The Future of Emergency Management
George Haddow and Jane Bullock
Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management
George Washington University
In Spring 2003, we wrote in Introduction to Emergency Management, “We are optimistic that emergency management can survive and thrive in the future if it embraces the lessons learned from the past and moves forward with a progressive agenda that will be valued by the American people.”
We believed that the likelihood of a major natural disaster, flood, hurricane, or earthquake, affecting our communities was inevitable. As emergency management systems focus their efforts on preparing for and responding to terrorist events, these efforts should not diminish their capabilities or capacity for dealing with natural hazards if they heeded the following lessons:
Maintain an all-hazards approach to emergency management. Applying this approach takes advantage of the common capabilities necessary to treat any type of disaster or emergency but allows for incorporating the special needs of terrorism. To abandon the all-hazards approach would be repeating the mistake the emergency management community made in the 1980s. During the era of the cold war, FEMA concentrated more than 75 percent of its financial and human resources on preparing for the next nuclear war. It mandated that states and localities receiving FEMA funding follow suit.
Federal, state, and local capacity to respond to natural disasters was severely diminished. As Hurricanes Hugo, Iniki, and Andrew vividly demonstrated, state and local capacities were quickly overcome. The federal response under FEMA was disorganized and late. In the case of Hurricane Andrew, the Director of FEMA was replaced as the in-charge official and the military provided most of the initial support. This real example of the folly of focusing on any one threat, at the cost of more frequent and widespread threats, provides strong evidence of the wisdom of the all-hazards approach to emergency management.
The federal response infrastructure, based on the Federal Response Plan, works. Since September 11, many political leaders have called for building a terrorism response structure, forgetting that an effective federal structure already exists. There is no need to build a new infrastructure. This approach was tested in hundreds of natural disaster events and the Oklahoma City bombing—a terrorist event—and it worked. This proven structure is flexible; it needs modification and the addition of new partners to accommodate the unique aspects of terrorism, but the emergency management community should fight any attempts to build a separate structure.
At the state and local levels, state plans and the emergency management compacts that exist between states support this operational approach. Specific lessons learned from September 11, particularly in communications and joint operations, can be readily incorporated into these existing structures.
Continue to practice the concepts that facilitated the U.S. emergency management system becoming the best system in the world. These concepts are (1) focus on your customers, both internal and external; (2) build partnerships among disciplines and across sectors, including the private sector and the media; (3) support development and application of new technologies to give emergency managers the tools they need to be successful; (4) emphasize communications to partners, the public, and the media; and (5) make mitigation the cornerstone of emergency management.
These simple, common sense concepts were the key to the respect and success FEMA achieved under Director James Lee Witt and President Clinton. We believe they provide the framework for emergency management to continue to grow and expand its influence and importance to the institutions and people it serves. Emergency management can ensure its place in the future if it focuses on policies, programs, and activities that improve the safety and social and economic security of individuals, institutions, and communities. To do this, emergency management must focus more effort in promoting and implementing mitigation.
Make mitigation the focus of emergency management in the United States. Mitigation is the positive function that emergency managers can practice everyday, in every community, and not be dependent on an event to prove their value. Mitigation is practiced by all sectors of a community. To be effective, it requires developing partnerships within a community and often brings together disparate parties to solve common problems. Mitigation brings the private sector into the emergency management system because economic sustainability of their businesses depends on risk reduction, so mitigation promotes their support and leadership. Mitigation provides the entry point to involve the private sector in other phases of emergency management and to understand their unique needs in response and recovery.
In the late 1990s, business continuity and mitigation planning was the largest growth area for emergency management. Economic considerations or interest often drive public decisions. Mitigation allows emergency managers to have access and influence to the decision-making process. Mitigation works best at the local level and provides that grassroots constituency that can exert political pressure for continued emergency management support. The Project Impact initiative articulated this concept and made it a reality in more than 225 communities. The Bush administration recognized this by including the words “building disaster-resistant communities” in the objectives for the new Department of Homeland Security.
Emergency Management Today
As this text is being written in the Spring of 2005, it is apparent that these lessons for the most part have not been heeded by DHS and FEMA. While professing to adopt an all-hazards approach, in reality DHS/FEMA has become focused almost exclusively on the terrorist threat to the near exclusion of traditional natural and technological hazards. Existing funding and staff resources have been reprogrammed at DHS/FEMA to terrorism-based activities and new resources are being applied almost exclusively to this threat. FEMA’s attention has been effectively diverted from any hazard beyond terrorism.
The Federal Response Plan (FRP) has been revised into the National Response Plan (NRP). Many of the positive features of the FRP have been retained in the NRP but the focus has been shifted dramatically to responding to a terrorist attack and in doing so, the role of the Federal government has been altered dramatically. The NRP places the lead role in responding to major disasters, terrorist attack or natural disaster, in the hands of Federal officials. In fact, the Federal government now has the authority to respond to an event in a State without a request by the Governor. This alters the traditional role of the Federal government, through the FRP, supporting the actions of State and local government. This is a drastic change in the way major disaster events have been handled successfully in the past.
The concepts that made the U.S. emergency management system the best in the world have been compromised severely in recent years. Customer focus, partnerships and communicating with the public have become secondary to the Federal government’s response to major disasters as evidenced by the response to the 2004 hurricanes in Florida. In addition, the resources and programs available to individuals and communities to help them recover have been reduced and in some case eliminated. Technology development has been focused almost exclusively on the terrorist threat.
Finally, mitigation has once again been marginalized. Funding for many of the natural hazard programs has been reduced or taxed to support other DHS functions such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The funding available for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) has been reduced and the match requirements for the State and local share increased. Project Impact has been eliminated, though it still prospers at the local level in places like Seattle and Tulsa, and the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program has not proved to be an adequate replacement. FEMA has ceded lead agency responsibility for the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) and it is likely that the National Flood Insurance Program will also migrate from FEMA to another Federal agency, possibly the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Five Pressing Issues
Emergency management planning today faces many critical obstacles, such as an imbalance of focus between homeland security and natural disaster management, the challenge of involving the public in preparedness planning, the lack of an effective partnership with the business community, cuts to EM funding, and questions surrounding the evolving organizational structure of the nation’s emergency management system. Such obstacles need to be overcome if emergency management activities are to be successful in the years ahead.
A History of Imbalance Repeated
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the focus of government emergency management planners, especially at the federal level, has been on terrorism and the hazards presented by this new threat. This is not the first time that emergency management planners have focused on national security risks.
In the 1950s, the nation’s Civil Defense system was developed to address the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The government officials who staffed the Civil Defense programs at all levels of government were the nation’s first emergency managers. In the 1980s, the newly formed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reflecting the priorities of the Reagan Administration, focused its programs and resources almost exclusively on nuclear attack and continuity of government planning.
A series of major natural disasters in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Hurricane Hugo, Loma Prieta Earthquake, and Hurricane Andrew) exposed the inability of FEMA and the federal government to provide adequate support to state and local emergency managers in responding to large natural disasters.
In the 1990s, FEMA adopted an all-hazards approach to disaster management that resulted in increased resources for natural hazards preparedness and mitigation programs and the development and implementation of the Federal Response Plan that coordinated the efforts of 27 federal agencies and the Red Cross in support of state and local emergency managers.
It appears in the 2000s that history is repeating itself. In spite of a dramatic hurricane season in 2004, evidence of the impacts of global warming, and the forecast for continued severe weather, most of the resources for emergency management planning are currently devoted to terrorism, much the way they were to nuclear attack planning in the 1980s. In 2005, emergency management planners at the federal level, at FEMA, and within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must consider how to balance their focus on the terrorist threat with an all-hazards approach to disaster management.
More Public Involvement Needed
Historically, the general public has played a limited role, if any, in the development of emergency management preparedness and mitigation plans. The principal focus of public outreach efforts by the early Civil Defense programs, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, and the Red Cross family preparedness programs was to inform and to educate the public. Rarely has the public been included in the actual planning process.
This began to change in the late 1990s when FEMA launched its national mitigation initiative, Project Impact, which called for the full involvement of all members of the community in developing a community hazard mitigation strategy. Communities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Napa, California, successfully developed and implemented flood mitigation projects with comprehensive public involvement in the planning process.
Recent research conducted by the New York Academy of Medicine indicates that the public is ready to take a more active role in preparedness planning for terrorism events. This research indicates that the current plans will fail because the assumptions about public behavior in the event of a terrorist incident are false. The research found that emergency management planners must engage the public in the planning process in order to fully understand the public’s needs and concerns and that the public is vitally interested in getting involved in this process.
Public-Private Partnership Efforts Failing
The DHS and numerous business groups, such as The Business Roundtable, acknowledge that an effective partnership between government and business must be established as part of the nation’s homeland security efforts. This makes sense since almost 85 percent of the infrastructure in this country is privately held.
However, in the almost four years since the September 11 attacks, no such partnership has been established. There has been some progress and cooperation, but there is no overall strategy in place to incorporate the business sector into the government’s emergency management planning for homeland security.
There are numerous issues that must be resolved before such a strategy can be designed and implemented. A significant issue that must be addressed is how the government will protect and use confidential information it is asking the business community to provide. The business community must be included in the planning process not only for terrorism planning but also for natural disaster management.
Emergency Management Funding Cuts
The struggle for funding for emergency management programs and activities has only intensified since September 11. At the federal level, funding for traditional natural and technological hazard programs at FEMA have been cut significantly, and funding for hazard mitigation programs such as Project Impact have been cut completely. There have been efforts to cut funding to state and local emergency management organizations for personnel and to limit the funds available for post-disaster mitigation projects. On the positive side, there has been increased funding for first responders and the development of community homeland security plans.
At the state and local levels, the struggle to fund emergency management programs and activities continues. Each state has established a homeland security office and in most cases this office is headed by someone other than the State Director for emergency management. Numerous large cities have also established homeland security offices that function in parallel to the emergency management office.
The question facing emergency management planners today is how long resources will be available to sustain two discrete functions: one for homeland security and one for emergency management. How the federal, state and local governments prioritize and allocate their resources will likely make this decision for them.
Prior to September 11, the nation’s emergency management system was comprised of a partnership between federal, state, and local government and a collection of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. The federal government through FEMA provided funding, technical assistance, and support to the states and through the states to the local governments.
With the inclusion of FEMA in the DHS and the focus being placed squarely on terrorism, the structure of the national emergency management system has changed. The director of FEMA no longer reports directly to the President of the United States, and DHS/FEMA has assumed a more active role in leading the government-wide response to all disasters — terrorism or natural.
At the same time, DHS continues to struggle as an organization and in 2005 is undergoing its first change in leadership. It took FEMA nearly 15 years to become a functioning federal agency; how long will it take DHS to become fully functional remains to be seen.
For emergency management planners, this uncertainty in the organizational structure of the system will impact what they do as priorities shift, resources become tighter, and leadership at the top changes. This uncertainty is something they will have to deal with in 2005 and most likely in the years to follow.
A NEW PATH FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
How emergency managers deal with these new issues will shape the path that emergency management takes as a discipline in the years to come. We still believe that emergency managers must embrace those lessons we noted in Spring 2003 including maintaining an all-hazards approach, maintaining the Federal Response Plan, and practicing the five core principals that made the U.S. emergency management system the best in the world - focusing on customers, building partnerships, developing new technologies, communicating to the public and partners and making mitigation the cornerstone of emergency management.
With the exception of the new National Response Plan which is built on the framework and operational structure of the old Federal Response Plan, DHS and FEMA have effectively rejected these lessons. They have once again returned to a single hazard focus as they did in the 1950s and the 1980s with nuclear attack planning. They have made fighting terrorism principally a Federal effort which focuses more on the needs of the Federal government than on its customers – the American people. It has done little to form new partnerships especially with the business community and has adopted its former position of communicating less than more to the public and its partners.
For DHS this is consistent with the Department’s stated mission of preventing future terrorist attacks. This is a direct Federal responsibility. However, FEMA’s role in DHS and in fighting terrorism is to be prepared to respond to the next event, assist in the recovery and, most importantly we believe, reduce the impacts of the next terrorist attack through mitigation. DHS has stated that FEMA’s mission in not compatible with the DHS mission.
Where does emergency management go from here?
At the Federal level the trend seems to be the reduction and loss of all natural hazard programs, diminishing investments in preparedness and elimination of hazard mitigation. What will remain are the response and recovery programs that were sorely tested in Florida during the hurricanes in 2004. In 2005, Michael Chertoff, an appellate court judge and former Undersecretary at the Department of Justice, was named the new Secretary of Homeland Security. Since his appointment, he has issued statements which indicate he recognizes the important role that FEMA plays in DHS. His first opportunity to back these statements with actions will be during the FY2006 appropriations cycle in which funding for State and local emergency management has been once again reduced.
If emergency management has a future at all, we believe that it must concentrate and rebuild its constituency at the community level. The time has come for communities to incorporate disaster management and hazard mitigation into its everyday operations, planning and decision-making. It is also time for communities to establish a local funding source for emergency management.
A new breed of government official will need to be hired to manage this new aspect of community government. This new official should be trained in public policy, public administration and hazard management. This new official should be responsible for integrating hazard mitigation and disaster management policies and practices in all phases of local government and community life. This new official would report directly to the City or County Manager and work closely and on the same level of other major department heads in the local government. This new official would also be responsible for creating a community partnership for disaster management that includes the business community and all other community stakeholders.
This new official would guide the community through a consensus building process to determine all the risks to the community, to identify what can be done to mitigate these risks, to develop a prioritized plan for mitigating these risks and to work with government and business leaders, community leaders and the general public to generate the financial, political and public resources needed to implement and maintain this plan.
We believe it will be at the community level that local government officials with support from the business community and other elements of the community will begin the process of reshaping the emergency management system in this country accounting for all-hazards including terrorism.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Region. By all accounts, the government’s response to this catastrophic event has been disorganized and dysfunctional. The near exclusive focus on terrorism since the September 11 attacks and the deconstruction of FEMA’s response capabilities resulted in a breakdown of the entire disaster response system.
FEMA was unable to effectively implement the National Response Plan (NRP). After a Presidential disaster was declared on the Saturday before landfall, decisions to activate parts of the NRP to bring in the military and civilian resources of the Federal government to support State and local authorities were delayed for several days. This was particularly devastating in New Orleans where flooding caused by breached levees isolated thousands in their homes, the Superdome and hospitals and nursing facilities.
The failure of the disaster response system resulted in over 1,200 lives lost in Louisiana and Mississippi. FEMA failed to work closely with its State and local counterparts and communications between these partners and the public were strained at best. Private sector support and donations were marginalized and in some cases turned away completely. Throughout the response phase of this disaster it was difficult if not impossible for anyone to identify who was in charge.
The recovery efforts have been similarly ineffective. The question of who is in charge remains open. Communications among all parties and with the public is sporadic and incomplete. Working closely with residents and neighborhood leaders is almost non-existent as plans are being developed with almost no input from the vast majority of residents impacted by the hurricane. Customer service is non-existent.
The City of New Orleans is the most graphic example of the stalled recovery. However, communities across the Gulf Region in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are still struggling with an increasingly bureaucratic and slow moving FEMA.
Experienced disaster managers from FEMA have been replaced by contractors with no previous disaster experience and all recovery decisions are being made at DHS headquarters and at the Office of Management and Budget. By any measure, the process is moving too slowly and this has severely compromised the economic and societal recovery in the impacted region.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security has continued to disassemble FEMA’s emergency management programs and operations. The FEMA Director has in five short years gone from being a member of the President's Cabinet to an Office Director. The many disaster programs and operations that were brought together by President Carter in 1979 from across the Federal Government to form FEMA have been disassembled and spread among the many agencies and directorates of the Department of Homeland Security.
Mitigation has gone from being the foundation of our emergency management system to an after thought. Leadership from FEMA and the Federal government in emergency management has been marginalized resulting in State and local emergency management organizations losing funding, authority and capability. Efforts to partner with the public and the business sector have been minimized. No one is in charge.
Our optimism in Spring 2003 in the future of emergency management in the United States has been sorely tempered by developments in the past five years culminating in Hurricane Katrina.
The lessons for the 1990s have been ignored, the National Response Plan has been compromised and the organizational, funding, communications and business and community partnership issues noted in this paper have not been addressed. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is clear that the system that functioned so successfully in the 1990s has been dismantled.
Our Nation’s emergency management system is broken and how it will be rebuilt in the future is anyone’s guess.