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Saturday, December 3, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: HuffPost and Word-Count Critics Misunderstand FEMA’s Strategic Plan

There’s an old phrase: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Those words have different meanings to different people, but at its heart it’s about making an effort to better understand someone or something beyond its outward appearances.

Somehow the lesson behind those words were missed by Ryan Grenoble of the HuffPost given his May 3 article, “FEMA’s Latest Excuse For Why It’s Ignoring Climate Change: It Forgot,” on FEMA’s Strategic Plan. Grenoble echoes the angst of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) about the lack of mention of the words “climate change” within the recently issued Strategic Plan. The reporter chronicles the recent back-and-forth between the Minnesota congressman and FEMA on the words “climate change,” via Ellison’s letters and the agency’s press statements.

As entertaining as a back-and-forth like that between the congressman and the agency might be, the arguments being raised by Ellison and Grenoble’s coverage of the Strategic Plan ultimately ring hollow as they seem to ignore or misunderstand the intent behind the planning document. Maybe that’s because they’re more concerned with word-count mentions and numbers rather than word meanings and their strategic intent.

There’s a distinct difference between those two efforts.

The first effort is a simple counting exercise where the search function in Adobe can tell you how many times a word was mentioned (or not). It’s not very hard to do.

The other effort is a thinking exercise that requires someone to read the document and absorb what it says. After thinking about it, the next step is to apply its meanings and directions to what you do in a given field. In this case, the plan applies to America’s emergency management community.

Such thinking efforts require a bit more work than just counting the word mentions. But maybe that is ultimately too taxing for the word-count critics of the Strategic Plan.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the plan is beyond criticism or debate. In fact, I think the Strategic Plan welcomes and encourages such back-and-forth. But that’s an effort that should be based on content and tactic and not word counts or mentions.

The fact that climate change is not specifically called out as a cause for some of the epic natural disasters we have experienced over the past several years is not as important to this Strategic Plan as what this document tells us it is going to do to respond to those conditions. The fact that the plan does not mention climate change does not mean that FEMA is not going to respond to those communities because they’ve been struck by furious winds and waters.

It is FEMA’s actions and plans, and not word counts, that really matter.

Since the word-count critics of the plan are so concerned about the mentions of causes (or lack thereof) in the FEMA Strategic Plan, it’s important to note that the same document also makes no mention of geology or geologic disturbances either.

I guess that might be a reason to fret and panic in some regards, but when Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano started erupting last week FEMA’s Region IX as well as its Headquarters team started to reach out to state and local leaders to see what, if any, help they might need as the earth around them started to shake and spew boiling lava and toxic gases into a place known more for being a tropical paradise. (Lava and toxic gases are also not mentioned in the document, either.)

FEMA’s current Strategic Plan, as well as previous versions, also makes no mention of falling spacecraft, either. But when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, FEMA showed up to coordinate response and recovery operations with over 60 different organizations across two states.

The Strategic Plan also makes no specific mention of school shootings, active shooters or mass casualty events, but at the mid-year meeting of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) there was lots of talk among the assembled FEMA with public- and private-sector partners about what they could do to help communities and law enforcement better prepare for such awful events.

I think you get my point. Lost on the word-count critics of FEMA’s Strategic Plan is any sense of what the agency’s mission and purpose are, and what they do to fulfill it.

FEMA is an all-hazards agency, which means they don’t look for causes when determining whether or not they should respond to an emergency. If the states call upon them and a presidential declaration is made, be it a strike by Mother Nature, 19 terrorists with four planes on a late summer morning, a fire that rages through the tinderbox West, or a ruptured flood wall that consumes a town – they show up and respond.

The causes of any of those events are absolutely important and should be assessed so they can be mitigated against. But every all-hazards cause – be it climate change, degraded infrastructure, geologic changes or disintegrating spacecraft – are all outside of FEMA’s purpose and mission responsibilities.

FEMA has enough on its plate in coordinating the country’s response to its bad days without being charged to list every one of its causes. As the nation’s emergency management agency, they already offer risk mitigation strategies to counter any number of their causes. In fact, using its own experiences and data, as well as numbers and insights that come from its partners (including the insurance industry), FEMA has been raising its voice louder and louder about what all of us can do to mitigate against the increasing risks each person and community are facing.

It would seem to me that’s probably a bigger, more relevant story to share with the public than what words were not included in a quadrennial planning document. That might take more effort than doing word searches and word counts, but it’s also a much more valuable exercise.

But that’s me; I’ve always been more interested in actions than words. Because in the end, it’s your actions, not words that people remember. And in the end, that’s what really counts.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper
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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