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National Preparedness Month: The Value of Emergency Managers and What We Can Learn from Them

Emergency management is a critical component of a system that is core to our national and our personal survival.

Fires out west, hurricanes in the south, tornados in the Midwest, floods in the east. And everywhere, COVID-19. There is no escape.

Behind the scenes, a legion of emergency managers monitor, coordinate, and get on scene, ready to warn of danger, save lives, and help communities discover resilience on the other side of disaster. During these times of pandemic, climate change and the resulting crises, these emergency leaders are the vanguard. More than ever before, the country must do more to strengthen their ranks and embolden their leadership. The viability and resilience of business, educational, and community institutions – our combined national strength – depends on our rising above these crises.

Sixteen years to the day after Katrina, Hurricane Ida delivered another wake-up call to Louisiana and the country. Violent storms are getting more powerful and more frequent. Disasters pile on one another as hospitals strain under surging COVID-19 cases and deaths. Political, social, and racial divides complicate our uniting to fight these threats together. Crises are more complex, with one scenario combining with and complicating the next.

Emergency management is a critical component of a system that is core to our national and our personal survival. The country got a glimpse of that when the Federal Emergency Management Agency took charge of the COVID-19 response on March 13, 2020. Thanks to FEMA leadership, governors across the country grasped that the ventilator problem facing New York City was more a distribution problem than a shortfall. There were just enough ventilators. A system assembled, with inventories and transfers, taking the equipment to places with the greatest need. Governors with a surplus were confident that machines would return when required in their state. And they did. No one died in this country for lack of a ventilator.

When the dangers of a hurricane, flood, or fire loom, FEMA pre-positions materials and people required in the immediate aftermath of disaster. Earthquakes, tornados, and major accidents occur with little or no notice, and FEMA, state, local, tribal and territorial emergency managers coordinate immediate response with other agencies. Cooperation from the public is an essential ingredient, whether it be to shelter in place or to evacuate to a spot taking people and pets out of harm’s way. Once the immediate danger passes, responders on scene conduct quick assessment of the situation on the ground, synchronizing alongside business and community leaders to plan immediate steps toward response and recovery. It is about saving lives, protecting property, and helping people and communities formulate their resilience.

This is also the time for all of us – in our homes, our communities, and our places of work – together to rediscover, reassert and recapture our time-honored national strength. Crises have the power to unite people in the face of shared peril. Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that climate change is our new reality. COVID is killing us, with little regard for ideology or partisan persuasion. No one is immune to these dangers. And no one can sit on the sidelines to be safe. We are each one part of the solution. What can we learn from emergency managers? They champion lifesaving and community resilience, not as a political but as a humanitarian commitment. This is a critical standard and essential lesson now for the country.

Emergency managers, working alongside emergency medical technicians, paramedics, police officers, and firefighters, serve to make sense, lead, and coordinate the complex process of disaster response, regardless of political persuasion. THANK YOU for your service. In the face of danger and the many unknowns of a crisis, you dutifully respond, coordinate, bring the experience of prior crises, and guide the process of preparing for whatever comes next. You are our beacons, leading, convening, and taking action.

As disasters become bigger, more frequent and more complex, it is time to strengthen our emergency management system and to recruit the country to its cause. No one can face disaster alone. There is no better reason for our country to join in force. Our lives, our futures, and all we cherish are at stake.

Richard Serino and Leonard Marcus, Ph.D.
Richard Serino is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Harvard University and former FEMA Deputy Administrator. Leonard Marcus, Ph.D. is Co-Director, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, Harvard University.

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