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FEMA and Emergency Management: Looking Back, Moving Forward and Changing Outcomes

FEMA Administrator:

As part of the effort to recognize the DHS ten year anniversary, I recently sat down with my colleagues to discuss some of the recent milestones at FEMA and the agency’s priorities moving forward. Some of the examples we talk about are from recent events, including Hurricane Sandy. 

The team at FEMA has taken some big, forward steps in the last few years that have changed outcomes for those impacted by disasters, but we must continue to improve if FEMA and DHS are going to meet future threats.  With that, here are some of the questions and my responses:

Q: How has FEMA changed in the last few years?  What are a few of the milestones that mark those changes?

The biggest change is shifting focus first and foremost on the threats we face as a nation, not on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis.

The national Urban Search and Rescue teams are one example.  These are the best of the best. They are the most capable and best equipped search and rescue units in the country – some of these teams went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.  But these teams can be expensive.  Traditionally, they were seen as a resource for their local jurisdiction.  Yet, very few communities were able to afford these teams and at the end of the day, the country wasn’t going to have enough teams to significantly raise its ability to respond to large-scale events.  We were piecing together resources and capabilities to prepare community-by-community and hoping that it all added up to a more prepared nation.

Think about it.  Lots of grant money has been given to state and local governments to build capabilities, but what did they get for it?  In the case of Urban Search and Rescue, there were some jurisdictions that had fully equipped teams, but other communities that weren’t as capable to respond. 

That's  because we were providing funding through grants aimed at a community-by-community approach, so some ended up being left out. Now, DHS and FEMA have shifted the focus of the search and rescue teams to act as a national resource that can be used in any emergency in any jurisdiction where local and state resources are overwhelmed. We’ve also funded more teams to create a second tier of search and rescue capabilities.  This creates more shared resources at the national level while maintaining the capability at the local community level.

Q: Are there other examples that show this shift?

Under the direction of Secretary Napolitano, our grant programs have changed in the last few years to reflect this national approach as well.   Now grant programs recognize things like Emergency Management Assistance Compacts that allow states to share capabilities and resources in the event of an emergency.  No community can prepare independently for all catastrophic risks, so emphasizing shared resources is critical to building capacity on a national scale.

So it’s starting with questions like: What threats do we face as a nation?  What are the scenarios that require additional federal resources, and how can we build our capabilities there?  By answering these questions, we can prioritize what we’re going to fund at the federal level and drive unity of effort towards a nation that’s better prepared.  We’re looking at scenarios of national consequence, not just the jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction approach we tended to follow in the past.

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