Appointment to an emergency management position is a proud moment as well as a moment that creates doubt, anxiety, and internal questioning of one’s own ability to handle a major catastrophe. Questions arise about the community’s hazards awareness, the status of the local emergency operations plan, and the proverbial, “What keeps you up at night?” scenario.

The appointing authority (mayor or city manager) has confidence in the appointment and everything seems in place for a competent response to disaster, or so it is thought. However, real success in a catastrophic disaster goes far beyond operational expertise. In fact, at least three other areas are so important that a conversation centering on these subjects should be considered immediately between the appointing authority and new emergency manager.

Any overwhelming disaster provides obvious answers to the operational questions surrounding saving lives, stabilizing the incident, and protecting life and property. However, a quick check of disaster history usually shows that it is “downhill” from this point on. The more severe the problem, the quicker these three critical influences begin to surface. The influencers, or “stumbling blocks,” are the concepts of federalism, politics, and disaster logistics.

Knowledge, Skills & Experience

Emergency managers (including fire, emergency medical, and law enforcement officials) are trained for the high-probability, low-consequence events that occur every day. These events have a definable outcome in time, damage, and loss of life. However, the seldom-occurring low-probability, high-consequence events bring a different challenge not practiced on a daily or even monthly basis. High-consequence events cause the need for additional experiential and knowledge requirements. Requirements such as intergovernmental relationship skills, knowledge of citizen and first responder behavioral health concerns, sheltering and feeding procedures for large numbers of citizens, a citizen evacuation plan, and expert knowledge in handling the rescue of disabled citizens.

Intergovernmental skills are required for managing local situations (mutual aid agreements), coordinating with the state (home rule and emergency management assistance compacts), and working with the federal government (Stafford Act). The attitudes, knowledge, and cultures of various players at every level can either contribute to a positive outcome or magnify the weaknesses of the emergency manager. Likewise, background research and training in citizen and first responder behavioral health needs during the pre-disaster period pay off remarkably once the disaster occurs.

Experienced and exercised knowledge of sheltering and feeding operations is an absolute must for every emergency manager. Then, it is important to gain every bit of knowledge one can about evacuation procedures, including the successful handling of disabled citizens in the municipality. These critical knowledge areas are heavily dependent on and run head on into the three influencers or “stumbling blocks.”


The first critical influence every emergency manager should understand is the concept of federalism. Federalism has an exciting history of development in the United States and has evolved into a huge shadow of power driven by the control of funding through disaster relief and various other grant programs. The concern about “who is in charge” gets more confusing and complicated when merged with the “who is paying for this” concept.

Although federalism can be called by a number of identifiers, coercive and cooperative federalism, especially in the preparedness grants area, requires a high level of understanding on the emergency manager’s part. More information on federalism can be obtained from Roger Pilon’s article “Federalism – Then and Now,” which was published in the inFocus Quarterly on 13 January 2015. From federalism, the transition shows the need for an advanced understanding of a second influencer that is commonly known as politics.


Emergency managers may be naively thinking that, since “all politics are local” and all the players are known, politics are not a problem. For example, Hurricane Katrina brought out every ugly event and mistake to illustrate the incompetence of emergency managers, mayors, and even a governor, including: numerous agency investigations, congressional hearings, and a presidential review; national media coverage of questionable emergency preparedness and response actions; chaos; and the death of over 1,800 citizens.

Elected officials as a rule do not like to explain mistakes. When this happens, blame flows downhill, the public screams, and officials are fired or quietly replaced. Anxiety and anger reach the tipping point when citizens begin to realize that government officials charged with their protection are not prepared, lack a functional emergency operations plan, cannot support shelter and feeding operations, and appear confused about what to do next. Failure, or just the perception of failure, in the emergency operations plan or recognition of citizens’ needs drive politics. For an example, in a 9-minute video, Mayor Ray Nagin talks politics as it relates to Hurricane Katrina.

Disaster Logistics

The third influencer in this dilemma now begins to show. This would be a working knowledge of and skill in disaster logistics. A lack of knowledge in disaster logistics – or more directly the lack of understanding required in how to implement the components of disaster logistics – is a major shortcoming. These components include: the procurement, transport, storage, staffing, and training in logistical operations; the handling of safety issues related to logistics; the establishment of site control; distribution of materials and supplies; and demobilization requirements. The logistical components must be embedded into every successful emergency operations plan at every level of response. Logistics are a critical function in pre-disaster as well as post-disaster operational periods.

Disaster logistics is such a relatively new area for emergency managers at the local level that a specific textbook does not exist yet on the subject. However, the University of New Haven, Connecticut, has developed a graduate-level course on disaster operations and management that is a logistics-based study on implementing the logistical components described in major disaster operations. Further information on the logistics course is available from Wayne E. Sanford, coordinator of the Emergency Management Program at 203-479-4891.

There is a great deal of additional research, training, and understanding required to master these three key influencers. Understanding federalism, politics, and disaster logistics make or break a successful disaster operation. They may appear to be strange subjects to talk to appointing officials about. However, after a disaster, it is too late to say that it was “a conversation that should have happened.”

Bill Austin
William H. Austin

William H. Austin, DABCHS, CFO, CHS-V, MIFire, currently teaches in the Emergency Management Master’s Degree Program at the University of New Haven in Connecticut (2016-present). He formed a consulting firm, The Austin Group LLC, in 2011. He served as fire chief of West Hartford, CT (1996-2011) and as the fire chief of Tampa, FL (1985-1995). He has a master’s degree in Security Studies (Defense and Homeland Security) from the United States Naval Postgraduate School (2006) and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Troy State University (1993). He is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council and has served on various governing councils in Florida and Connecticut. Contact at

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