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Washington D.C.
Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Future FEMA: Reimagining Crisis Response

Congress had realized that the nation had multiple and disjointed ways it responded to a variety of major crises.

Ryan was getting ready for another 12-hour shift in FEMA’s National Crisis Response Center (NCRC); he had been in full response mode for the last five days. He looked into his bathroom mirror preparing to shave and asked his digital assistant to post the weather and latest satellite pictures from last week’s disaster. On his integrated digital mirror, he could tell his team was making progress in the recovery. He was impressed at what the overnight shift had accomplished. The five mobile 3D house printers (better known as M3Ps) had completed another 25 single-family homes manufactured from smart concrete. Another 10 M3Ps were scheduled to arrive once FEMA’s Advanced Large, Medium Roll-on/Roll-off (A-LMSR) ship arrived in port. Part of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command Fleet, the United States Naval Ship (USNS) HOPE contained everything he needed for resourcing a complicated disaster response immediately after impact. Her sister ship, the USNS COMPASSION, was on its way from the West Coast with more resources, having just completed transit of the Panama Canal.

Ryan needed more detailed data on the recovery progress; the persistent satellite surveillance was a treasure trove of information, but the cloud coverage was problematic. Before he went off shift last night, Ryan had written a task order for the deployment of the Hyper Information Validation Explorers or the HIVE. The HIVE housed the “Bumble Bees.” The “Bs,” as the NCRC team called them, were a preprogrammed flight of nearly 5,000 miniaturized data drones that could collect damage assessment and environmental information, allowing for reliable, data-driven damage estimates that could be completed in a matter of hours. The “Bs” can sense in multiple modes: photogrammetry, 5D mapping, and multispectral. Once the data is collected it is forwarded to FEMA’s Rapid Recovery Team, which is responsible for validating eligible disaster survivors and sending federal crypto-disaster dollars to their cloud-based personal phones within minutes. Damage assessments for publicly owned facilities took a few more days to validate, but FEMA could now send governors one-time recovery funds in days, not months. It was all about data, simplicity, speed, and accuracy these days.

Still thinking through the disaster response, Ryan took the D.C. MetroMagRail Express from his apartment in Dupont Circle to FEMA Headquarters. The campus, located in Sterling, Va., was a state-of-the-art facility. The NCRC was a striking and comfortable two-story circular room. The first floor was where arduous work was done by the many FEMA employees and supporting agency partners that managed the details of disaster response. At the center of the room was Ryan’s domain, called the Hub. He was the ringmaster of disaster response; it was a love-hate relationship. On the second floor along the outer circumference of the NCRC was a glassed-in mezzanine level where you could look down at the action below. This is where FEMA’s leadership conducted their work. At front and center was the Administrator’s Decision-Support Space (ADSS). Here, the administrator received the traditional daily situation brief, monitored operations, and gave the president and cabinet secretaries crisis updates. Designed as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility or SCIF, it could be instantaneously connected to the White House Situation Room and other SCIFs during fast-breaking events. During activations Ryan preferred leadership attend in immersive telepresence mode versus coming in-person; he needed to minimize distractions for his already overworked staff. Radiating from the ADSS was a series of workspaces housing supporting elements of FEMA’s multifaceted crisis response.

Arriving in the office, Ryan headed to the Disaster Prediction Center (DPC) for his morning stand-up brief about what was going on both nationally and internationally. After the past week, the last thing he needed was another disaster on his plate; thankfully, Lauren, the on-duty Disaster Intelligence Analyst, stated she had not seen significant weather patterns, cyber intrusions, or any anomalies in the National Community Lifelines sensors. The next 96 hours should be quiet. Ryan felt a bit better, but after years in the crisis management business he knew to never say never. He was bolstered by the fact that DPC had his back 24/7. The Center was savvy enough to ensure normal operations were maintained and, should something pop up, smart enough to recommend what pre-event actions should be taken to get ahead of predicted hotspots. He thanked Lauren and then was off to his next stop, the Supply Chain Surveillance Team.

The current multi-regional disaster Ryan was managing was becoming resource-heavy. There had been some early concerns about shortages of a few critical disaster restoration items. He was both impressed and humbled every time he visited the “Chain Gang,” the casual nickname the Supply Chain Surveillance Team had been given. Their job was a tremendous undertaking and years in the making. Their mission was straightforward – ensuring the unbroken flow of critical disaster resources to disaster survivors – yet centralizing the management of critical goods and services essential to national security was a complex and challenging task. One of Ryan’s best friends, Gus, had been recently recruited from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Business School, a leader in supply chain management, to join the Chain Gang. The Chain Gang was a major investment for FEMA both in technology and the brainpower that ran it. Years prior, FEMA instituted an aggressive recruiting program for the nation’s most talented candidates interested in a challenging career in the world of crisis management; it had paid off.

Ryan got right down to business when he located Gus. He had two questions for Gus and the Chain Gang. First, was there a problem with the flow of smart cement for the growing M3P operation? The team had already anticipated Ryan’s first question. Gus pulled up the Supply Chain Control Tower for Cement on the main room’s monitor. There had been some localized shortages of bagged cement, but the FEMA M3P operation relied on bulk cement. The Chain Gang had already contacted the main supplier for the eastern United States to get the regional cement bulk storage holders to increase deliveries to FEMA’s contracted concrete companies. Gus was confident this would solve the problem.

Feeling somewhat assured, Ryan asked his second question: what was the status of the portable battery-solar stations at the various decentralized vendor managed warehouses around the country? Ryan was getting early demand signals from a few state crisis managers impacted by the ongoing disaster. With the advent of electric vehicles (EV) across the nation and improvements in battery technology, FEMA had partnered with the private sector to develop alternative use options built into EV charging stations; the portable battery-solar stations were one of those initiatives. Each of the portable battery-solar stations contained 50 suitcase-sized battery pack solar kits that any homeowner who had lost power could simply borrow from the battery station. Recent changes in residential building codes along with a national home power resiliency program encouraged many U.S. homeowners, renters, and landlords to embrace the program. After the painful and prolonged national power outage of 2040, many individuals needed no convincing of the value of the investment. FEMA had also invested in vendor managed warehouses that ensured “freshness” for critical perishable supplies and materials. Gus assured Ryan that 98 percent of the portable battery-solar station fleet showed “mission ready.” Gus swapped dashboards on the monitor and displayed the entire national inventory. Ryan reluctantly quizzed Gus about his confidence level. Gus patiently explained that each “suitcase” contained a health sensor and the capability to self-diagnose and self-heal whether it was in the warehouse or in use by a homeowner. Encouraged by the answers Gus provided, Ryan headed to the Hub.

After relieving the overnight Operations Chief, Ryan settled in for a busy day. This was one of his favorite times of day; not many people were around, and no immediate issues needed his attention. With a fresh cup of black coffee in hand, Ryan sat back for a moment and thought about how FEMA had morphed into this role of national crisis manager.

The new FEMA Headquarters and Campus had a small section of the building dedicated to the history of the agency. All new employees attended a lecture during onboarding, learning the accomplishments, failures, and challenges of the agency. The exhibits and lecture examined the early days of civil defense, the Cold War, the Stafford Act and creation of FEMA, before moving on to responses to landmark disasters that had been coordinated by FEMA. Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Maria, the response to 9/11, Deepwater Horizon, COVID-19, the Great New Madrid Earthquake, and the infamous 2040 power outage were all covered in detail.

Ryan remembered from his own onboarding that FEMA’s role dramatically changed after the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress had realized that the nation had multiple and disjointed ways it responded to a variety of major crises. FEMA traditionally managed natural disasters, the Department of Health and Human Services managed public health emergencies, the Department of Agriculture managed food emergencies and the Department of Energy managed energy emergencies. The list kept going; there were as many different disaster response plans as there were governmental agencies. After the pandemic, Congress took decisive action, enhancing authorities and funding that directed FEMA to lead any crisis capable of generating a national impact. The Consolidated Crisis Act directed all government agencies within the Executive Branch with an emergency response responsibility to transfer 60 percent or more of that capability to FEMA. The Act was touted as a tribute to the more than one million Americans who died as result of the COVID-19 pandemic; it passed both houses of Congress unanimously. The Act also directed FEMA to expand their emergency and disaster responsibilities, maintaining their original Stafford Act role while creating a wider, more robust capability to lead operations and response in a national crisis, as directed by the president of the United States.

The Act also directed the establishment of a “central nervous system” that required the connection, centralization, networking, analysis, and operationalization of critical public safety functions and data, such as public health information systems and terrestrial and satellite communication systems. Long gone were the days of submitting piles of data with no meaningful output or resharing among governmental and private partners. The goal was to link and proactively analyze the information from multiple sources to better coordinate activities across the whole response organism. The system was now unofficially referred to as the “Noodle.” Using the Noodle, and its tens of thousands of wireless sensing networks and fiberoptic links across the country, Ryan could now see many threads of critical decision-support data. He could poll any single thread to see in real-time how many beds were open in any hospital, clinic or long-term care facility, the status of emergency generators at any critical facility, the capacity and status of petroleum and gas pipelines, road traffic counts along major arterials and freeways, and the loads cell phone towers were carrying. Critical infrastructure nodes such as wastewater, the demand on water distribution networks, air quality, hotel fill-rates, food stock keeping units (SKUs) selling faster than normal, and much more was all at his fingertips. More impressively the Noodle, with its molecular 3D computing power, intelligent reasoning, pattern recognition, and self-organization, could take thousands of disparate data sets, correlate them, check for interdependencies, and bring anything that appeared out of limits or deviated from known acceptable parameters to the alert of FEMA Decision Support Specialists (DSSs) and other stakeholders. The Noodle did this every few seconds, allowing the data to be used for anything from predictive analysis to fundamental situational awareness or immediate action.

When the Noodle first came online, Ryan remembered how overwhelming it could be. Over time, with refinements in technology, exponential gains in computing power, better artificial intelligence, and the establishment of highly trained FEMA DSSs, the Noodle became the nation’s premier crisis central nervous system. It was able to make sense of and coordinate thousands of individual data points and interdependencies, making it the primary tool to support national crisis decision-making and deconfliction. The Noodle effectively connected the national leadership brain and spinal cord to all the elements of national power: the muscle.

Ryan started his career at FEMA during the 2040 power outage and remembered learning to use the Unified National Communications System (UNCS) to simultaneously coordinate among local, state, federal, private, and volunteer responders. He used that system many times during his short career and was thankful that someone had the foresight and imagination to create it. During the current disaster, the UNCS provided Ryan with several tools. One of the key functions was the ability to communicate with decision-makers and disaster survivors when terrestrial systems were offline. Anyone could use it: locals, state, territories, and tribes. There was no reason “comms” should be down or disaster survivors not found.

One of the legacy systems, the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (or IPAWS), still existed. An enhanced version now allowed for two-way information sharing from “citizen sensors.” With the advent of cloud-based personal phones, every phone was its own sensor regularly sending information to the IPAWS. These sensors detected numerous bits of critical environmental information such as the rise and fall of atmospheric pressure, air quality, location, elevation, motion, and even if the user was in distress. The system was so sophisticated that it could automatically advise an individual user under threat of an oncoming tornado where the nearest place of refuge was. All the data derived from these systems was plugged directly into the Noodle.

The Hub’s primary control board chimed, snapping Ryan out of his brief period of quiet. It was his boss, the Deputy Administrator for Crisis Response. The “DAC,” as she was called, wanted a full rundown of what happened overnight and a progress report on the status of the latest disaster. Ryan only had 10 minutes to get it together before she and the administrator would arrive at the NCRC. Snapping into action, he started dictating orders. Ryan hated barking at people this early in the morning, but this was the burden of the NCRC Operations Chief. Calmly pulling the progress report together, Ryan readied himself to be part of another history-making moment at the nation’s crisis response agency.

Peter Gaynor
On January 11, 2021, Peter T. Gaynor was designated as the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security. Mr. Gaynor was officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be FEMA Administrator on January 14, 2020. Previously, he served as the Senate-confirmed Deputy FEMA Administrator. Since his selection by the President, Mr. Gaynor led FEMA’s response to over 300 presidentially declared emergencies and major disasters. Mr. Gaynor oversaw the agency’s close collaboration with federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners, making it possible to serve millions of Americans in their time of need through locally executed, state managed and federally supported disaster response. During the historic year of 2020, Mr. Gaynor oversaw FEMA’s first ever operational response to a nationwide pandemic while simultaneously responding to a record amount of disasters. As a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Mr. Gaynor directed FEMA’s operational coordination for the whole-of-Government response to COVID-19. During this time, FEMA deployed over 5,300 staff and obligated over $57 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund in support of the nationwide pandemic response. In 2020, Mr. Gaynor led the federal response to the most active Atlantic hurricane season in history, with a record of 30 named storms. Mr. Gaynor also directed the response to a historic West Coast wildfire season, resulting in 78 Fire Management Assistance Grant declarations to assist governments in fighting wildfires. As Administrator, Mr. Gaynor oversaw FEMA’s award of the agency’s largest infrastructure project grants in history to assist with Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Gaynor has more than 13 years of experience in emergency management. Prior to coming to FEMA, Gaynor served as the Director of Rhode Island’s Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) in 2015. During that time, RIEMA responded to numerous small and large disasters, including one presidentially declared disaster and at least seven pre-existing active federal disasters. Gaynor oversaw response and recovery efforts to blizzards, floods, tropical storms and public health emergencies. He also coordinated evacuations, mass care, special events, and school safety. Gaynor served as the policy advisor to Governor Gina Raimondo on emergency management matters. He was also the Chair of the State Interoperable Communications Committee, the State Emergency Response Commission, and was Vice Chair of the State Emergency Management Advisory Committee. Additionally, he served as a Commissioner and a member for the Program Review Committee for the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP), which fosters excellence and accountability in emergency management and homeland security programs across the nation. From March 2008 to December 2014, Gaynor served as the Director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and Office of Homeland Security, where he was the only Certified Emergency Manager assigned as a municipal emergency manager in Rhode Island. He was responsible for ensuring the planning and operations of the agency, coordinating community exercise programs, managing the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and advising the Mayor of the City of Providence on local government emergency operations. During his tenure at RIEMA and PEMA, Gaynor oversaw multiple response and recovery operations and managed numerous federally declared disasters. Under Pete Gaynor’s leadership, in 2010, PEMA became the first municipality in the United States to receive accreditation from EMAP. In 2017, Rhode Island became the 36th state to be EMAP-accredited, making Gaynor the first emergency management director awarded EMAP accreditation at the local and state levels. In January 2018, under Gaynor’s direction, Rhode Island was the first state designated as StormReady by the National Weather Service. Gaynor was awarded the International Association of Emergency Managers USA & Global Partners in Preparedness Award for Operation SMART EXIT, a planned full-scale evacuation of several high-rise commercial buildings in Downtown Providence, RI. Prior to his experience as an emergency manager, Gaynor served for 26 years as an enlisted Marine and Infantry Officer in the United States Marine Corps. During his tenure in the Marines, he was assigned as the Executive Officer responsible for the security of Presidential Retreat, Camp David; assigned as the Head of Plans, Policy, & Operations at the Headquarters Marine Corps during the September 11, 2001 attacks; and deployed in support of Iraqi Freedom with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force where he coordinated combat operations in the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq for Multi-National and Marine forces. Gaynor received a bachelor’s degree in history from Rhode Island College and a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He is also a graduate of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Executive Leaders Program.

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