Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 17, 2009

FEMA: Watch Your Back

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on March 17, 2009

On Monday Vice President Biden and Secretary Napolitano addressed the International Association of Fire Fighters Legislative Conference.

Given the audience, it was not surprising that Napolitano continued her constant refrain on the need for improving federal relations with states and localities .  The Secretary said, “the job of Homeland Security cannot be done, nor should it be expected to be done, by one, federal department alone.  We are one part of a vital and vibrant partnership that should extend across this country to every state, North, South, East, West, and to every community big and small. And those partnerships, I believe, can be made even more robust.”

A bit more surprising was the Secretary’s attention to the role of FEMA.   This is at least the third time where she has gone out of her way to lower expectations – or correct expectations – of the FEMA role.  She said, “FEMA is not a first responder. You are the first responders. And FEMA is there to back you up and not to be a substitute for emergency workers and fire fighters and the like.”

“FEMA’s job is to support you, and to support you in a number of ways, by providing grants, training, equipment, exercises, by helping coordinate disaster planning across the country, including pre-disaster planning; and to assist in to assist in post-disaster recovery.”

“But it is really our firefighters, our police, those are the individuals that show up at the door on the day, the hour of a disaster, the day after, and the like. And when a city or locality needs assistance, the state comes in and then FEMA is there to back it up.”

“And so one of the things that we can all do is really educate and keep emphasizing that message. You are our first responders. We are here to back you up, to support you, and to provide an important level of making sure there is national pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery planning going on.  And that, to me, is a fundamental reassessment in the public eye of FEMA’s role.”

Got that?  Secretary Napolitano’s complete remarks are available at the DHS website. 

RumorWatch: The FEMA backup role is also consistent with rumors, loose talk, and alcohol-fueled speculation that this administration intends to give much more attention to policy and practice for long-term recovery.   The troubled New Orleans recovery is the most common problem cited.  Yesterday’s Houston Chronicle reminds us the Big Easy is not alone in finding recovery to be really hard.

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5 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 17, 2009 @ 10:50 am

Legal authority for recovery has been deliberately left vague in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Public Law 100-707) which repealed in part, amended in part, and supplemented in part the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-288) all of the current version being codified in the US Code at 42 USC Sections 5121 and following. WHY? Congress wants to manipulate the long-term recovery process by political pressure on the Executive Branch to fill all gaps in federal programs and using the disaster as more excuse than anything. While in FEMA I suggested repeatedly that FEMA needed to completely out of any disaster event after 18 months and that a transition program effort to other federal programs be designed and implemented if necessary by statute. FEMA no matter how its role is described needs to be ready always for the NEXT ONE.

As to the debate over FEMA as First Responder it is accurate to state that it is and is not a First Responder. Certainly it never gets there (there being the incident or event in the first 72 hours-96 hours) but it does have technical response oversigh roles that require for example that it insure technical responders are on site immediately. For example, NRC case law states flatly that FEMA will help the NRC and State issue PAR’s (Protective Action Recommendations) to the Public through EAS (See 47 CFR Part 11)and other vehicles from General Alert on under the NRC system. The no notice large unexpected event is the real plague of the domestic crisis response community. In a way all “Victims” are first responders. The Secretary DHS can downplay expectations all she wants to but DHS and FEMA will still be held accoutable because under several statutes and Executive Orders DHS/FEMA is accountable for establishing a domestic crisis management system (this has never been done effectively despite the NRF) and the critical failure is at the Executive Office of the White House level. The PRESIDENTs so far to a man have failed to understand the need for a domestic crisis management system and chain of command probably hoping that large catastrophic events will not happen on their watch or that DOD and the military will bail them out. Civil preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery is a CIVILIAN responsibility not a military responsibility. We are the oldest and richest democracy (Republic)and we should be able to get this right. 95% of the nation-states rely on their military to bail them out in large-scale catastrophic events and problems with this system are legion. We are a democracy not a military dominated society (although maybe closer than we think given the budgets starving the civil agencies for preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery).
It is also true that in a federal system there needs to be thoughtful design of a domestic crisis management system based on what level of government and what organizations have the key capability and are best able to accomplish the job. Federalism issue plague this arena but are rarely thought through. Even now President OBAMA through PSD-1 has assigned review to those without significant knowledge of federalism, state and local government or the first responders involved in public saftety including police, fire, EMTs, Hazmats, public health, and emergency energy restoration. Let the hard work of doing that (creating a domestic civil crisis management sytem, including preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery occur.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

March 17, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

I hope that it is more than a rumor that FEMA is going to pay more attention to long-term recovery. That phase has been the forgotten child for decades. The New Orleans impasse re recovery was somewhat predictable, but no less sad for the harm done to victims.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 18, 2009 @ 7:36 am

The rumors regarding long-term recovery are admittedly all over the map. But for what it is worth (they are rumors after all), the current administration bias supposedly conforms with Mr. Cumming’s preference that this NOT be a FEMA responsibility. Some other discrete mechanism is being considered. Further — reflecting the adminstration’s earnest effort to be holistic — there is consideration of how long-term recovery from an “acute” disaster is related (or not)to a “chronic” disaster, such as the permanent displacement of a long-term employer. As we used to say in Japan, Omoshiroi desu nee.

Comment by Arnold

March 18, 2009 @ 11:07 am

It seemed to me that Chertoff was trying to move in this direction as well by the end of the last administration, specifically speaking about how DHS/FEMA should not be responsible for long-term housing and other related issues following a disaster.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2009 @ 7:58 am

FEMA’s key roles are provision of money from the DRF and accurate information. That organization is not particularly efficient in doing either. Examples, the STATEs have to execute a FEDERAL-STATE AGREEMENT customized for each disaster. Then FEMA ends up dealing with STATE sub-grantees because the STATES are unable to handle the load. AS to information despite repeated promises and fitful starts and stops since Hurricane Andrew in August 1992 (FAST teams which dwindled to nothing, e.g.) FEMA still has awkward damage assessment systems and processes. Perhaps we should just pay GOOGLE-EARTH for damage assessment?
By the way some states like California and Florida would just prefer a disaster block grant each year with a rolling average of federal disaster outlays in each state the last decade, then if not expended perhaps a refund to the STATES. Both those states find only one use for FEMA, blame it when its own screwups get public attention (again IMO).

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