Emergency management is having a #MeToo moment

Emergency management is having a #MeToo moment

As the one-year anniversaries of the 2017 hurricanes are upon us, there is a pattern of checking in on the recovery, and deep reflection on how we respond to disasters at all levels. But what is rarely asked is how well we are transitioning pre 9/11 emergency management agencies into highly effective organizations that bring out the best in everyone who chooses to serve. The answer: not very well.

Former FEMA personnel chief, Corey Coleman, recently resigned amid allegations that he hired female staff to serve as potential sexual partners for friends in the agency, according to the Washington Post. A seven-month investigation identified a multi-year pattern of hiring underqualified people, an exodus of qualified staff from a toxic environment, and the normalization of sexual harassment. 

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To the credit of FEMA Administrator Brock Long, he leaned into this rather than trying to cover this up. Seeing it as indicative of a larger “cancer” on the agency that most likely goes beyond the cases that have been uncovered, so far, meaningful reforms are being implemented. But this issue is pervasive in a field that remains a boys’ club despite billions of dollars since 9/11 to reform and modernize emergency management.

As this story broke and quickly faded from the media, I saw my own social media feeds lighting up with people who had passed through Coleman’s orbit and others in similar circumstances. Some had careers forever stalled because of their inability to be hired through the FEMA human resources process, but still try to stay engaged with disaster response through voluntary or on-call jobs. Others have felt that their skills and dedication were not enough to be taken seriously in a toxic work environment, and were regularly treated as subordinates or non-consequential among their peers.

The popular emergency management podcast, the Dukes of Hazards also recently explored the role of women in emergency management in an episode that pre-dated the Corey Coleman scandal. The hosts handed the mic over for an episode to be facilitated by some incredible female thought leaders in the field. They discussed their journey in this space, which included challenges they have confronted by cognitive bias of others towards the boys’ club way of thinking. 

This is not just an issue of fairness, victims and survivors. Although that is all important. It is also a failure to capitalize on different perspectives that represent the community that emergency management serves.

The field of emergency management is full of hardworking and dedicated professionals. However, the field does not reflect the people it serves.  According to the American Community Survey, among emergency management directors, about 75 percent are male, and more than 90 percent are white, with women earning about two-thirds as much as men.  

It is well established in the private sector that organizations that embrace diversity are more effective and profitable. More diversity means there are more perspectives and ideas to draw from, as well as opportunities to expose people to other perspectives. In public service this is even more important because various facets of the community are not just potential customers, they are beneficiaries of services, the quality of which they receive in a disaster are too often predictable by race, class and ethnicity.

For this moment of reflection to truly lead to change, the field of emergency management and disaster preparedness requires more investment in inward facing organizational development for agencies, units and departments across all sectors, not just FEMA. This is perhaps even more important than investments in the outward facing emergency management elements of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. 

Organizational development is a long process, but there are things that can be done immediately. Stronger management training on interview techniques, such as behavior-based interviewing, can reduce cognitive biases from hiring, which is critical for developing a skilled workforce and avoiding costly toxic hires that “feel right” during a rushed recruitment process. Training current and new managers on conducting critical conversations early on with staff, and adhering to progressive disciplinary processes when issues are identified are also key to dealing with toxic employees early and fairly. Investing in recruitment and mentoring of female and minority staff will also help to empower new leaders from underrepresented communities whose voices and perspectives are sorely needed.

And of course, when complaints are made, they need to be heard and investigated seriously. Short-term transfers of personnel or other avoidance techniques cause far more harm in the long run than any short-term convenience can justify.

Emergency management has come a long way as a profession over the last two decades in both capabilities and capacity to respond. But until these fundamental internal management issues are addressed, it will never truly achieve its mission for those within its ranks, or for the communities it is intended to serve.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel