Olivia Gillison (bottom/center) with some of the partners and participants during last summer’s HERricane program.

Black HERstory in Emergency Management

By Olivia N. Gillison, Community Preparedness Program Manager, Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management

Black History Month is always a time of awe and celebration for me. It’s the one month a year where society acknowledges and uplifts the Black experience here in America. It is met with all different types of events honoring our ancestors and creating space for what the future could and should look like. It is also a month of great reflection to understand just how far we still need to go in ensuring that the Black experience is recognized, celebrated, and uplifted all year long.

The same can be said for other marginalized communities of color and the respective months in which we highlight their experiences. By holding these spaces of learning and discussion, we’re able to gain new perspectives on where improvements can be made and the possible solutions to get us there.  

One place for such improvements is within the field of Emergency Management. As with most disciplines, Emergency Management is historically dominated by the White male perspective as the leading voice brought to the table. This creates blind spots and further exasperates systemic issues, specifically for Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color and children, around climate change, environmental justice and poverty in Philadelphia and around the world.

As disasters become more frequent with the changing climate, the role of emergency managers is to coordinate a wholistic response in communities and work with partners and stakeholders to preemptively identify solutions to minimize the impacts on these communities that have been placed at-risk. Fortunately, there are organizations and companies that are dedicated to improving the status quo.

One of those organizations is the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management (I-DIEM), “a global non-profit established to facilitate change by integrating equity into all aspects of emergency management, as well as focusing on humanity and the empowerment of marginalized communities.” I-DIEM supports a multidisciplinary approach to changing the narrative and expanding access for communities of color within Emergency Management through education, research and program implementation.  

Building off this approach, the HERricane Experience program that OEM ran in partnership with I-DIEM for the first time in Philadelphia last year aims to address some of these disparities.  This program is designed to give young women an opportunity to explore the field of Emergency Management and related roles as a career path. HERricane Philadelphia 2021 was a week-long free experience that afforded 15 young women the opportunity to learn tangible skills such as hands-only CPR, public speaking, and leadership. Participants left with knowledge to prepare themselves and their families for any potential disaster and a foundation for pursuing a career in Emergency Management.  

As the Director of HERricane Philadelphia, I was given an opportunity to design and showcase all the great work that our public safety and emergency services partners do every day here in Philly. I am excited and hopeful that this year we will increase our participation capacity and provide more black and brown young women a voice and seat at the table. 

As a Black woman in Emergency Management, I recognize the importance of speaking up for our community and in prioritizing access and tools that young women need to succeed in an ever-changing future. Representation matters, especially in public service. This is my biggest takeaway as we begin planning for this next year and celebrate Black History this month and every single day.   


Olivia Gillison serves the residents and businesses of the City of Philadelphia as Community Preparedness Program Manager where she works to inform and ready the public of hazards. Be prepared: Find ways to connect with our Community Preparedness division, including Community Chats, newsletters, and preparedness presentations.