Preparedness & Recovery

How Preplanning Can Ward off Bureaucratic Burden

Today’s fiscal climate forces a number of questions on emergency management, including how to streamline operations.

by / April 4, 2013

How much money will emergency managers have to spend next year or the year after that? It’s hard to know. Maybe legislators in Congress and the state capitols will boost funding to shore up infrastructure. Maybe levels will drop as perceived threats decline, or perhaps things will stay roughly the same.

At some point, emergency management officials need to stop guessing and take matters into their own hands. We may be at that point.

“Anybody who is in emergency management has to be taking a hard look at their processes,” said Mark Sloan, emergency management coordinator of Harris County, Texas. “We need to ask: How do we still accomplish our mission and prioritize the roles and responsibilities in order to complete our responsibilities effectively?”

Today’s fiscal climate forces a number of questions on emergency management. How to streamline operations? How to ensure maximum reimbursement in federal disasters — and which, if any, disasters will even be recognized as such in the future? And how can the first responder community demonstrate to Congress a tangible return on investment?


Taking control


Bryan Koon isn’t sitting idly as he waits to see where his $34 million budget is headed. As director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Koon is taking steps to keep his spending in check.

This begins with an effort to pare back the approval processes. During the days of the homeland security windfall, when many states found themselves the happy recipients of large sums of security funding, Koon’s staffers were on the road a lot. The incursion of federal funding led to a habit of travel and hotel stays, a tendency Koon is trying to curb either with remote communications or combined regional events. “These are fairly small things, but they add up,” he said.

Koon also is striving for closer coordination among state, local and county governments in procuring goods and services. Rather than negotiating individual contracts, he urges all entities to shop together when possible. “If we can do a better job of sourcing those goods and services, we can get the same level of service at a lower cost,” he said.

For Judson Freed, director of the Ramsey County, Minn., Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, reclaiming the budgetary reins starts with shopping more thoughtfully.

Freed admitted that the homeland security funding influx led to some hasty buying decisions, such as a collection of individualized protective gear. First responders didn’t know how to use the positive air pressure respirators, which tended to be too highly specialized for everyday use. “It wasn’t a bad idea,” he said. “We just could have gotten more bang for the buck.”

Today Freed approaches the question of hazardous materials differently, emphasizing training, along with gear that can serve in a wide range of situations. He’s making the money go further.

In the bigger picture, Freed is stretching his dollars by streamlining the planning process. By law, each of his 16 municipalities needs its own emergency operations plan, which in turn must mesh with the county’s plan. “It’s ridiculous, because they all say the same thing,” he said.

To improve the process, Freed led the creation of a countywide template, a base plan that municipalities can use as a starting point and tailor as needed. Along those same lines, he has relieved each municipality’s central emergency manager — usually a fire or police chief — of many administrative duties. The local chief still takes operational lead, but a single, central expert at the county level handles all the paperwork. Freed spends about $150,000 on that person, freeing up the equivalent of a part-time salary in each municipality.

In Harris County, Sloan is stretching his steady $1.6 million budget in part by reassigning roles. For example, his department has an internal policy of never turning down a request for a presentation to a civic group, classroom or the like. The department may receive hundreds of such requests each year, and in the past has responded by having two to three people on staff dedicated to such service.

Today the responsibility is shared by a cadre of individuals throughout the department who’ve taken on such presentations as a corollary to their regular duties. By spreading out the responsibility, Sloan is able to contain the overall cost of the effort.

Sloan also has taken what some consider the taboo step of putting training on the cutting block. As vital as this function may be, it isn’t above budgetary considerations.

“We have restrictions on travel. So some of the offsite conferences that I could send staff to, where they could get more proficient, those are restricted,” he said. “We have to do more of our training locally, within our state.”

However, that doesn’t mean going without. “You really have to be aware of where to go. You have to have a good relationship with the universities and colleges, for instance,” Sloan said. “And in some cases the staff themselves will absorb some of the cost. They are hungry for learning and being better at their job.”

Sloan’s biggest concern in a time of stagnant budgets is that people will leave the department for greener pastures. Key departures can put the whole enterprise at risk, as institutional knowledge walks out the door.

“We try to document as much as we can, but there is stuff in my head that only I have experienced, and it’s the same for my planners and communications people. That institutional knowledge is invaluable,” he said. “There is turnover in the world of emergency management and homeland security, and so you have to give people a work environment they are comfortable in, so that they enjoy going to work.”


Defining disaster


While budgets may be stagnant, or at least uncertain, there can be the occasional influx of funds. Specifically, a declared federal disaster may be cause for municipalities to claim help from the federal government.

This raises one of the big unknowns of emergency funding presently on the table: What disasters merit a federal declaration?

Today a federal disaster kicks in when an event reaches a cost of $1.35 in damages per resident. But that figure has crept up a mere 35 cents in the past 25 years, and a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the government could be saving itself a lot of money if it adjusted that number more accurately for inflation.

According to the report, the president would likely have declared 44 percent fewer disasters from 2004 to 2011, saving the government millions of dollars, if the threshold for federal help were raised to keep up with inflation. (In fact, 2011 saw a record 99 federally declared disasters.)

Had inflation been factored in, the government wouldn’t have stepped in until damages reached $2.07 per resident. Factor in increases in per-capita income, and the disaster threshold rises to $3.57 per person.

Were such adjustments instituted, emergency management would take a big hit. Things are still tough even under the current formula. “I can lose an entire city and not meet my threshold,” Freed said.

Wherever the disaster threshold finally lands (and it may not move at all), emergency planners will continue to face the same challenge they face today: how to most effectively recoup the 75 percent of recovery expenses available through FEMA.


Maximizing the refund


FEMA doesn’t make it easy. “The amount of paperwork is measured in boxes. It’s not measured in sheets,” Freed said. As a result of the sheer bureaucratic burden, many jurisdictions fail to recoup the maximum possible compensation.

To ensure full reimbursement, Freed gets competitive bids ahead of time, keeping an open folder of vendors who are ready to jump at a moment’s notice. This way he fulfills FEMA’s open bid requirement without losing time as a crisis unfolds.

“When it’s an emergency, you don’t feel like you have the time, but you can set up a lot of these contracts in advance. That is what we do. Contracts are competitively bid, and yet we still have them ready to go off the shelf,” he said. The caveat: Keep them current. “Most of us have something, but if it is not in writing and it is not recent, you are not going to see any reimbursement for that.”

It also helps to document obsessively. Koon’s team photographs the scene, tracks staff hours and contractor expenses, and negotiates vigorously with FEMA to determine which expenses may be covered. At some point, doing all that work in-house becomes cost prohibitive, so Koon hires outside experts to handle much of the work. “They come in, do the job, we pay them and we know that we are getting good quality work, so that years down the road we are not dealing with FEMA and Homeland Security coming back to recoup their dollars,” he said.

Sometimes, when it comes to FEMA reimbursement, the best defense is a good offense.

“We are diligent about pre-establishing a disaster declaration within the jurisdiction, so where we do any purchasing in relation to a certain disaster, it goes against a certain purchasing code,” Sloan said. “That way it’s all trackable. Employees all use disaster time sheets in an event, so that we can document every day all the activities around that event. Then six months later you can say: Here are the specific extra costs that we had to incur to remedy this disaster.”


Making the case


Emergency managers can master their own destinies. They can manage expenses, streamline procedures and work diligently to maximize FEMA reimbursements.

In the big picture, they can look beyond their own front doors to influence the gatekeepers, those at the state and federal level who set their budget levels year to year.

Increasingly emergency managers are being called on to justify their budgets, present and future, with data demonstrating a tangible return on investment. That sets a high bar, but it is one today’s emergency professionals must strive to reach.

“Clearly the question — ‘What did you do with the last money that we gave you?’ — comes into play, especially if you haven’t used all the money they gave you before,” said Lorin Bristow, managing partner of emergency notification consulting firm Galain Solutions.

“Why should they give you more? You need to be able to show them not just what you did with the money they gave you before, but how it improved things from A to B,” said Bristow. “There’s also going to be a lot of focus on gap analysis. If I can show through some kind of analysis between what needs to be there, and what is there, then I have a much greater chance of getting the funding that I need.”

There’s no easy formula for ROI here, an issue that emergency managers must contend with.

“We’ve only recently begun to answer the question of ROI, and because it went unanswered for so long, we kind of lost control of the conversation,” said Joshua Filler, president of homeland security consulting firm Filler Security Strategies. A legislator may ask for an economic rationale, “but if I gave you a number, it would not be worth the paper it is printed on. This is not a business that can be measured that way.”

Rather than focus on the dollars, emergency managers need to shine the spotlight on the mission if they want to make their case to funders. “What is it you should be worried about? What are the hazards that are mostly likely to occur? To what extent have you been investing in those capabilities that respond most directly to those risks?” Filler said.

In other words, emergency managers must redefine the terms of the debate. Rather than be drawn into an economic justification of their efforts, they must move forward with budget expectations based on a fair assessment of community needs, capabilities in hand and missions accomplished.

“How did you use your capabilities, and what would have happened if those capabilities had not been there?” Filler said. That’s the ROI equation.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.