Sec. Chertoff announced his plans for reorganizing FEMA this morning at the National Emergency Management Association conference in Alexandria, VA. They’re detailed in this DHS press release, and these stories from the AP and the LA Times provide some additional context on his remarks. The press release proposes the following changes to FEMA:
- Enhanced logistics management to improving tracking of materials and equipment and distribution of supplies.
- Upgrades to FEMA’s customer service system to make it easier for disaster victims to receive assistance and also improve fraud detection.
- The creation of a “core disaster workforce” within FEMA’ s full-time staff (1500 people, acc. to the AP story).
- The development of new capabilities for mobile disaster assistance.
- Hardened communications capabilities, including new interoperable equipment that can function even with loss of infrastructure, and information systems that can inform decision-making and resource allocation activities.
- The creation of new, self-sustaining DHS reconnaissance teams that can coordinate incident management activities.
My initial reaction: these are all appropriate steps to take, but they seem like tactical band aids instead of a real strategy. I don’t see the underlying systemic and cultural challenges of emergency response addressed in a comprehensive manner. (Perhaps Chertoff discussed the broader strategic thrust of the FEMA reorganization in his full remarks. The speech wasn’t on C-Span, and I can’t find a transcript yet.)
The proposals also seem too top-down in their approach. Any reorganization of FEMA needs to be system-centric rather than organization-centric, focusing on the on-the-ground responder and what it will take to provide that person with clarity about his or her authority and the information that he or she needs to be empowered to make decisions.
The evolving military doctrine of net-centric warfare should play a role in that strategy. Chertoff today cited the “fog of war” as a reason for the problems with the Katrina response. The U.S. military has been trying to combat the “fog of war” via net-centric warfare in recent years, and as I wrote recently, it could provide a good template upon which to strengthen our strategic concept for emergency response.
Update (2/13): The full transcript of the speech is available here. Statements like this answer some of my concerns above:
As I said before, Iâ€™ve mandated that we build the hardware and the culture to integrate these operations centers into a single virtual operations center, maybe eventually even a physically integrated operations center, so that we no longer have a seam or a stovepipe within the federal government on the flow of information.
But I still think DHS needs to go further, and develop a strategy that empowers responders to make decisions and allocate resources based upon non-hierarchical flows of information.