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Emergency Management Leaders Evaluate FEMA’s Priorities in the Changing Face of Disasters

IAEM's Harshman said that FEMA's Strategic Plan "could not have come along at a better time" as it "instils equity as a foundation of emergency management."

Emergency management leaders told lawmakers that FEMA’s priorities are thoughtfully geared toward helping their profession confront crises today and build resilience while nurturing the next generation of emergency managers and frankly addressing issues such as inequity in disaster response.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Strategic Plan for 2022-26 rests on a trio of “bold and ambitious” goals focused on improving equity for those affected by disasters in underserved communities as well as developing a diverse emergency management workforce, building climate resilience, and promoting readiness in the workforce and communities to face current and emergent threats.

The roadmap reflects the priorities laid out by Administrator Deanne Criswell in her March confirmation hearing, where she stressed that the agency “must also support communities in preparing for future challenges in adapting to a changing world.”

“The usefulness of our profession was infinitely clear during the early stages of COVID-19, as we coordinated organizations, the resources to adapt to the evolving needs of our communities,” International Association of Emergency Managers-USA President Carolyn Harshman said at a hearing last week before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management to hear stakeholders’ perspectives regarding FEMA’s 2022 priorities. “In the meantime, the frequency of disasters and ever-present changes in the climate are increasing the numbers of people and property impacted by hazards.”

“I see us standing at the crossroads now as the ravaging days of the pandemic begin to wind down and we’re seeing a range of emergency managers emerge from a broad spectrum of industries and disciplines,” she said. “With that expansion emergency management protocols become more and more politicized. The profession needs strong guidance that will ensure we forge the best path forward.”

Harshman said that FEMA’s Strategic Plan “could not have come along at a better time” as it “instils equity as a foundation of emergency management.”

“In order to be effective emergency managers, it’s imperative that we each treat all of the members of our communities as equals,” she said. “All politics, income levels, socioeconomic standing, and other polarizing characteristics need to be set aside in order to ensure equitable delivery of services in the community’s greatest time of need.” Emergency managers “need tools in order to better understand the cultures and realities of the communities they serve.”

The Strategic Plan’s goal of building climate resilience underscores how emergency managers “must work hand-in-hand with planners, engineers and fire professionals to create a better-built environment as new and reasonable construction projects are considered by a jurisdiction — it is very rare for an emergency manager to have a say in whether or not a project should be approved.”

“Building better in the first place will eliminate the need for retrofits and other incremental solutions,” she added. “Most importantly, solidifying relationships will bring new enforcers into mitigation planning and open the door for emergency managers to participate in climate adaptation plans and other programs aimed at climate resilience.”

FEMA’s goal of promoting preparedness, Harshman said, “will greatly strengthen emergency management community capacity.”

“At present, many of our emergency managers wear multiple hats. Administrators, first responders and other officials. The same is true for nongovernmental organizations where the emergency managers are also the risk managers, safety officer and in charge of environmental compliance,” she continued. “Any and all of FEMA’s efforts to standardize training programs and exercises will be well received, but especially by those struggling with multiple hats. Equally important is the need to train and empower individuals and community groups to serve as force multipliers as we recognize the potential willingness of our citizens to actively engage in an emergency’s initial response.”

National Emergency Management Association President Erica Bornemann said the FEMA Strategic Plan is “thoughtful and demonstrates real commitment to the next generation of emergency management.”

“Emergency managers are in need of policies and regulation that provide more flexibilities to navigate increasingly complex challenges faced in a rapidly changing environment,” Bornemann, who serves as director of Vermont Emergency Management, told lawmakers.

“Threats such as the ongoing pandemic, cybersecurity, climate change, infrastructure failures, and continuing natural hazards require a streamlined and coordinated federal approach,” she said. “As the complexity of the disasters we respond to and recover from increases, so do programs that were meant to aid Americans in their worst hour.”

NEMA recently completed work on three position papers regarding the need for greater collaboration on establishing rent requirements, enhancing coordination between FEMA and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and addressing wildfire policy.

“Wildfires are just one hazard that highlight the need for further examination of the equity of application and implementation of disaster programs,” Bornemann said. “Small changes in policy or statute can equal significant impact when measuring results. A small step, such as implementing a universal application for disaster survivors, is a seemingly simple measure that equates to better access for states that may have less resources and a better disaster survivor experience.”

She praised FEMA’s “forward-leaning approach” to garnering feedback for preparedness grant programs and expects “clear objectives to be outlined to address known equity challenges within the program themselves.”

“Beyond equity, however, there are many other challenges in response and recovery programs. For several years now, practically every NEMA witness before this and other committees have spoken of the need to simplify federal programs to streamline state emergency management and make them more accessible to the public,” Bornemann added. “This doesn’t require broad measures. It can be simple steps such as clarifying FEMA as the lead federal agency for all consequence management. Supporting legislation such as the SPEED Recovery Act, which raises the small-project threshold, reviewing the authority’s roles and responsibilities of the consolidated resource centers to ensure they’re not overly bureaucratic. And allowing for the rollover of management costs from one disaster to the next, thereby building capacity at the state level and speeding disaster closeout.”

Bornemann addressed the Strategic Plan’s climate resilience focus, stressing that “the changing face of disasters means we must consider challenges such as our changing climate.”

“Unfortunately, current programs lack adequate guidance and support to address all hazards intensified by climate change. FEMA needs to strategically identify, prioritize, and invest in climate resilience projects that help reduce future losses,” she said. “This should be done also with an eye toward measurable outcomes, so we know what success looks like.”

“These goals are not unattainable. The state emergency management community believes that, working together across all levels of government, we can make preparedness and disaster programs more accessible and accountable.”

Government Accountability Office Homeland Security and Justice Team Director Chris Currie cited four key challenges that FEMA “will have to tackle in the years ahead,” starting with a workforce that “is worn down by disaster season that really never ends anymore.”

“Also, the agency’s staffing, training, and hiring processes were designed for a mission that has changed,” he added. “We’ve found that FEMA has long faced challenges in deploying staff with the right qualifications and skills to meet disaster needs.”

Currie said that “broader workforce reform, involving Congress and this committee, is needed to be able to hire, train, and retain the staff FEMA needs to meet the growing mission.”

“The second major challenge area is simplifying disaster relief and removing barriers for disaster survivors,” he said. “We have found that survivors face a number of challenges in understanding and obtaining FEMA individual assistance.” GAO recently made 14 recommendations in one report to improve the Individual Assistance Program.

“The third area of challenge is streamlining and simplifying complex, lengthy recovery grants and programs for state, local, tribal and territorial governments,” Currie continued. “In our work, states, tribes and other localities tell us over and over again that recovery programs are at best overly complicated and, at worst, actually a disincentive sometimes to recovery.”

According to FEMA, he noted, the agency had nearly 1,000 open disasters or emergency declarations going back years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Streamlining recovery programs to be more efficient would help cut down on FEMA’s workload and, going back to the staffing issues I talked about, help the staff focus on the most pressing matters,” Currie recommended. “Also, coordination between FEMA… and other federal recovery programs, like HUD and SBA and others, would further cut down on the burden and frustration that states and communities face.”

“The last and fourth key priority area is building resilience. Just this is an area that FEMA has made tremendous progress on in recent years, partly due to Congress’ actions, too, to create new programs… FEMA needs to continue to focus on ensuring these grants encourage mitigation.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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