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The Seven and a Half Traits of the Ultimate Emergency Manager

Emergency management is an evolving discipline that requires a progressive emergency manager to fulfill new and expanding requirements for success. Successful leaders in this field follow a systematic problem-solving process and excel at coordinating multiple agencies and information sources rather than simply being experts in one subject. The seven and a half traits discussed here describe the ultimate emergency manager.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) 2018-2022 Strategic Plan provides an updated “framework for supporting the United States before, during, and after disasters” and highlights new focal points for emergency management. The three strategic goals are as follows: to build a culture of preparedness; to ready the nation for catastrophic disasters; and to reduce the complexity of FEMA. Each of these goals requires different skillsets, capabilities, and objectives in order to be completed. Changing a collective culture requires social listening, understanding, and teaching. Readying a workforce to “enhance a collective readiness,” as FEMA states, requires facilitation and coordination skills and focusing on common problem solving across organizations within the emergency management system.  Reducing complexity requires FEMA to be mission-focused and carry out processes in a simpler, systematic way.

The emergency management workforce must also adapt to meet changing strategies and requirements. The workforce may already be changing organically. Terry Hastings noted in a 2017 DomPrep article:

The discipline of emergency management is poised to benefit from three converging factors: an increasing number of millennials joining the workforce; the proliferation of emergency management related degree programs; and greater visibility and relevance of the discipline itself.

As both the field and the workforce evolve, the traits, characteristics, and capabilities of successful emergency managers also have changed. The following seven and a half traits encompass the best characteristics of the ultimate emergency manager:

1.     Recognize problems before they become disasters;

2.     Operate proactively;

3.     Focus on enabling;

4.     Differentiate between simple, complicated, and complex problems, and act accordingly;

5.     Know the audience;

6.     Understand the importance of messaging;

7.     Identify and seek the best people; and

7.5. Perhaps have direct experience in emergency management.

Recognize Problems Before They Become Disasters

If risk is a function of threat, vulnerability, and consequence, disasters are a function of incident magnitude, capability/capacity, and resilience. Good emergency managers reduce the negative impacts of incidents in order to avoid a disaster – or at least decrease the effects of a disaster. This is accomplished through recognizing problems before or as they occur and then identifying solutions. The best emergency managers do not necessarily know all of the answers. Rather, they enthusiastically ask questions and relay concerns to partner agencies while using emergency management’s coordination role to identify the most efficient, multidisciplinary response.

Operate Proactively

In a 1799 letter, U.S. President George Washington wrote that “offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defence [sic].” State and local emergency management agencies typically have few physical resources to conduct tactical response operations. Emergency managers’ “offense” is being proactive. Specifically, facilitating resource support and information needs based on a given circumstance in order to ensure that first responders and tactical operators can continue to function. Anticipating future needs and conducting future planning, while difficult, is an excellent trait for an emergency manager.

Focus on Enabling

Strong emergency managers focus on enabling personnel and partner organizations, even at the cost of strictly following plans and processes. Following Hurricane Katrina, Colonel Terry Ebert determined that the most effective organizations and people were those that were mission-driven versus compliance-driven. He wrote in a 2014 opinion article, “mission-driven organizations can be given an assignment in two or three sentences and then can deploy millions of dollars of equipment and thousands of people” based on the understanding of the overarching mission. Pre-disaster planning is essential for formulating relationships, outlining roles and responsibilities, and developing a general playbook. The best emergency managers may use plans as a guide, but also are driven by agency mission in order to find methods to meet incident objectives.

Differentiate Between Simple, Complicated, and Complex Problems, and Act Accordingly

David Snowden (chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge) and Mary Boone (president of Boone Associates) authored a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review on the Cynefin leadership framework, which was developed to “allow executives to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities.” The framework usually places problems in four domains: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic. The problems within each domain necessitate a different approach to solving them. Strong emergency managers intuitively understand which incidents, emergencies, or problems can be solved using a simple solution versus which ones require a complicated or complex-style solution. Within the disaster realm, a simple solution may be a checklist that dictates actions that would mitigate an incident. A complicated solution usually entails identifying good practice based on known best practices. According to Snowden and Boone “complicated context calls for investigating several options – many of which may be excellent – good practice, as opposed to best practice, is more appropriate.” Complex problems are unpredictable and constantly changing, and usually involve multiple, intertwined systems. Emergency managers take a set of given circumstances, understand what resources they have at hand, can identify a complex situation, and then work together and with other disciplines to identify the best solution.

Know the Audience

Identifying solutions to complicated and complex problems that occur during disasters usually necessitates a multidisciplinary approach. Each involved agency and organization would have different, and perhaps even competing, motivations and priorities. Emergency managers must be able to understand their audience and empathize with their partners. Although consensus among different agencies may be beneficial, often the best actions are not simple compromises. Instead, they are multifaceted solutions that address all partners’ priorities.

Understand the Importance of Messaging

The best emergency managers understand that effectively communicating to and with the public are important components of any disaster response. All emergency managers, not solely public information officers, should understand how their activities and operations during an emergency relate to effective risk communications to the public. A 2014 study from Sara Rubin et al. of the National Association of County & City Health Officials found that “local health departments’ ability to more quickly communicate preparedness information to their communities could minimize adverse effects of disasters.” One of the government’s most essential roles during a disaster is to relay transparent information and direction to the public. Working with the traditional media and interacting directly with the public through social media and other platforms is an essential function and is at the forefront of the ultimate emergency manager’s mind.

Identify and Seeks the Best People

Emergency management is a discipline that requires both external and internal collaboration. The best emergency managers identify colleagues who can excel in high-pressure situations and have many of the traits listed above. Furthermore, they empower and promote the best people in order to enable them to solve problems before, during, and after disasters.

Perhaps Have Direct Experience in Emergency Management

Experience in emergency management and related disciplines can be useful, especially for senior leadership positions. However, it is not essential for most staff-level positions. Agencies and organizations should focus on capability-based hiring practices. New staff can be trained and learn emergency management. Other capabilities, such as project management, problem solving, and active facilitation, are paramount for burgeoning emergency managers.


Emergency management is an evolving discipline with a broadening scope. In order to be successful, strong emergency managers must follow systematic processes and excel at coordinating multiple agencies and information sources while interacting well with partner organizations and the public. Anyone who exhibits most or all of the traits outlined in this article would likely be an excellent emergency manager.

This article is dedicated to Donald “Doc” Lumpkins, who exhibited the traits outlined above.

Chas Eby

Chas Eby is the deputy executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), where he oversees all operations, administration, and programs at the Agency. Previously, he held the positions of director of disaster risk reduction and external outreach branch manager at MEMA. These roles included developing strategy and overseeing disaster recovery, public information and outreach, individual assistance, hazard mitigation, and community and private sector preparedness. Prior to joining MEMA, he was the chief planner for emergency preparedness at the Maryland Department of Health. He received a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School. He previously graduated from Boston College. He has completed the National Emergency Management Executive Academy and is an adjunct professor teaching both public health preparedness and homeland security planning and policy at Towson University. Follow him on Twitter @chas_eby.



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