is a retired Army Officer and he taught High School English for two years. He is also the author of Cultivate Your Garden: Crisis Communications from 30,000 Feet to Three Feet, 2024. Dan lives in West Chester, PA with his daughters, Ivy Grace and Chloe Lane and their puppy, Fiji Isabella.
Dan Stoneking
Dan Stoneking
Dan is a strategic communicator. He is a writer. His expertise is born from experience, to include his role at the Pentagon upon the attacks of 9/11; as lead spokesperson for the National Guard in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina where he represented 54 states and territories; responding to the earthquake in Haiti where he helped establish the first-ever international joint information center; creating a coalition with the private sector to implement the first-ever National Business Emergency Operation Center; voluntarily deploying to Puerto Rico within hours of Hurricane Maria’s impact as the lead spokesperson, and much more. Presently, Dan is the Owner and Principal at Stoneking Strategic Communications, LLC. Previously, Dan served as the External Affairs Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 3, where he led an award-earning passionate team to improve information sharing and coordination between FEMA and the American public, to include media, private sector, as well as local, state and government officials during disaster preparedness, response and recovery efforts. As Director, he led his team through countless disasters, the Papal Visit (2015), the Democratic National Convention (2016), and the response to the Jan 6, 2021, attacks on our Nation’s Capital. That position followed and built upon a career in both the corporate and government arenas focused on strategic and crisis communications, to include roles at FEMA Headquarters as Director, Private Sector and Deputy and Acting Director of Public Affairs. Graduating from the University of New Hampshire, with a Bachelor’s in Interpersonal Communications, he later returned to the same campus and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching (Secondary English). Dan is a retired Army Officer and he taught High School English for two years. He is also the author of Cultivate Your Garden: Crisis Communications from 30,000 Feet to Three Feet, 2024. Dan lives in West Chester, PA with his daughters, Ivy Grace and Chloe Lane and their puppy, Fiji Isabella.

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