The future of FEMA

Leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee would strengthen FEMA and keep it in the department. In the Senate, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, would keep FEMA’s responsibilities within DHS, but change it into a new National Preparedness and Response Authority (NPRA).
Collins and Lieberman outlined their plan for NPRA in a report they released in April titled, Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared (http://hsgac.senate. gov/files/Katrina/ExecSum.pdf). In the report, they described their vision of NPRA: The new agency would combine emergency management, preparedness and protection of critical infrastructure under one roof, with the goal of tackling natural or man-made disasters.
“To take full advantage of the substantial range of resources DHS has at its disposal, NPRA will remain within DHS,” the report states. “Its Director would be assured of having sufficient access and clout by having the rank of Deputy Secretary, and having a direct line of communication to the President during catastrophes.”
The director also would advise the president on national emergency management in much the same way that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provides advice on wartime activities. In turn, NPRA would have an advisory council of state and local officials, as well as first responders to guide it. NPRA as an organization would be proactive and build up interoperable communications and evacuation plans thatevery emergency situation would require, while also addressing capabilities required in unique situations, like conducting mass decontaminations in the aftermath of a radiological attack.
NPRA would have three deputy directors—one for Preparedness and Mitigation, one for Response and one for Recovery. All three would require Senate confirmation. The agency also would have 10 regional offices, which would likely break down alongthe same 10 regions under FEMA.
“The Director and each of the three Deputy Directors should have significant experience in crisis management, in addition to substantial management and leadership experience, whether in the public, private or nonprofit sector,” the report stated. “For example, appropriate experience could include a military career with broad leadership experience; emergency management experience and a proven track record of leading complex preparedness and response efforts; or private-sector experience successfully leading a company or organization through a crisis.”
Preparedness and response
The idea of replacing FEMA with NPRA hasn’t won a lot of applause outside of the Senate. James Carafano, homeland security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, liked the Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report overall, but disagreed with the concept of a new emergency management agency.
“The one problem that I have is this notion of dismantling FEMA and re-creating it. I think it’s just silliness,” he told HSToday.
Although FEMA must remain within DHS in order to utilize the resources of its muscular parent, trying to combine many functions into the agency or its successor would fail for a number of reasons, according to Carafano.
“All of the successful things that were done in Katrina were done despite, not because of, government,” he argued. “The most effective responses are done at the local level; they are decentralized and, quite frankly, the larger scale the response, the more you must rely on decentralized institutions. The federal government’s job is just to help those people. That is a coordinating responsibility. You don’t need a massive bureaucracy to do that.
“The Senate proposal creates a massive bureaucracy with additional layers of command,” he added. “Bigger government and throwing more money at FEMA doesn’t solve the problem. Having an efficient and effective coordinating agency solves the problem.”
In addition, recombining preparedness and response responsibilities into FEMA or a replacement agency would marginalize preparedness efforts, no matter how well intentioned or well crafted the plan to combine them, Carafano stated. In his view, officials would rush to do well on the very visible response efforts, while the less visible preparedness efforts would dwindle.
Just about every bill that would reconfigure FEMA calls for putting preparedness and response together again. For example, a bill introduced by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) would realign FEMA and those responsibilities into an Emergency Management directorate.
“So here’s FEMA, an agency that can’t do the job it already has, and you want to give it more responsibilities. Here’s George Foresman, who has enough trying to oversee the portfolio he already has. Now you want to give him FEMA on top of that and have him restructure that?” Carafano complained. “These proposals make absolutely no sense! At the end of the day, 99 percent of the preparedness stuff is not directly related to the response mission.”
Carafano was on the team along with experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that authored an influential 2004 report titled DHS 2.0: Rethinking the Department of Homeland Security (www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/ 041213_dhsv2.pdf). That report first pushed for the separation of preparedness and response functions, using military operations as an analogy for the separation.
The military services, he said, are responsible for building up and maintaining the branches of the military. But the combatant commanders are responsible for fighting the war. The combatant commanders couldn’t do their jobs effectively if they also had to do the services’ tasks.
Analysis
Any bill to take FEMA out of DHS would have to go through the homeland security committees of the House and Senate, both of which oppose any separation. The Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report notes that DHS simply has more resources than FEMA alone.
“Inshort, DHS has a substantially greater and wider range of resources that can be brought to bear on the challenge of natural or man-made catastrophes in a disaster than was or would be the case with an independent FEMA; what was formerly the responsibility of a small 2,500-person independent agency is now the responsibility of a 180,000-person, Cabinet-level department,” the report says.
That comes as no surprise, since Lieberman was the chief architect of DHS, and the Governmental Affairs Committee (as it was known before it added “Homeland Security” to its title) signed off on the initial blueprint for the department.
But the report also noted that removing FEMA from DHS would actually create new problems, as well. The federal government would have to duplicate functions across the two organizations, such as situational awareness centers. States would have to work hard to coordinate with both FEMA and DHS. And confusion could arise over the jurisdiction of each agency in specific cases.
“Katrina has made it clear that we need more integration in federal preparedness and response, not less, and that we need to effectively integrate, not bifurcate, prevention, preparedness, protection and response initiatives with state, local and non-governmental and private sector partners,” the report concluded.
But the report also noted that the true problems with FEMA came from a lack of leadership and a lack of funds. Addressing those challenges is where the real work lies. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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