The COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and other incidents such as active shooters, while putting “an incredible strain” on first responders, have also imparted important lessons about mitigation and preparedness, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard at a Wednesday hearing on worsening disasters.
John S. Butler, chief of the Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department and second vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), stressed that the 1.1 million men and women in the fire and emergency service serving in more than 30,000 fire departments around the nation “usually are the first on the scene of a disaster and the last to leave.”
“America’s fire and rescue departments answer to fire and EMS calls, treat and transport COVID-19 patients, staff vaccination centers and administer COVID-19 testing campaigns, provide lifesaving aid to victims of mass shooting incidents, respond to incidents involving new and evolving hazardous materials including lithium batteries, and rescue the survivors of catastrophic building collapses,” Butler said in his prepared opening statement. “In addition, fire and EMS departments can become vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks, including attempts to take down 911 centers or ransomware attacks.”
“The past 18 months have provided a real-life stress test for the nation’s preparedness system. The nation’s public safety and medical staff have performed heroically in the face of these various threats,” he added. “However, we also have been able to identify unforeseen areas of improvement or new challenges. In many cases, lessons learned from one challenge like the pandemic can be applied to other challenges like wildland fires.”
First, IAFC is recommending that the National Incident Management System (NIMS) be reviewed and revised by the Biden administration to address long-term events, including “how to manage supplies and personnel and rotate command resources, like incident management teams, for these types of events.”
Next, new partners such as public health agencies should be incorporated into incident planning. “To prepare for major hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildland fires, other critical infrastructure partners, such utilities, public works, communications companies, and transportation officials should be invited to participate for planning and exercises,” Butler said. “These disciplines also need to be trained in NIMS and the principles of the incident command system, so that they can integrate into the incident management team during a disaster.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency can make this happen by setting “conditions on grants, training, and exercises to make sure that these stakeholders are included in planning,” he said. Agencies such as Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Federal Communications Commission and more can be part of the “federal government-wide effort to ensure education and adoption of NIMS.”
Butler said mutual aid agreements need to be reviewed after the COVID-19 pandemic sent large numbers of crew members into periods of quarantine throughout the crisis.
“Fire departments found that not only were they suffering from COVID-19-related staffing shortages, their mutual aid partners were in the same situation,” he said. “In other cases, there was a struggle for resources as fire departments could not rely on interstate help to fight wildland fires, because fire departments in other parts of the country were responding to hurricanes or floods. In addition, there were concerns that jurisdictions might not provide aid, especially across state borders, because they wanted to retain resources in case of a surge in COVID-19 cases at home. This concern became greatest in fighting wildland fires, where firefighters come from across the nation to live and eat in close quarters in camp facilities for weeks at a time and then return home.”
Reimbursement for mutual aid — something that can take years for a fire department that sends resources through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) — needs to be reviewed and streamlined. “In addition, FEMA and the states should look at auxiliary systems like the IAFC’s National Mutual Aid System (NMAS), which can complement systems like EMAC,” Butler continued. “The NMAS allows fire chiefs to request specific assets both within and between states and track them in real-time as they are dispatched to provide assistance.”
First responders should also be prioritized from the beginning when it comes to getting supplies, tests and vaccines, he stressed: “We must remember in the future that public safety organizations are both critical infrastructure and the agencies that protect all other critical infrastructure sectors.”
Sima Merick, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency and president of the National Emergency Management Association, recommended to senators clarifying “the role of emergency management, particularly as it relates to events not warranting a Stafford Act declaration.”
“Let FEMA be the coordinator of federal resources instead of forcing us at the state level to fumble our way through the federal government,” she said. “Second, we must ensure diversity and inclusion in emergency management. NEMA wants to work with FEMA in reviewing all current emergency management laws and policies through an equity lens, including identifying the intended and unattended effects of current policies on vulnerable communities.”
Stakeholders also “must work to reduce the complexity of the FEMA Public Assistance Program,” Merick said. “For too long, FEMA has talked about simplifying the disaster programs, only to continue adding to existing procedures. Federal disaster programs and processes are too complex, they’re slow, sometimes bureaucratic, and in many cases, can impede state and local governments’ best efforts to improve outcomes for individuals and communities.”
Jerry Hancock, stormwater and floodplain programs coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., and executive director of the Michigan Stormwater Floodplain Association, called for “a nationwide program of updating rainfall frequency and have a robust set of flood maps that identifies all flood hazards, as was envisioned by Congress when it passed the National Flood Mapping Program,” as today only one-third of the nation’s floodplains are mapped.
FEMA also should “ensure that pre-disaster mitigation programs like BRIC provide a more balanced funding approach to support state and local mitigation priorities,” he said. “Third, preparedness is enhanced through data sharing and better informing the public. For example, the federal government has been slow to publicly provide dam failure inundation maps — which, again, were required by the National Flood Mapping Program.”
Jennifer Pipa, vice president of disaster programs at the American Red Cross, noted that the “increasing rate of climate-driven disasters has become an unsustainable burden on the most vulnerable, notably low-income communities of color, elderly, and people with disabilities.”
The Red Cross is referencing a social vulnerability index to “see communities that were already struggling prior to a disaster… so we know where we need to be first, where we’re most likely going to be longest, and where the people need the most help to begin their recovery journey.”
“Climate change isn’t about the number of inches that fell in rain in an hour. It’s not about the category of the storm. It’s not about the acres that burned in a wildfire,” Pipa testified. “It’s about a family of five living in their car. It’s about people who were struggling before this disaster ever happened and need more help now.”