Best practices and principles to overcome common emergency management challenges.
Catastrophic events aren’t exactly new. In recent times, though, their pace has clearly accelerated. Just take the case of weather and climate-related disasters: those have more than quadrupled since the 1970s. What discipline is responsible for handling these emergencies? That would be emergency management.
Emergency management is the organisation and management of resources and responsibilities needed to deal with emergencies. Sounds simple enough, but it’s not.
That’s because in practice the emergency management competency has to cover all stages of the emergency management lifecycle. And that lifecycle comprises mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Here’s a good break down of the emergency management lifecycle, courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency:
The Four Phases of Emergency Management
Emergency management phase
What it means
Activities it includes and when they take place
Preventing future emergencies or minimising their effects
Includes any activities that prevent an emergency, reduce the chance of an emergency happening, or reduce the damaging effects of unavoidable emergencies.
Mitigation activities take place before and after emergencies.
Preparing to handle an emergency
Includes plans or preparations made to save lives and to help response and rescue operations.
Preparedness activities take place before an emergency occurs.
Responding safely to an emergency
Includes actions taken to save lives and prevent further property damage in an emergency situation, by putting your preparedness plans into action.
Response activities take place during an emergency.
Recovering from an emergency
Includes actions taken to return to a normal or an even safer situation following an emergency.
Recovery activities take place after an emergency.
The emergency management lifecycle covers a lot of ground. But what’s its larger purpose?
Well, the main goal of emergency management is to reduce the harmful effects of hazards and disasters. You can’t simply achieve that goal by prioritising emergency response alone.
Indeed, it’s a goal that requires the efficient marshalling of numerous resources and responsibilities during a fairly long time horizon – resources and responsibilities that are also likely to be spread across multiple agencies and entities. Couple that with communication challenges in emergency response and you've got yourself a bonafide challenge.
After all, few things are more challenging for individual response agencies than procuring and deploying the right resources to the right people and places during complex disasters covering wide areas and causing mass casualty and damage. The imperatives of catastrophic incident response will routinely overwhelm the resources and capabilities of individual agencies acting alone.
Meeting the life and property-saving objectives of the disaster response requires an influx of personnel, skills, technologies, facilities, equipment, and/or funding from other organisations. That’s a major fault-line in emergency management, though: how to get separate entities working together productively throughout the emergency management lifecycle, so as to close the emergency response performance gap.
The gap has been studied carefully in the emergency management literature. And the consensus seems to be that emergency responses undertaken by clusters of public safety agencies incur a higher likelihood of:
What can be done, instead? A full list of best practices to mitigate the challenges of inter-agency cooperation or interoperability would be too extensive for this piece. But we’ll lay out one key innovation of best-practice emergency management system standards like ISO 22320 that should help agencies work more efficiently towards a common mission.
That innovation comes in the form of minimum requirements for command-and-control systems deployed during emergencies that require multiple emergency management agencies. In that emergency context, the primary objective of the emergency management system itself is to enable the organisation to respond efficiently, both as an independent entity as well as jointly with other parties.
Various elements go into achieving that objective, including structures, processes, and resources. For instance, the command-and-control system itself must be able to perform a number of documented actions, including the following:
That system would be run by a functional emergency management hierarchy whose goal it will be to make comprehensive and effective decisions in a timely manner. Subordinating roles and responsibilities within that hierarchy should also contribute to making comprehensive and effective decisions quickly.
In most emergency management structures, including the Incident Command System and Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System, the Incident Commander will sit at the top of this hierarchy. The Incident Commander is the role given final decision-making authority over command and control. The purview of the role also extends to setting up the incident response organisation, as well as activating, escalating, and terminating processes.
Other roles should figure in the command-and-control structure, as well. To be effective, the structure ought to be set up so that that Incident Commander can efficiently delegate authority as dictated by the pace and scale of the incident. Those subordinating roles and responsibilities are likely to cover the following functions (See a diagram below):
Command and control processes themselves should be dynamic, given the inherent fluidity and complexity of an emergency. In particular, flexible processes must be provided for so as to ensure that resources remain available and functional throughout the response.
That’s where emergency management technology should come in. But despite enormous strides in the field, volunteer disaster and emergency management organisations still say the stark challenges they face haven’t been sufficiently mitigated by many of the advanced, emergency management platforms they’ve procured.
How’s that? Well, it’s not uncommon that emergency management technology can require more, dedicated IT expertise (to implement) than agencies have to provide. The IT function is notoriously overburdened in emergency response organisations – doubly so in the age of COVID-19 – while some system implementations and configurations are inordinately cumbersome and time-consuming.
Another complaint is that once configured, those solutions only provide value for emergency response, not the entirety of the emergency management lifecycle. And it’s in those other phases that teams often fall short.
If software doesn’t help the problem, emergency management and business continuity planning and recovery will continue to get short shrift, much to the detriment of larger emergency management goals.
The consequences are grave. Without the right emergency management software platform, teams might proceed with noticeably divergent understandings of emergency risk and less ability to communicate, react, respond to, recover, and learn from incidents.
Fortunately, the right advanced emergency management system can help organisations overcome these challenges and start tackling every aspect of emergency management, throughout the entirety of the emergency management life cycle.
Still agencies need to know which software capabilities they need to look out for. Not sure which capabilities matter? Our guide, Five Reasons to Upgrade Your Emergency Management Platform, walks you through the capabilities you need to achieve your emergency management goals.
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Tim Vantilborgh and Stijn Van Puyvelde, International journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations: Volunteer Reliability in Nonprofit Organizations: A Theoretical Model. Available at https://www.deepdyve.com/lp/springer-journal/volunteer-reliability-in-nonprofit-organizations-a-theoretical-model-dOdjfNYOby?key=springer.
Andrew CK Lee, Wendy Phillips, Kirsty Challen, et. al. BCM Public Health: Emergency management in health: key issues and challenges in the UK. Available at https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-12-884.
Published May 19, 2021