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Saturday, June 25, 2022

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
Pete Gaynor joined The LiRo Group in April 2021, in the newly created position of Senior Vice President and Director, National Resilience Response and Recovery Programs. In leading LiRo’s national disaster response, Pete oversees recovery programs that help clients prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters by delivering outcome-based innovative practical solutions. He is an accomplished professional emergency manager who has led a wide variety of challenging disasters at the local, state and federal levels during his long career. Most recently, Pete served as the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, FEMA Administrator and Deputy FEMA Administrator. During his time at FEMA, he led the agency’s response to more than 300 presidentially declared emergencies and major disasters. During 2020, he oversaw FEMA’s first-ever operational response to a nationwide pandemic while simultaneously responding to a record number of historic natural disasters. Pete is a Certified Emergency Manager and earned 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. Prior to his experience as an emergency manager, Pete served for 26 years as an enlisted Marine and Commissioned Officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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