A De-Centralized Approach to Emergency Management

  • A De-Centralized Approach to Emergency Management

    by Ron Day  October 21, 2016

         It is true.  There is no denying it.  We are living in a time when crises are occurring more and more frequently.  Natural disasters have always been and will continue to be a part of the human experience of living on this planet.  With those naturally occurring crises such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes as well as the increased activity among terrorist groups bent on destroying others the need for effective emergency management is even greater today than ever before.  In the opening chapter of their 2013 book The Politics of Crisis Management: Leadership Under Pressure, Boin, Hart, Stern, and Sundelius write “The new century has brought an upsurge of international terrorism, but also a creeping awareness of new types of contingencies-breakdowns in information and communication systems, emerging natural threats, and bio-nuclear terrorism-that lurk beyond the horizon.  At the same time, age-old threats (floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis) continue to expose the vulnerabilities of modern society” (Boin, Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2013, p. 1).  With these facts there is a school of thought that would suggest that a more centralized approach to emergency management would be the most effective model incorporating the use of broad-reaching and centrally controlled systems to distribute information and resources such as is the case with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  This model is often known as the Hamiltonian model. (Sylves, 2015, p. 30)  This paper is not meant to provide cause for the elimination of FEMA, but simply to re-identify the role of FEMA in an emergency.        
         The agency was meant to provide a support or back up for those local agencies providing the care and resources needed, but later in a post-911 society was brought under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and was given additional responsibilities in pre-warning of terrorist attacks.  One might argue that these additional duties and broadened scope have weakened the ability of FEMA to provide the service to the local agencies it was originally created to provide.  A return to a de-centralized model that provides more autonomy and authority to state and local governing bodies will expedite the disaster recovery process.  This paper will discuss the shortfalls of a solitary, centralized model and bring to light the advantages to giving power and control to local governments and agencies in a de-centralized emergency management model.  This provides us with an approach that is much more likely to be of service to individuals in a crisis that might otherwise be marginalized.  The “Jacksonian Model” is such a de-centralized model allowing emergency managers to operate from a position of local and state authority in the managing of a disaster.  (Sylves, 2015, p. 31-32)  
         The responsibility of emergency managers can be daunting, especially in the wake of a disaster that impacts a large number of the population in a given area.  One such naturally occurring crises that we can all recall is hurricane Katrina.  On August 29, 2005 a section of the levee outside New Orleans broke and areas known as the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Perish were flooded.  Thousands of people were forced from their homes, many lost their lives in the Katrina291x185destructive path of this combination of natural disaster and human error in estimating the strength of the levee versus the strength of the hurricane.  What came next was almost as devastating as the flood itself as Michael D. Brown, then FEMA director and his agency was charged with the responsibility of bringing federal aid to the area.  Through miscommunication and in many cases, a view of the disaster that was too broad, aid began to be delayed and in some cases not delivered at all due to red tape that comes with a centralized process.  Many were forced into even worse situations during the recovery period.  Having been there, serving with a team to help rebuild homes and to aid a local church in distributing clothing, food and other resources and seeing the devastation personally, it was clear that the individuals who called St. Bernard Perish home were overlooked if not forgotten completely by the federal entity that should have been their aid.  Sylves made this statement concerning the challenges of emergency managers “Emergency managers must face many challenges in crafting emergency management policies and programs and in responding to potential disasters.  They need to understand the challenges of issue salience, fragmented government responsibility, and technical expertise” (Sylves, 2015, p. 10).  Issue salience (the importance of the issue to the public) is critical in a crises of any kind.  This must be considered in a democratic society as leaders are elected and appointed to one end and that is representation of the wishes of the people.  This is just one example of the “disconnect” that can happen when a centralized model for emergency management is employed. 
         In the midst of the crisis recovery phase something began to happen among local community leaders in St. Bernard Perish and the 9th Ward.  The needs of the people were being provided for by those on the local level.  Whether they were Pastors, civic leaders or local government the response was amazing.  These were leaders that made their home in the same area as those victimized by the disaster and in many cases had lost much themselves.  My wife and I personally helped in the aid provided by local churches and organizations.  In the case of Katrina and the New Orleans area, much more was accomplished on the local level then on the federal level.  We can see from this one example that a centralized emergency management model may seem like a good idea from a certain perspective, but when it is examined more closely the inevitable flaws begin to reveal themselves and the victims of the crisis who are depending on that system are the ones that suffer.
         Another drawback to a centralized approach is that the responsibility of decision making may often fall on one person whether on a federal level or local, but this must be recognized to be the case.  Boin, et al. (2013) put it this way “In most if not all crises, the moment arrives when a single man or woman must make faithful choices about the government’s course of action.  They may seek and obtain counsel from others, such as professional advisers, political associates, spouses, friends, and academic experts.  But in the end the leader must decide” (Boin, et al., 2013, p. 43).  As more authority is given to local agencies and leaders there is a stronger chance of the resources getting to the right people in a timely manner.  No system is perfect, but eliminating steps to the desired end would be beneficial to the victims and their families.  The emergency managers on the local level who adhere to a de-centralized model and who would identify as Jacksonian in relation to their management style would strive to be self-reliant, courageous, individualistic, and entrepreneurial.  (Sylves, 2015, p. 32)  All of these qualities would allow them to be the kind of managers that would get results.  They would see a problem and begin immediately to provide a solution with the help of others around them.  
         In a centralized management system another negative that presents itself is that there are a precious few people to learn from mistakes and create new policies.  As a result of many of the crises that we face new policies are created that are meant to help us not to be caught off guard again and ultimately to limit the loss of life and property.  When those policies are made on a state and local level, as it would be in a de-centralized model, those policies can be a little more pointed and specific giving a clearer direction for processes in the future.  Boin, et al. (2013) argued “Conventional wisdom has it that progress requires learning from failure.  Crises provide clear-cut opportunities for learning and adapting so it is generally assumed.  In a perfect world, the right lessons emerge and policy makers adapt their organizations and policies accordingly (Boin, et al., 2013, p. 115).  We must learn from mistakes that have been made in the realm of emergency management and it could certainly be argued that those closest to ground zero of crises might be best qualified to offer guidance for the development of new policies.  
         In conclusion, there must be a focused approach to emergency management and the details that can be of the utmost importance to the victims of disasters must be considered when entering into the mitigation phase of the management process.  If the view of the agency is too broad there will almost certainly be those details that are not cared for resulting in further loss of life and property.  In contrast if the view of the agency is kept narrow and focused the details will more often be cared for and victims will not suffer any more than they already have simply due to a flawed and incomplete system.  

    Sylves, R. (2015). Disaster policy and politics: Emergency management and homeland security 
         (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA. CQ Press.

    Boin, A., Hart, P., Stern, E., Sundelius, B. (2013). The politics of crisis management: 
         Leadership under pressure. New York, NY. Cambridge University Press.