As director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since September 2005, R. David Paulison has spoken of FEMA's evolution, relaying a specific message to state and local public safety agencies, as well as local political leaders: "FEMA is undergoing change and we will prove it."
The most important thing FEMA is doing is changing the culture of the organization. It's bringing in people who know what they're doing, whether those are regional directors or officials with decades of experience dealing with disasters.
"I'm using that same type of philosophy inside of FEMA - inside the Beltway in Washington - making sure that people managing this organization are emergency responders who know what they're doing and have credibility in the field," he said. "So they know where I want to go, they know I want a much more forward-leaning, much more inventive organization."
FEMA is also changing the way it responds to disasters, Paulison said, adding that the agency will no longer wait for a local government or a state to become overwhelmed before moving in.
"We're not coming in to take over, so don't misread what I'm saying," he explained. "We want to come in as a partner - staying in there side by side with the local government and state - so if there's a gap to fill we know what the needs are and can move those supplies or whatever they happen to need very quickly, not waiting for something to fail before we respond."
After dwindling confidence in FEMA over the past few years, Paulison acknowledged the need to re-engage with state and local governments and recover the trust of state and local leaders, as well as the trust of the American people.
"I can only do that by proving how we're going to respond," he said. "Saying it over and over again is not going to make it happen. The proof's in the pudding, so to speak. And that's what I'm going to do."
Part of that proof is that Paulison is engaging in partnerships with the private sector, and emphasizing those partnerships at the state and local levels.
"Don't forget the private sector owns about 80 percent of our critical infrastructures, and we, in the past, have not included them in our planning process; we have not included them in our exercises, and surely haven't included them in our response capability," he said. "We need to do that."
FEMA is reaching out to private companies, asking them to share their expertise and organization. FEMA is learning what their needs are, and they are learning what FEMA's capabilities are.
"Again, bringing all these groups in as partners in response to disasters," Paulison said. "If we can do that, we can make this happen, and we're going to have a much better response than we've ever seen in this country."
And Paulison said state and local governments can be involved by doing the same thing he is doing.
"Take a particular city - they've got to make sure they look at their critical infrastructures, who owns them, how they can bring them into the planning process to protect those infrastructures, and how can they get that city up and running again?" he said. "Business plays a big part in that. One of the things I learned after Hurricane Andrew - it was very clear to me that if the businesses don't come back, the community is not going to come back. So they have to be brought in as partners."
State and local governments can also participate in the overall evolution of FEMA, and in more than one way.
First, as far as the national response framework is concerned, Paulison said he needs feedback on whether the framework is what it needs to be, and whether it accomplishes what they think it needs to do.
"Two, we have our national advisory council, we have a regional advisory council out there, we have a lot of people surveying there - those are going to help me get the right input that I'm going to need," he said, adding that the third piece of it is making sure he's in the field and not sitting behind a desk in Washington. "I [need to] meet with those state and local governments, national emergency managers, local emergency managers, chase the police, the sheriff's association," he continued, "so I can get that very honest feedback of how we're doing."