Elected officials and emergency response personnel form the nucleus of community leadership, a driving force for collaborative relationships with local stakeholders. In the 2018 book “Transforming Disaster Response,” Professor William Lester offered three fundamental factors for transformational leadership to occur: the desire to make a change, the development of a new approach, and the commitment to change. As such, community leaders who adopt the tenets of transformational leaders may be better positioned to effectively promote resilience and security in their jurisdictions.
Collaborative leadership implementation can directly affect disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. For instance, the public’s safety and welfare rely on:
- Identifying the challenges community leaders and emergency response personnel face;
- Maintaining collaboration and cooperation between community stakeholders;
- Filling gaps that affect collaboration; and
- Expeditiously delivering resources to those impacted by disasters.
All of the above requires effective local stakeholder collaboration, the hallmark of which is the ability to communicate effectively – from risk communication, which focuses on awareness before disasters, to crisis communication during disasters. Regardless of the term, all levels of government and community leadership must be able to communicate and coordinate in delivering resources and personnel to affected areas.
Bottom-to-Top Structure and Decentralization of Authority
Research studies have focused on the challenges of collaborative leadership to achieve community resilience. Some studies advocate for a bottom-up hierarchical structure and decentralization of authority to bridge the communitywide gaps that can affect disaster operations. For example, a study published in 2018 in Disaster Prevention and Management suggested that one advantage of this structure for emergency response involves comprehending the local community’s socioeconomic, cultural, political, and infrastructural adjustments to disaster events. These constructs are unique to the local jurisdiction and are factors to consider in disaster planning.
A decentralized disaster planning system could give local and state governments greater autonomy in developing their own response and recovery measures unique to their jurisdictions and, thus, more flexibility. Empowering local community stakeholders can help foster the transformational leadership skills, resources, and capabilities needed to develop plans for future disasters.
Capabilities and operational structures change over time, which could impact operations. Therefore, before conducting multi-organizational response operations, assess and evaluate the cooperation and coordination between community leaders, emergency response personnel, business interests, nonprofit organizations, healthcare providers, and community members, as well as their capabilities, resources, and expertise. Moreover, these evaluations can reveal resource, response, and capabilities gaps directly affecting disaster operations, such as training personnel assigned to work in emergency operations centers.
Involvement in the collaborative process through interagency cooperation and information sharing is essential for successful disaster operations. Social media’s scope and influence have become a key component for disseminating information to a broad audience and engaging the whole community to facilitate the planning, execution, and effectiveness of community resilience policies.
Some impact factors include examining community needs, developing traditional and social media communication networks, and establishing communication interoperability. A 2018 study found that reactive decision-making processes can lead to authority centralization, negatively impacting disaster operations. However, training exercises and drills help facilitate emergency response efforts and improve disaster planning and coordination.
Enhancing Social Capital to Drive Resilience
Emergency management professionals and government officials use modes of communication to disseminate information to community stakeholders – including business interests, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, healthcare facilities, and community members. The effectiveness of preparing for and responding to crises is contingent upon these dynamic relationships to address human needs. Additionally, community engagement can help prepare for future disasters by using community outreach to reinforce preparedness plans, promulgate policies, and organize resources and personnel. This community structure improves the ability of government agencies and community stakeholders to work together. The interpersonal connections that bring people together within a community (i.e., social capital) can be a more powerful force for resilience than external factors.
Disseminating information to community stakeholders – including businesses, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, healthcare facilities, community members, and emergency response personnel – improves interactive and dynamic relationships to promote resilience and security. Effective disaster management requires communication before, during, and after a crisis.
Social capital enhances the capacity to prepare for future disasters by using community outreach to support preparedness plans, promote policies, establish mutual aid agreements, and coordinate resources and personnel. Boosting collaboration and cooperation between government agencies, neighboring jurisdictions, and community stakeholders requires joint efforts to:
- Regularly review emergency plans and maintain resources and capabilities;
- Plan and implement policies, such as preparedness campaigns; and
- Create, enhance, and sustain mutual aid agreements to help and support jurisdictions.
Guidance and Resources for Change
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) and Stakeholder Preparedness Review Guide are valuable resources to help communities conduct risk assessments to identify hazards, threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences. After completing the risk assessment, community leaders, emergency response personnel, and local stakeholders can develop disaster preparedness plans, policies, and procedures.
In addition to THIRA guidance, urban and rural jurisdictions must consider the all-hazards approach when planning for disasters. Part of the planning process is ensuring community members know about local information resources and use toolkits to evaluate and enhance their household preparedness. Rural communities can improve their disaster management and crisis communication by developing a digital communication infrastructure and expanding their use of social media platforms in risk and crisis communications. Emergency management personnel can use dedicated and reliable internet capabilities to broadcast to and receive information from community members directly affected by the crisis.
Community involvement is a key focus in achieving security and resilience in local communities. Community leaders, emergency response personnel, volunteer groups, nonprofit organizations, and business interests each have a responsibility to:
- Facilitate information-sharing efforts with community members,
- Exchange information to enhance decision-making during disasters, and
- Identify socioeconomic losses after a crisis.
In addition to resources and capabilities, effective collaborative leadership and cooperation at the local level are vital for achieving community resilience and security. Community outreach programs, social media platforms, and traditional media are essential when disseminating risk and crisis communication and enhancing cooperation and collaboration for disaster preparedness and response. Such outreach enables local community stakeholders to assist and support risk mitigation efforts. Active communication during daily operations or disasters can build a stronger community foundation.
Application of Research and Recommendations for Practice
To further explore the impact of collaborative leadership, the author conducted one-on-one interviews in 2022 with 15 community leaders and emergency response personnel from two rural and one urban county in the West South Central United States. The responses were similar across topics such as community resilience, decentralization of authority, interagency cooperation, and funding challenges, with the following 13 themes emerging:
- Preparedness and community engagement are relevant elements of community resilience.
- Communication and funding are the main challenges for collaborative leadership in communities.
- A strong community leadership team and emergency management coordinator are vital to disaster planning.
- County governments have better working relationships with the state than the federal government.
- The emergency management team’s dedication and visibility directly impact community engagement.
- Community leaders who trust their personnel’s proficiency in their roles and responsibilities enable them to make operational decisions during disasters.
- Interagency cooperation begins locally, establishes relationships with neighboring communities and regional partners, and maintains collaboration with state and federal agencies.
- Conducting annual training exercises is not enough.
- Communication challenges impact interoperability due to outdated technology and insufficiently trained personnel.
- Public information officers are beneficial to county-level jurisdictions for information dissemination. Members of at least one vulnerable population (e.g., older adults) may not use digital technology, which introduces challenges.
- While Facebook is the most common social media platform, all jurisdictions use their websites or the city/municipality to notify stakeholders and residents.
- Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) units benefit each jurisdiction’s community outreach program.
- Additional funding is needed to hire more personnel, update equipment such as communications and computers, and improve digital technology infrastructure for rural entities, which is essential for all jurisdictions.
Through these interviews and research, the findings produced six recommendations:
- Create organizations like the Combined Emergency Services Organization (CESO, a local organization composed of emergency responders exercising mutual aid agreements) in each county so that suburban jurisdictions can effectively collaborate and cooperate – with disaster preparedness planning and training exercises as part of their best practices.
- Establish a CERT program in each suburban community or municipality within a county. Counties can use FEMA’s curriculum to offer training on-site or by mobile training teams for larger counties.
- Update county and municipality disaster plans regularly (e.g., annually or after an incident or exercise), depending on the size of the jurisdiction.
- Conduct a needs assessment in rural counties to upgrade communications and equipment and submit a report to the state-level emergency management division for funding allocation and action.
- Survey vulnerable residents (e.g., elderly, homeless persons, and people with functional needs) in municipalities to maintain public-private relationships and encourage them to sign up for the STEAR (State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry) Program as part of disaster preparedness planning.
- Have a grant writer in each jurisdiction (e.g., city and county) to research funds from federal and state sources.
Future studies should investigate quantitative research to measure the effectiveness of collaborative leadership and community resilience. In doing so, the mathematical formulas could better calculate the leadership and resilience scales and quantify each jurisdiction’s numerical value.
Ongoing Challenges and Vulnerabilities
Local community leaders and emergency response personnel face challenges in achieving collaboration and cooperation between stakeholders and community members. Vulnerable populations are significantly affected by communication issues during disasters. The consensus among the community leaders and emergency response personnel interviewed was that communication interoperability and funding are the primary challenges in their jurisdictions. Collaborative leadership and including vulnerable community members in disaster preparedness planning can fill critical planning and response gaps and transition communities from current to collaborative systems for improving community resilience.
The tenets of contemporary emergency management include four Cs: collaboration, cooperation, communication, and continuity. The hallmark of emergency management involves “neighbors helping neighbors” – the collaborative and cooperative efforts between community members. As digital technology and communication infrastructure continue to evolve, emergency responders must train and be proficient in all modes of communication. Redundancy and communication interoperability are imperative in today’s ever-changing environment. Moreover, business continuity and continuity of operations must be integral in disaster planning. Businesses need to incorporate resilience in their business plans, and the public sector must understand that continuity of operations is part of emergency planning. As communities continue to prepare for and respond to crises, stakeholders expect their leaders and emergency responders to be innovative, proficient, and proactive in strengthening the security and resilience of the whole community.
Michael Valiente is the senior training officer of the Training Division at the Texas Division of Emergency Management. He is a retired U.S. Marine with 23 years of active-duty service. He did two tours as an instructor and academics supervisor with Marine Corps University and one tour as a Marine Embassy Guard with the U.S. State Department. His initial emergency management experience came from participating in Operational Unified Assistance, the U.S. military humanitarian relief efforts during the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. After retiring in 2005, he taught at the University of Phoenix and Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Texas. He has a master’s degree in international relations from Troy University and a Doctor of Emergency Management degree from Capella University.