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The Role of Law Enforcement in Emergency Management

The Role of Law Enforcement in Emergency Management

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By James Weber, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Law enforcement often plays a critical role in emergency management in regard to response, search and rescue, and recovery efforts. Although law enforcement organizations may struggle at times with the logistical challenges of emergency management, there are some elements of their positions as first responders that provide a bridge to the Incident Command System (ICS) and NIMS (National Incident Management System) concepts.

For one, law enforcement officers’ work as first responders help them develop an understanding of on-scene management and the eventual shifting to specialized units for continuity of operations. As an example, officers very commonly respond to traffic accidents. These incidents may include persons who are injured or they may be accidents involving hazardous materials. Such calls usually involve multi-use and even multi-jurisdictional response using the NIMS structure.

[Related: Lessons Learned: Police Chiefs Who Have Made the Transition to Emergency Management]

The purpose of the NIMS structure is to provide a common approach or standard to managing incidents. NIMS is applicable across a full spectrum of potential incidents, hazards and impacts, regardless of size, location or complexity. From a department management standpoint, law enforcement executives need to ensure that consistent application of NIMS and ICS concepts become second nature to responders to provide a more efficient and effective response.

The EM Response and Law Enforcement

From a skillset standpoint, law enforcement officers are capable of working through any type of incident response. With that said, agencies tend to struggle in two situations:

  1. When a critical incident shifts into term recovery.
  2. When long-term commitment is needed in the areas of preparedness.

Since most police responses to critical incidents are generally rapid and short term in duration, both of the above situations can cause challenges for law enforcement personnel. With that said, the law enforcement structure uses a response template that leans toward a tactical-first approach with logistical planning and recovery often limited during a time of critical response.

This obstacle increases the likelihood of poorly directed operations within the most critical hours of a long-term operation. Hurricane Katrina revealed such life-safety planning shortcomings when search and rescue operations failed to identify and rapidly respond to assisted living facilities where elderly patients had been abandoned by caregivers.

Law Enforcement Challenges and Lessons Learned

Conflicts to Command Structure
One of the biggest challenges of working in law enforcement and being assigned to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is the conflict between incident activation of an emergency operations center organization chart and daily operations. Many agencies dual-assign officers and other county or municipal staffers to duties that place them in a high position on the OEM organizational chart due to their unique skillsets. However, as such, they are listed above command staff members. This can become problematic as many agencies operate under a paramilitary scope of operations and higher ranking officers may be reluctant or unwilling to adjust command hierarchy.

Lack of NIMS proficiency
Law enforcement administrators may also fail to recognize the NIMS response structure, which could cause a conflict to arise. From my experiences, law enforcement does not normally articulate their direct role in the NIMS response, thus officers and administrators do not tend to be as proficient or informed about the structure. This is not normally the case in organizations such as fire departments because specializations (i.e. hazmat teams) promote scene management to the best qualified and credentialed responders over command ranks. The understanding of this NIMS concept is better accepted in the fire service where it is practiced on each call.

[Related: The Evolution of ICS Beyond the Fire Service]

How to Prepare for Emergency Management Duties

My best advice for individuals who may be contemplating emergency management inclusion in their daily duties is to first acknowledge the conflicts. There will likely be issues within the law enforcement subculture, which has clearly delineated paramilitary organizations, in accepting and understanding the NIMS concepts. In addition, agency administrators must have a clear understanding of their roles in successful emergency management and response. This includes an awareness of the importance of NIMS and ICS principles to enable efficient incident management.

In preparing for a disaster, it is also important to implement an ongoing training program and other exercises to stress preparedness. One way to accomplish this is to consistently test and practice emergency management structure during special events (hosted within the agency’s jurisdiction) in addition to assisting in neighboring jurisdictions. Agencies should also seek to participate in regional or state exercises where the full scope of the NIMS structure will be revealed for best practices and lessons learned.

Emergency management is a team effort and law enforcement’s ability to respond and be successful is directly related to how well prepared and trained all officers are to handle any kind of emergency.

emergency managementAbout the Author: James Weber has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years and is currently a police officer in South Florida. Most of his career has involved working road patrol and conducting criminal investigations. In addition, James maintains specialized training in crime scene processing, emergency management, terrorism and threat assessments. He currently serves as an adjunct professor of criminal justice for American Military University and American Public University. James graduated from the University of Central Florida and obtained a master’s degree in criminal justice. Previously, he attended Barry University and earned a B.S. in professional administration (Human Resource Management). In addition, he holds an Associate of Applied Science degree in Law Enforcement. You can contact him at james.weber746(at)mycampus.apus.edu.

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