Emergency Managers

Aaron BingamonA Bit Like Chicken Little But Ready to Protect Everyone From The Falling Sky

By Aaron Bingaman, CFM

As I sat on the couch with my laptop trying to figure out a catchy way to being this conversation about the life of an emergency manager, my two daughters were sitting with me watching Chicken Little. As I watched the cartoon with them, I realized that the emergency manager is a lot like Chicken Little: We are always watching the sky trying to figure out if and when it might fall.  

A Mission of Preparedness 

In reality we aren’t trying to predict the fall of the sky but we do try to figure out what the next major disaster is going to be and when we think it might impact the community. Armed with this information, emergency managers set out on a mission to:

  1. educate the community; 
  2. develop emergency plans; and 
  3. build response capabilities and test plans, procedures, and processes through emergency exercises.  

We remain in this cycle of analyzing, building, preparing, and testing until a disaster occurs and then we move into response and recovery operations.

Project Management Is a Big Part of the Role 

While emergency managers know what they do, the general public typically doesn’t understand what we do. I came to this conclusion when I was a county director in Arkansas. All of my friends thought I worked for either the fire department, the police department, or EMS. In reality, I didn’t work for any of these departments, although I did help to coordinate and support their response efforts. Simply stated, an emergency manager is a person who brings the right people to the table to fix a big problem. I’m a lot like a project manager but rather than build buildings, I manage the efforts to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

While I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie and very much enjoy responding to major disasters, the truth is that major disasters don’t happen very often—which is a good thing. The bulk of my day consists of writing plans, briefing senior officials, developing educational programs, and working with first responders to build and test their response capabilities.  

Multitasking, Public Speaking, and an Understanding of Technology Are Important Skills

To be successful in this environment, it is important to maintain a skill set in public speaking and education. In addition, it is important that an emergency manager is able to manage multiple projects at the same time. There are a lot of computer programs and applications available to assist the emergency manager with these tasks. Therefore, the emergency manager should also know their way around a computer, data management systems, and specialized computer applications.

When you have the opportunity to respond to emergencies, there will no doubt be some interesting situations that arise. For example, I was once asked to swim across a flooded creek to save some ponies who were trapped on an island. The ponies were safe and had been in this situation before. However, this time the homeowner wanted someone to swim over and get them. This was one of the most interesting situations I have been presented with during a disaster.

The Challenge Is to Overcome Reactiveness Vs. Preparedness From Others 

Another challenge of the job is that little effort is made to invest in mitigation and preparedness actions until an emergency is imminent, occurring, or after it has already occurred. For example, when I would visit a flooded home the first thing that the homeowner would tell me was that the house had never flooded in the 50+ years they had lived there. Even though their home was located in the 100-year floodplain they typically didn’t believe that a flood would impact their home and did very little to limit flood damages to their property before a flood occurred.

In addition, it was always difficult to convince elected officials that a disaster could happen in the community. For example, when I was a county director we had a tornado develop overtop of us and touchdown in the county to our East. When I went into work the next morning I perceived this event as a near miss and justification for more planning. My elected official perceived this event as proof that tornadoes don’t happen in the community.

Making a Difference Is What it’s All About 

The most rewarding part of the job is being able to make a difference in the lives of people who were impacted by a disaster. A disaster is much worse than an emergency and people can potentially lose everything thew own. To be able to get them assistance, help them recover, and reestablish a post-disaster life is very rewarding. It makes you feel good to know that you made a true difference in the lives of the people who you live and work with.

Aaron Bingamon, CFM, is a faculty member at Purdue Global. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Purdue Global.