The White Elephant in Emergency Management

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3 Simple Solutions for Change

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With “black lives matter” protests and the “me too” movements happening these last few years, now is the time for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to step up and also prioritize diversity and inclusion. The FEMA mission is “to help people before, during, and after disasters,” and as referenced in the 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, FEMA has a key role to play in mirroring the heterogeneity of the communities it serves. The first and foremost strategic goal states that the agency must “…understand our local and community risks, reflect the diversity of those we serve, and foster partnerships that allow us to connect with a diverse Nation.” Traditionally, these have been just empty words. FEMA’s policies are drafted to help those who are most impacted, which tend to be white homeowners and business owners with more wealth. Now is the time to put words into actions, from how employees and contractors are hired, to setting up an organizational design that ensures those with the most needs are able to recover from a disaster to training staff on best practices.

Let’s start at the top because FEMA sets the standard for state and local emergency management agencies. The agency has a budget of roughly $1618 billion and more than 10 thousand employees, FEMA has the capability to hire and retain employees which better reflect the communities served.

A lack of equity isn’t just gossip and hearsay. If you take a look at resources on FEMA’s demographics (race, gender) and existing barriers for equal opportunity (the ability for a minority to be promoted), they make it clear that leadership has been aware of its issues for years but solutions haven’t been put into place. An overview of FEMA’s 2018 employee race and gender data displays that the majority of staff are white (68.5%) and male (59.4%). It says that obstacles for promotion for minorities [people of color, women, etc.] exist not just in FEMA but throughout the agency that oversees it: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A Government Accountability Office (the “government watchdog”) reveals in its 2019 Report that DHS and its agencies have identified failures in their Equal Employment Opportunity programs, but lack policies and procedures for developing action plans to resolve them. For example, problems with supervision/management and lack of advancement opportunities cause more white females and several ethnic and racial groups to quit than is normal. DHS and FEMA are losing great staff because they don’t want to deal with nonsense bigotry.

SBA disaster loan approval rates for zip codes with more than 90% white were 52% approved, yet zip codes with more than 50% black were 28% approved.

Thomas Frank  |  E&E News Reporter

Hiring a diverse population has secondary effects: to both mirror the populations it serves by employing those staff, and to hire people who advocate on their behalf. Employing and retaining minority groups is necessary to represent these populations, as research suggests African Americans and Latinos have a higher risk of disaster exposure and are disproportionally affected by them. As such, they also are more likely to experience physical hardships and trauma during and after a disaster, including personal loss, damage to property, and delay in restoration of utilities like electricity and water, and other basic resources including food, shelter, and income. Some investigative research indicates that disaster loan assistance has stark contrasts: The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan approval rates for zip codes with >90% white were 52% approved, in comparison with zip codes with >50% black which were 28% approved. Data at the state-level didn’t differ much: the 10 states with the highest percentage of whites received 55% approvals; the 10 states with the largest percentage of black residents at 37%. Some may argue that home and business owners receive more financial support after a disaster and they tend to be white, but it could also be argued that updating policy to provide more support to employees and renters would change that.

FEMA’s Strategic Plan states it will reflect the diversity of those it serves and foster partnerships for a more diverse Nation. These have been empty words.

Representation of women in emergency management and in positions of leadership is just as crucial as representation of people of color. Globally, women are disproportionately impacted by disasters in some regions. Female fatalities were estimated at 60% after the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar, 70% after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, and 91% after the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh. In the U.S., research doesn’t currently show direct impact to women and girls but it may have indirect impact. One example is that after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, violence against women in Mississippi increased and didn’t return to normal rates when looked at 2 years later. Another example looks at how women are 4 times more likely to drop out of the labor force because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the expert words of Jules Golf emergency preparedness practitioner and unsolicited undercover FEMA watchdog – here are three solutions for change to support equity in emergency management. They can be used to supplement existing research and recommendations, reported in 2020 to the FEMA Administrator by the National Advisory Council:

The first recommended solution is to use current and available technology, such as machine-learning/artificial intelligence, to screen data. If we know that there is bias in approving financial applications, let’s remove that bias. FEMA and SBA programs can reduce personal bias in FEMA public assistance applications (these help communities rebuild), individual assistance applications (these help citizens), and SBA applications by detecting and redacting personally identifiable information (PII).

Here’s a breakdown of how machine learning analytics can be used (remember these terms to impress your friends and colleagues!). There’s 2 general types that can be used: supervised learning (when you know what the problem is) and unsupervised learning (when you don’t know what the results may be). An example of supervised learning can be: knowing that of 2 applicants, someone with a uniquely spelled “black name” is less likely to be contacted for an interview when compared with a commonplace name, yet both people are equally qualified. To resolve this, a computer program would be designed to remove the name of each applicant. Unsupervised learning would be a computer program that doesn’t know what it’s specifically looking for, and by creating new clusters of similar information, it identifies undetected issues. When issues are identified, policies and procedures are created to create solutions for equity.

The second solution is an investment in the future assets of emergency management: people. A common frustration among those in the field is in hiring: There’s often 2 types of job applicants.

  1. young people who have passion and ideas from certification and degrees, but don’t have real-world experience, and
  2. people with years in the military or law enforcement who view emergency management to be an easy job. Both groups have a lot to learn but there are multiple ways to provide training.

Let’s look at a few options to assist type A applicants:

  1. Broaden mentorship and paid internship programs at the federal level, expand the BRIC grant (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) for states, cities, and institutions of higher education so they can afford to oversee interns.
  2. Utilize the existing FEMA corps program to train students and recent grads at the most local level and with hands-on experience.

Not only racial and ethnic minorities, and women would be lime-lighted recipients of these new programs, but a focus on providing these opportunities to individuals with access and functional needs/disabilities, immigrants, refugees, and asylees, and students coming from lower socioeconomic families. These grant-paid internships would follow Department of Labor intern requirements and require one or more approved project(s), depending on the length of service. Coffee-making and party-planning would not be acceptable projects. Additional conditions would be included in the program. For example, the host agency would introduce the intern to a minimum of three high-level leaders in the emergency preparedness arena, so that they can build their network and identify professional mentors.

While eliminating obstacles for hiring and retaining a diverse and experienced workplace is critical, focus may also be on building a culture of inclusion. Formal training is commonplace in large companies so that employees can learn better ways to interact with each other. Unfortunately, recent changes at the federal level have halted diversity trainings, which applies to both employees and private-sector contractors. On September 4, 2020, the Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a memo to agency heads to cease training related to racism, followed on September 22, with a presidential order. The third and last simple solution is to reinstate diversity and inclusion training, which may be helpful to the 14 of the 24 leadership positions within DHS which are held by [mostly white] men, and all 6 vacant positions that have a second-in-command also held by men (as of December 2020).

These 3 changes are just the start of a new mission: FEMA helps those who need it the most.