If you Google on the question “What makes a good emergency manager?”,you will find that Emergency Management is an evolving discipline with a broadening scope. Emergency managers are defined as professionals who are tasked with the responsibility of helping communities and organizations anticipate hazards and vulnerabilities, and undertake measures to more effectively deal with disasters (e.g., mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from them). In order to be successful, emergency managers must follow systematic processes and excel at coordinating multiple agencies and information sources while interacting effectively with partner organizations and the public.
While these roles, definitions and abilities will remain valid in principle (i.e. they must be considered by anyone wanting to undertake a career in EM),each emergency affecting our society will require further skills and specific expertise, a deeper experience in and familiarity with the field when dealing with a distinct emergency. A good knowledge of the structure and organizational tools in which the emergency manager will operate will also be key since just a generic skill or a lack of focussed expertise will not allow them to get the expected results. Moreover, proper strategic plans have to be in place before any emergency occurs.
For example, during current pandemic, hospital emergency managers were abruptly put on the spot, and many times blamed for poor coordination skills. Put simply, the emergency manager in a hospital is expected to be in charge of the overall planning and response to emergencies that can affect the healthcare organization and communities that rely on it. He or she may be solely responsible for emergency preparation and response management or head up a team with responsibilities shared among team members. Yet if there were already planning shortfalls in the national system, there is very little reason to blame the local emergency manager (who may have just been appointed, no less).
By “local” emergency manager, we mean the individual who works in the field in direct support of those who suffer from an emergency. It is very likely that this field emergency manager has only a slight familiarity with the strategic emergency plans. Yet at the same time, he or she should be aware of the overall content, be ready to mitigate any negative effect of a sterile literal implementation, and be prepared to adjust the broader plan to the local requirements. Indeed, when the field emergency manager is able to understand national strategies and compare them with local needs, he or she will be capable to translate them into tactical actions. The local emergency manager is not expected to exercise great strategic thinking, but rather a deep empathy for the public when he or she has to deal with and assist them. In turn, the good result of his or her tactical action will be reproduced into a strategic success, even though he or she had not been involved in the strategic planning.
Empathy is the key here. You don't study it, nor you can buy it; you have to earn it through life experience and interactive work with others, listening to them, and understanding their needs. There are three groups of people that have an unquestionable need for empathy: politicians, educators, and field emergency managers. The modern social environment changed the way the politicians engage with the public. Many of them often do not work in very close contact with the public, instead interacting through social tools. Their“PR experts” build a sort of virtual empathetic world around them, prepare nice speeches paving the way for a successful political rally. Field emergency managers and educators would not be able to do this. Instead, they have to build their relationship with the public through a face-to-face interaction and even personal examples, which nurture a direct yet sometimes “remote empathy”.
A recent episode has mixed empathy with sympathy across the “COVID flooded” social media when a clarinet teacher died fourteen hours after being vaccinated.If any one person had the right to lose control of her words and give expression to the fear of many, it was his wife, a teacher too. Instead, just before AstraZeneca was suspended everywhere as a precaution, she came out with this statement: "In my heart I don't feel like saying that the vaccine is to be blamed. We must continue to believe in it. If my husband and I had not believed in it, we would not have done it…but as educators it was important to do so”.
It takes a lot of wisdom, from reading books and living life, to keep a cool head in the midst of a tragedy, turning a potential invective into a message of hope. A year of pandemic taught us that there are no absolute truths. Those who took pride in having the truth in hand found themselves switching to the opposite side, yet often with the same presumption of infallibility. The problem is not having doubts, but letting ourselves be paralyzed. Even scientists grope, one step at a time, and not all of them in the same direction either. Zero risk does not exist: you must understand which is the lesser risk and be willing to accept it. The journalist (*) who described the strength of the above woman in his article wrote that when it will be his turn to extend his arm, perhaps to an AstraZeneca shot, he will try to remember the words of the philosopher and almost namesake Anneo Seneca: "Those things that frighten us most are less to fear."
The best way to learn on empathy is to make an effort to imitate such a woman.
(*) Article from Corrieredella Sera, 16.3.2021, by M.Gramellini,