For most of us, pandemics aside, the closest that we will get to a major disaster or public emergency situation is seeing it on the news. We shake our heads and express sorrow for those affected, and perhaps we donate to help survivors get back on their feet. For some people, however, dealing with disasters is a way of life.
Working in emergency management involves thinking all the time about what might go wrong in specific places under specific conditions, how the danger can be reduced, and how local services can be prepared in order to keep harm to a minimum if it does happen. People in this role also oversee the response to disasters, coordinating services during the immediate aftermath, and helping communities to recover over the long term. With climate change increasing the number of natural disasters that occur year on year, they have never been more urgently needed.
Traditionally, emergency management positions have been filled by people who have worked their way up through one or other of the emergency services, or people who have experience of crisis management roles in the military. Increasingly, however, people with a passion for this type of work are training for it specifically, beginning by working in public safety and taking on more responsibility as they demonstrate their capacity to handle complex situations. Could that be you?
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The first line of approach for people involved in emergency management work is introducing measures designed to prevent disasters from happening in the first place. This can be done on a variety of scales, so it’s something you can get involved in as soon as you’ve qualified with a public safety degree. We all do work of this type when we move stray objects aside so that people don’t trip over them. When you make sure that non-flammable materials are used on a construction project, you’re just doing the same thing at a bigger scale, and likewise when you organize the reinforcement of river banks to prevent flooding. This principle of taking action now to prevent problems later is a core concept in emergency management.
Exactly what type of issues emergency managers deal with depends on the areas in which they work. Most begin by working in relatively low-risk communities where hazards are easy to predict and work up from there. This is not a career in which the focus is on getting to the top so much as one in which you will find your own comfort level and work hard to become as good as possible at handling a particular set of issues. That way, whatever the scale of a disaster, people can be confident that the response will be handled by somebody who understands the dynamics of the situation well and also understands the specific needs of the communities affected.
Most emergency management jobs involve moving into an area where hazards have already been assessed, so your prevention work will be based on an established set of principles. However, you should still do ongoing assessments to identify new potential threats and to identify new technologies that might help you to predict or prevent disasters.
Not everybody is cut out for emergency management. It requires a certain toughness and the ability to be self-critical without getting too easily upset, because something you will have to accept from the outset is that you can’t win them all. No matter how hard you work, disasters will happen, and that’s where the second part of the job comes in: making sure that when they do, the consequences are not as awful as they might have been.
Mitigation takes two basic forms. The first is getting people out of the way when disaster strikes. The second is reducing the impact of the disaster on the built environment, the natural environment, and any people left behind. If you have a public safety degree, you’ll already be familiar with both these approaches to some extent. These types of degrees, such as the program offered at Laurier master of public safety, provide a thorough look at the contemporary issues that shape public safety practices.
Evacuation strategies begin with individual buildings – something you’ll know how to handle in relation to common risks such as fire – and extend to evacuating whole regions in response to, for example, the threat from a volcano or tsunami. An evacuation policy needs to take into account the means of egress from the affected area and the length of time needed to move people safely through them, whether they are hallways or highways. It also needs to account for people such as those with mobility impairments and families with young children, and for people who should be protected in place if possible or moved only with specialist support, such as seriously ill hospital patients.
Protecting what is left behind needs to take into account multiple factors, from regulation of materials used in the construction industry to, for example, tree planting to reduce the severity of flooding by lowering the water table. Many of the more effective mitigation measures take years to actualize, but others can be brought to bear quickly, such as setting up emergency food distribution networks so that people can access basic essentials if they’re unable to shop as usual.
In the context of emergency management, being prepared has a special meaning. It refers to having all the necessary vehicles, equipment and infrastructure for responding to an emergency situation. Much of this may be used for other purposes the rest of the time, but you should have a record of where it is, have a plan set up for accessing it at very short notice, and establish how to get it to the areas where it is most likely to be needed at speed.
The single most important aspect of preparation is having clear transport routes for moving people and supplies. This means knowing which roads are likely to be directly affected by disasters and establishing alternative routes. It also means having the communications and traffic control infrastructure in place to ensure that they are not blocked by civilian vehicles fleeing the area, and that emergency responders can get through.
Once this has been accounted for, the most important element of infrastructure in this context is the emergency shelter. You will need to make sure that you have enough of these, in suitable locations, to support the people who may need to be evacuated from any given area. You will need to be able to access adequate supplies to ensure that people can eat, drink, sleep and enjoy proper sanitation. Where natural disasters affect wider infrastructure, the latter element is often the most challenging. You will also need to provide security, both to control crowds that may be in the grip of panic, and to protect vulnerable people, including children and individuals with disabilities, from other evacuees.
When emergency responses take place, they should do so according to clear plans set out in advance, which should include contingencies to allow for disruption caused by the disaster itself or by public responses to it. It is vital that each individual group of responders be aware of how it fits into the plan and have default actions it can take if communications break down so that it can begin its work as quickly as possible without getting in the way of other emergency service providers.
As an emergency manager, you will be the person responsible for coordinating responders in your area. This isn’t as simple as giving orders and following your plan, because unexpected elements will often come into play, so you will need to be able to think on your feet. It is very much a listening role, because no matter how impressive your credentials or how long your experience, you will never have the same level of expertise in any one area as somebody who has risen to the top of their specialized profession. You will need to take on board what they tell you, understand it and, if necessary, balance competing concerns from different services.
Good emergency response work is all about delegation. Major disasters can remain in their acute phase for days. During this time, you will need to make sensible decisions about your sleep so that you can remain alert enough to make good decisions, and make sure that there is a clear chain of authority when you are absent. This can’t always depend on arrangements made beforehand because the best person for one type of situation may not be the best for another. When dealing with major events, you may well find that you need to bring in capable people from outside your usual network to handle some aspects of the work.
In the aftermath of a disaster, there is always a huge amount of work to do to help the affected communities recover. In some circumstances, it may be impossible to return to the way that things were before, but this is rare. In others, you may be able to take advantage of the situation to build in new preventative measures or new structural forms of mitigation, reducing future risk. Where that is not necessary, you may need to find other ways of restoring the confidence of the community. Memorial services and other ritual events can, if handled properly, have a significant calming effect.
In most cases, the first priorities are accommodation and transport infrastructure. Shelters are never a good environment in which to keep people for more than a few days, so the sooner you can get them back into their homes, the better. However, obviously you need to make sure that those homes are safe first.
It may also be possible for you to reduce pressure on shelters by providing support to help people move in, temporarily, with relatives or friends. You will need suitable roads or alternative forms of transport to move people around, and also to move equipment for making repairs. You will also need to make sure that people are able to access medical care and that the stores on which they depend can reopen. You also have to get children back into education as soon as possible (and, if necessary, provide access to online classes in the meantime).
After a major disaster, it can take years for an area to return to normal, and you will be responsible for coordinating the process at every stage. However, you never know when the next disaster will strike, or when you will have a lower-level emergency to manage, so this will not be the whole of your job. You will need to work on prevention, mitigation and preparedness at the same time.
Protecting emergency workers
There’s one other duty that an emergency manager has that you will need to keep in mind across every aspect of the work you do: making sure that emergency responders are as safe as possible. This involves minimizing risks from hazards that they may encounter on the job – everything from falling masonry to radiation or noxious chemical leaks to exposure to molds and other biological risks – as well as providing them with psychological support.
The first stage in protecting responders involves ensuring that they are properly trained and equipped. This includes adequate provision of refresher courses and reviews of equipment to make sure that it’s up to date and in a good state of repair. They will need to be alert to any unusual hazards in the area and know what to do if they encounter them. Even if they are not the ones making decisions about their deployment, they will need to have a basic idea of the emergency protocols for different types of situations.
Handling emergencies often involves being confronted by distressing scenes, and responders have high rates of PTSD. A culture full of humor and banter can help them to deal with this but can also make it difficult for them to speak up when they really need help. It’s an emergency manager’s job to make sure that they get properly assessed and have access to counseling and time off for recuperation as required.
With so many things to consider, emergency management is a challenging profession that requires a lot of skill, but it’s a job that makes a huge contribution to keeping people safe, and there are few career paths as rewarding.