The Whole Community Paradigm Shift

by Anthony S. Mangeri

Over the years, communities developed a dependence on the federal government for assistance following a disaster. However, such actions are not sustainable and require the support of partners throughout each community. In the modern threat environment, the need for a whole community approach is more important than ever.

Since disasters affect the entire community, the most successful community emergency management programs involve a broad range of community stakeholders. Emergency managers create a platform for preparedness and resilience by bringing together everyone with an interest and investment in the community. Nearly five years since the implementation of Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8) on National Preparedness, the directive continues to place the responsibility for preparedness on each member of the community in order to strengthen national and community resilience.

Engage, Empower & Guide Emergency management programs are designed to restore stability in times of crisis, but government cannot do this alone. Since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defined the “Whole Community” approach, there has been a paradigm shift from government providing response and recovery services to everyone being part of the preparedness, response, recovery, and even mitigation stages of a disaster. By engaging residents and private stakeholders, emergency managers can build teams that are ready to protect their communities from threats and prepare effective disaster response and recovery actions.

Emergency program managers continue to look for assistance with developing the resources necessary for a high level of community resilience and preparedness. However, funding new initiatives is a significant concern. Managers of such programs are competing for public safety funds and need to be strategic in seeking additional resources. More than ever, emergency managers need to engage community leaders, residents, and private sector partners to manage risks and prepare for threats. Local emergency managers are also becoming far more reliant on public, private, and even nonprofit-sector stakeholders to ensure sustainability and resilience at the community level.

Much of the concept of engaging the whole community to serve as partners in preparedness is not new to everyone. FEMA’s 2011 publication, “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action” (FDOC 104-008-1), provided guidance for emergency managers to develop strategies for engaging community stakeholders. FEMA offers the following strategic themes for incorporating the whole community approach into local emergency management programs:

  • Understand community complexity;

  • Recognize community capabilities and needs;

  • Foster relationships with community leaders;

  • Build and maintain partnerships;

  • Empower local action; and

  • Leverage and strengthen social infrastructure, networks, and assets.

“If you have the right people, you don’t need a lot of money. Leverage the resources you have and the people within your organization,” said Irene Navis, assistant emergency manager/plans coordinator for Clark County Office of Emergency Management in Nevada, during a DomPrep roundtable discussion in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 16 November 2015. 

Getting Started & Going Forward One often-overlooked whole community strategy is developing strong relationships with private sector partners. There is no better way to engage both corporate and community resilience than to forge a strong public-private partnership. These strategic relationships between government programs and private and nonprofit sectors allow for an emphasis on understanding community needs and developing communitywide capabilities to support disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts.

However, like any corporate decision, private sector partners need to be shown the value of their investments in community resilience and supporting emergency management initiatives. Neither government nor private sector stakeholders alone have the capabilities or resources to build sustainable and resilient communities. Yet, together, they can develop emergency plans, policies, and procedures that promote truly sustainable and resilient communities.

To fully engage the whole community, emergency program managers must begin with the development of their Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). One role of the LEPC is to assist with building support for community-based emergency preparedness and prevention initiatives. Selecting LEPC members is critical to engaging the whole community because each LEPC needs: (a) to provide an opportunity for community leaders and preparedness partners to have a say in emergency management initiatives; and (b) to engage representatives from critical infrastructures within the community – including schools, hospitals, public works, and public health agencies. In addition, faith-based and cultural leaders, local media, and other organizations can assist in engaging the community. Individual members of the LEPC should be selected because of their expertise, experience, and commitment to preparedness, sustainability, and resilience.

It is not inherent in first responders to have outreach and community development skills. There remains a need for the Emergency Management Institute and other training and education partners to develop curriculum in outreach and business development. There is also a need to have clear development strategies and benchmarks to assess the success of engaging the community. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of data on outcomes of incorporating the whole community approach into emergency management initiatives.


Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CPM, CEM, is the director of strategic relations for fire services and emergency management and is on the faculty of the American Public University System’s School of Security and Global Studies. He has more than 30 years of experience in emergency management and public safety. He also has spent much of his career integrating public health and community emergency management systems. During the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, he served as operations chief at the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center, coordinating that state’s response to the passenger-aircraft crashes into the World Trade Center.