Today’s Public Administrators asks administrators working in the public sphere about their experience implementing and shaping policy on the ground. This segment talks with Trachtenberg alumni Shannon McNamee, Manager of Operations at the American Red Cross, who visited Trachtenberg for an alumni dinner on Jan. 30. Read to learn what emergency management entails and how you can join the field.
Q&A compiled by Megan Mattson, Executive Editor
Q: What sparked your interest in emergency management?
A: I take it back to Hurricane Andrew. I was little, but it was such an experience to see what it’s like when a disaster hits your hometown. I saw the initial response – things that went well, things that didn’t go well. In that disaster especially, the responders didn’t do very well in the media. And then I also saw the long-term recovery from it. It takes about ten years to recover from seeing the most obvious signs of that large disaster. That sparked the initial interest. I always kept that in the back of my mind as something I wanted to do.
Q: What does the emergency planning process look like for government and nonprofits, and where do they meld together?
A: Really, the melding together is the most important piece of it. As an industry, we all try to focus on joint planning. The primary thought of emergency management is making sure that you know everyone before the disaster and that you’re not exchanging business cards over the rubble, as we often say. There is a comprehensive planning cycle, which usually is done a couple of years ahead of time to determine which scenarios you’re going to work on.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pulls together all of the players and develops these plans, and that’s replicated on the state and county levels. We use research on past disasters and future vulnerabilities. We sometimes focus on what we would call a high probability, high consequence risk. Those are the ones that are most likely and frequent but also would cause a significant amount of damage. At the federal level, we also plan around what we would call catastrophic or near catastrophic, which is the low probability, high consequence disasters. The most important and the hardest part is to determine who should be at the table for all of those conversations. Another hard part is people being honest and upfront about what everyone’s capacity is would be. Knowing your own capability and your own capacity is also very difficult. But it is important planning and we all try to get better at it.
Q: Where are the challenges and opportunities for cross-sector collaboration?
A: There are certainly a lot of challenges. One of the biggest is the prioritization – determining what we need to do to in order to be ready. In emergency management, throughout the years we’ve had a pendulum swing between natural disasters and homeland security. We have to be prepared for both of them. We call it an all hazards approach. When you’re doing that planning, the players and the people who are involved with it will change. That is the hardest piece – making sure that everyone comes together, talks the same language, and is able to utilize the same type of metrics to show what they can bring and what they can do. It’s very challenging, but it does bring a lot of opportunities.
I’m a big fan of disaster exercises, but not everyone likes them. People will say an exercise is unrealistic or criticize that agencies change the way they respond based on an exercise. The people who are doing the exercise are also not necessarily the people who would be responding. But when done well, exercises can be an incredible opportunity to develop a communication structure, make sure that everyone knows everyone, and create the muscle memory that you can use when a disaster is actually happening and the adrenaline is going.
Q: What do these exercises look like?
A: There’s multiple different types of exercises. You can have an exercise where people sit around a table and they’re given a scenario and they talk about it. That’s called a table top. But the really good ones are a functional or full scale exercise in which you have multiple different groups that are playing, even not necessarily in the same room so they have to communicate. In a full scale exercise, you do the scenario. We have actors and they have paint for blood and you have to actually respond to the scenario that’s in front of you. It creates an opportunity to test it out and figure out what your next decision would be.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: So many things! What brings the greatest joy is when you’re out in the field working directly with clients. When you’re back in the office, sometimes you lose sight of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I would definitely say that the times that I am able to go out into the field and distribute emergency supplies or help in a shelter are some of the most rewarding and challenging times. Other than that, I love so many parts of my job. I really enjoy the challenges we have and also the comradery and the teamwork that a big disaster will bring out of us, and the ability to work with each other to help people. Those are some of my greatest experiences – when we worked through a problem that we know is affecting a large group of people and we were able to help. It’s very rewarding.
Q: To close, what are your tips for students who are interested in entering the field?
A: Really making sure that you work with your network. Engage with other people who are doing similar work. Volunteer and get experience in a disaster, no matter what it is. Even if you’re just being a call center agent and responding to calls as they come in, get engaged in that. If you’re looking to get into emergency management, the best way is to get experience.
For everyone in general, always make a plan. Make sure you know what you’re going to do. Disasters affect every single person. It’s really good to think about what you would do in certain scenarios, and reach out to your family and make sure that they have a plan, too.