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Navigating the Storm

Elected Officials as Pivotal Players in Emergency Management

Author: Scott Stoermer, MPA, MS - Managing Director, Witt O'Brien's

Redefining Local Emergency Management in a Complex World

In an era marked by escalating challenges, from climate-induced disasters to unforeseen public health crises and political upheavals, the complexity of the emergencies confronting our communities has never been greater. Consequently, the role of elected officials in these scenarios extends beyond traditional governance; they must be active, knowledgeable participants in emergency management processes and responses.

Gone are the days when emergency management was synonymous with “only” responding to natural disasters. Today, elected officials face a spectrum of challenges—from handling the fallout of political disturbances to dealing with public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent election cycles have brought in a wave of new officials, many of whom are navigating these challenges for the first time. Their ability to effectively manage these crises can significantly impact public confidence and safety.

The High Stakes of Inadequate Official Involvement 

The urgency for elected officials to understand and engage in emergency management cannot be overstated. They need to grasp more than just the basics; they must understand the nuances of decision-making in emergencies, be it a natural disaster or a politically charged event. Their decisions and actions can either mitigate or exacerbate a crisis, making their informed involvement paramount.

Drawing from my experience as a U.S. Coast Guard incident commander and Captain of the Port, one offshore oil spill incident stands out as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of inappropriate official involvement in an emergency response. Despite being safe, fast, and one of the most efficient spill responses I can recall, repeated miscommunication about the spill volume and cleanup expectations left the public with the impression that the incident was not under control. Here several unforced errors in communicating with the public directly resulted in negative perceptions about the overall effort. Extrapolated to a disaster where lives are at stake, this example underscores the importance of elected officials being well-versed in emergency protocols, decision-making, and communications strategies.

Embracing Emergency Management Principles and Best Practices

Elected officials can establish a strong foundation in emergency management by embracing the following best practices:

  • Participating in emergency response exercises and gaining a familiarity with key emergency management authorities and their roles in the response.
  • Seeking insights from emergency management leaders for effective decision-making under pressure—as the process in an emergency response is different from that of day-to-day public policy decisions.
  • Mastering crisis communications guidelines, as well as the strategies and protocols for collaborating with other participating and stakeholder agencies.
  • Understanding their pivotal role in shaping incident objectives and the overall arc of a response, as well as in securing funding for emergencies and emergency management.

Fostering Public Trust Through Competent Emergency Management

Competent emergency management is a cornerstone of public trust. Understanding emergency management is more than a duty for elected officials; it’s a critical tool to build confidence with their constituents. When elected officials are in lockstep with emergency protocols and can communicate effectively during a crisis, it reassures the public and fosters a sense of security. Being well-prepared and informed enables officials to make sound decisions quickly—a key factor in successful emergency management.

A great example of this was the emergency management director of a coastal city involving the mayor in a mock press conference during a response exercise. Not only did the mayor’s presence and role demonstrate the city’s preparedness; it also earned public credibility and trust. Such proactive involvement ensures that officials are not only ready to handle emergencies but can also guide their constituents effectively during crises. Moreover, it serves to raise awareness of emergency preparedness and response in their communities—helping to foster a culture of resilience at the grassroots level.

Actionable Steps for Elected officials in Emergency Preparedness

As the frequency and complexity of emergencies escalate, the role of elected officials becomes increasingly crucial. It is essential for them to proactively engage in emergency management training and education. This commitment extends beyond addressing current crises; it’s about preparing for the unforeseen challenges of the future.

By embracing best practices, participating in training exercises, and understanding the nuances of emergency management, elected officials can ensure effective crisis response and advocate for the public’s best interest. It’s time for emergency management leaders to facilitate this growth by developing comprehensive training curricula and promoting active participation in exercises.

Scott S. 1

Scott brings more than 27 years of incident and emergency management experience to lead our Government Solutions Readiness and Response Practice. He served in a variety of capacities over 24 years in the Coast Guard, is a Nationally certified Type 1 Incident Commander, and is interested in the critical intersections of response and recovery in both disaster-driven and non-disaster driven crises.

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