Emergency management can be one of the most challenging but at the same time exceptionally rewarding fields of human endeavor. As unexpected crises and natural disasters become more numerous and more intense, the need for a strong, coordinated, and well-resourced emergency management infrastructure in place is absolutely imperative.
In the past decade, fortunately, several new degree programs have emerged to educate the next generation of emergency management leaders. As a result, today’s disaster management teams – at all levels of government and in the private sector as well – are highly trained and prepared professionals who not only play an increasingly important role in the short-term responses to disasters of all types, but also in the long-term and complex rebuilding of entire communities.
Budget Cuts & Planning Woes
Recent economic woes and the potential fiscal cliff now much in the news are forcing federal, state, and local governments to make some extremely difficult choices in their funding priorities. In 2013, newly elected and re-elected U.S. officials will undoubtedly be considering new fiscal reductions in the infrastructure of emergency management and other key areas that support the plans of most agencies, at all levels of government, in their efforts to balance their budgets.
At the federal level, even after a reduction in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget for fiscal year 2012, many experts are already predicting a further reduction for fiscal year 2013 – and, quite possibly, a smaller role for the department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), particularly if DHS reshuffles its priorities. Budget cuts at DHS (and FEMA) would undoubtedly lead to a reduced level of support for state and local homeland security and emergency management agencies, thus forcing all of those agencies to take a fresh look at how to effectively support their still critical functions.
Obviously, emergency managers should work aggressively to protect emergency management’s current high priority in public budgeting. However, they also should intelligently plan for how such work can still be done, fully and effectively, if the federal government’s funding for emergency management is jeopardized.
Collaboration, Partnering & Leadership
Clearly, disaster planning, response, and long-term recovery efforts work best when the process is collaborative. As the recovery phase begins, to consider one current example still very much in the news, important lessons already have been learned from Superstorm Sandy – the most important “takeaway” at this point seems to be the key role of multi-level partnerships. A well-executed recovery, therefore, necessarily involves the federal, state, and local governments working together on an ongoing basis. The sharing of physical resources and professional staff is critical for meeting the needs of affected communities – and can also have a positive impact on public budgets that already are stretched very thin.
In addition to the “standard” partnerships between governmental entities at different levels, 2013 is likely to see more effective partnering between neighboring states. To cite but one example, it is now imperative for state leaders to develop and implement Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs), which are pre-existing legal agreements between states that allow them to share resources – usually for relatively short periods of time – if and when a disaster occurs. Working in this way with neighboring states generally results not only in lower costs, for all of the EMAC partners involved, but also the speedier delivery of assistance during the critical first few weeks of a crisis. Making the process even more attractive is the fact that the costs of mobilizing resources from other states through EMACs are an eligible expense subject to reimbursement from FEMA during and after a presidentially declared disaster.
Thorough pre-disaster planning requires leaders to identify, ahead of time, the critical resource needs and staffing gaps that they may have to address in future times of crisis, and to develop the capabilities to acquire that assistance. Some municipalities, and at least a few state governments, understandably do not already possess sufficient resources to respond to a large-scale disaster and/or to manage a long-term recovery – and for that reason will have to acquire outside emergency management resources to fill the gap.
For that reason, it is often advisable for states to have in place a detailed “pre-event” contract that can be quickly and fully activated in times of disaster. Such just-in-case planning can provide additional staffing capacity in many areas, including but not limited to: the function of Emergency Operations Centers; the assistance needed to understand and apply for federal recovery programs; the rapid deployment and use of robust public assistance and small business continuity programs; and even the removal of debris left behind in the wake of a disaster.
Granting Assistance to States: Lessons From Katrina & Sandy
Emergency management agencies share the ability: (a) to supplement the short-term immediate response to a disaster; and (b) to receive assistance in building their own capabilities in areas of disaster operations, particularly those in which they currently lack the expertise. Doing so is now all but mandatory, in fact, for jurisdictions that may be forced to cope with large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. To guard against that contingency, the governors of every state should begin to: (a) write, sign, and promulgate standby contracts; (b) develop and sign EMACs; and (c) build as much surge capacity as possible to cope with even the smallest of disasters on short or no notice. Fortunately, as elected decision makers wrestle with 2013 budgets, this avenue to recovery and resilience is one likely to be considered more often, and more carefully, than ever before.
One key goal in preparedness planning for the nation’s elected leaders, at all levels of government in 2013, will undoubtedly be to find (or create) substantial cost savings without adversely affecting the ability of DHS, FEMA, and other agencies to carry out their critical missions. Accordingly, 2013 may bring a much-needed rethinking of FEMA’s grant programs to states by restructuring these programs so they are administered by the states. This would decrease FEMA’s overhead significantly by reducing its number of full-time, contract, and reservist staff. Shifting administration of the grant programs to the states also could help strengthen preparedness across the country by promoting more local leadership “on the ground” rather than far away in Washington, D.C.
Emergency management professionals already know a thing or two about responding to disasters. The United States has been fighting through its own economic disaster over the past few years, and the response and long-term recovery should be one that is efficient, well-planned, and effective. Although the nation’s economic woes put immense pressure on government to tighten budgets, leaders and planners must not lose sight of the importance of emergency preparedness as it affects the health and safety of the nation. A strong and continuing commitment to emergency preparedness will in any case significantly reduce the adverse consequences of future disasters and help maintain the strong communities needed both before and after disasters strike.
James Lee Witt
James Lee Witt is executive chairman of Witt O’Brien’s, a disaster response and crisis management consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.. Previously, he was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President William J. Clinton. He is also the co-chair of ProtectingAmerica.org.