Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 14, 2006

House Dems suggest FEMA fixes

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on February 14, 2006

The Democratic staff of the House Homeland Security Committee published a report yesterday entitled “Redirecting FEMA Toward Success: A Report and Legislative Solution.” It provides an interesting narrative history of FEMA, but unfortunately is light on substantive policy recommendations. The recommendations in the report:

  • FEMA must be led by a director statutorily required to possess experience in emergency management.
  • The organizational structure of the Department of Homeland Security must reflect the vital connection between the FEMA director and the President of the United States – the director must report directly to the president during all incidents of national significance.
  • FEMA must operate in accord with the emergency management “cycle” system – requiring the re-unification of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts.

I’m skeptical that these types of structural and organizational fixes are really what’s needed. Some of them are appropriate – for example, after Katrina it should be obvious to everyone that the FEMA director should be required to have prior emergency management experience. But they aren’t sufficient, and these types of fixes don’t address the core systemic deficiencies of disaster response in a catastrophic situation. Instead, as I argued in a post yesterday, we need an approach that addresses the decision-making, communications, and logistics processes down to the level of the individual responder, and gives people the tools that they need to make their own informed decisions in a networked (rather than hierarchical) management structure.

If we settle for moving the boxes around on the org chart one more time, I don’t think we’ll improve our preparedness and response capabilities to where they need to be.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 14, 2006 @ 6:10 pm

A statutory term of 7 or 9 years was briefly considered by some Senators and Representatives in the Clinton years. Because the leading candidate was James Lee Witt it was never passed, more because of Clinton than James Lee Witt. Nonetheless it remains a concept that should be explored. Since no position in Title 5 of the USC Code exists for a FEMA Director, the position have been abolished by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (November 25, 2002) and effective March 2, 2003, such a position would have to be re-established and assigned duties and authority. It is still unclear that an agency head, whether independent of DHS or within DHS that has day-to-day administrative duties should be the Executive Branch principal crisis manager. Perhaps statutory assignment to the Office of the Vice President would create the clout needed to manage the federal level response. Many critical response elements and support functions are led and supported by other departments and agencies than “FEMA” and DHS. The whole mission assignment process and its efficiency and effectiveness needs a full review. Assignment by the Whitehouse would eliminate the issue of co-equals requesting cooperation, or even budget committment. One principal legal question never answered during the FEMA years (April 1, 1979-March 2, 2003) as an independent agency was what was FEMA’s role if the assigned department or agency failed to show up. Who exactly is the civil agency safety net, DOD? Who is DOD’s safety net for domestic crisis response? If a functional approach is adopted and departments and agencies use their own authorities and funding what is really required for a “FEMA”? If there funding and authority for their crisis management and response and recovery mission is inadequate who or what organization is the safety net. Over 100 critical emergency management response functions were never lodged in FEMA. The same goes for DHS! In Katrina levee failure and notice of the failure is a big issue.
The Army COE told FEMA such a system was in place in 1981. Obviously such a system never existed. Who exactly does alerting, warning, notification in the federal government as an example of vaguely assigned critical missions. All this was documented by the Emergency Preparedness Mobilization Board, a National Security Council/Presidential creation in 1981-1983. See Reagan Presidential Memorandum 1981 (Reagan Library.) The FEMA Director even in the past was only an agent for Presidential Crisis Management not the principal. Presidents in the past appointed FCO’s not the FEMA Director.

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