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Updating Emergency Management

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

It’s one of those bureaucracies you hope you never have to engage with and while this might be said of any bureaucracy, it is particularly true of emergency management. I say that because if you’re engaging with the whole emergency management ecosystem, you’re either planning for an incident, in the midst of one, or trying to put the pieces back together after an incident.

Yet, I can think of no other ecosystem or bureaucracy more worthy of our attention as we end 2021 and start 2022 than emergency management and specifically the Office of Emergency Management or OEM. This has been increasingly on my mind, prompted by the tornados in Kentucky, wildfires out west, heat waves and then weird snow storms in the Pacific Northwest, snow in Hawaii, 500-year flooding in northern New Jersey, and other bizarre weather in places and at times it simply ought not to be.

With climate change and global warming now our new normal, regardless of whether it is permanent or cyclical, the fact remains that we are seeing extremes that we’re un- or under-prepared for and this is our future.

That is not a criticism to anyone in the field because we’ve been fortunate to have some dedicated and capable people working in the emergency management ecosystem at the county level. My concern is more at the municipal level where we treat OEM as a part-time add-on thing. This is a problem because what’s now occurring in our climate and in our weather will test our readiness, capabilities, and our follow-through.

According to PEW research by PEW, from 2005 to 2019, the federal government overall spent $460 billion on disaster assistance while FEMA’s public assistance increased by 23 percent when comparing the 2000 to 2009 decade against the 2010 to 2019 decade.

What that means is that we can expect some type of natural disaster to impact us in the not-so-distant future. Accordingly, it may be time to convene some type of OEM summit. This is particularly needful for smaller communities because we’re often guilty of stitching together a plan so we can say we have one, but that’s about as far as it goes.

It’s not clear how well we would be served by our respective plans and how they would hold up as working documents in the middle of a crisis. This doesn’t even begin to touch on what’s involved with applying for funds and the documentation involved with disaster monies on the back side of an event. The disaster relief bureaucracy is by no means easy or simple; yet it is often the deciding factor in recovery at all levels of government. We do not give it due attention.

Also, it may be time to consider building more flexibility into certain state and federal programs to allow communities to allocate funds to OEM-related tasks and activities as a preparedness measure. This would allow smaller communities to focus in a serious way on emergency management instead of tacking it onto other functions and departments, which is often what happens.

Such an approach would enable smaller communities to pay consultant professionals, fund shared services agreements, or hire full-time dedicated OEM staff to conduct assessments and prepare plans that are community-specific and workable in the eye of the storm as opposed to having cut-and-paste templates that allow us to check off a box but fail us when we need it most.

Mayoral Musings