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Maximizing Your Disaster Cost Recovery Reimbursements

How San Francisco's Department of Public Works became prepared to capture 100 percent of its disaster response costs.

by Mike Martinet and Jocelyn Quintos / October 15, 2013

Emergency and disaster management is a complex chain of responsibilities that should address all of the adverse effects of large-scale events that impact humankind. There is an endless and almost disturbingly diverse list of these adverse effects that need the attention of emergency and disaster management personnel.

But as endless and diverse as these issues may be, there is a single common thread that tightly connects every one of them irrevocably and eternally: the money.

Be it called the dollar, pound, yen, mark or peso, money is the unbreakable link in the chain that connects our ability to deal with the problem itself.

Yet, effective preparations for the financial aspects of disasters are often minimal or nonexistent in government agencies. Few emergency managers have a broad understanding of the very complex process under the Stafford Act, which governs FEMA's Public Assistance program. There is even less understanding of the program within the finance departments of local governments, at least until a disaster strikes.

Only then, does a very painful awareness come, often in a cloud of strict, confusing and sometimes counter-intuitive regulations.

The excruciating financial pain comes from the fact that once a disaster occurs, many opportunities to recover disaster costs are forever lost because local agency policies to recover money must be in place before the event occurs.

This principle also applies to the day-to-day record-keeping processes that could be and should be a part of the good business practices of every organization, governmental or otherwise.

A notable exception to this state of affairs is a program of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, which has an annual budget of $214.1 million, employs 1,278 full- and part-time employees, and operates a fleet of 552 vehicles. The department's materials and supply budget is approximately $2.9 million.

The department is responsible for the care and maintenance of San Francisco’s streets and much of its infrastructure. The department designs, builds, resurfaces and cleans streets; plants and maintains city street trees; designs, constructs and maintains city-owned facilities; conducts sidewalk and roadway inspections, constructs curb ramps, provides mechanical and manual street cleaning, and removes graffiti from public property; and partners with neighborhoods to keep the city clean. It serves San Francisco residents, merchants and visitors 24 hours per day and seven days per week.

What makes the department unique and prepared for disaster cost recovery is that its system for tracking the labor, equipment and materials that are used during a disaster is the very same system it uses for tracking day-to-day operational expenses.

Once an event, large or small, occurs, Jocelyn Quintos, the department's Business Services Division manager, can activate the appropriate system codes, making all departmental response activities trackable in a manner consistent with FEMA requirements. The system can directly print the FEMA Summary Reports (Forms 90-123, 90-125, etc.) for each different work site.

This remarkable program was not an accident. Quintos attended a disaster cost recovery training program I presented for San Francisco in 2009.  In the training, we discussed the monetary value of the information and the difficulty of accurately recording it in a manner that meets federal requirements.

Quintos recognized that it would be very difficult to change the tracking process for the labor, equipment and materials used during a disaster response, once an event occurs. She also understood the importance of contemporaneously capturing this important data before it is lost in the near chaos of the response.

It took four months to create the process and another two months to implement it departmentwide, but today, San Francisco's Department of Public Works is prepared to capture 100 percent of its disaster response costs.

There is an effective process to determine in advance if the day-to-day tracking processes used by your agency will meet federal requirements. I call it "Time Card Mapping,” which requires taking a sampling of the forms currently used by an agency and comparing them, field by field, to the FEMA Summary Reports (90-123, etc.). If there is a perfect match, you're good to go. If not, there's work to be done. In the training program I teach, the typical result is that the sample forms only capture 50 to 60 percent of the required data. It was from this kind of exercise that Quintos realized that her department needed to improve its response tracking procedures.

Mike Martinet recently retired as the emergency planning manager for the Controller's Office for San Francisco.

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