Arthur C. Clarke used a monolith to symbolize the arrival of a new era for
mankind in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For emergency managers in America, the
9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina has served the same purpose.
On September 11, the emergency-management paradigm of local control seemed
to lie amongst the rubble of the World Trade Center. Federalizing a local
disaster sent shock waves throughout America’s emergency-management network.
The ensuing rush to replace the existing emergency framework and FEMA with a
federal homeland-security mechanism showed its inherent weakness when nature
took center stage in August 2005. Just four years after the 9/11 attacks,
three deadly hurricanes–Wilma, Katrina and Rita–tore across the Southern
states leaving a swath of devastation. Nature’s power exposed the notion
that disasters could be managed from Washington, D.C., as folly. A key
lesson learned from 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina is that no one management
model is more vital than the other.
The optimal model lies somewhere between local and federal control. Each
disaster event brings with it a unique destructive signature. Like a concert
maestro, an emergency manager may need to select between a federal, state or
local-control model to address ongoing and complex situations in the next
era of emergency management. California’s strength in the past has come from
our ability to adjust to disaster changes. California’s development of
techniques, such as Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS),
Incident Command System (ICS) and mutual aid, are now models for the nation.
The next era should also start in California. Three areas where the state
Legislature can act to usher in the next era of emergency management are
continuous improvement, organizational structure and professional standards.
Continuous improvement must become the backbone of emergency management.
After the 2003 wildfires in Southern California, the governor’s Blue Ribbon
Fire Commission members reported to the Joint Legislative Committee on
Emergency Services and Homeland Security that only 20 of the 48
recommendations were being positively explored and only 6 percent had been
accomplished one year after the fire. This experience is symptomatic of the
problem that plagues emergency managers at all levels. Follow through on
after-action reports is rare. Most after-action recommendations go
unaddressed in emergency management today. Although continuous improvement
is difficult to implement, it is impossible when it is not required. It
takes courage to change a system. It also takes legal mandates to maintain
one. California can lead the way in this legislative session by instituting
a mandatory system of continuous improvement in all phases of
The current relationship between the governor’s Office of Emergency Services
(OES) and the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) is unacceptable. As it was
reported in the Capitol Weekly, OES and OHS are competing for supremacy over
public-safety turf and are making everyone look bad. The confusion between
the two offices has its roots in former-Governor Davis’ original executive
order that stated that the director of OES shall report to the governor
through the director of OHS. OHS was not created by statute, unlike OES. The
Department of Finance (DOF) was forced to put the 2004-05 OHS budget inside
the OES budget. DOF is loathed to give millions of dollars to entities that
do not exist in statute. This oddity of state government was highlighted in
the 2006 Legislative Analysts Office’s Issues and Perspectives and must be
corrected. The governor’s recent executive order (S-04-06) requiring OES,
OHS and a multitude of other agencies to meet quarterly should be applauded.
It is a step in the right direction. However executive orders are no
substitute for statutory authority. Legislative action is needed to bring
clarity and common sense to this unusual and ineffective structure.
Third, the Michael Brown phenomenon is not an isolated incident in emergency
management. Whereas firefighters, law enforcement and emergency-medical
professionals have all benefited from professional standards, emergency
managers have been left out. Although there are currently efforts in this
area, progress toward professional standards for emergency managers is going
too slow. An opportunity exists for the Legislature to create a
professional-standards commission for emergency management and homeland
security this year.
Continuous improvement, unifying statutory authority and professional
standards would thrust California into a national leadership position in
emergency management once again. The next era has dawned through the harsh
realities of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. As goes California, so goes the
nation. Emergency managers are the guardians of public safety and public
trust. They are a worthy cause.