Helming response efforts during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to further study the security and efficiency of the supply chain during disasters and better integrate the private sector into providing initial response needs, Administrator Deanne Criswell said.
“We learned so much through the COVID-19 pandemic and the critical and often fragile nature of our supply chain and where we depend on things, and we were able to put in some new methodologies working really closely with the private sector to make sure that we were meeting the needs of first responders,” Criswell told the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, adding that it was also the first time “that we really faced a resource shortage at this level.”
“We are working closely with the private sector to establish better relationships and understand how we can bring them in better,” she said. “We can never replace the resources that the private sector brings to bear to support disaster response and so we need to understand better what their capabilities are, and we are having ongoing conversations with different sectors across the private sector to make sure that we understand how to get them back up online faster — but also how they can support us in our response. And those conversations are ongoing.”
Those consultations with the private sector include disaster response needs ranging from housing to healthcare, and come as FEMA is undertaking a review of lessons learned from the agency’s initial response to the pandemic.
“As we were working through our ability to maximize and support the supply chain to make sure that we could keep resources moving, we learned a lot of lessons about our role and how we can interact with the private sector,” Criswell said.
President Biden’s fiscal year 2022 request puts the FEMA budget at $28.4 million, an increase of $1.9 billion from the FY2021 enactment.
Criswell said the beginning of her term is focused on three priorities: “supporting the FEMA workforce and our readiness, integrating equity into everything we do, and addressing climate change through risk reduction.”
On workforce support, she noted the challenges of operating in a COVID-19 environment, and said they are relying on a virtual workspace when possible and “evaluating how to enhance our operational capacity, promote an agile and expeditionary culture and support the safe return to the office.”
The budget, if enacted at the level requested, would boost the number of Stafford Act employees at the agency by 14 percent. That increase will “begin to close the gap” in the agency’s staffing needs, Criswell told lawmakers. The budget request would also add 10 FEMA employees to focus on strengthening the agency’s cybersecurity posture.
“Readiness also means ensuring the workforce has the training, tools, and resources they need to do their job, and I am committed to providing that to the workforce,” she said, later adding that “what we’re doing right now is really assessing what is the FEMA that the nation needs and deserves and then trying to determine what would that structure look like to support that.”
With an “operational tempo… really consistent around the year,” Criswell said readiness means making sure “that our staff have the time to take for themselves and reset” — a “critical part of how we make sure that they are prepared and that we have a workforce that is ready to respond when needed.”
Criswell stressed that “diversity, equity, and inclusion must be core components of how we conduct ourselves and execute our mission,” and to reach this goal “FEMA is currently soliciting feedback from the public and our partners to ensure we understand how our programs impact survivors of different demographics, and where needed we are committed to making changes.”
“Internally this means building a diverse and inclusive workforce which resembles the communities we serve. Externally it means we must proactively identify and reach out to underserved communities and populations most in need of our help. We are analyzing our operational programs through the lens of equity, and we are doing that for a reason. We know that disasters exacerbate existing inequalities, and we need to ensure FEMA assistance reaches everyone who needs it,” she said. “We must also identify the root causes of differing recovery outcomes for survivors and work aggressively and collectively to ensure access for all to disaster response and recovery assistance.”
The administrator told lawmakers she has “seen firsthand the disproportionate impact that our communities experience and our underserved communities across this country, where they struggle day-to-day, struggle even more exponentially when a disaster does strike.”
“One of the things that we did during COVID-19 for the first time was take social vulnerability index, social vulnerability data into our decision-making for how we were going to anticipate or provide assistance, and I have directed my team to continue this process and how do we now take this equity data that is out there into the decision-making process that we use for future disasters,” she added. “And that is something that we are working right now to figure out — how we can institutionalize that so we can really understand the needs of the community as we are making our assessments.”
In addressing diversity within the FEMA workforce, Criswell said the agency is working “to provide anti-harassment training to support our leadership team” and also working “on ways that we can increase the diversity pool of applicants so we can get more diversity within our leadership.”
Criswell emphasized the need to “make generational-level investments” for climate resilience as “every dollar invested in mitigation saves the American taxpayers $6 in future spending.”
It is “incredibly important that we work with our communities to help them understand what their risks are so they can communicate that when they do apply for assistance or for the grants,” she said, and the agency is “doing targeted technical assistance to help with that and make sure communities can think bigger about how they can improve and reduce the impacts that they are facing.”
In some areas, disaster has the potential to add on to existing disaster recovery. “There are several disasters that are currently open across the country dating back many years, and the recovery process as we continue to see more frequent and more severe disasters becomes even more complicated, and bringing in multiple different recovery resources to assist with that process,” she said. “One of the things that we are focused on is trying to make sure that we are helping to increase the capacity of our state and local jurisdictions so they can better manage their recovery process as well, and we can work together to facilitate getting these projects through.”
Criswell told lawmakers that she believes the entire emergency management community has to focus on assessing future risk and not just historical risk. “We really have an opportunity and an obligation, frankly, to look at the future risks that we are facing and make sure that we understand them and are investing in mitigation to reduce the impacts from those risks,” she said. “So I do believe that it is important for all of us to have that mindset as we go forward.”