Challenges of rural emergency management
North Dakota National Guard troops shore up a dike during a snowstorm along the rising Red River in preperation for the flooding in Fargo last month. (AP photo)
Recently, and for the first time, rural emergency management and the challenges facing rural communities were a topic for Emergency Management Forum. This article is intended to be a brief summary of the central points, the full transcript can be accessed at www.emforum.org/vforum/090211.htm.
The challenges of emergency management are different for rural communities than for urban ones and can be categorized into four major themes:
- Resource limitation
- Separation and remoteness
- Low population density
The resource limitations of rural communities to address emergency management are a problem brought forth through lack of availability of capital. There are five classifications of capital used by sociologists: Human, financial, social, cultural and political.
Human capital is limited due to urbanization and the decades-long decline in population (and rising median age) it has brought forth. Out-migration of young, educated residents to urban areas is a primary concern in rural communities, but the impact this has on emergency services has not been a focus of inquiry.
Financial capital is concentrated in the assets of the remaining, aging population and is lost to rural communities when urban heirs inherit and liquidate these assets.
These declines in human and financial capital must be offset by preserving natural and cultural capital and developing political and social capital. For example, emergency management must build relationships with diverse sectors of the community and not rely solely on official power relationships to get things done. It’s equally important to reach outside of the community to achieve political access and leverage additional resources.
Social capital is the focus of most inquiries into meeting the challenges of rural communities and is especially relevant for emergency management. Building relationships within and between emergency services agencies, community organizations and local businesses is essential to securing funding and staffing. Rural communities are generally rich with social capital when almost everyone knows everyone else, thus adding a high level of trust to preparedness and response activities.
Volunteerism is a rich source of social capital and provides much or most of the personnel for emergency services in rural areas. This is one area of contrast with urban areas. Cultivating volunteer responders is optional in urban areas, where most first responders are full-time paid personnel. Rural areas depend on these volunteer responders to staff fire, EMS and emergency management agencies. Volunteers are valued, and incentives to recruit and retain them are strategic to sustaining minimum levels of staffing.
Separation and remoteness
Rurality is most often defined by the distance between residents, or separation and remoteness. The remoteness of rural areas results in longer response times.
When compounded by fewer response resources, remoteness often results in less-favorable outcomes for residents who experience fire and medical emergencies. The “golden hour” to provide life-saving trauma care is often expended well before rural patients reach the urban medical centers that can provide needed care.
Difficulty in restoring electrical power and other services after a disaster, is compounded by remoteness and separation, because allocation of resources often considers the numbers of residents served for each dollar expended, which does not favor rural communities.
Low population density
Rurality is also defined by population size of the community or the number of people per square mile, or density. State and federal programs consider population size and density in many funding decisions, so densely populated areas receive the most attention for mitigation and recovery activities. It has been observed that those needing the most help sometimes get bypassed in favor of those who create the most noise.
The result for rural areas is that known hazards are addressed reactively rather than proactively. This means that the limited financial resources of the local government are spent on immediate needs, such as emergency response. Social capital is marshaled to facilitate recovery after the event, with little human or financial capital to spend on mitigation. Separation of residents in rural areas results in high per-capita costs to implement mitigation actions. Preparedness activities are also difficult to fund when the population is small and spread out over a larger area.
Communication for public education about preparedness is also more costly per person. This increased cost leads to reduced outreach prior to disasters and throughout an event. Warning systems are often absent or neglected in remote areas, placing the burden on the individual to access emergency information.
This can be attributed to the lack of political and financial capital needed to provide in rural areas equivalent resources to what’s considered essential in urban areas. This brings into question a fundamental American value: equal access to governmental services. Should rural residents have access to the same quality of essential services, or only the level of services that can be funded locally?
Let’s consider the impact of federal and state emergency management agency programs and activities on rural emergency management agencies. When volunteer rural emergency services personnel attend required or recommended training, they usually do so without compensation.
Exercise scenarios often assume equipment and manpower capabilities that are unrealistic in rural areas. When more frequent and commonplace events overwhelm available resources, training for exotic mass-casualty or terrorism incidents has limited value.
The training scenarios that could test rural capabilities would necessarily be different from those used in urban areas, but federal guidelines and training materials reflect urban needs and urban resources.
The assumption is that rural emergency management is just a leaner, smaller version of urban emergency management. The reality is that rural emergency management faces challenges that are unfamiliar and often unknown in urban areas.
Rural communities rely on trust and social capital, in the absence of adequate financial capital to staff and equip emergency services at a level that barely meets the average demand. These communities need support for volunteers, training and equipment for routine and frequent events, yet the federal government requires rural services to prepare for rare and exotic hazards. Local hazards and local needs should dictate resource allocation, but first there needs to be better recognition of the realities of rural emergency management.
A way forward?
Congress has recognized that rural communities do not get the same attention and that the solutions may require different approaches. Amendments to Title II of the Robert T. Stafford Act, the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, included the designation of a Small State and Rural Advocate in FEMA. At this time, the position seems to be unfilled.
Once filled, this office should be the object of many rural emergency management communications. It will require the collective action of all who care about rural communities to educate the federal government about the strengths and needs of the rural population and the local governmental agencies that prepare and protect them.
Dianna Bryant, CIH, CSP, is the executive director for the Institute for Rural Emergency Management at the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Mo. She can be reached at 660-543-4971 or at <Bryant@ucmo.edu>. The University of Central Missouri offers a BS in Crisis and Disaster Management.