The past few years have challenged emergency preparedness and response professionals around the world. Events that have been called unprecedented, record-breaking, or once-in-a-lifetime are becoming commonplace. Just a few defining events that spurred changes in preparedness efforts include the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and the COVID pandemic that began in 2019. Today’s leaders need to be forward-thinking, equipped with the right tools, and prepared to manage the inevitable uncertainties that lie ahead. Leadership frameworks and industry traditions may need to change to better plan for, mitigate, and manage emergencies and disasters that occur in combination or that span large geographical areas. 

To address the challenges that emergency preparedness professionals face in an ever-changing threat environment, the Domestic Preparedness Journal hosted a panel discussion at the Texas Emergency Management Conference in San Antonio, Texas, on June 2, 2022. The multidiscipline panel was moderated by James (Jim) Featherstone, a principal consultant at a crisis management consultant agency, Themata Strategic LLC. Participants included the Texas Division of Emergency Management (Deputy Chiefs Suzannah Jones and Country Weidler), Texas Department of Public Safety (Major Rhonda Lawson), Dallas Fire-Rescue (Chief Dominique Artis), Amarillo Public Health (Casie Stoughton), and Texas Army National Guard, Director Operations, Plans and Training (Colonel Robert Eason). This article summarizes the panelists’ responses to questions that leaders should be asking themselves.  

To watch the full panel discussion, click HERE

Leadership Frameworks and Management 

When it comes to emergency and disaster readiness, many leaders have a defining moment that changes how they manage future events. Working in Texas, many of the panelists saw Hurricane Harvey as that moment where change was needed, others had that moment when they responded to the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina. Although any disaster response has a reactionary component, more effort needs to be placed on preparedness to mitigate the event’s devastating effects. 

Good leadership involves working with other leaders who may have different leadership styles and different terminology. Therefore, an effective leadership framework should include flexibility in a fluid environment and the ability to communicate effectively, create teams, share resources, and prioritize tasks. As the leadership framework expands and more partners are added, panelists emphasized the need to demonstrate “ego-less leadership,” to “do more with less,” and to be able to work in “shades of gray.” 

Industry traditions, however, may hinder some preparedness efforts. For example, repeatedly doing the same actions and expecting the same results for different events or not prioritizing funding needs (e.g., repairing critical infrastructure) can have devastating results. Another tradition that could hinder efforts is expecting an event to progress through the normal disaster phases. Whether managing simultaneous events or a disaster within a disaster, leaders often find themselves working within multiple response phases at the same time. 

Raising the Bar to Meet Current Needs 

In the new normal, the threat environment is evolving, with emergencies and disasters occurring in various combinations and often spanning large geographical areas. In addition, the workforce is shifting, with seasoned professionals retiring or changing careers and a younger generation taking their places. In this environment, good relationships are critical. Establishing a solid command structure, acquiring resources, creating mutual aid agreements, and building a trained and competent workforce all require establishing a broad network across public and private sectors, professional organizations, academia, etc. 

To bridge the generational and cultural gaps within the workforce, leaders must understand the differences. Currently, there may be five different generations working in the same organization with five different ways to communicate. However, how an older generation teaches is not necessarily how a younger generation learns. The digital age and career aspirations of the younger generation create a need to recruit in nontraditional places and instill a strong work ethic. When targeting a generation that is likely to change careers multiple times, leaders should reexamine their recruiting efforts and find new ways to attract, train, and retain a strong workforce and pool of future leaders. 

Considering recent crises, the panelists have been taking steps to adapt and mitigate future threats. For example, panelists described a paradigm shift after Hurricane Harvey as they began looking at all the roles that are needed during a disaster and all the key stakeholders who should be invited to the planning table (e.g., law enforcement, supply-chain managers, fire, emergency medical services [EMS], military, private sector). One training gap mentioned was the fact that fire, EMS, law enforcement, and military are all required to do basic training before making life and death decisions, but emergency managers do not have the same type of basic training before they begin making critical decisions for the safety of their communities. 

Biggest Concerns vs. Biggest Positive Impact 

Preparing for a crisis requires leadership to consider many factors and avoid getting tunnel vision. The panelists shared their greatest concerns – the things that keep them up at night. These concerns include: 

  • The safety and well-being of their personnel; 

  • The speed at which they can assemble teams and deploy personnel and resources; 

  • A line-of-duty death; 

  • Intentional mass casualty attack; 

  • The ability to ensure that the day-to-day tasks are completed even during an emergency; 

  • The resilience of staff; and 

  • The knowledge that any major disaster can happen at any time anywhere. 

The panelists also shared the changes that they would recommend for delivering the biggest positive impact on community preparedness. These recommendations include: 

  • Reading and learning as much as possible to build critical thinking skills; 

  • Getting out of siloes to build good relationships; 

  • Focusing on partnerships and flexibility; 

  • Knowing how to exercise scalability at the state and local levels before an event occurs; 

  • Making it easier to scale up operations by communicating and collaborating between departments during an event; 

  • Looking at what each stakeholder group has in common and identify the strengths and capabilities of each; 

  • Not overlooking mental health emergencies; 

  • Expanding training opportunities that include all key stakeholders; and 

  • Listening to other points of view. 

True leadership is not about giving orders. It is about building relationships, communicating effectively, and collaborating extensively. It also includes a lot of learning and a lot of listening to build critical thinking skills and make the best decisions for each incident. Planning in siloes and not continually listening and learning from others will negatively affect response operations during a disaster. As Featherstone described it during the panel discussion, a leader that does not read can be compared to a person “stepping across a minefield without a map.” 

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, DomesticPreparedness.com, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.

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