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How Systems Thinking Can Improve Emergency Management with CJ Unis

Mar 10, 2023
Rescuers, doctors, and security personnel responding to an emergency

In today's world, emergency management has become increasingly complex and interconnected. With rapid advancements in technology, emergency managers must navigate a range of different systems, such as infrastructure, communications, and policy, to effectively respond to emergencies.

To address these challenges, experts are turning to systems thinking, an interdisciplinary approach that considers the interconnectedness of different systems and their impact on each other. In this recent episode of the CCEM Podcast, Systems Engineer and emergency management professional Carl “C.J.” Unis emphasized the importance of using systems thinking to improve emergency management.

The Complexity of Emergency Management

Unis argues that emergency managers often face complex and interconnected problems that are difficult to plan for. For example, during a crisis, emergency managers must consider a range of factors, such as the availability of resources, the needs of different communities, and the impact of policy decisions on their response efforts. These factors are all linked together and can have a significant impact on the success or failure of emergency response efforts.

To overcome these obstacles, Unis recommends taking a systems thinking approach. Systems thinking involves looking at emergency management problems from a variety of different angles. It involves understanding the inherent connection of different systems. If implemented effectively, systems thinking can increase understanding, execution, and resourcing, leading to decreased response time and increased ability to execute.

How Emergency Managers Can Apply Systems Thinking

Emergency managers can use systems thinking to identify the root causes of problems and develop more effective response strategies.

The first step, as Unis suggests, is to apply at the five foundational pillars of systems thinking when framing a problem. Emergency managers should look at the relationships between operations, infrastructure, systems, human capital, and cyber. Once connections are established, it becomes clear who the key stakeholders are and how they will play a role in the success of a project.

The second step is to keep applying systems thinking on a regular basis until it becomes the intuitive approach to any problem. Unis says that there’s still a lot of tacit knowledge in implementing a systems thinking approach. To achieve good results, emergency managers and professionals should repeatedly practice it.

The third step is to go deeper and explore new policies and approaches to emergency management. Unis believes that a lot of policies in emergency management are archaic. He stresses that 20th-century policies are driving 21st-century innovation. The speed of innovation can make it difficult to take a comprehensive approach to emergency management problems. And technology is not always the solution to close that gap. Rapid adoption of technology can lead to a knowledge gap and an increased risk of unintended consequences.

Therefore, Unis emphasizes the importance of education and training in promoting systems thinking among emergency managers. In addition to exploring new policies and technology, he argues that emergency managers need to be trained to think critically and to understand how to frame problems correctly. To do that, they should go beyond the academic and theoretical aspects of emergency management and start engaging with their communities—building relationships with local authorities and jurisdictions.


Overall, systems thinking provides a powerful tool for emergency managers to address the complex problems they face. By taking a systems thinking approach, emergency managers can improve and scale their response efforts to better serve their communities during times of crisis. By exploring the interconnectedness of their problems and focusing on community engagement and education, emergency management professionals can increase their understanding, execution, and resourcing, leading to better outcomes for everyone involved.

Listen to the full episode on the Crisis. Conflict. Emergency Management PodcastYou can also access the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts.