Home Opinion Integrity



We in the EDM field, whether we like it or not, have been placed in positions of public trust. We are expected to make the right decisions on behalf of our served public. We are expected to protect their lives, homes, and properties, no matter the circumstances. We understand that we will be under public scrutiny with respect to everything we do. And we have willingly accepted these conditions of our service because they are the right things to do--and in accepting these conditions, we acknowledge that we understand the difference between right and wrong. Right? That's pretty basic stuff.

Some of us are not earning that trust.

Consider if you will the case of Flint, Michigan. The city rode the rise of the automobile industry into the boom times, achieving a population of 200,000 in the 1960s. Then it rode the fall of the automobile industry into the deep, area-wide recession, losing half its population. During this period, the city became incapable of governing itself, resulting in recalls of the mayor in 2002 and appointment of an 'emergency manager' to oversee the working of the city.

Nothing much progressed with regard to restoring the city to a viable municipality, and in 2011, the Michigan governor again appointed an 'emergency manager' to run the city in lieu of elected and appointed officials. After three years, the city moved again from under the emergency manager to being run by a receivership transition board.

But here's the thing. In 2014 the city moved from receiving and distributing treated water to receiving and distributing untreated water--strictly as a cost-saving initiative.

Not to be too blunt about it, but what the hell were they thinking?

Application of simple high school chemistry would have indicated that the combination of polluted river water flowing through lead pipes would be releasing free lead into the drinking water. Where was that analysis?

By late 2015, lead toxicity in children's blood reached such a critical level that a state of emergency had been declared. Safe water is now being shipped in and distributed; an urgent fix to restore safe water supplies is being explored; multiple lawsuits have been filed against all involved; and there have even been calls for the arrest of the Michigan governor on criminal negligence charges.

No one can say right now how this will turn out, but for sure it's not going to be pretty. Lead does awful things to children. While this was once an issue in developing countries, we've now brought it home to the US. And how did we do that? Pure and simple, this was caused by lack of integrity on the part of officials that were either elected or appointed to safeguard the health of the public.

So that will play out however it plays out, and the results will be what they will be. HOWEVER: If you are a public servant of any stripe, are you sitting back in comfortable complacency thinking that this could never happen to you? If so, you probably need to rethink that. Have you ever made a decision about resource distribution based solely on the numbers and not the downstream system impacts? Have you ever made a decision that resulted in winners and losers, rather than the maximum good for all concerned? Have you ever been intimidated into doing something that you know isn't the right thing to do, just because your boss was screaming at you and threatening your job?

I'll be the first to admit that I have. These scenarios happen continuously, every day of our lives, and sometimes we just shut our minds to the consequences and hope for the best, and sometimes we draw a line in the sand and take a stand regardless of the risks. I'd like to think that as I've gotten better at this 'responsible public service' thing, that I'm better at drawing lines in the sand. But I just don't know. One never knows until the button is pushed, the guns are pointed, and it's decision time.

Apologies if this appeared to ramble a bit. Integrity is such a profound concept that it's hard to represent in a few short paragraphs. But if you take away nothing else, take away this: You can be bankrupted, you can be humiliated, you can be fired, you can have all of your possessions taken from you--but you cannot have your integrity taken unless you allow it. So don't allow it. If you retain your integrity, that's what society will remember you for.

So in summary, we that DO value and honor public service have some difficult challenges ahead. As examples: Where do you stand on protecting the public from climate change? Where do you stand when an armed officer shoots an unarmed citizen? Where do you stand when refugees come to our country hoping for a new life, and we are fully aware that sending them back is a death sentence? These and other similar issues will challenge your personal integrity in ways you've probably never thought about. So think deeply. Choose well. Stand firm. It's really our only chance for survival as a civilization.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.