FEMA: A Fresh Look

Federal Emergency Management Agency director R. David Paulison discusses the course of the 'new FEMA.'

by / December 13, 2007
A Fresh Look

R. David Paulison was appointed as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in September 2005 following the resignation of then-Director Michael Brown.

In October, at the National Emergency Preparedness Conference in Sacramento, Calif., Paulison spoke of FEMA's evolution. He relayed this message to state and local public safety agencies and local political leaders: "FEMA is undergoing change, and we will prove it."

Emergency Management magazine spoke with the director about the changes at FEMA and what they mean to state and local governments.

Q: FEMA responded in a much timelier manner during recent disasters. Is this a standard state and local governments can count on in the future?
A: Absolutely. We are changing the way we're going to respond to disasters. We are no longer going to wait for a local government or a state to become overwhelmed before FEMA moves in.

Now, we're not coming in to take over, so don't misread what I'm saying. 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.

Q: You talked about some of the restructuring within FEMA. Can you offer some specifics on how this is making it possible for you to respond, and how this will affect the future?
A: The most important thing we're doing is changing the culture of the organization and bringing in people who know what they're doing - regional directors, or people with decades of experience dealing with disasters. And 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. So they know where I want to go; they know I want a much more forward-leaning, much more inventive organization.

Q: Will there be any changes to the funding model or how the funds are distributed in the near future?
A: If you're talking about the grants, we've got a pretty good process. What we're doing now is looking at them very carefully and also, I'm bringing in a law enforcement adviser to report directly to me. Are those law enforcement grants doing what they need to do? I'm reaching out to different organizations, I'm going out to meet with them, ICP [incident command post], state emergency managers, local emergency managers ... are the grants accomplishing what they need to accomplish? If they're not, we're going to change that grant process as we move along and make sure they're doing what they need to do.

Q: Do you feel a need to re-engage with state and local governments to recover some of the confidence that may have been lost in recent years?
A: No question about it. We have got to rebuild the confidence of this organization. I've got to earn the trust of the state and local government centers and the trust of the American people, and I can only do that by proving how we're going to respond. Saying it over and over again is not going to make it happen. The proof's in the pudding, so to speak.

Q: How can state and local governments participate in the evolution of FEMA? What can they do?
A: They participate in a couple of ways. One, we have the national response framework out there. I need those comments in -

is that framework what it needs to be, does it accomplish what they think it needs to do? We need to get the feedback on that.

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.

The third piece of it is making sure that I'm in the field and not sitting behind a desk in Washington - that I meet with those state and local governments, national emergency managers, local emergency managers, chase the police, the sheriff's association - so I can get that very honest feedback of how we're doing.

Q: Can you explain what the gap analysis is?
A: The local emergency manager in New York City [Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno] had put together a huge document. We worked together with them to develop what we call a "gap analysis." Looking at a state, looking to those things like evacuation procedures, sheltering, food, water - the whole emergency management system - and identifying gaps, and we did every state from Texas to Maine. It's not perfect yet, but it surely gave us a clear insight on what each state needs if they have a disaster.

Every state's needs are different; one size does not fit all. It doesn't make sense for us to move in teams to help with evacuations in Florida, because they know how to do that.  North Carolina may need something different. So the program was very successful, very well received by the states. Now what we're looking to roll it out to the rest of the country. States like California have more of an earthquake problem than they would a hurricane problem, so we need to tailor our response to the particular needs of the individual states.

Q: You also mentioned engaging in partnerships. Talk about that a little bit.
A: The private sector has a lot of expertise out there. 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. We need to do that. So that's why we're reaching out to them, having them bring their expertise and their organization, us learning what their needs are, they're learning what our capabilities are. Again, bringing all these groups in as partners in response to disasters. 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.

Q: How can state and local governments be involved in that?
A: They have to do the same thing I'm doing. Take a particular city, they've got to make sure they look at their critical infrastructure, who owns them, how they can bring them into the planning process to protect those infrastructures, and how they can get that city up and running again?

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.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor