The full impact of the continued reduction in federal homeland security funding has yet to be felt. We know that the funding available in 2013 will be less than half of what it was even just a few years ago, and we can also expect that those funds will continue to decrease in future years.
For those who entered the emergency management and homeland security fields professionally following 9/11, this is a new era in austerity that they’re not familiar with. This “downturn” will be the first in their professional lives.
Others who have worked in the disaster field for a generation or more will recognize this continued economic downturn as part and parcel of the normal cycle in the rise and fall of emergency management fortunes. In reality, we have been very fortunate to have been buffered from the Great Recession due to the availability of federal homeland security funding.
I led the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management through the dot-com bust at the turn of the century. It was not a fun time. We were lucky to have been given capital funds for a new Emergency Coordination Center early in 2001 before that recession became evident and the operational funding dried up. Back then, grants were few and far between with a typical Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act Title III Exercise Grant being about $3,000.
It was in that era that the phrase “doing more with less” was popularized. My interpretation of that was, “We are getting so good at doing more with less that we will eventually be able to do everything with nothing.” This type of belt-tightening era is coming upon us again with a vengeance. Yes, the economy is getting better, but tax revenues are one of the last things to climb. Governments, except in North Dakota, can expect to stay in a recession mode for several more years. Where I live, county employees had to forgo any pay raises in 2013 to save four patrol officer positions in the Sheriff’s Department. These types of sacrifices in different forms will continue.
The challenge then is determining our response to decreasing funding with increasing hazards that come with global warming, population density, a fragile public and private infrastructure and diminishing natural resources.
The answer is doing less with more. Decreased funding must drive us to do what we should have been doing all along, which is working together with anyone and everyone who is willing to partner with our agencies.
We must dump government-centric thinking and actions. We have a role to play, and it is as conveners of coalitions of people and organizations. This includes other governments, businesses of all types and sizes, the nonprofit community, and yes, the general public, special needs populations, etc.
In the end this might be a blessing in disguise. By not having a bundle of funding, we will develop the relationships and plans needed to share information before, during and after an event; processes that cause us to be generous with the resources we do have when there is a need for them elsewhere; and the ability to find common cause with people and organizations we have not worked with before.
Lastly, don’t worry. The funding cycle will rebound eventually. When funding does bounce back, let’s bring to the process a new host of relationships and capabilities that have come about by all of us learning to work together as a team.