Our former boss, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate, pushed the team to always consider a ‘whole of community’ approach to every incident, every plan, and every response. The whole community approach to emergency response is one of many lasting legacies that President Barack Obama and Fugate left on FEMA and the practice of emergency management. Several times in the last few weeks the president and the vice president have talked about a ‘whole of government’ approach to the evolving COVID-19 disease.
The whole of government approach was finally evoked when President Donald Trump authorized emergency declarations on March 13. He declared a National Emergency under the National Emergencies Act to waive U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations and any federal regulation necessary to expedite public health preparedness and response. He also authorized a FEMA Emergency for all states, territories and tribes to support funding of emergency protective measures and provide direct federal assistance. Over the past several weeks, there have been a series of media stories about HHS and their role in the pandemic. There have been other stories asking why FEMA was not responding or in charge of the nation’s response.
Well, all of these stories only tell part of the story.
A National Emergency is nothing new. National emergencies have been around formally since 1974 and have been declared by every president since. Prior to Congress passing the National Emergencies Act, presidents had declared national emergencies for various reasons. A National Emergency allows the various departments of the federal government to take specific actions to lessen the effects of an event. The most common use of national emergencies has been to place a hold on assets of foreign nations when they contribute to terrorism or similar activity. National emergencies do not have dedicated funding associated with them. So the mere declaration of a National Emergency does not automatically provide funding. In 2009, President Obama announced the H1N1 influenza pandemic to be a national emergency, and under the declaration waived some federal health insurance rules to speed treatment. This is also the same law that President Trump used when he announced an emergency on the southern border in 2019 to use congressionally appropriated money designated for other programs to pay for the southern border wall.
The American people often hear of the president declaring ’emergencies’ or ‘disasters’ under the Stafford Act and FEMA sending in personnel to help after a hurricane or other event. Stafford Act declarations for major disasters does have funding that follows. States share in the cost of disasters as the Stafford Act typically provides 75 percent of the funding. The funding is limited to certain types of response activities. If the president declares a Stafford Act major disaster, many programs are made available to support communities as they rebuild. But, when the president declares a Stafford Act emergency, then only a few ’emergency protective measures’ programs can be made available, such as reimbursement for National Guard deployment costs, law enforcement and other measures to protect public safety.
The March 13 announcement by the president is currently limited to emergency relief. The authority the president used is unprecedented in that he authorized the emergency without a governor or tribal leader making a request. The use of this authority under the Stafford Act has been used infrequently and has been invoked on three prior occasions: Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion, and Pentagon attack on September 11, 2001.
So you may be wondering: How does the new Presidential National Emergency change the federal response? Or what is FEMA doing in response to this National Emergency?
FEMA is still a supporting agency in a public health event, and they have been supporting HHS for COVID-19 for some weeks now, and they will continue to be a supporting agency in this event. They will continue to provide their incident management expertise and assist other federal departments and agencies, specifically to HHS. They may also send incident management teams to state or tribal emergency operations centers to support planning, logistics and more as this situation continues to unfold.
The HHS secretary now has the authority to temporarily waive or modify certain requirements. This includes the Medicare, Medicaid, and State Children’s Health Insurance programs and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Privacy Rule throughout the duration of the public health emergency declared in response to the COVID‑19 outbreak.
FEMA’s support to HHS, states and tribes will continue to evolve as the pandemic impacts the United States. Governors and tribal leaders can make additional requests to the president for additional federal assistance and a major disaster declaration, if necessary, to support response and recovery.
We know the employees of FEMA and HHS – they have been tested before. They will rise for this moment to support the American people. We are all in this together – the whole of government and the whole of America.
Elizabeth A. Zimmerman is an emergency manager with over 30 years of experience, and currently serves as a Senior Executive Advisor at IEM. A nationally recognized leader in emergency management, Zimmerman has a passion to assist disaster survivors in times of crisis. Zimmerman received a Presidential appointment in 2009 to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Zimmerman administered all aspects of the agency’s response and recovery efforts and served as the highest ranking woman at the agency. During her tenure, she oversaw more than 930 disasters, emergencies and fire declarations, delivering over $6.5 billion to 1.7 million individuals and families and more than $27 billion in federal disaster assistance to state, local, tribal and non-profit groups. Zimmerman was also appointed as the Department of Homeland Security’s representative to the American Red Cross Cabinet Council and to committee leadership positions within the National Emergency Management Association.
During her tenure at FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery (ORR), Zimmerman held the dual titles of Associate Administrator and Director of Disaster Operations. Prior to that, she served as the Deputy Associate Administrator. A hallmark of Zimmerman’s work at FEMA was her effort to support employees, particularly in encouraging and mentoring women in the field of emergency management. In early 2013, she designed and established FEMA’s quarterly Women’s Forum, helping employees learn more about distinguished women leaders from the public and private sectors.
While at ORR, Zimmerman directed, coordinated, and synchronized the programs and operations of FEMA’s Response, Recovery, and Logistics Directorates, the Office of Federal Disaster Coordination, and the Office of Readiness and Assessment, including during major disaster and emergency activations. She also directed one of the most significant changes to FEMA’s statutory authorities in the agency’s history through the development, coordination, and implementation of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act. This effort resulted in the re-engineering of FEMA’s Individual Assistance (IA) and Public Assistance (PA) programs to streamline the delivery of IA and PA support and improve IA and PA payment processes.
Prior to her work at FEMA, Zimmerman held positions as the Assistant Director of Recovery and as the Disaster Recovery Manager at the State of Arizona’s Division of Emergency Management. She began her Emergency Management career at the State of Utah’s Division of Emergency Management. Zimmerman holds a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University.