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Integrating information technology (IT) into emergency management and public safety agencies involves balancing technological limitations with the organizational mindset. Finding this balance has been discussed in practice, academia, and across multiple disciplines, with friction sometimes emerging between the leadership mindset, staff, data, training, and implementation. For example, interpersonal and social challenges may arise when some professionals (impacted sometimes by generational gaps) do not understand or are uncomfortable using modern technology while others use it daily. These friction points can delay response and recovery efforts, slow new technology integration, and impact culture.
Structure, Culture & Mindset
Southern New Hampshire University defines organizational leadership as, “a management approach in which leaders help set strategic goals for the organization while motivating individuals within the group to successfully carry out assignments in service to those goals.” This approach forms a basis for how public and private organizations operate. For example, policies drive public sector agencies – mainly comprised of government agencies and municipalities – while private sector agencies and companies are in business to make a financial profit. Although the results may differ, the process is similar: goal setting, decision-making, problem-solving, relationship building, understanding environments, etc.
In emergency management and public safety – where future uncertainties can dominate processes, and product solutions must meet an all-hazards environment and an all-encompassing threat landscape – an insightfully designed process can reduce emotional and reactionary decision-making. Fortunately, effective integration of IT can make workflow, goals, problem-solving, and life-or-death decisions more rational and timelier with a higher likelihood of success.
With so many IT tools plus data overload, how can emergency management and public safety agencies prepare and sustain IT solutions in a fast-paced environment?
The knowledge-sharing model offers three types of changes leadership can implement when seeking high-quality services from their workforce: economic and geopolitical, technological, and mentality. These change management principles can positively affect organizational culture and IT integration, allowing for better data management and workforce inclusion in the decision-making process. The level of investment in IT can affect the ability to maintain the required balance of intent, mission, and focus when preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies. In addition, the level of IT integration can directly impact a company or agency’s successes or failures. However, IT complexities coupled with public sector funding challenges can make it difficult for emergency management agencies to remain current, especially in rural locations where staff and resources can be scarce. The learning curve for employees, plus the impacts on budget and process, can adversely affect efficiency and productivity. Finally, maintaining IT competency can be even more challenging when employee turnover is high.
As Nancy Torres stated in 2018, “With this rise in crises across the United States, data and technology have an increasingly important role in improving emergency management departments across the country.” Of course, while IT can provide tools that emergency management and public safety agencies can effectively leverage, personnel will benefit only if they have adequate and consistent training on how to utilize these tools. In addition, these tools can become costly and cumbersome if organizational leadership does not fully appreciate and commit to maintaining core personnel competencies and effectively addressing issues that may arise, such as data overload, too many solutions to simple problems, or redundancy in IT solutions due to siloed divisions within an agency.
Unlike private industry, the organizational structure of emergency management and public safety agencies – large and small – is challenged by not knowing the timing and magnitude of unplanned events. Although lessons learned from past events lead to process advancements and new technology investments, leadership dynamics, budget constraints, and cultural acceptance will determine how well IT is effectively embedded into organizational processes.
Investments & Challenges
Advancing technology requires a robust organizational structure that can accept and process extensive data. For example, technology for equipment like that on the Cal OES FIRIS plane supports ground units, decision-makers, and planning units in managing resources and saving lives. Although this technology improves insight, response measures, and recovery efforts, the challenges remain in synthesizing the data, determining who can see it, mitigating security concerns, and providing contract oversite.
When these factors fail or have not been mitigated or tested, the challenges may overwhelm employees and leadership. Over-collecting “unorganized” data can lead to confusion and lead to unintended reactionary decision-making, which may result in leadership reverting to “static” and slow decision-making processes that rely on stale or low-quality data – “the old way of doing things.”
For example, Esri’s ArcGIS Online geospatial information systems (GIS) portal has the capacity to display thousands of data layers. If not properly constructed, managed, and collated by users, the portal could generate overwhelming and confusing information from a multitude of private and public sources. As a result, it may be difficult for planners, end-users, and decision-makers to distinguish between what is useful and what is noise. In an organized environment, all data would be verified, clear, concise, and timely to help decision-makers plan for, respond to, and recover from emergencies on blue-sky and grey-sky days. However, rather than occurring organically, committees often design, test, and plan for these efforts in blue-sky settings –sometimes going untested.
IT security challenges and rapidly changing functions have made it difficult for some agencies to keep up with security concerns. Standards like FedRAMP and the National Institute of Standards and Technology FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) are emerging more frequently in federal and state environments and are designed to help set standards for storage solutions, data quality, and data security. As a result, determining how public sector agencies and private industry embed standards-based IT systems and processes into their organizations is critical for achieving their goals.
COVID-19 also presented challenges and opportunities for IT integration when the pandemic significantly impacted communication workflows within emergency management and public safety organizations. By leveraging IT capabilities, organizations have attempted to bridge the physical gaps the pandemic created. Remote access technology has allowed personnel to connect via the internet, but communication impedances and challenges have impacted connectivity between leadership and the workforce. This new work environment has modified how emergencies are handled and will likely be the new normal in agency communication cultures. As the COVID-19 response lessens, the challenge for leadership shifting from being in a health emergency to handling natural and human-caused events will require addressing issues with personnel management and remote workforce options. IT can serve as a medium for impacting accountability, workflow, and process communication.
Impacts on hiring and recruitment are also paramount when high turnover is part of the emergency management culture. With many employees demanding remote options, some agencies and companies are considering modifying their hiring policies. Remote opportunities are not necessarily bad for agencies (assuming the position could be effectively performed remotely) if there is effective management of oversite, recruitment, and retention expectations. However, a new remote work culture would require public and private sector agencies to adapt and their human resources policies to catch up. The technology would significantly impact how a remote workforce is implemented and tracked.
It is time for emergency management and public safety industries to adopt and prepare for radical and rapid onsets of IT integration into daily operations more aggressively. From workflow and security standpoints, leadership must evaluate current capabilities and integrate new technologies into their workforce cultures. Understanding the psychology of decision-making, optimizing digital business strategies, and challenging former operational processes are vital for opening leadership to management changes in behavior and bureaucracy. Some action items to consider when applying organizational fundamentals include:
Understand how IT systems and processes are applied in the agency’s culture to balance current IT security standards, support a rotating workforce, and adapt to new remote communication challenges.
Understand how IT has advanced, so that simplicity, risk identification, and consistency are essential for accountable, accurate, and validated workflows that meet specific standards that cross-pollinate between the public and private sectors.
Balance human and technological efforts that impact new and existing IT contracts for tools and data acquisition – for example, how artificial intelligence impacts data and workflow.
Share knowledge to understand IT impacts on processes, workflows, cultures, and decisions.
Consider the Six Sigma business methodology as a straightforward process for addressing IT challenges:
- Recognize and understand the problem,
- Identify and define the problem,
- Measure and analyze a data-driven solution,
- Provide a practical solution,
- Create a system for a long-term solution, and
- Measure and realize the results.
The key to making all this possible is for leadership to lean into a progressive and sometimes painful process in change management. Reviewing after-action reports and key people in critical parts of the workforce helps ensure the right people are in the correct positions. Because technology is advancing quickly, understanding current technologies and strategies, and seeking outside help when needed, are paramount for understanding operational cycles in both the public and private sectors, highlighting challenges, addressing problems, and implementing technological changes.
Between security concerns, access challenges, and an overload of available options and data, leadership must regularly upgrade and reevaluate processes and contracts. The future of emergency management and public safety is full of IT integration opportunities. However, it is also accompanied by workforce challenges, new and emerging events, and the complexity of multiple emergencies within emergencies, both natural and human causes. The federal, state, and local levels are improving communication, but gaps still exist between adapting IT options and organizational leadership principles.