Give us back our jobs

by Alain Normand

Alain Normand

Would you hire a tailor to perform surgery? A tailor knows how to cut and sew cloth; wouldn’t they be able to do the same with patients?

Would you hire a construction worker to sell homes? A construction worker knows about buildings; wouldn’t they be good at selling them?

A big part of the problem with emergency management is that most key positions are filled by the wrong people. There a myth circulating, particularly at OFMEM, that anyone having played a role as incident commander is able to lead the emergency management office. I would offer that even those who suggest that they have police, fire, or military experience with ICS (Incident Command System) are severely lacking in the skills and knowledge required for emergency management. In fact, what first responders refer to as ICS is used only to a very limited extent. A number of studies published in the American Journal of Emergency Management and the Journal for Homeland Security have demonstrated that the majority of incident commanders are limited to providing leadership only to their own agency and have no experience in leading multi-agency or multi-jurisdictional incidents[1],[2]. “Each agency has its own command post and its own incident commander rarely working together. Also, rarely have a clear indication of who is ultimately in charge because each incident commander is in charge of their own silos.”

Meanwhile, emergency management professionals are all about multi-agency coordination.

The same studies show that most first responders have an operational view of emergencies, with some tactical elements. Meanwhile emergency management is a strategic dimension, aligned with many tactical elements and some operational aspects. Emergency management is about community well-being and about resilience. Response is the smallest part of the discipline. Most of the work is about preparedness and public education, with elements of prevention, mitigation, recovery, and business continuity.

If you want to see what happens when you give the job of emergency management to the wrong person, look no further than Fort McMurray. The evacuation planning for this situation was almost as poor as the response to the Katrina Hurricane. (By the way, Katrina happened right after the US moved away from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) towards a Homeland Security model thereby leaving EM to anti-terrorism experts). In Fort McMurray, with only one road in and no possibility of sheltering up north, a lot of alarms would have gone off if an EM (Emergency Management) professional had been in charge. The evacuation would have been done early on and progressively, not in a last minute mad rush. There would have been resupply stations along the way to ensure access to fuel, water, food and washrooms. The convoy through burning suburbs back to southern Alberta would have been avoided.

Let me clarify that I have huge respect for first responder and military personnel. Their jobs are extremely important and these are professional people with great skills and commitment. However, the skills they have do not automatically make them successful emergency management professionals.

Key EM positions at EMO (Emergency Management Ontario) and elsewhere should be filled by emergency management professionals. Once in place, changes to the legislation are more likely to mirror internationally accepted emergency management principles. Most of these EM professionals are educated to make use of lessons learned from other emergencies. Errors of the past can be avoided. Fort McMurray could have learned from Slave Lake and even from the Australia wildfires.

It’s time emergency management is recognized as a separate discipline with the same importance as police, fire and EMS. It’s not just a part-time job to be done by retired first responders.

I suggest we need to let our politicians know about this. Talk to your local MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament) about the issues involved with hiring the wrong people for such an important function. Anything less is putting citizens at risk and most politicians are not aware of this. Submit this to your municipal council and ask them to put pressure on the Ministry of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Letters from 447 Ontario communities may cause a bit of a stir with the Ministry.

Make sure your next operation is done by a surgeon, buy your home from a real estate broker, and let emergency management professionals handle disasters. Tell the minister to give us back our jobs.


Note: The opinions expressed here are totally my own and in no way reflect the position of my employer.

[1] Joseph E. Trainor, Benigno E. Aguirre, Dick A. Buck, University of Delaware/Disaster Research Center, “A Critical Evaluation of the Incident Command System and NIMS”, Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2006

[2] Amy Donahue and Robert Tuohy , “Lessons We Don’t Learn: A Study of the Lessons of Disasters, Why We Repeat Them, and How We Can Learn Them”, The Journal of the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security, July 2006.


One thought on “Give Us Back Our Jobs

  1. Hello Alain and thank-you for an interesting article.

    I am well aware of your respect and support of first responders, as I am sure you know. However, please do not put all first responder retirees into the same basket, as you appear to do.

    As you know, I am retired from the police service. However, as a career long operational middle manager, where I was, on virtually a daily basis, required (and quite rightly so) to work with not only other responders, but members of community organizations and other concerned entities, there are many of us that see the value in developing and maintaining such relationships, and working with them in emergency situations, not the least of which angle is preparedness.

    It is my belief that, should such retirees devote themselves to further education (such as graduate degrees or post graduate certificates in EM) that the holistic approach that they learn and obtain from such programs, together with their tactical and operational backgrounds, can cement them as very effective emergency managers.

    It’s all about balance. Theory is the basis of virtually everything we do, of that there is no doubt. Such theory is developed in no small part by scholars and those with whom they work to develop what is believed to be best practices. However, rounding that out with an operational knowledge of how that theory can be applied and, in a lot of cases, improved, is what is critical to effective Emergency Management.

    If you have blinders on, and always do things the same way, then there is no real place for you in EM. It is far too broad a concept. However, if you are open to and willing to change, develop further relationships and get rid of the blinders and silos that often have driven your career, then it is that sort of blend that can make an exceptional emergency manager.


    Damien Coakeley

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