Former California Emergency Services Director Discusses 21st Century Challenges

Richard Andrews addresses technology’s role in emergency management, and the relationship between emergency management and homeland security.

by / September 9, 2009

Richard Andrews is the dean of emergency managers in the United States. Many of his 30 years of emergency management experience have been served in senior positions in government and business. Formerly the director of California's Office of Emergency Services, Andrews also served on President George W. Bush's Homeland Security Advisory Council in 2002, and currently serves on the National Research Council Committee on the Future of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. Andrews supplied written responses to the following questions.


Q: What are some of the significant events that have formed the discipline of emergency management in the last 30 to 40 years?

A: Everyone would probably have their own list, but mine would include:

  • The creation of [the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)] in 1979 — created the basic structure of emergency management that we continue to work with today.
  • Passage of the Stafford Act in 1988 — established the fundamental principles of disaster recovery.
  • Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — for a variety of reasons but most importantly because it provided the impetus for the creation of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC).
  • The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — provided the impetus for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
  • Hurricane Katrina — again, for a variety of reasons, but most significantly in terms of long-term impacts on emergency management, for the enactment of the Post-Katrina [Emergency Management] Reform Act.

Q: The advent of homeland security following the attacks of 9/11 could have eclipsed, and some would argue it did, the profession of emergency management. What do you see as the relationship between emergency management and homeland security?

A: 9/11 changed the entire context of emergency management. Whether at the federal level, with the creation of DHS, at the state level with the establishment of state homeland security advisers, or the local level with the significant influx of funding, the context changed and, in my view, permanently changed.

Far too much time has been spent since 2001 in arguing about the relationship between emergency management and homeland security. While it is understandable that some resentment resulted from the fact that many emergency managers felt that they benefited little from the homeland security funding programs and were rather often saddled with the administrative responsibilities for overseeing programs that were often complex and constantly changing, it is my belief that emergency management would be ill served by continuing to argue for a status separate from homeland security. Hopefully the decision of the Obama administration to leave FEMA within DHS will settle the issue for the foreseeable future.

Q: What do you see as the big challenges facing emergency management in these early years of the 21st century?

A: Well, clearly funding is the most immediate challenge, especially for state and local emergency management agencies. And the challenge of clearly articulating the role of emergency management as a key component of a comprehensive public safety program is ongoing. Emergency management, especially at the local level, is often marginalized as a stepchild of other public safety functions.

I think there are several big issues that will provide somewhat new challenges for emergency managers: planning for and responding to catastrophic events — e.g., a New Madrid earthquake, a major biological attack, a pandemic. From a more long-term perspective, I believe the challenges arising from global warming could have widespread impacts on our society and, consequently on emergency management.

Q: What role do you see technology playing in the field of emergency management today and into the future?

A: I would highlight two areas where technology presents challenges and opportunities for emergency management: One, creating truly effective emergency management information systems. Many of the efforts in this area have been fragmented and the promise of the technologies has often far exceeded the realities of what has been implemented. Two, determining how best to use the rapidly developing Web 2.0 social networking technologies. Just in the past year emergency management agencies from FEMA to local jurisdictions have begun to take advantage of social networking sites. How best to use these technologies is an important issue that emergency managers need to rigorously assess now.

Q: You have been associated with larger emergency management programs. For the smaller jurisdictions that have one emergency manager and no other staff, what would you tell them to concentrate on?

A: The challenges for emergency managers in smaller jurisdictions are ever continuous. I would suggest focusing on two areas: building support among other agencies and the private sector for preparedness and mitigation efforts, and being able to respond to the most likely emergencies that could occur in your jurisdiction.

Q: Hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemic flu and climate change. What worries you most in this list of national hazards and why?

A: As a Californian, earthquakes worry me the most, but I think the long-term impacts of climate change are the most ominous challenges on the horizon.

Q: Any last words of wisdom that you would like to share?

A: I’m optimistic that the current leadership at FEMA has the experience and ability to make great strides in the next few years. They understand the issues and how the nation’s emergency management system is designed to work; and they're making a concerted effort to promote a greater understanding on the part of policymakers and the public about the respective roles of federal, state and local emergency management agencies. Hopefully they will also be able to address what I believe is the most inefficient aspect of our emergency management programs — the public assistance program. This program is needlessly bureaucratic and cumbersome, resulting in far too many conflicts between local, state and federal agencies and a protracted recovery period that ill serves our communities and citizens.

Richard Andrews, former director, California Office of Emergency Services

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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