FEMA External Support Branch Director Linwood Gantt Jr., left, Robert Bondoni (APO) and Deborah Gordon (Ordering Unit) at Rafael Hernandez Airport in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Irma. (K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

Start with New Legislative and Data Framework to Reform FEMA

Read part one of this series

FEMA Administrator Brock Long has talked about changing the face of emergency management. That’s not an easy task, especially when you are talking about changing the way we as a nation respond to “bad days.” There are always multiple players that mobilize to provide aid and recovery of which FEMA is an integral part, but changing emergency management – which is possible ­– will take a lot of hard work to make it happen and be successful. Here are some suggestions.

Overhauling the Stafford Act: Passed in 1974 and amended multiple times since, the Stafford Act defines the authorities and functions of federal disaster response. This powerful piece of legislation is the cornerstone upon which FEMA operates with state, local and tribal governments in disasters of all shapes and forms, whenever and wherever they occur. While numerous amendments have modernized the Stafford Act and the authorities it grants, the actors that come into play and perform a range of response and recovery functions during an emergency has grown considerably and is far more diverse and complex.

Today the private sector plays a greater role in our lives than before and they aren’t alone. Given the private sector’s hold/control/ownership of critical infrastructure, the rise of NGOs (e.g. volunteers, faith-based groups, etc.) that mobilize to assist communities in time of need, and the deployment of military forces to provide lifesaving and sustaining supplies, assets and security forces in a more immediate manner, today there are more “players” operating in these emergency environments than ever before.

Given those dynamics, having a more up-to-date legislative framework to guide how they all come together and operate in a time of regional and national need makes sense. Simply adding new language to an old framework is not a solution to carry emergency management forward into a more complex all-hazard, dynamic risk world. We need to better define the policies, rules, roles and responsibilities that all of these players can bring to the table.

Utilizing and Strategizing with Data-Driven Tools & Strategies for Enhanced Decision Making:  There are lots of important commodities in an emergency situation – water, energy, food, shelter, etc. ­– but the most critical of any of them for decision makers is information. When you have that, you can make all the other decisions you need to in a more informed manner. Without it, you are “flying blind” or “shooting in the dark,” as the phrases go, without knowing which direction is right or wrong.

While emergencies have always existed, at no other time in our history has our ability to see, watch, understand, predict and prepare for any of them been better. In fact, every day our capabilities to understand what is happening increases exponentially. All of the data that comes from weather satellites, smartphones, social media feeds, deployed sensors, GPS, media reports, drones and more can tell us about storm tracks, degrading infrastructure, traffic patterns, health conditions and more. As robust as they are now, our information capabilities will only become more robust and even more complex with the emergence of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in our hands, homes and communities and their abilities to tell us even more about what is happening. More than any other group of people, data scientists can help navigate this complex terrain, but they also need smart decision-making partners to be effective and responsible.

As powerful and informative as data details can be, those collected points also can present some very real civil rights/civil liberties questions that should never be overlooked, forgotten or underestimated.

Furthermore, every emergency, regardless of what it is or where it is occurring, also must contend with either having too little or too much information. Managing those information flows and giving leaders and citizens the details they need to know so they can make more informed decisions about their safety and recovery will become even more difficult.

Every emergency operations center (EOC) and individual wrestles with sorting through or searching for the pertinent details to make critical decisions. An enhanced, real-time and collaborative common operating picture will help keep all of the above-mentioned players working toward the same goal without duplicating actions.

Defining enhanced data-driven strategies to guide FEMA and the larger emergency management community is essential. This is why establishing a Chief Data Officer for Emergencies (CDOE) is a prudent step to consider to bring everything together.

At present, FEMA’s associate administrator for Policy & Program Analysis serves in such a role. It makes absolute sense to have someone overseeing the agency’s policies and programs serving in such a coordination role for an organization’s day-to-day operations. But during a disaster or large-scale disaster, the job of bringing all of the data points together is a Herculean role unto itself. Creating such a function, whether as a formal position in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or as a separate Annex with the Emergency Support Function (ESF), enhancing, empowering and elevating those responsibilities is worthy of consideration.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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