The Fundamentals of Emergency Management

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Police officer standing in front of an emergency vehicleThe Fundamentals of Emergency Management

Every year, millions of people around the U.S. have their lives and property threatened by an emergency. An emergency can arise entirely due to natural causes – for example, a hurricane – or might be initiated by human factors, such as a forest fire caused by a careless smoker.

Once emergency conditions begin, human and environmental factors combine in ways that are difficult to anticipate. These combinations might pose unexpected risk to life, long-term health, public safety, and property – any and all of which could have devastating consequences.

As a result, communities must have emergency management plans in place long before danger is present. Without guidance and structure, an emergency can be made far worse by the breakdown of important services or destruction of resources citizens depend on.

There are four key purposes to emergency management:

  1. Preparedness
  2. Response
  3. Recovery
  4. Mitigation

How Federal, State, Local, and Individual Efforts Work Together in Crisis

Everyone in a community has some role to play in emergency management – from the individual up to the president of the United States. However, all emergency management efforts strive toward the four goals above – with the federal government setting broad expectations and state governments maintaining those regulations while executing efforts “on the ground.”

Local governments have the greatest awareness of hazards in their community, and thus organize first responders, healthcare resources, and safety protocols for their own towns or cities. Citizens, meanwhile, are expected to adhere to all lawful rules and requests provided by government, from “boil water” advisories to evacuation orders.

At the same time, each “level” of participant in emergency management can request resources from others. For example, a family might flee to a shelter mobilized at the local level, while a city might request funding from the state, and states have asked for National Guard assistance when an emergency leads to a breakdown of order.

Understanding the Emergency Management Cycle

Cooperation, caution, and mutual respect at all levels of civic participation can reduce the impact of an emergency – but it’s reasonable to ask: “What is the true goal of emergency management?” While the overall goal is the preservation of life, specifics evolve across four distinct phases.

Emergencies are dynamic and fluid, so the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others have developed best practices for dealing with the distinct stages of an emergency. Details of implementation vary by location and situation, but the cycle itself is a cornerstone of civic planning.


As the name implies, preparedness begins long before there is a specific threat. The hazard is known, but it has not yet materialized. Preparedness involves coordination between government and people in the community to develop emergency response plans, train security personnel, and educate citizens so that all stakeholders understand their responsibilities when emergency strikes.


The response phase of emergency management activates once disaster conditions have been felt or are anticipated. An earthquake or fire can happen with little warning, whereas communities may have time to gear up response to a hurricane or winter storm. During response, the focus is on saving lives, providing immediate security, and ensuring evacuation and mass care.


In the aftermath of response, recovery begins. Recovery might last for days, several months, or even years. Often, the first step in recovery is debris management, the removal of natural and man-made features that are damaged beyond repair. Housing is provided for those who have been displaced and healthcare resources are made available. Economic recovery follows.


In the wake of individual emergencies, safety professionals gain valuable “lessons learned” to improve the readiness footing of the entire community. Mitigation is an ongoing concern. Safety leaders must be prepared to advocate for mitigation, as it can often become a low civic priority in the absence of a specific threat. It includes infrastructural improvements and public outreach.

There is some overlap in the different phases of the cycle, and it is not always clear when one has ended and the next has begun. When all is said and done, individuals must maintain vigilance during an emergency and assume danger is still present until a change in condition is verified by informed authorities. Listening to hearsay can lead members of the community into danger.

Governments Aren’t the Only Ones With Emergency Management Plans

Businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations should all have defined emergency management plans. Such plans not only provide continuity of operations and mitigate safety threats, but also ensure enterprises are in compliance with federal, state, and local safety requirements.

In compliance-driven enterprises like manufacturing and construction firms, safety professionals are in a position to advocate for safety best practices even when there is no threat of emergency. Even in less hazardous industries, however, the safety professional has important roles to play:

  • Ensuring disaster response plans prioritize the safety of every team member.
  • Reducing the potential for danger and damage from fixed equipment or assets.
  • Planning and implementing a post-emergency inspection to verify a site’s safety.
  • Coordinating with other actors in the community to activate resources as needed.

Ultimately, everyone in an emergency situation must be prepared to act with safety foremost in mind. One of the most important roles a safety professional can play is as a champion for clear-headedness in a crisis. To make an emergency easier, make sure you have implemented disaster drills, a clear evacuation plan, and a division of safety responsibilities everyone understands.

Learn More

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