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Assessing Emergency Management Programs
By Eric Holdeman and Diane Newman

Emergency management has gained a much higher profile in communities across the United States due in part to significant disasters that have occurred here and around the world. Even people with a passing interest in the topic of emergency management will recall the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Superstorm Sandy. These reflect the three main types of disasters: terrorism, natural disasters, and human caused disasters.

What average citizens do not realize is that there are emergency management programs at every level of government. Most people think only of the federal level agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA’s dramatic failure during Hurricane Katrina tainted the agency’s reputation for many years. However, states, counties, cities, and special purpose districts all have emergency management functions for which they are responsible.


Emergency management is an outgrowth of our nation’s civil defense programs of the 1950s and 1960s. FEMA was not established as an organization until 1979 when it was determined that a central agency was needed to help coordinate the federal response to disasters.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, many of the civil defense aspects of FEMA were discontinued. The maintenance of radiological detection equipment, inventory of civil defense shelters for the general population, and maintenance of civil defense supplies were all discontinued by 1993.

The focus then turned to natural disasters until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. This seminal event spurred the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which incorporated FEMA as a sub-element. The focus of preparations turned to counter-terrorism activities. A huge influx of funding was passed on to state and local emergency management agencies at $3.2 billion annually. This continued for 10 years, now at a rate closer to $1.2 billion per year. It took Hurricane Katrina and the failure of FEMA and the federal government to move the preparedness pendulum back towards a more balanced terrorism and natural disaster focus.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks also led to the establishment of higher education programs on the topic of emergency management and homeland security. In 1991, there was only one college in the United States with a degree program focused on emergency management. Today, every state has at least one university offering bachelor’s and advanced degrees in emergency management or homeland security. Online degree programs exist as well. What still has not occurred, however, is the establishment of a common curriculum on these career fields.

Today, the majority of emergency managers in senior leadership positions came to the profession from other disciplines such as fire, law enforcement, and the military, and thus they were not originally educated in emergency management. More junior emergency management professionals, however, are coming out of college or university degree programs specializing in the field.

Many state and local agencies rely heavily on federal grants to adequately support their emergency management programs. Federal grant funding may not be able to sustain the level of support that they have provided in the past, so agencies must find alternate ways of not only funding emergency management during normal times, but of financing mitigation before an incident and recovery efforts following a disaster.


Two national standards exist for governmental emergency management programs: National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1600 and the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). NFPA preceded EMAP and originated in the fire service. The Emergency Management Standard by EMAP is the set of 64 standards by which programs that apply for EMAP accreditation are evaluated. The Emergency Management Standard is designed as a tool for continuous improvement as part of the voluntary accreditation process for local and state emergency management programs.

In addition to these national standards, some states have established their own internal standards by regulation or rule. This may require certification by state emergency management agencies for local programs, even to the extent of having certifications for individuals.

The NFPA 1600 standard has been used by individual agencies to gauge their progress toward meeting a national standard. From these standards, the EMAP program was established, providing a formalized evaluation of individual programs by teams of trained emergency management professionals. The evaluation consists of an onsite evaluation of the agency-wide emergency management program, which is measured against the EMAP standard.

During an EMAP evaluation, the team asks a jurisdiction to carry out demonstrations of systems capability, such as warning systems, as well as documentation of plans, procedures, and processes. Individual departments or offices that only have tangential emergency management responsibilities must also have the appropriate plans and procedures in place, participate in training and exercises, and provide acceptable documentation to demonstrate that they meet the standard. All standards must be met for the jurisdiction to become accredited.


Based on a combined 50 years of emergency management experience by the authors, and influenced by NFPA and EMAP standards, we have developed a list of key areas that should be considered in all emergency management programs, whether a jurisdiction chooses to become formally accredited through EMAP or not. This list is a starting point and may be modified depending on the needs of your community and organization.

  • Establish support from high-ranking officials. Ongoing communications and training with them will help them understand their roles during disasters.
  • Identify key stakeholders and build relationships with individuals that can be tapped to help as advisors or subject matter experts.
  • Review and update laws and authorities.
  • A strategic plan developed with stakeholders will help keep individuals moving toward common goals. 
  • Establish administrative processes that meet federal, state, and local reporting requirements and that are effective during major incidents.
  • Your hazard identification and risk assessment (HIRA) becomes a focal point for much of your program. Be sure to include not only hazards for your community, but also the risk and consequence analysis. 
  • At a minimum, emergency management plans should include hazard mitigation, response, recovery, continuity of operations, and continuity of government.
  • Establish a facility that will serve as the Emergency Operations Center or Emergency Coordination Center (EOC/ECC) for emergencies or disasters, and ensure that it is always in a state of readiness. Train those who will be working in the EOC/ECC in their roles and responsibilities as well as how to use specific equipment.
  • Test and exercise plans, procedures, and processes, and update documents accordingly. 
  • Establish relationships with community groups, including churches, schools, and businesses.
  • Identify jurisdictional capabilities, including those within the community. 
  • Develop a disaster preparedness public education program.
  • Technology may be an effective method of developing alert, warning, and notification systems for the public as well as government employees and key stakeholders. 
  • Partner with other jurisdictions and businesses to develop mutual aid agreements and memoranda of understanding prior to an incident.
  • Participate in multijurisdictional and multidisciplinary activities on a regular basis to keep relationships active.


There is always a debate about the best place for emergency management to exist on the organization chart. Preferably, it should be directly under the senior political leader(s) of the jurisdiction. However, it can be successful if placed within a subordinate department. The key is to have strong political support for and involvement in emergency management activities by the elected officials.

Staffing the function is always an issue. For larger jurisdictions and agencies, there will likely be multiple people assigned to emergency management. It is critical that one person be assigned to be the director. Unfortunately, in smaller elements of government, there may not be the resources to have a full-time person assigned to the function of emergency management. Thus, emergency management is assigned as an additional duty to a person who has other duties. In this situation, it can be difficult for the person to find time to focus on emergency management. The other day-to-day duties and the crisis of the moment draw the person away from emergency management planning and other such duties.

The importance of having individual personal relationships cannot be overstated. They are the bedrock upon which effective programs operate when bad things happen. The person or personnel must always be seeking to establish and maintain individual connections with people from public and private sectors. Their peers in neighboring or even across state jurisdictions are those that they depend on when their county or city is impacted by disaster.

Effective emergency management organizations require years of work by many individuals throughout the agency to develop relationships that will improve an organization’s ability to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from a disaster. The needs of the community must be constantly evaluated and prioritized. Achieving accreditation is one way to evaluate an emergency management program, but the true evaluation comes during a disaster. Was the agency able to return to normal operations in an acceptable period of time? How long did it take for leaders to understand the situation and prioritize their actions? Did the public receive accurate information and direction from authorities? These are just some of the questions that will define a good emergency management organization.


Eric Holdeman is a nationally recognized emergency management professional. He has served in federal, state, and local emergency management positions. Today he is the Director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR). He is also a Senior Fellow with Emergency Management Magazine where is a columnist. His www.disaster-zone.com blog is the most popular one in the nation on the topic of emergency management. 

Diane Newman retired as the Assistant Director for King County Emergency Management Division in 2006 and continued her emergency management work with the City of Seattle. She became an EMAP Assessor in 2004 and was the Accreditation Manager for the City of Seattle emergency management program through their on-site assessment in 2015. The City of Seattle was formally EMAP accredited in April 2016.