Here’s how six emergency managers balance their family commitments and their professional responsibilities during an emergency.
We have all been there: you’re committed to picking up the kids, attending a ballgame or meeting with a teacher when disaster strikes and your role as emergency manager requires you to respond to the crisis. Now what? Do you let your 8-year-old wait an extra 45 minutes in the rain while you make other arrangements to have someone pick them up? Or, do you make “family first” and leave the situation at work for someone else to handle?
The K-Factor (K=Kids, your kids!) adds stress and often complicates emergency management responsibilities. How do emergency managers handle family commitments within the emergency management profession? Six emergency managers with a combined 125 years of experience — and with children — provide insight by addressing the following questions:
How do you plan for competing situations with your emergency management job and family?
Andy Altizer: Have a plan. Ten plus years in the military taught me the importance of having a family plan. The military expected you to be able to juggle the job and family commitments, and did not tolerate excuses. Emergency management may not have the same level of expectations, but it is important to have a plan for competing commitments.
So, how do you put teeth into your plan to avoid having your kid sitting on the curb in the middle of a thunderstorm while you’re back at the office dealing with a power outage? Like so many other aspects of the profession, it’s all about relationships. First and foremost, and if you’re married, having an understanding that there are times you’ll need to lean on your spouse, even when it’s “your turn.” I found out early on in fatherhood the importance of getting to know and trust other parents, and being able to call them on a minutes notice to seek help!
The other obvious answer is for those emergency managers who have a staff. Not everything has to be an emergency, and not everything has to be handled by you. Having trust in your staff and providing them with the training and resources is vital. If you have a staff who cannot do your job, then you’re not doing them, you, or your family justice.
Finally, having the support and trust of your supervisor not only helps in those competing situations, but it eases the stress level.
Lindsey Anthony: I try as best I can to use the mitigation and preparedness aspects of my profession and apply it to my personal life, especially with my kids. I work on the front end to de-conflict my calendar and trouble shoot before an issue arises.
Just like in emergency management, relationships are everything, so IF there is a good shot that I will have an issue, I make sure those who are part of my backup plans are well aware of that possibility so they are not caught off-guard if I need to implement a backup plan.
Dave Bujak: First and foremost, we developed a family disaster plan. Throughout my career, I have encouraged everyone, regardless of organization, to do the same. No matter what role one plays during a disaster or emergency, I can’t expect you to perform at your best if you worried about your family back home. So, if you’re going to be a part of my team, I need your family and you personally to be prepared at home.
The second item was to establish realistic expectations of myself from my family. It became instilled as a fact that as a professional emergency manager, when disaster strikes, I must go. Hopefully, with our enhanced level of family preparedness, this should not be an issue. It was a basic planning assumption that I will not be available to help.
The third item was to establish realistic boundaries with my employers. I have always emphasized that in the grand scheme of things, my basic life priorities are:
- Extended Family
You can see how that could easily conflict with those who sign my paychecks. The caveat is that these are my “normal” day-to-day priorities. “Disaster Mode” is an exception to the rule. The boundary one needs to establish with your employer is a clear mutual understanding, upon hiring, of what constitutes an emergency and what does not. Your responsibility is to stick to your boundaries and not set a precedent that you would not want to repeat in the future.
Fred Hammett: By explaining to my family the details of the position, they understand what an emergency manager does and has to be available during critical incidents. I constantly communicate and educate my family about hazards and my role, which makes it easier for them to understand when I am away from them.
Steve Harris: It’s funny because my wife and kids know that I am generally always on call for either consultation during a planned event or to respond to a larger emergency on campus. We all know that the emergency management profession is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. As a result, in our family, we plan events around the unpredictable spring weather and the fall football games. I make very intentional efforts to not be distracted by planned or unplanned events that I may be required to assist with on campus or in the community, but my kids know me well enough to know when I am not “present” and might be thinking about work.
Mark Muma: Planning ahead and being prepared! In all honesty, I lean on my wife tremendously. If planning ahead is an option, we share responsibilities as to what needs to be done and when– doing all the little things that parents do. My children are my number one priority, but I also have professional responsibilities that take me away at all hours. Not to mention, emergencies always seem to happen on Friday afternoons.
Briefly describe a situation involving your work and family commitment that caused you a lot of stress.
Altizer: Numerous and often the seemingly simplest were the most stressful. I had the “duty” of picking up my daughter from school every Friday – a responsibility I cherished, and now that she’s in college, wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Quite often I would have an issue shortly before planning to leave, or even while on the road to get her. As I said earlier, having lots of back-up people (spouse, neighbors, friends, and other parents) seemed always to work, although it still caused stress.
Like all emergency managers, I had bigger issues. Katrina for example wasn’t as urgent on the front-end for those of us so far inland, but became a sustained strain, and then there’s COVID that has constantly changed and an overall grind that took a tremendous amount of flexibility at work and home. I cannot imagine what a single parent working in emergency management had to do.
I’ll never forget getting called while attending my daughter’s violin concert that there was a small airplane crash on campus. My wife was not at the concert, and I had to leave in a hurry. I found a parent I knew well, and whispered in her ear that I had to leave and asked if she could take my daughter home after the concert until my wife or I could come get her.
Anthony: My position requires a substantial amount of travel. In doing so, I must balance my travel with my husband’s work schedule, my children’s school, and activities schedules, and run- of-the mill life things: doctors’ appointments, picture day, auto maintenance, etc. I do not have one situation, but rather week after week, of having to make sure my work and family commitments are properly planned for, and that I haven’t let anything fall through the cracks.
Those situations have happened several times, the two that stand out are:
- My husband having a massive stroke when he was 30, and
- My grandmother died while I was 11 times zones away, halfway around the globe teaching a course on emergency management.
Bujak: The prolonged demands of the COVID-19 pandemic had a cumulative impact on my family life. Our Family Disaster Plan always understood that I could “disappear” at a moment’s notice and be “gone” for upwards of hours, days, or even a couple of weeks. I don’t think anyone, anywhere, in any profession, was prepared to the manage the mounting pressures of a prolonged pandemic.
Even as the pandemic ebbed and flowed, waxed and waned, peaked and valleyed over the years, it never seemed to diminish enough to accommodate a full personal recovery. Even if the acute demands of the pandemic diminished for a time, it wasn’t considered a time to relax. Instead, we stressed about catching up on all the work that was not getting done.
For me, it all came crashing down in January 2021. Amid an intense peak of the pandemic, I found myself working 7 am until 11 pm, every single day. There was no “work / life balance.” It was all work, for weeks on end. It was simply unsustainable, and it caused immense family stress. Frankly, it was all preventable, if only my organization had heard my pleas and provided the resources I needed when I asked for them.
Hammett: Having to report on critical incidents on call 24/7.
Harris: Monitoring the weather during the spring for strong to severe storms that could produce tornadoes always causes stress and anxiety for me and ultimately for my family. I generally do not plan out of town trips, attend conferences or plan a vacation from February to early May as a result. Of course, my kids spring break falls into this timeframe, which often creates some family discontent.
Muma: COVID-19! Leading the safety, security, and emergency management teams for a multiple-hospital system during a world-wide pandemic brought forth more challenges than anyone could have imagined.
Added to that, I had two children at home along with a wife who was expecting our third child. She works full-time and was adapting to changes in her role. And our children were experiencing the fun of virtual learning.
Unfortunately, working from home was not an option, but I tried to alternate my hours as much as possible. But the policy changes were constant, and the phone calls never stopped. Thankfully we found a way to work through each challenge together.
How did you handle the situation?
Anthony: My calendar runs my life. I make sure absolutely everything gets added to my calendar. I get the soccer schedules for my girls, and I program them into my calendar with their dates, times, which field the game is on, who our opponent is, and then I send the invites to my husband. My sister and I schedule family and holiday gatherings months in advance. I try to take all the mitigation and preparedness efforts I can to help my family avoid situations that necessitate an urgent or emergent response.
- My husband’s stroke occurred on a Wednesday, just as I had loaded up the car to head out of town on a work trip. I received a phone call from his boss that EMS had taken him to the ER and had mentioned “stroke” in describing his condition. I immediately pivoted and started driving to the hospital. I got there an hour later (we lived 50 miles away) and he was still completely paralyzed on his left side but had received TPA. He regained movement after another 15 minutes or so, and then was moved to Neuro-ICU. As I previously said, I was supposed to be on my way out to the airport to fly out for a course. I quickly called one of the other instructors, luckily, he lives about a half hour away, and I had him meet me at my office so I could hand off all the requisite course materials and make him the lead for the course. I also reached out to my point of contact and let her know the situation and the staff changes. The course went off without a hitch, and I was able to stay with my husband in the hospital until he was discharged.
- My grandmother died when I was on day 3 of a 14-day international work trip to The Federated States of Micronesia. I was notified by my husband and sister of my grandmothers passing while teaching the first day of a multi-day course. My sister, grandmother and I were very close, we took her to her doctor’s visits, did her baths, cared for her. Because of the course being international, and the travel taking 2 days to reach the remote location, there was nothing I could do to send another instructor to swap out with me, and the contract required a minimum number of instructors, also meant I couldn’t simply leave and go home early, or we would be in breach of contract. I had to stay, work through the grief, and help plan my grandmother’s funeral from over 7,900 miles and 11 time zones away. Compounding this was the fact that my daughter was turning 1 in another 3 weeks, it would be another 13 days before I would get back (we had engine issues on the way back and were delayed by 2 days on the return flights) and as a working mom, I was pumping for the entirety of the trip. To say that was an emotionally exhausting and taxing experience is an understatement.
Bujak: Ultimately, after repeated appeals falling on the deaf ears of my supervisor, I filed a formal grievance with human resources. While on the face of it, others in the organization took immediate actual to provide the relief I needed, it ultimately resulted in a hostile relationship with my immediate supervisor. In hindsight, I would do it all over again, simply sooner. When all was said and done, the underlying atmosphere never improved and I chose to leave the organization. Family first.
Hammett: Having a backup plan in place just in case I am not able to keep a family commitment. Having plans in place is very important because you never know when you are going to get a call to respond to an incident.
Muma: Day by day. Some days started earlier than others, and some days were later than others. I tried to be at home as much as possible. Some days were very challenging, but I tried to balance work with being a father and a husband.
What do you do when you’re walking out the door to pick up your kid when an emergency occurs?
Altizer: Make a quick assessment on whether I actually need to remain on campus. A lot of times other staff members can easily handle the situation, but in today’s world of finger pointing, it may not look good when the director left campus during an emergency. So, back to the importance of having back up plans and relationships with others who can help.
Anthony: I am lucky, I rarely get called in for those due to the fact I travel heavily. However, when it does happen, we pivot, I hand off things to my husband, and go. We’re very good at balancing that, when he has something come up, I am flexible, and I swap to cover whatever he needs so he is able to respond.
Bujak: With a solid support network of family, church community, and friends, there is always someone who can jump in to help. As part of our family disaster plan, we pre-identify, inform, and educate these people to the possibilities of the situation. At the moment, a group text that says, “Dave has an emergency, can someone pick up _______ from ________?” will usually do the trick.
The underlying premise is to build that support network and community. Our society is becoming increasingly isolated, so this takes a conscious effort on your part. If you are not blessed with family nearby and you’re not extroverted enough to have a reliable social circle, as is our case, then a church community is the next best thing.
Hammett: I mentioned before educating my family about my job responsibilities and having a solid backup plan in place allows me to respond to incidents and make sure my family is taken care of when a situation arises. (Activate backup plan.)
Harris: Luckily, my wife is very understanding and has flexibility in her job to cover for me when I get called in at an unexpected time. Additionally, my sister-in-law lives nearby, and she has been designated a back-up to help. Sadly, my three-deep continuity plan thinking extends to my personal life too.
Muma: I’ve worked closely with the departmental managers who report to me and try to lean on them as much as possible. So as a leader, hire the most talented candidate possible and invest in their growth. Building a strong team in invaluable.
If you could offer one piece of advice to new emergency managers who are planning on having children, what would it be?
Altizer: Teamwork. Staff, family, other parents, friends, etc. Of course, it’s imperative, and the right thing to do, to repay the favor with others (especially family and other parents!).
Anthony: Make sure your relationships are strong. In your personal life, in your professional life, everywhere. Because when you do get called upon, you’ll need to know in your gut those relationships are strong, without thinking, without doubt, know that those who you have to hand over your kids to with a moment’s notice, those who support you and allow you to be an emergency manager, that they have your back, support you, and your children, so you can do what’s needed in a disaster.
There is a saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” You better have your village. And treat your village the same, help them, offer your time when you have some, so when you need the help of your village, those bonds are strong, and you take care of each other. Your colleagues will become part of your extended family, part of your village too.
Bujak: The profession unto itself should never be a barrier to developing a family. That said, there are some positions and some organizations that are more conducive to having kids than others. When I mentor new emergency managers in their job search, I often ask what their relationship and family plans are. For example, young and energetic emergency managers could have great success in the consulting field, which has tremendous demands on one’s time, energy, and potentially travel. If you’re not planning on having a family anytime soon, go make bank consulting and save up for when you are.
Another consideration is the organization or jurisdiction. Working for FEMA, or a disaster-prone state like Florida or California, your odds of entering “disaster mode” is much greater than somewhere quieter. Even in those locations, the demands at a hospital are different than a higher education institution, a governmental entity or a non-governmental organization.
So one’s career planning needs to follow a careful analysis of one’s family planning.
In my most recent job search, I was blessed to have a number of opportunities. I did not choose the one with the grandest title or highest pay. I intentionally selected an organization and location that was most conducive to my family life and desired lifestyle. Bigger is not always better. Finding the right fit that will yield an enjoyable and rewarding career is more important than prestige.
Hammett: Be flexible, discuss your responsibilities with your family and spend as much time with family when you can (vacation when possible). Have backup plan just in case.
Harris: Work-life balance should be an important consideration in any position. Even though in the emergency management profession you are expected to be on call and work emergencies, we have to look out for our own mental and physical health needs and make sure we plan for continuity in our own organization. If you train others in your organization well to be emergency leaders it can certainly lighten the load for you and potentially your family.
Muma: Communication! Emergency management is 24/7, and each day will bring about a new challenge. Communicating with your leader is crucial so they can understand your home life. But you also need to communicate with your spouse and children so they can understand your role of serving others. Communicating and being transparent is crucial.
Plan, Plan, and Plan Some More
In theory it’s easy to have a “family first” philosophy, but in reality that’s not always the case in the emergency management field. Having a Plan B, C, D, E, etc. is essential when it comes to the K-Factor. Planning ahead, flexibility, and building relationships with others to help when there’s a sudden situation where the emergency manager must stay on campus even with family commitments seems to be the consistent advice.
Not only does having back up plans help from an operational and family perspective, but it should also greatly reduce the stress for everyone involved. Back-up plans to reduce work/life conflicts are an important aspect of the emergency management profession – they also reduce the chances of having your children standing in the rain while expecting you.
About the authors:
- Andy Altizer has over 20 years of emergency management experience, and has a daughter attending Georgia Tech. He is currently emergency manager for Westminster Schools.
- Lindsey Anthony has over 15 years of emergency management experience, and has two daughters, ages 6 and 9. She is currently chief of disaster and healthcare emergency management at Augusta University.
- Dave Bujak has over 25 years of emergency management experience in FL, NY and OH, and has three stepchildren and a 10-month old granddaughter: 18 & 20 year old sons currently in Tallahassee, FL and a 21-year old daughter and her daughter who reside with his wife and him in Northeast Ohio. He is currently regional emergency preparedness coordinator at Akron Children’s Hospital.
- Fred Hammett has over 14 years of emergency management experience, and has daughter attending Rockdale Magnet Science and Technology High School. He is currently director of emergency management at Georgia State University.
- Steve Harris has over 27 years of emergency management experience, and has two boys ages 13 and 11 who attend St. Joseph Catholic School. He is currently director of emergency preparedness for the University of Georgia.
- Mark Muma has over 25 years of emergency management experience, and has three boys ages 12, 9 and 1. He is currently director of safety and security at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.