The Risk, Reward and Responsibility of Maintaining Local Emergency Code

Many emergency managers struggle with stakeholder engagement – getting people to participate in important program activities. Strong, broad, mutually-beneficial engagement is, of course, critical to emergency management program success.  Maintaining and adhering to city and county code is one of the easiest ways to ensure this vital engagement.

Town councils, county commissions and boards enact ordinance and code that have the effect of law. Codes that relate to emergency management often define the conditions that constitute emergency, delegate emergency powers and outline the roles and responsibilities of emergency management programs.  Codes define local emergency management policy, so emergency managers should not only become very familiar with local code, they should accept staff responsibility for compliance and help to maintain it.

Notwithstanding the needs of any current emergency, emergency managers should first review their code for requirements to convene some form of disaster council.  Years ago, codes created councils to ensure involvement in civil preparedness. At some point, local emergency managers may have found such meetings to be arduous to plan or facilitate, less-productive or less-enjoyable than other activities, or procrastinated and deferred organizing these meetings until they were no longer viable. Whatever the case, emergency managers should welcome such code and conduct no fewer than annual disaster council meetings.  Quarterly or semi-annual meetings appear to foster the best results. These meetings engage leaders to consider important policies, facilitate common program understanding among departments, create roles and responsibilities, solidify priorities, and ensure regular discussion.  If emergency managers need a way to assemble appropriate people to discuss emergency management, local code offers a great way to make that happen.

Local codes also offer an opportunity to reinforce disaster planning, training and capability building. Code elements that address a recovery team, disaster housing, anti-price gouging, land-rezoning after disaster, etc. remove important, first hurdles to getting that work done:  defining a problem, creating a solution and formalizing support to a solution.  Preparing contingency actions in advance of emergency can dramatically reduce the time and effort necessary to implement critical actions and also improve their chance of success.

Insofar as many local jurisdictions practice some variant of Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB), what local codes require can help emergency managers succeed in annual budget processes.  Code requirements should be included in emergency management strategy documents, annual work plans and budget requests.  Since the economic recession in 2007, more jurisdictions have adopted ZBB processes which involve re-examining  the value of programs each year (what some see as annually justifying their programs), not just the cost and benefits associated with budget increases.  An emergency management budget request that ties to a local code requirement meets an important ZBB process hurdle if it delivers compliance with a legal requirement.

Local emergency code also sets important culture for a program. The tone, pace, process (all together, culture) and outputs of local emergency management programs can dramatically differ, depending on how they are organized.  Placing emergency management programs under city or county chief executives, fire or police chiefs, public works or other department leaders often create vastly different programs, cultures and outcomes.  Clearly defining emergency management programs in local code can reduce program variance, especially if program responsibility is frequently passed among departments or offices.

So, looking at local code is important for emergency managers and the programs they administer.  Doing so can take some time, so it’s important to be practical about this work.  Find the code.  Read it; doing so several times over the course of a few weeks is best.  Get to know its strengths and weaknesses. Review other emergency management codes. Consider code enhancements, their relative value and their appeal to program stakeholders.  Also consider what stakeholders might want, including clarifications, objective limits on their perceived responsibility, and trade-offs stakeholders will require to support code revision.  Make a case for better code management with your program director and chief executive.  Get your attorney involved to provide legal advice, to manage the legal implications of emergency management code and to facilitate the code revision process.  Finally, ensure program stakeholders know your intent, see the value of code enhancement and have ample opportunities to contribute.  And if you are a Complete EM® user, look for our local program ordinance templates and instructions on completing them.  Also be sure to apply the “Program Ordinance/Policy” element to your Complete EM Program Management Dashboard.  Doing so will help you track this important outcome and provide you one or more local code drafts for your program to consider.

Emergency managers who comply with local codes and fully-utilize code maintenance processes directly address some of the most vexing program issues: elected leader involvement, shared program vision, earnest participation in activities and momentum to achieve regular and meaningful program outcomes.


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