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Some thoughts on professional societies

Some thoughts on professional societies

Getting into any career is tricky. Employers are looking for the perfect combination of both knowledge and experience. Fresh out of University you have to try extra hard to demonstrate that you can actually do the job, not just talk about it.

That was the position I found myself in almost 13 years ago. I spent countless days completing applications; labouring the point that “yes, I might have only ever worked in a shop, but you can definitely trust me not to screw this up”.

One way I could show employers that they could put their faith in me was to join a professional association. These bodies are designed to represent the interests of those in the field, so if I was a member it would enhance my legitimacy. Not one to do things by halves, I joined no less than 4 professional associations.

I did my research beforehand, of course.

Some of these organisations had a specific focus, others were more general. Some had active online communities, others were more traditional.

As a fledgeling emergency manager, I thought it was a good idea to try and learn from as much of this as possible. That way I could tell employers I not just only understood the job, but I also understood the profession and the direction it was travelling.

I’m no longer a member of any of those organisations that I joined.

Professional societies, at least those that I joined, had failed to move with the times. The challenges facing the profession now are not the same as those before critical UK legislation was introduced. The risk environment has changed, and the profession seems to be struggling to keep up.

Although, I think there were more fundamental issues holding those societies back

  1. Ego – None of these societies are sufficiently large in membership that they require the level of process that most of them have. Beacurcracy tends to override what could be helpful information exchange platforms.
  2. Identity crisis – There’s a shift towards a more holistic concept of resilience which is not reflected in the scope of the professional bodies. Emergency Planning, that’s too focused on ‘plans’. Civil Defence – that’s an outdated term from the 50’s. Business Continuity – that’s too defined by formal standards.
  3. Lack of value to members – having been associated with a range of bodies for at least the last 8 years I cannot honestly say that it has been worth the investment either financially or in terms of benefits gained.
  4. Unrepresentative leadership – those employed in emergency management when I first started my career often had military or security backgrounds. At the practitioner level that is changing, and new perspectives are being introduced, but the makeup of the decision makers in many of the professional organisations has not kept pace with the changing demographics of the field.

I don’t like to just sit on the fringes and criticise. If I see an issue I want to try and resolve it. For one of the bodies, I worked with similarly enthusiastic colleagues to solve some of these problems. However, after 18 months of trying different things and volunteering my own time, the same issues remained.

That organisation in particular alienated its members through sporadic, ill-conceived communication and disrespected its own volunteers. For a body designed to support members, it showed an extreme lack of empathy.

Contrast that with the sense of camaraderie and community I’ve seen online from my SMEMchat colleagues. This eclipses anything I have seen in over 10 years of being a member of a society.

There are, of course, many ways of doing things; I’m not simply suggesting that everything should move online. But if professionals are going to continue to support each other (and I really hope they do) then it might be time for a more radical rethink of how this is best achieved.

I feel no sense of loyalty to bodies which didn’t demonstrate any to me. However, I do feel a sense of loyalty to my colleagues, whether I work directly with them, or our paths haven’t crossed yet.

Everything that we do as a profession is a team effort. There are many ways that we can collaborate without the stuffiness of societies.

Video: The Emergency Manager

Video: The Emergency Manager

People often introduce me to others and say that I have a really interesting job. I’m not going to lie, I really do, and I’m passionate about it, but I’m not sure that people really know what a career in emergency management entails. Sometimes, I wonder myself!

Today I found this gem of a video via Eric at Emergency Management – in less than 5 minutes it does a really good job of summarising one part of my role – to respond to emergencies.

It’s great to see such a simple and engaging overview, although there are some differences, but I expect these are a product of different US concepts and terminology rather. Although, I’m not sure that the information on Improvised Nuclear Devices is absolutely correct.

But what the video doesn’t comment on, and indeed makes a less exciting cartoon, is the hours of work that go in to assessing and then managing the risk of emergencies, with activities that might include:

  • the procurement of specialist equipment
  • development of agreed response procedures between all organisations
  • design, organisation and facilitation of training and validation
  • providing communities and businesses with information or
  • ensuring that following any incident, we emerge from it better prepared for the next one.

It’s certainly not just about sitting around and waiting until emergencies happen!

Any budding animators fancy building on this cartoon to show the true life in the day of an emergency manager/yours truly? Get in touch!


Avid readers may recognise this as a repost…technical problems meant that the original was unavoidably deleted!


Mix’n’match Emergency Management

Mix’n’match Emergency Management

In 2007 I did some work on Hospital Evacuation, which is a throughly complex problem. I won’t go into the detail here, suffice to say that it brings some real ethical issues and logistical challenges. I mention this, because way back in 2007 someone that I spoke to described their Hospital Evacuation Plan as “planned improvisation”.

mixnmatchI remember recoiling at this. Here I was trying to document every last detail of how wards should work together with central hospital functions to expedite a swift evacuation, yet over here was someone essentially saying “we make it up on the day”.

Today I was having an unrelated conversation with a colleague about Command and Control (for non experts, that’s the systems and structures by which an emergency is managed). We were talking about the need to planned arrangements to have sufficient felxibility as to be applicable to a variety of circumstances. Without the ability to accurately predict the future this felxibility is vitally important.

However, you also need to balance that flexibility, with having coherence and structure, to try to bring the emergency under control as quickly as possible. I was reminded of one of those mix’n’match childrens books.

I wonder if there might be something in this approach for emergency management? Could you have a variety of planned components which all fit togther ininfinite complementary combinations?

I’m a big fan of recognising the emergent behaviour of systems and communities when under stress, but do I bring that do the formal responder organisatiopns I work with? Probably not as much as I could. There is definately a degree of creativity involved in sucessful emergency response – how can we create an environment which nurtures this without abandoning the important act of planning?

I’m going to give this some more thought over the weekend and come back with some more well rounded thoughts and suggestions – until then, I’m off to read an article about Collaborative Adhocracies….fun!

Image source: Edward Gorey via