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Values-Based Emergency Management Will Make Communities More Resilient

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly's disaster declaration yesterday to address cold-driven energy cost increases is an unmistakable acknowledgment that our current approach to community risk management is outdated.

Disaster declarations traditionally address shortfalls in response or recovery capacity. Governor Kelly, however, is using a disaster declaration to minimize the financial impact on her constituents caused by increased electricity production costs passed on by power companies.

To clarify, this declaration does not seek to help communities that could not heat their homes due to infrastructure damage or failure. It seeks to help heat homes that cannot be heated efficiently or affordably due to unexpected commodity price fluctuations. The utilities and infrastructure are otherwise functioning at adequate capacity.

To create resilient communities, we will have to adapt our outdated emergency management models including through application of principles and techniques typically found in the private sector. Successful communities, like businesses, pursue a shared vision, adhere to core values, and achieve common goals and objectives. But unlike those same successful businesses, which empower every employee to assume a shared stake in managing the company's risks, communities can be paternalistic in their approach and focus on a narrow slice of the larger risk portfolio.

When households lack sufficient funds to heat homes, this undoubtedly represents a threat to the community. However, few emergency managers delve into household financial reserves as part of the disaster planning process, focusing instead on response capacity, structural mitigation, and preparedness for commodity shortages. For the private sector, fluctuating commodity prices are but one of many standard sources of "market risk" easily identified and managed in the course of meeting the company's objectives.

Whether at the household, community, or national level, people have both collective and individual needs and wants - and the 'objective' of any community or individual is to address them. In fact, the successful functioning of any society rests on the ability to ensure these needs are met, and that these wants remain within reach. At the most basic level, there is a focus on immediate survivability (access to food, water, air, shelter, clothing). With these basic requirements met, the objective shifts to sustainment or survivability (employment, security, health). And finally, we may seek to achieve higher-level goals and objectives which include the enjoyment of family, friendship, community, self respect, and self esteem. We can say that the most basic function of government is to support these objectives. Abraham Maslow captured them in his 'Hierarchy of Needs'. This hierarchy presents a framework of those things that individuals and societies seek, and all that we do can be captured in the levels of Maslow's pyramid.

So while the situation in Kansas this week was less about an inability to fulfill some critical need (shelter from the cold) than it was the inability to enable a 'want' (energy affordability that promotes the preservation of income and savings potential), it is nonetheless 'disastrous' for those affected. People who spend too much on energy cannot adequately address their other wants or needs. And while extreme cold was the cause for disruption of energy affordability, there are many other factors that might similarly disrupt such access including transportation infrastructure problems, a cyberattack, volatility in international commodities markets, among others.

When we focus on the threat to objectives rather than the likelihood or impact of hazards themselves, it might appear as if our concerns become increasingly disassociated with the emergency manager's bailiwick (namely those wants and needs that go beyond the first tier of Maslow's Hierarchy).

Consider, for instance, a California community that is year after year threatened by wildfire, but a concerted effort to harden homes and address property risk has thus far enabled it to escape any direct fire damage. This is hypothetical, but many communities in the state identify with such a scenario. Their reality is that homes and businesses have been spared in every threatening encounter, including some close calls - but these events have caused incredible stress and even terror for the residents who live there. And in seeing this scenario play out in community after community, we have to ask: what happens when businesses that consider investing in California communities start to look elsewhere on account of what is often considered a 'state-wide wildfire problem'? What happens when insurance companies start to pull out of the state, driving real estate values down? What happens when people decide that planning a family vacation in California is just too risky, because they might need to revise those plans at the last minute? And what happens when residents that have had to evacuate one too many times in the face of unrealized threats decide on returning home that, 'I really don't need this stress in my life'? Even when the town is saved, is this town really succeeding if the community's vision, or it's goals and objectives, cannot be met?

Will governors begin declaring disasters when tourists stop coming? Or when the insurers pull out? Or when the resident tax-base flees?

Or can communities instead apply risk management processes that enable adaptation to shifting conditions and empower individuals and organizations to play their part in the process?

We can all relate to how this concept applied in the shaping of COVID-19 responses, as needs and wants were juggled. COVID was initially framed as a public health crisis, guided by the public health goals of saving life and protecting health. But we soon learned that response efforts were in and of themselves as great a threat to community success as was the virus a threat to public health. And ultimately, a large part of the funds provided through disaster declarations in every state and territory were dedicated to meeting these unmet wants and needs. Things like paychecks, rent payments, childcare, and education. And where wants remained unmet, there is no shortage of stories wherein public health warnings were ignored as a result (e.g., holiday travel, social events, and group recreation.)

And with COVID response, where we've seen protection of one need (e.g., public health) interfere with the protection of another (livelihoods), conflict has ensued. Essential workers commonly report unhappiness with having to carry an unequal burden of societal function, especially where adequate support in the form of PPE is not provided.

But many companies have nonetheless succeeded during the pandemic where communities have fallen short. Some businesses have even increased their ability to operate efficiently and effectively, adapting together with their employees.

Where we can clearly associate disaster impacts with a hazard (e.g., crushed buildings, flooded homes, burnt forests) - this is where we most clearly understand the leadership role for emergency management in preserving community values and objectives. But where these core values or objectives are not so directly linked to a hazard or consequence, emergency management frameworks prove self-limiting.

In the private sector, businesses identify and address threats in the context of critical objectives. There is an ongoing revolution in private sector risk management wherein the responsibility for managing risk (and not just hazard risk, but also the risks related to the cost of supplies, market share, reputation, etc.) is seen as everyone's responsibility. There may be a risk committee or chief risk officer that helps the company to work through the big issues, but risk management itself is decentralized right down to the individual employees who each have a stake or role in the meeting of the company's objectives.

This is called 'Enterprise Risk Management' or ERM. And ERM activities are driven not by hazards or threats, but rather by the objectives themselves. A business knows what it needs to do to achieve its objectives, and knows what it considers itself to represent as an organization - and through ERM the company assesses how certain it is that it will be able to achieve those objectives or represent what it chooses to be.

Risk in the ERM context is therefore associated not with how likely a hazard is to occur, or what might happen should it occur (as is the case in the emergency management context), but rather with how uncertain the business is about its ability to achieve its objectives.

Less uncertainty equates to less risk, even if the certainty pertains to a loss.

In other words, when one knows with a high degree of confidence that there will be increased electricity costs in winter due to cold spells, then risk is actually very low despite the existence of likely and tangible 'consequences'.

Not knowing what to expect - that is the risk. Hazard likelihood and consequence are therefore not the key determinant of risk within the bigger picture of ERM.

And this is because where we can know what to expect, with a high degree of certainty - that's where we are able to act most appropriately.

So it can be said that how resilient we are as communities, and how secure we feel as individuals, is always going to be a factor of how much we are able to reduce the uncertainty that surrounds our ability to achieve personal and community objectives.

If we again consider the case of energy costs in Kansas, we can think of many ways that affordable energy might become a reliable expectation (one for which there is little uncertainty). Like with private sector ERM, this would require those with a stake in the meeting of those objectives, from the individual to the community levels, to take responsibility where it rests in their hands. Households have as much of a role to play as to communities and utilities.

But communities are not companies. And communities address disasters through the emergency manager. So how does this work? Is it really the job of the emergency manager to make sure that kids get sufficient recreation during an epidemic, or to ensure that electricity is affordable even during the coldest cold spells? Or whether tourists feel comfortable visiting during 'fire season'?

ERM tells us that the emergency manager is but a facilitator of a societal risk management framework wherein these issues are everyone's problem, and everyone's responsibility. It is a state of mind, a way of thinking. One where all stakeholders understand the role they play in ensuring that critical individual and community objectives are attainable with little uncertainty, rather than one where we frame our actions around likelihoods and impacts alone.

We've come a long way in moving away from hazard-based plans to an 'all-hazards' emergency management approach (wherein capabilities are organized by function). But we have to go just one step further and frame the resilience effort according to how certain we are to achieve what we value most as a society. Only that will allow us to fully protect those values, and the goals and objectives that go along with them.

Such an approach gives all community members the confidence to know that it is not only their life and the lives of those they care for that is safe, but their way of life is also safe. This is values-based emergency management, and like ERM, it becomes possible when we empower everyone to own a stake in the success of their community.


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