Improving disaster response capabilities within this country requires better coordination not only within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but also across the federal government, within state and local governments, and within the private and nonprofit sectors.

According to more than 150 state and local stakeholders surveyed in April 2009 and again in April 2010, this amount of coordination requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve its capacity to fully support state, local, and tribal stakeholders; to improve its internal business practices to better implement federal policies and guidance; and to find a way to use thematic goals and transition forums to create a better understanding of prevention, protection, and coordination in every region, taking differences between states and major metropolitan areas into account.

For FEMA to accomplish these tasks, at least three strategic national challenges must be addressed:

  • shifting preparedness and protection efforts toward an overall concept of national resiliency
  • building a framework that supports comprehensive and coherent preparedness
  • ingraining sustainability into all homeland security and emergency management endeavors.

Achieving National Resiliency

Local governments need to promote resilient communities, prepare citizens, provide effective first responses, and engage key stakeholders on the local level. States, territories, and tribes need to coordinate resources, lead in response and recovery, request additional assistance, and protect public health and welfare. The federal governments role is to provide first response in locations such as military bases and respond effectively to the governors requests. DHS serves as the principal federal agency for domestic incident response. The private sector and nongovernmetal organizations (NGOs) engage in partnerships with all levels of government, assist with contingency planning with state and local governments, protect critical infrastructure, and restore commercial activity.

But national resiliency requires more than critical infrastructure protection; it requires major structural and programmatic changes in FEMA and for all participants to recognize the need to absorb the destruction and quickly bounce back from the consequences of a disaster, natural or human made. Applying a nationwide resilience metricsuch as the time it takes to reconstitute everyday services and routines of life to preparedness planning builds on traditional, sector-focused protection efforts and provides the means to objectively assess, triage, and significantly mitigate the initial and cascading consequences of infrastructure service disruption, regardless of the cause.

If resilience is to become a unifying goal of the United States, DHS policies and programs must empower, enable, and leverage the experiences, vision, and innovations that reside in the private and nonprofit sectors, as well as other federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation; the U.S. Department of Defense; and state, community, and regional governments. This may mean that instead of simply empowering FEMA regional offices as required by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA), stakeholder councils need to be created, empowered, and actively used in the future so preparedness is truly integrated across the country.

As one local stakeholder suggested, There is a huge gap between FEMA, responders in the field, and the people they serve. The best role for FEMA regional offices is to train and update state, local, tribal, NGO, and private sector stakeholders on how to prepare the citizenry. The next step toward achieving resiliency was launched early in 2010 through FEMAs Strategic Foresight Initiative, which seeks to engage the emergency management community in a broader and more complex network of interdependencies and overlapping interests.

Post-Katrina Changes at FEMA

Two central goals have driven the major structural and programmatic changes and a transfer of preparedness programs from other parts of DHS back to FEMA since 2006, when major changes were prompted by Katrina: 1) integrate preparedness across FEMA mission programs and 2) build regional office capabilities to interface with stakeholders before, during, and after disasters.

In 2007, guidelines emphasized a preparedness integration mission, as well as efforts related to many other planssuch as the National Response Plan (now the National Response Framework or NRF), the National Incident Management System, critical infrastructure, state capabilities, local capabilities, training programs, assessment systems, and lessons-learned sharing information.

Beginning in 2008, NRF focused on engaged partnerships; a tiered response; scalable, flexible, adaptable, and operational capabilities; unity of effort through unified command; and a readiness to act. Today, requirements of the PKEMRA seek to improve core capabilities in regions, expansion missions to include preparedness and protection, the enhancement and integration of human capital, the engagement of new constituents such as law enforcement, a national emergency management system, a national preparedness system, the creation of new regional office capabilities, and a more coherent national recovery strategy.

Between October 2006 and February 2008, PKEMRA leadership created 10 working groups staffed by FEMAs Office of Policy and Program Analysis. These groups included human resources, facilities, information technology, finance, procurement, legal, and communications. The intent was to create 10 robust FEMA regional offices to better integrate preparedness and response programs. More robust regions required the integration of key stakeholders into the decisionmaking process.

FEMA regions are becoming more robust, but challenges remain. Overall, a regional permanent full-time workforce has increased significantly. As of April 2009, there has been a 40 percent increase from FY 2003 levels and a 73 percent increase from FY 2006 levels. Due to preparedness integration activities, more than 60 percent of respondents report that their regions interaction with headquarters has increased. The majority say that this has had a positive impact on preparedness in their region.

Creating a Framework for Preparedness

For there to be integration, coherent relationships must exist between stakeholders, including regions that focus on preparedness, not simply response. Regions must focus on funding, staffing, empowerment, clarity of standards, and mission-specific actions. As one state director observed, We need a better understanding in every region that it is not just response, but prevention, protection, and coordination with state and local governments. It is no longer acceptable to wait 72 hours, but we need to be on the ground and operational in 24 hours.

Reaching Full Integration

Success depends on a shared understanding of the keys to implementation. Survey respondents made several suggestions for reaching the goal of full integration:

  • The total organization needs to align around understanding preparedness integration. Annual or quarterly FEMA regional office meetings with stakeholders can provide an opportunity to discuss issues and monitor progress. DHS needs to be focused on outcomes and silos within the organization, and silos elsewhere within the federal government need to be broken down.
  • Regional offices fully partner with headquarters through collaborative decision-making.
  • The preparedness vision within mission-related programs at the regional level needs to be clarified.
  • Regional offices need to be empowered to expand on relationships. The PKEMRA is an opportunity for FEMA to do so.

Substaining Momentum

Proven management practices to sustain momentum and successfully affect long-term positive change need to be implemented. FEMA employees need to be challenged to form a new single, shared FEMA culture. Suggestions for creating such a culture include:

  • An expanded more complex workforce needs to be engaged and maximized.
  • Strategic human capital and data systems need to be developed.
  • Engaging stakeholders will be important. Efforts to do so at all levels must be increased. Additional analysis on the depth and breadth of stakeholder engagement should continue with the acknowledgement of critical factors such as how states have dealt with disastrous events successfully and how to share of those experiences to increase future preparedness.
  • Funding thresholds need to be revisited so that poor communities in big budget states are not sanctioned.
  • New capabilities for now and the future need to be built into FEMAs processes so as to continue to promote the critical preparedness integration mission.

Improving Risk Management

Building a framework that will support comprehensive and coherent preparedness requires expanded and improved risk management and communication across agencies and levels of government. Ultimately, a good risk framework is only useful if political leaders at all levels of governmentas well as public managersare willing to make tough choices on security trade-offs.

Managing risk effectively requires DHS to establish risk management as a thematic goal in allocating resources, making decisions, communicating threats, and creating readiness and proactive actions. It will then require a consolidation of existing risk management programs across and up and down government so as to insure consistency.

Also, there must be a coherent communication with the American people and disaster preparedness partners to help them understand how to respond to, recover from, and mitigate potential threats, as well as ensure that the two-way communication continues during unfolding crises. Improved risk communication may require a reassessment of the color-coded homeland security advisory system as well as improvements to the old emergency alert and warning systemssuch as engaging disaster preparedness partners during the initial phases of an event so as to provide adequate and immediate warnings with clear instructions and continual updates.

For these communications to be truly effective, they need to refrain from using emotionally charged language. They also need to pay attention to both the implicit and explicit messages that exist in every communication with attention to ensuring that 10 critical elements are addressed when communicating: clarity, authenticity, accuracy, efficiency, completeness, timeliness, focus, openness, action orientation, and depersonalization.

Toward Long-Term Sustainability

Ingraining long-term sustainability into homeland security and emergency management requires focus and financial commitment as well as the empowerment of FEMA regional offices. Progress has been affected by the FEMA director recently delegating authority to regional offices to make decisions previously made by headquarters. Examples include issuing mission assignments in excess of $10 million by contracting for aircraft to support regional requirements; approving requisitions for nondisaster goods and services; and selecting and hiring staff in senior regional positions.

Establishing thematic goals would assist with focus and financial commitment. In this period of economic challenges, financing long-term disaster preparedness efforts will always have detractors and be criticized. Selling the need for continued and long-term investments to finance the national security enterprise for those low-probability and high-consequence events in the future will be challenging.

Likewise, it will be difficult to keep the public engaged and focused on efforts to prepare for potential domestic or international threats whether they are of natural, technical, or intentional creation. Maintaining the political will and public support to move forward with the necessary long-term commitment needed to be prepared for disasters requires that leaders and managers up and down and across government inspire a sense of urgency in the public and among stakeholders so that protection efforts are recognized as a necessity.

As one state director suggested, Providing resources to build capacity from the bottom up so as to be prepared for increasingly larger and nontraditional events like swine flu is an investment in national assets. To do so requires a national commitment involving all levels of government, and private and nonprofit organizations, as well as professional communities of interest. It also requires the active and continual engagement of academic, government, and professional leaders so that emergency managers, firefighters, police officers, the military, and homeland security professionals communicate with one another more often and forge a thematic consensus through some kind of a mechanism like transition forums.

Transition forums are used when a thematic change involves groups with different or even antagonistic viewpoints about how to execute the change. A neutral facilitator begins the proceedings by identifying common goals and establishing what each party considers to be non-negotiable. Then each party better understands the parameters and discusses viable solutions.

These forums help to validate participants positions and help them see alignments and common interests, which then motivates them to seek compromise. The forums also help keep everyone focused on achieving the common thematic goal. Participants tend to leave such meetings more engaged and collaboration-minded with regard to their commitment to a national preparedness mission.

Final Thoughts

Interviews with the 150 stakeholders uncovered emerging themes. There seems to be success based on an increased shared understanding of the keys to implementation. Changes to date include increased communication and collaboration from FEMA headquarters to regional offices and state and local stakeholders, dispersion of power and decision-making authority to regions, progress toward increased engagement of stakeholders, and an intent to act coherently.

Interviewees also noted that progress toward coherent action would take several years. Critical success factors include decentralizing authority and staff to empower the regions to support state and local relationships, moving trained staff and national preparedness grant decisions to the regions, and providing training, exercises, and resources for joint collaboration to the regions and to the states.

The PKEMRA is an opportunity for FEMA and the agencys human capital efforts to achieve success. It is important to engage all stakeholders. Key focal points identified by the research are the need to define preparedness integration and robust regions with more than a federal lens. As one state director observed, Current budget crises at the state and local level are the biggest challenge, because federal dollars are a drop in the bucket when you are laying off first responders.