training in the field of emergency management is particularly complicated. The reason for the complication is the astonishingly broad latitude of situations for which emergency services and personnel might ultimately be required. Now obviously there are certain limitations that are based on simple geography: emergency management personnel in California may be called upon to deal with mudslides or earthquakes, and emergency management personnel in Kansas will be summoned for tornados. But a large-scale terrorist incident could conceivably occur anywhere that is populated. Meanwhile certain types of disaster almost perfectly defy any attempt at preparation altogether — the example of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over two hundred thousand people, is particularly pertinent, because there existed no detection system for such an event. Tsunamis are rare events, but common enough in the Pacific Ocean that a detection system existed there — but they are so rare in the Indian Ocean that none of the affected countries even had an early warning system. Disasters are by their nature only imperfectly predictable — and as a result, we cannot pretend that any perfect system of training exists for emergency management. However any survey of the issue of training for emergency management must take into account the current guidelines and possibility of additional requirements that exist, while also considering the regulatory, legal, political, and economic issues that affect the training of emergency management services.
We should begin with some basic history. Because disasters and emergencies are, as noted, only imperfectly predictable, this has led historically to the idea that training is an unnecessary waste of resources. However Haddow Bullock and Coppola (2013) have noted that this historical neglect of emergency management training has been subjected to broad and sweeping revision very recently:
… A revolution of sorts has occurred in the provision of education and training in the emergency management profession. Only a few decades ago, emergency management was an outgrowth of the emergency services and a position for which little or no training was provided (nor was it felt that additional training was needed). The advent of emergency management training and education coincided with the creation of FEMA in 1979, which touched off the development of the practice as a profession. At that time, few officials (both within and outside the traditional emergency services) had any background in emergency management, and few people were dedicated to the function even within major city governments …It was the events of September 11, 2001, however, that truly transformed emergency management training and education. (Haddow Bullock Coppola 116)
As a result of this historical shift, we are only about a decade and a half into the discipline of taking training seriously for emergency management personnel. We need to acknowledge, however, that training is essentially a sub-category of overall planning. Planning for disasters and emergencies is something that has existed far longer than credible training systems: the frequency of earthquakes in San Francisco, for example, meant that earthquake-proof building regulations existed long before September 11. What has changed in the past fifteen years is the willingness of governments to fund preparedness for emergencies while also emphasizing the training of personnel.
Because of the differences in potential events that would be responded to by personnel in different geographic regions, planning — and therefore training — tends to be organized and mandated on the regional level. It would be ridiculous to require personnel in Kansas to train for possible response to a tsunami. As a result, guidelines overall tend to be established on the state level, so that California has its own Standardized Emergency Management System (or SEMS), while also FEMA issues its own set of standards known as the National Incident Management System (or NIMS). FEMA also additionally issues the specific structure for responding to emergencies known as the Incident Command System (or ICS). The reason for additional local regulation is obvious, as it will be regionally specific — California is host to a number of natural disaster phenomena (earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, even potential tsunamis) that would be non-existent in other areas, and training would need to reflect this. FEMA issues training on its NIMS procedures that ultimately gets into the various types of specializations that would be required in a serious large scale emergency, ranging from communications, logistics, resources, supply, facilities, administration, and finance. As a result, regulatory compliance in some jurisdictions can be complicated as two different standards must be met — while it is highly unlikely that the national NIMS guidelines mandated by FEMA and the statewide SEMS guidelines that are legislated by the state of California would ever contradict each other, they might offer two different sets of requirements that could potentially place a strain on the existing resources in terms of implementation. For the issue of training, however, the complications are more about who has to be trained and these individual institutional structures: police departments and fire departments have their own organizational imperatives and budgets, and emergency management is generally co-ordinated from without. However, it is imperative that these independent entities be involved in the process of training. Perry and Lindell (2006) emphasize this in their survey of what must be involved in emergency management training:
Disaster planning requires training and evaluation. The training explains the plan to the people who will be involved in the emergency response. Everyone in response roles must be trained to perform their duties. This includes fire personnel, police, emergency medical services personnel, public works employees, and others. There also should be training for personnel in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other facilities. Finally, the population at risk must be involved in the planning process. They need to be aware that planning for community threats is underway. They need to know what is expected of them under those plans and what is likely to happen in a disaster. They also need to understand what emergency organizations can and cannot do for them. Proposed emergency response operations need to be tested globally. Emergency drills and exercises simulate an impact environment for testing operational procedures. They test knowledge retained from training. Drills and exercises also enhance the ways that different organizational personnel work together. (56)
In general, however, the issue of training is not contentious from any political standpoint unless it is generally misunderstood. We might take the example of political fringe demagogues like Glenn Beck or Alex Jones who intentionally and harmfully spread conspiracy theories that FEMA was planning to institute concentration camps, or that the large-scale military emergency training exercise Jade Helm 15 was a secret plot to impose martial law. In all of these cases, the root of opposition was the expansion of government activity after September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, and the opponents were people who object to an expansion of government programs more or less on principle. But otherwise the idea of training for emergency management is relatively uncontentious as long as the funding can be found, and the complicated logistics — especially if training involves co-ordination between police, fire, EMT, and other independent agencies. However, the vast expansion of emergency services that was instituted with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security means that, at present, the funding is not much of a difficulty: in point of fact, probably too much funding exists to do things like prepare for terrorist incidents in Wyoming or Montana where it is highly unlikely they will ever occur. As a result, the issue of funding for emergency management may in future become more contentious, as highly-populated urban areas may be seen as requiring more funding while other entire states may be viewed as receiving funding more as a pork-barrel payout than as any legitimate necessity.
The broader issue, however, with training is the effectiveness of present guidelines and mandates. Canton (2006) offers a fairly sharp critique of the existing paradigms in his textbook, and it is wise to take him seriously as he actually served as a citywide coordinator of emergency services in a highly-populated urban area that is more at risk than most, earthquake-prone San Francisco:
Crisis communication consultant Art Botterell’s First Law of Emergency Management is “Stress makes you stupid.” This implies that, at times of crisis, individuals tend to operate at a level that is not conducive to complex operations. It is human nature to fall back on behavior that has proven effective in the past and represents a certain level of comfort. One can extend this to a desire to operate under the leaders and social organizations with which they are familiar. The problem with artificial constructs like NIMS and ICS is that they are attempts to create and impose a new organizational structure at the very time that individuals are seeking simplicity. If training is inadequate, as it always is, the resulting chaos can significantly hamper response. Botterell’s Third Law is “No matter who you train, someone else will show up.” (Canton 59)
Canton’s observations must be taken seriously by anyone serious about the prospects of training for emergency management, especially his blunt observation that “if training is inadequate … it always is.” All training has to include this sort of realistic assessment, so as to better emphasize flexibility and simplicity as more appropriate tools in responding to an emergency than a blind adherence to FEMA or state mandated guidelines. It also reminds us that, in a field like emergency management training, the imposition of additional mandates is hardly a surefire guarantee of quality in the field.
Canton, L.G. (2006). Emergency management: Concepts and strategies for effective programs. New York: Wiley.
Haddow, G.D., Bullock, J.A., Coppola, C.P. (2013). Introduction to emergency management. Fifth edition. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Perry, RW, Lindell, MK. (2006) Emergency planning. New York: Wiley.