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New FEMA Strategic Plan Focuses on Equity, Expanded Partnerships, Climate Resilience

Criswell said these steps are critical to "promote and sustain a ready FEMA and prepared nation" as demands on emergency managers increase.

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 field of emergency management is at a pivotal moment,” Criswell wrote in the introduction of the new strategic plan. “We are seeing tremendous change in the landscape of risk and in our professional roles. While our mission of helping people before, during, and after disasters has not changed, our operating environment has. Ten years ago, we managed an average of 108 disasters a year. Today, we are managing 311 — including the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Structural inequities in our society compound the impacts of disasters for historically underserved communities,” she added, and “pose unacceptable risks to the nation — and to us as emergency managers.”

The first goal, making equity “a foundation of emergency management,” includes building a more diverse FEMA workforce and actively recruiting in underrepresented communities along with investing in “professional development for all FEMA employees to foster an environment in which individuals feel safe, valued, and empowered” and requiring that FEMA’s leadership and workforce “demonstrate an increased commitment to integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion in delivering the agency’s mission.”

Diversity and inclusion efforts will include Employee Resource Groups and multicultural training, partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium of Tribal Colleges and Universities, and “implementing a workplace cultural improvement action plan.”

Ensuring that “FEMA resources can be accessed and leveraged by underserved communities in ways that meet their needs” will include considerations of these factors in agency decisions about policy and program implementation. Meeting this “people first” approach will include “reducing the administrative burden on low-income and rural applicants” by accepting more forms of documentation, “prioritizing efforts for FEMA caseworkers to contact applicants deemed ineligible due to occupancy or ownership verification,” and changes to the property loss threshold to qualify for Direct Housing assistance.

FEMA also vows to “routinely evaluate its programs and policies for disparities in outcomes” to ensure more equitable disaster response and preparedness, while acknowledging that “FEMA assistance is not designed to solve societal inequities.”

“Systems that foster inequality serve no one, especially in times of crisis,” Criswell said. “We must recognize that disasters affect individuals and communities differently, commit ourselves to reducing barriers to access, and deliver equitable outcomes for all whom we serve.”

The second goal of climate resilience — noting the record-breaking 2020 spate of 22 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion — stresses that “the growing severity of disasters increases the time it takes for communities to recover” and vows that in collaboration with the private sector and other government entities “FEMA will take a people-first approach to increase climate literacy, develop tools, and allocate resources informed by future risk estimates to target investments to create a more equitable and resilient nation.” Increasing climate literacy in the emergency management field, the plan states, “requires that FEMA build a foundational understanding of climate science, the impacts of climate change, and effective climate adaptation strategies.”

Building a climate-resilient nation, the plan continues, requires “leveraging grant programs to target investments that will enable communities to directly address their own threats from climate change” including aging infrastructure or building codes that aren’t resistant to disaster. “FEMA can better target investments to the most transformational projects when FEMA and its partners better understand unique risks posed by climate change,” the plan notes.

FEMA also stresses the importance of risk-informed decision making, noting that while a community’s disaster risk is currently usually based on past disaster activity the changing climate is negating the usefulness of this historical data and “the availability of, access to, and understanding of future conditions data and modeling within FEMA must be expanded.”

Criswell emphasized that the agency “must lead the whole of community in climate resilience.”

“We must recognize that we are facing a climate crisis and educate ourselves and the nation about the impacts our changing climate pose to the field of emergency management,” she said. “We must integrate planning for future conditions, move away from incremental mitigation measures, and focus on large projects that protect infrastructure and community systems.”

The third goal of expanding FEMA’s approach to agency readiness and national preparedness aims to ensure the agency can “continuously support the needs and priorities identified by whole community partners, in addition to continuity of government across all hazards.”

“Concurrently, FEMA must engage more effectively with partners in all phases of emergency management to ensure readiness is aligned to meet needs,” the plan states. “Within the federal government, this engagement includes promoting better integration and coordination across agencies to enable the government to adapt to emergent threats and to help individuals and communities better leverage federal programs.”

Objectives include strengthening the emergency management workforce and bringing in those critical to mission who may not identify as emergency managers, and leading the effort to “advance the emergency management profession by supporting curricula for federal comprehensive emergency management training, education, and professional development, accessible to whole community partners.”

The agency wants to ensure it’s well-postured to meet the threats of today and tomorrow, citing the strain on staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. “FEMA readiness must include having the human capital and security specialists necessary to hire and support the agency’s disaster workforce, having procurement specialists to execute the contracts and mission assignments that enable the government to mobilize assistance, possessing the IT infrastructure and tools to support data and information sharing, ensuring civil rights are protected in all activities, having the facilities necessary to train the workforce and manage operations, and focusing on employee health and wellness emphasizing personal resilience,” the plan states, adding that “FEMA must transform how the agency delivers support so that partners can increase their capacity.”

FEMA also emphasized the importance of expanded partnerships “to better sequence federal disaster recovery programs from the perspective of the end users” including “identifying and reducing potential gaps in recovery programs and better enabling individuals and communities to use federal support to drive their own recovery.”

Criswell said these steps are critical to “promote and sustain a ready FEMA and prepared nation” while recognizing that “the demands on emergency managers will only continue to increase.”

“We must lean into this as a shared responsibility to prepare the nation’s emergency managers and ready ourselves and the larger federal government to meet an expanding mission,” she said.

FEMA’s 2018-22 Strategic Plan focused on building a culture of preparedness at every level, prepping for “low- and no-notice” catastrophes, and ensuring FEMA is “flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of individuals and communities” and can “deliver assistance and support in as simple a manner as possible.”

“We have so many opportunities in front of us — to reimagine our systems, evolve our work, and build up our teams,” Criswell said of the new plan. “After the last few years — after all that we have been through and achieved as emergency managers — the way forward is clear: we will continue to do what we do best, lean on our experience and expertise, and step into the future, define it, and lead the way.”

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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