Resources: Is it Time for the United States to Unify Emergency Management?

“The Community Rapid Recovery Program”

The Haitian humanitarian catastrophe has shown that countless numbers of good people are willing to sacrifice their time and efforts and put their own health on the line to save lives and reduce suffering. Unfortunately, except for the US Navy’s hospital ship “Comfort”, the US medical response to the Haitian earthquake recovery has been abysmal. Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) have suffered losses of their staffs and yet, continue to provide exceptional service.  A major problem in most recent disasters continue to be characterized as lacking early and effective Unified Command, or in other words, having a lead agency responsible for the disaster’s overall command, control and communications (C3) elements. There will always be political issues regarding International relief efforts which result in fragmented responses and turf wars where a unified response would be so much more helpful. While International responses will always be complex, there is no good reason Emergency Management in America has to be equally complex.

Now may be the right time for the United States to develop an entirely new concept of operations for how we will assist our communities in planning for, mitigating against, responding to and recovering from all future disasters. Doubtless, the Haiti disaster recovery process will take years, but there may be a perfect opportunity for the US Congress to change the basic way America offers disaster recovery assistance to American communities.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, PL 100-707, signed into law November 23, 1988; amended the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, PL 93-288 and is the statutory authority for FEMA to award Public Assistance grants to eligible Applicants after a disaster. Perhaps as a tribute to the people who perished and are suffering in Haiti and those who suffered and died in recent disasters in the USA, Congress could replace the Stafford Act with up-to-date legislation which would enable FEMA to act as the “lead federal agency” for disaster response operations.

Since incorporating FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), many in the Emergency Management field have advocated reversing that organizational merger and separating FEMA from DHS.  In the aftermath of recent disasters in America and now Haiti, the time might be right to proactively revamp America’s Emergency Management system.

Replacing the Stafford Act with new legislation to centralize all Emergency Management activities and functions under FEMA may:

  1. Simplify America’s Emergency Management System with a single accountable agency.
  2. Elevate the FEMA Administrator to the Cabinet level reporting directly to the President and
  3. Authorize the President to empower the FEMA Secretary to enter disaster areas when the President determines an immediate FEMA response when; (a). It is in the best health and welfare interest of American citizens in affected jurisdictions, (b). When the elected leadership in the affected jurisdiction (s) cannot effectively respond to the disaster or (c). The elected leadership of the affected jurisdiction lacks the situational awareness needed to request assistance from the Federal Government in a timely manner.  The need for this authority was clearly indicated during hurricane Katrina, when neither the city leadership in New Orleans nor the state leadership in Louisiana had the necessary information to determine when or if to request Federal assistance. The inability of Louisiana officials to make informed and timely assistance requests reflected poorly and improperly on FEMA leadership.  Also, there was a lack of understanding the Incident Command System and of the response hierarchy laid out in the (then) National Response Plan (NRP).

By adopting this recommendation the FEMA Secretary would be the “Accountable Federal Officer” for managing all domestic relief efforts.  This would eliminate post-disaster finger pointing and provide an honest evaluation of each level of government’s performance, based on the approved (now) National Response Framework (NRF). This proposed change will align FEMA’s responsibility with the requisite authority to manage future disasters.

How did we become so ineffective in managing disaster response and recovery?

FEMA has been constrained by the Stafford Act which is essentially a grant program to assist Public Sector and Private Non-Profit (PNP) organizations to defray the costs of rebuilding to their pre-disaster condition.  FEMA funding, is Applicant-focused instead of “Community focused.”  If we look at New Orleans 5 years after hurricane Katrina and Galveston almost 2 years after hurricane Ike, it is clear that those communities have not recovered to their pre-disaster functionality. This is largely because current regulations are based on reimbursing for damage, rather than approving work on-site and authorizing contractors to begin work immediately to restore communities to their pre-disaster condition. Thus, the legislation which replaces the Stafford Act (perhaps “The American Community Rapid Recovery Act”) should focus on rebuilding the community as soon as possible and as completely as possible. Instead of focusing on a large number of unrelated “Applicants,” the new Paradigm will take a comprehensive approach to restoring communities to their pre-disaster condition in minimum time with optimal benefits to those who live, work and play in the affected communities.

Services including restoring the power grid, water and waste systems, healthcare, public health, government services, public safety, transportation systems, private enterprise (through low interest SBA loans) and housing can be accomplished in a surprisingly short period of time with amazing results if done right. A “Rapid Community Disaster Recovery” measured in months not years, will drastically reduce the number of people who have to leave the community to find housing and employment elsewhere and perhaps never return home. 

America put a man on the moon in 1969 and yet today, we seem to be starting from scratch on each disaster. Surely, we can build a National Emergency Management System that provides timely healthcare and public health services, repairs or replaces structures, restores infrastructure and provides an environment where a community can thrive once again.  To do this, we only need to believe in the industry of our workforce and our people, and develop solid operational policies which encourage ingenuity and prevent fraud, waste and abuse through smart thinking. Ok, so many folks will say “this sounds so easy, it must be impossible in today’s fractured political and bureaucratic environment.” In fact, if we redesign our national emergency management program, we will put more American workers to work, spend Federal Stimulus dollars more wisely and save countless lives and reduce human suffering in future disasters.

“The American Community Rapid Recovery Program”-How would it work?

Use existing procurement systems to award contingency contracts to construction and services companies. We have the General Services Administration (GSA) which qualifies contractors and awards contracts for just about any service one can imagine. FEMA has the contracts in place for a Nationwide Infrastructure Support Technical Assistance Consultants (NISTAC) team of people who are trained in FEMA policies for disaster recovery and can quickly describe the work that needs to be accomplished. This author has been fortunate enough to have worked in Galveston. TX after hurricane Ike and has suggested to FEMA a system which would automate the Project Worksheet for on-site statements of work.

  1. Recommendation: Use the GSA contracts and FEMA existing contracts and add language to contracts authorizing fees regarding travel, per-diem and housing allowances to be paid when a construction or services contractor is mobilized to work in a disaster recovery.
  2. Automate the Project Worksheet (PW). Disaster after disaster, new Project Specialists must learn how to properly craft a Project Worksheet. By automating the PW, Project Specialists can be rapidly trained prior to deployment to complete the electronic PW in real time and pass it to the on-site FEMA Contract Officer Representative (COR) for immediate approval. Not only will this process save millions of dollars on each disaster by drastically reducing Project Specialist training time, but it will also reduce the subjective preferences of the PW approving process. This approach will significantly improve the public’s perception of FEMA and its value in the recovery process, since the PW will be locally approved and FEMA authorized eligible work will begin within days instead of months.
  3. The FEMA On-Site employees can award work from the Applicant’s claim site. FEMA can use its NISTAC contract Project Specialists to complete Project Worksheets right at the Applicant’s claim site. FEMA can then train FEMA employees to become Contract Officer Representatives (COR), prepared to deploy to the disaster location and to approve eligible work for eligible applicants.  Another group of FEMA employees can be trained as “receiving technicians” to verify that all work was accomplished in accordance with the PW. Thus the process and checks and balances would be achieved through the following steps.
    1. The FEMA NISTAC or other contract Project Specialists creates a Project Worksheet by using the PW Hand Held unit loaded with approved PW software.
    2. The FEMA COR employee can approve PWs right at the site of the Applicant’s claim and electronically transmit the approved PW to the FEMA authorized contractor at the disaster headquarters. 
    3. The on-site FEMA authorized contractor can then begin work immediately. When authorized work is completed;
    4. A FEMA receiving technician along with the Applicant, and the Contractor, can sign the electronic PW and certify completion.

Using these checks and balances, the NISTAC Project Specialist, the FEMA COR, the FEMA Contractor, the FEMA receiving technician and the Applicant would all have to collude together for fraud to take place.

By using the above recommendations, FEMA will save tens of millions of dollars on each large-scale disaster response, significantly improve the public perception of FEMA’s service, provide excellent Private Sector contractor jobs and improve the morale of FEMA employees and thus, improve the retention of quality people.

The American Community Rapid Recovery Program will constitute a new paradigm in disaster relief. The major services will be provided by Private Sector companies with outlays of Government funds approved by on-site  FEMA Contract Officer Representatives. The power and agility of the American Private Sector will result in a more complete recovery of the affected community in less time than was ever achievable under the highly restrictive provisions of the outdated Stafford Act and FEMA’s Administrative Policies which are both cumbersome and extremely bureaucratic. 

Bottom Line:  If the United States and agencies such as FEMA and USAID are forced to continue using the outdated Stafford Act for disaster recovery, the results will be as ineffective and costly in Haiti as they have been in recent US disasters such as New Orleans, LA and Galveston TX. On the other hand, if the Stafford Act is replaced by a law, designating FEMA as Lead Federal Agency for all phases of Emergency Management, future US disaster responses will be competent, complete and timely.  If FEMA adopts the concepts laid out in this paper, the United States Government will have an agile, rational and efficient system of managing future disasters within the Homeland and for disaster relief actions around the world.

I’d like to thank Ms. Jodie Ryan for helping me with this suggestion. Her technical expertise and understanding of disaster recovery and FEMA procedures and 9500 series policy publications were instrumental in the development of this paper.  Jim Rush

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