Last month, Gerald Baron had an extremely interesting post on his Crisis Comm blog about leadership (usually political) and its integration into emergency response, especially in the situation where a response plan is already in place. The most damning quote in the post comes from Admiral Thad Allen (USGS-Retired) concerning the role of leadership during the Deepwater Horizon response:
I’m concerned with the findings of the Commission and the national Incident Commander that officials at all levels of government were unfamiliar with the national Contingency Plan, our nation’s 42 year old blueprint for how to respond to oil spills. But I am particularly alarmed that the senior leaders of the Department of Homeland Security were either unaware or simply misunderstood how the plan functions. I am troubled that the failure of the Department’s leadership to recognize, accept and follow the plans slowed up the command and control in the days after the spill, undermined public confidence in government, and may have impeded the response.
While Gerald is a much more appropriate person to discuss national responses, I think I can offer some insight into what this means for local response.
I believe that, by and large, leadership at the local level is unfamiliar with the emergency response plans developed, written, approved, tested and implemented in their jurisdiction. They’ve simply got too much going on to get into the details, so I certainly don’t begrudge them that. I also think that political leadership at the local level usually respects the choices that emergency mangers make day-to-day. From their perspective, so long as plans exist, they have political cover. And so long as they have that, the emergency managers can do whatever they want.
The problem comes when one needs to activate those plans. Admiral Allen bemoans the lack of understanding of federal plans, but what about celebrated local leaders who circumvent established emergency plans (some would argue for political gain)? Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani showed how advantageous it is to successfully respond to a disaster career-wise (Though admittedly, I don’t think that anyone would begrudge his response that day. The political posturing came later.). And I would argue that with a bit of social media savvy, current Newark mayor Cory Booker has shown a willingness to insert himself into emergency scenarios.
Take, for example, his widely praised efforts to respond to citizen complaints via Twitter during the snowstorms earlier this year. I even posted on it, and argued that other local officials could be expected to follow his lead in citizen-directed response via social media. At the time, many emergency managers quietly grumbled about Mayor Booker’s perceived end-run around the city’s established snow emergency plan. Now, to be completely fair, I can’t say that there was an end-run—maybe the Mayor worked out beforehand that he would have access to direct one or more snowplows as he saw fit. But if he didn’t… You think not knowing ICS was a problem, what about intentionally redirecting limited resources during an emergency?
Like I said before, I don’t know if Mayor Booker did that, so I won’t dwell on it. But even if he didn’t, there is nothing to stop your Mayor from doing the same thing in an effort to emulate Mayor Booker’s media success.
So, like all good emergency planners, I believe this is the state of things. It is what it is, as they say. So, what do we do about it? Well, first, acknowledge within your planning that this might happen. Say explicitly that you’ll work with your County Executive to establish priorities and respond accordingly. To not do so would only serve to neuter your response from the start. Then, raise the issue with the Executive. Couch it in terms that you want to protect life and property in your jurisdiction, and to preserve people’s faith in the helpfulness of the county. If your Executive says, “You write the plans, and I’ll duly support them,” you’re golden. If not, well, maybe you can assign him or her a snowplow.