A Strange Post About Death in Emergency Management
A NoiseBox Publication.
The following post was written during a period of struggle. This experience, combined with the reading of philosophical works, resulted in the piece below. It features a somewhat morbid casting of what it means for things such as careers, projects, and initiatives, to end in emergency management.
Owing to my disposition at the time, when I encountered the quote from Morin (1992; below) the ideas of birth and death immediately resonated. To be clear, death is not portrayed here in the sense of loss of life, but as the ultimate ending of things: finitude. While birth is approached normatively as a beginning, the idea of death is used to locate ultimate ends in emergency management and reveal how death haunts the present.
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The goal of this post is to highlight that death is always out there waiting to usher in the end of projects, initiatives, careers, organizations, and beyond. There is no way to escape death, though humans are capable of designing methods, tools, policies, and interventions with the potential to delay it, but it is still inevitable. Shifts in context, the passing of time, the inability to produce results, loss of funding, completing all incident objectives, or the failure to create value are all reasons why a project, organization, or career may meet its demise.
Every physical system is fully a being of time, in time, which time destroys. It is born (of interactions), it has a history (the external and internal events which perturb and/or transform it), and it dies by disintegration. It is evidently when life takes form that birth and death will take on a deep meaning (Morin, 1992, p.134).
I have been pondering the last sentence from this quote by the brilliant philosopher Edgar Morin (1992) on and off for the past few months. I came across the excerpt while thinking about death, not in terms of the loss of human life which emergency management is immediately concerned with, but as it relates to the death of things.
When Life Takes Form
At the beginning of the emboldened portion of the quote from Morin are the words "when life takes form." Organizations are an excellent example. If organizations are understood as being alive, a particularly productive perspective, when emergency management organizations are established this is a process of life taking form. "Form" in this context could refer to some degree of structure or pattern (such as an organization chart) that allows someone to distinguish "something" from the surrounding noise of everything else.
For Morin (1992), it is when something takes form that its birth (retrospectively) and death (prospectively) take on significant meaning. Staying with organizations, birth is of consequence once it produces life that has taken form. In the timeline of an organization, birth is an event that can only take place once. A rebirth, such as that hoped for by consultants engaging in an organizational transformation initiative, will be unfounded. There will always be traces and shadows of the initial organization within the one produced through transformation. What emerges may be a modified organization, but it is not the organization reborn.
The birth of the organization takes on deep meaning as the first event in the organization's history. Without it, there would be no organization. The moment life takes form with its practices, culture, roles, and theories, it is retained, for better or for worse, in the forward progression of the organization.
When Life Leaves Form
Arguably, death takes on more meaning than birth when considering the life of an organization and its activities. While the birth of the organization fades into the distance as it becomes a memory held only by the founders, death looms ahead for all organizational members. The only difference is how far away it is from their careers and work. Death appears on the horizon as the inescapable end to things in many ways. For example, death causes the end of projects by cutting off their funding. Initiatives to build resilience and preparedness meet their demise by emergency managers using misaligned theories about human behavior or key personnel that were championing the efforts leaving the organization. Death also ushers in the end of an incident response completed by meeting the final objectives. Death is a natural occurrence in the flow of organizational daily life. The very things death vanquished may later trigger processes of birth. When one incident response dies, engaging in the next is possible. Or, with the end of one initiative, another may take its place—birth from death.
As emergency management is largely a function of government, it has a unique relationship with death in that it almost without exception cannot die. While situations might be imagined where a government emergency management organization may cease to exist due to the reassignment of responsibilities to another department, it is more than likely that government emergency management organizations will continue to exist. An emergency management organization's continued existence across time stems from its ability to draw funding from a stable source (with the acknowledgment that the distribution of funds can vary), and the necessity of the emergency management functions (the perceived need of which hinges upon the views of the public and elected officials). Upon closer examination, it might be said that emergency management organizations couched within government are at the very least perilous and teetering towards death but very unlikely to succumb to it. Occasionally growing closer to death, government emergency management organizations may sustain some degree of loss of form. This presents emergency managers with both an unwanted challenge and an opportunity for innovation as the previous form is recovered or a new form is introduced.
Death is pervasive among private organizations, as they are contingent upon funding drawn from investors (until solvent) and the sale of their products and services. Funding and sales fuel a private emergency management organization’s existence, which is also tied tightly to their ability to bring something of value to the marketplace. If a private emergency management organization such as a consultancy fails to create value for an individual or group, they will lose the very thing that sustains them. Death awaits the failure to produce value and generate revenue. Organizations may require an influx of funding in order to produce value. Death circles the process of raising and maintaining funding. Funding may be lost for a variety of reasons including the behavior of the organization, the performance of the value it creates, the generation of profits, and so on. For those that still rely on the existence of investors, death is perched on the strings of the capital the organization needs to survive, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to sever one.
Confronting the End
In conference talks and blog posts, I often make the point that the key problems facing emergency managers will take longer to even begin to address than any individual's career will last. The problem(s) they are trying to solve will endure beyond one's tenure as an emergency manager. An emergency manager’s career will come to a conclusion by way of, for example, retirement, changing jobs, or leaving that role. The point is that eventually, by some means, one’s career will end in such a way that is both ultimate and unavoidable. In this post, drawing from Morin (1992), this phenomenon is understood as death. Careers end while the key problems emergency managers were working on continue to exist. Key problems include intentional behavior change, containing and regulating urban sprawl, reforming the emergency management system, adapting to climate change, and managing the wildfire problem. Death is indifferent to the work it ends and the problems it allows to endure. There is no remedy to escape the looming end of one's career. Following the death of one career might be the birth of another, as a recent retiree from emergency management finds an adjacent role they can fill. However, death will come for this career as well. Time is far from infinite.
Design and Death
It is admittedly unusual to frame beginnings and endings in emergency management as instances of birth and death. While emergency management is already deeply concerned with death in the context of human life, using the term to approach the ultimate endings of careers, initiatives, incidents, and organizations, is a new idea. Using death in this way is intended to emphasize the existence of finality in emergency management as it relates to work being done, the tenure of those who perform it, and the organizations they belong to. These looming endings may be able to be postponed, but not forever. Even if death's approach is managed to be reduced to a slow crawl, it relentlessly advances. Armed with the knowledge that death is pervasive in organizational life as well as amongst the outputs of the organization, emergency managers should feel its haunting approach in all that they do. With every creation, every birth, an impending death is also brought into existence.
Negotiating with death is done through design. Design, the intentional act of bringing into being a desired and envisioned end, is the process through which new creations are birthed. In emergency management, designed artifacts should be put into use already embedded with a concern for death. Emergency managers must ask questions throughout the design process. Questions include how the features, interfaces, intended period of use, plans for end-of-life, ways of creating value, interactive elements, organizational roles, and career plans belonging to the artifacts they design will negotiate with ever-present and ever-threatening death. Emergency managers must address how an artifact will push away death, how it will interact with it once it arrives, how the closure of death will move into the opening of birth, which elements will emergency managers try and pull away before death finishes its approach, and how long will the artifact be intended for use before it meets its demise, effectively predetermining how long it will exist before it meets death and how it meets it. In these preemptive negotiations between designers and death, emergency managers do not typically have the upper hand. It is worthwhile to consider if a focus on death and its pervasive presence in emergency management, advancements toward gaining more of a competitive edge might be made. How will what I am designing today die and when and how will I birth something in its place?
Everything birthed into form will eventually die. Ultimate endings are unavoidable. When careers are framed in this way the common conversation of preparing the next generation to take the reins becomes even more important. Although death is impending, current emergency managers can prepare the next generation to seamlessly take on the same problems they had been working on. This transition from emergency managers reaching the end of their careers to the next generation is a moment of death unfolding into birth. Emergency managers who see themselves as designers must also recognize their ability to, at the very least, shape how what they design meets its death and what can be born out of it. Although an unusual way to approach beginnings and endings in emergency management, the language of "birth," "death," and "taking form" recasts parts of the emergency management context and offers a new perspective.
Morin, E. (1992). Method: Toward a study of humankind: the nature of nature (Vol. 1). (B. J.L Roland, Trans.) New York, NY: Peter Lang.
*This post was also somewhat inspired by a scattered reading of Heidegger's Being and Time.
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