What Emergency Responders Can Learn from the Business World

In 2015, New Jersey was ready for a pandemic. The state’s Department of Health (NJDOH) had conducted a full-scale exercise for influenza response, modeled on H1N1 and SARS as a highly contagious and airborne respiratory illness. Bringing in federal and state partner emergency management agencies, local jurisdictions, and hospitals, the scenario provided valuable insight into rapid procurement of medical equipment, hospital personnel needs, and vaccine distribution, all of which were carefully incorporated into a comprehensive statewide pandemic response plan. Still, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, New Jersey was not spared. More than 26,000 people have died of the virus since early 2020, more than five times as many deaths as the NJDOH had predicted in their 2015 modeling of just such an event.

NJDOH is not alone. U.S. emergency response teams at all levels of government have been caught off-guard; hurricanes, wildfires, winter weather, and civil unrest over the past year consistently exposed our shortcomings in managing crises. Why does this continue to happen? Are we really managing our emergencies? The answer, we think, is “no.”

To truly manage crises, emergency managers must step away from the response-oriented mindset and adopt a more traditional business management approach, and approach that views all phases of disaster as not only cyclic and overlapping but also integrated. This thinking is not new to business managers, but it is in emergency management. By adapting and adopting these principles, we believe we can better manage disaster — or at least disaster at scale — before it strikes.

How to Manage More than the Emergency

Since we began researching this topic almost 20 years ago, we’ve found that all activities in disaster management fall within a four-phase model where three of the four phases, in practice, are typically met with reluctance. We believe that when the role of emergency management is meant to be one of only disaster response, we can only expect disaster. These phases form the structure of emergency management organizations at all levels of government.

Forward-thinking managers understand the importance of monitoring a baseline state for their system, anticipating issues before they arise, and mitigating those before they become an organizational crisis. They will similarly recognize the fourth phase — response — as a phase ideally avoided, or at least mitigated with good resiliency measures built in to operations. Yet in emergency management, response is the preferred state of operation, likely due to a lack of formal management training in the emergency management workforce. Disaster sociology research consistently shows that not only does a majority of the emergency management workforce come from a first-response background in police, fire, EMS, or military, but also, those same first responders acknowledge their lack of management experience and knowledge. To change this dynamic, emergency managers need to divert some of their attention to the other phases of the cycle. Here’s how.

Strategic management to avoid crisis

This predictive approach assesses a system for strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, and identifies critical leverage points early. Emergency managers are already familiar with vulnerability assessments, and NJDOH might argue they successfully identified vulnerabilities in their 2015 exercise. But identifying risk and vulnerability for awareness in the next response is not enough. Strategic action is more likely to reduce or remove risk before a response becomes necessary.

In one example, FEMA uses local grant programs to eliminate the risks to human life and property when land is flooded, by purchasing structures in flood plains and converting the at-risk area to natural wetlands or park space. In counterterrorism, the global shipping industry recognized that the standard design for cargo ship hulls left them vulnerable to the types of explosives likely to be used in a terrorist attack on a port after 9/11, or ruptures in environmental disasters like the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. As a result, the industry united to require a new double-hull design, making ship damage due to rupture or explosives nearly impossible.

Tactical management to limit crises

Removing the opportunity for crisis is not always feasible. Hurricanes, for example, will continue to impact coastal areas no matter how well we manage the risks. Where strategic management identifies crises that cannot be avoided, emergency managers can take a tactical management approach and design processes to minimize risks as much as possible.

Tactical management is already a component of emergency management’s response-oriented culture, where a strong response to crisis will limit damaging impacts. These existing tactical approaches must now be brought from the response phase and implemented across all phases of disaster, rather than waiting for the crisis before trying to limit it. As a national example, the Incident Command System (ICS) was introduced post-9/11 as a process to standardize equipment, roles, and terminology given to active responders when multiple, sometimes overlapping organizations must simultaneously respond to the same event. ICS reduces secondary disaster impacts that can arise from the main source of chaos, such as neighboring fire departments using incompatible radios while fighting the same fire. If a tactical approach can be applied in the response phase, it can also work in preparedness, mitigation, and recovery.

Managing critical measures

Too often, disasters receive sensationalized coverage in the media, where response quality is measured in terms of morbidity. Not only is this insensitive and cruel to disaster survivors, it gives emergency managers no objective way to demonstrate success in a response when one life lost is too many. As a result of this media focus, the emergency management workforce typically prefers to avoid tracking any measures which could be used against it, especially after numerous misleading reports blaming FEMA for state and local failures following Hurricane Katrina.

However, lean processes in traditional management offer a measurable way to know if you are offering a good product or service, usually expressed as defects measured per unit, time, or critical service parameters. These have the potential for emergency managers to monitor their systems and processes based on quantitative measures, rather than post-disaster media reports of destruction and loss intended to evoke an emotional response.

Following Hurricane Katrina, studies of critical measures in ground evacuation found that components of the evacuation of coastal Louisiana performed faster and more efficiently than planned, despite media reports to the contrary. However our own research has found that dollars spent on mitigation don’t necessarily lead to a direct reduction in dollars spent on response, indicating a need for further research into critical economic measures. Emergency managers need to look beyond media coverage of response, identify new critical disaster measures, and put all phases of disaster on a quantitative path to improvement.

Emergency Management Beyond Disasters

First responder skills are highly valuable in life-threatening emergencies and emergency managers are fundamentally resilient employees due to the nature of their work. Even if only managing a response effort, responders are still trained to conduct life-saving, property-protecting operations often at considerable risk to their own safety. We do not in any way minimize these unique skills and attributes of emergency managers. Instead we ask: Can we do more for them? Can we use strategic management to avoid crisis? Tactical management to limit it? Critical measures to learn from it?

As disasters and crisis intensify under the triple threat of climate change, inequality, and globalization, we need to look beyond what we’ve always done and learn from our colleagues in management outside of the emergency sector. With their guidance, we believe we can better manage disaster — or at least disaster at scale — before it strikes.