Is ‘Pretty Good’ Enough?

Stafford Act, FEMA and ICS get the job done, but could use some changes.

Stafford Act, FEMA and ICS get the job done, but could use some changes.
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The question on the table today is whether “pretty good” is good enough when it comes to emergency management. Because some things are pretty good, after all. The Stafford Act, FEMA, the Incident Command System (ICS): They get the job done. 

But is that sufficient? There is grumbling throughout much of the emergency management community that each of these pillars of the profession can and should be improved upon.

They’re poorly structured, top heavy, fiscally irrational, inflexible — pick your poison. Changes must be made.

Despite the flaws, some say, the system runs as well as one might hope, and why tinker with (moderate) success? So what should and can be changed? How can Stafford, FEMA and ICS be made to perform to higher standards?


The Stafford Act

Enacted in 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act lays out the framework for federal disaster assistance. It establishes a process for declaring disasters, determining response levels, and dividing up costs among federal, state and local governments, depending on circumstance.

Some want to see changes in the way Stafford approaches jurisdictional questions. Essentially the law declares disasters based on political, rather than geographic, boundaries. “This is fundamentally flawed,” said John Pennington, director of emergency management for Snohomish County, Wash.

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The Stafford Act declares disasters based on political, rather than geographic, boundaries, some say. Photo by APImages.com


He points for example to the likely scenario of a statewide disaster in Oregon negatively impacting the neighboring county in Washington state. The disaster gets defined in Oregon, by Stafford guidelines, and yet “if you cross that half-mile bridge between Oregon and Washington, Vancouver remains oftentimes isolated,” cut off from appropriate aid.

Some go further, noting that today’s understanding of the law is fundamentally flawed. The act once placed a priority on speeding disaster recovery. Recent changes to the wording emphasized saving the government money, said Gerald Quinn of Gerard J. Quinn and Associates and the California Emergency Services Association.

It doesn’t work that way. By saving the federal government money, all you do is shift the cost to the states. “The costs don’t change just because you deny federal assistance,” Quinn said. Better to put the priority back where it belongs — on recovery — rather than focus on a fictional financial ambition.

Quinn carries forward this theme of financial equity across various aspects of Stafford. Today, for instance, the government gives tax write-offs to businesses buying flood insurance, but not to individuals. Everyone should get those breaks, Quinn said. “It has to be equitable to both property owners and business owners. We’re all U.S. taxpayers.”

Proponents of the Stafford Act say it puts a legitimate burden on states to pull their own weight. If you can make it on your own, you should, with the feds stepping in only when local resources have been overwhelmed. Some call this a sensible arrangement.

“The balance right now is relatively effective in that we — state and local jurisdictions — are forced to make a strong effort on our own, which was always the underlying intent of the Stafford Act, that you should be able to do it on your own,” Pennington said.

Then, when a jurisdiction is legitimately overwhelmed, “the federal government will have a more streamlined method for delivering assistance. Otherwise, we rely too heavily on the federal government and often do not develop our own internal capabilities,” he said.

Would others like to see the federal side carry more weight? Likely so.


FEMA Reform

Everybody loves FEMA when the tornado touches down; we stand on our porches waiting for federal rescuers to come and set things right. Everybody hates FEMA after the wind dies down. The agency was too slow; it didn’t help enough.

Emergency managers are typically more for than against. FEMA does make a difference, but they’d like to see some changes.

As president of the Massachusetts Association of Emergency Management Professionals, Carol McMahon sees a lot of good in the agency, but complains that interactions with FEMA can be onerous, far exceeding the capabilities of many local authorities.

Massachusetts has six full-time emergency management directors statewide, hardly enough to oversee the efforts of local authorities trying to write complicated mitigation grants. It would help if FEMA would offer more training, but what’s needed is a drastic overhaul in procedures. “It can change, but it is going to take a systemic change,” she said.

In the meantime, the process remains weightier than some communities can reasonably bear. “With respect to the FEMA mitigation program, there still exists a somewhat onerous process for individual communities to go through, to prepare a mitigation grant that meets the criteria for award,” said McMahon. “If FEMA wants to promote resilience in local communities through mitigation efforts, there needs to be a method for our EMDs [emergency management departments] to get the assistance needed to write a successful grant application.” 
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Some would like to see FEMA have a mission beyond response. Photo by FEMA


At the same time, McMahon would like to see FEMA take a greater leadership role as an advocate for emergency management across all levels of government. “We continue to see that local emergency management is still often relegated to the ‘other duties as assigned’ role of a full-time first responder,” she said. “The message to the local purse holders on the importance of professionalism and leadership in emergency management needs to come down from FEMA.” While local emergency managers understand their own worth, some support for their role coming from Washington, D.C., could help local managers to see emergency managers in a different light.

In the meantime, some say it would be good to see FEMA get its own processes in order. As director of emergency services in Warren County, Ohio, Michael Bunner complains about the FEMA bureaucracy. “Just like any federal agency, they are very top heavy, and so they can of lose track of what they are tasked to do. They need to look very often at what their mission statement is,” he said.

Bunner would like to see the agency streamlined. He’d also like to see the agency play a part in the disaster community that goes beyond response. “FEMA needs to be the standard bearer for what emergency management is. They need to set the tone and the pace,” he said. Even though emergency management resides primarily at the state and local levels, federal leaders can play a role in defining the profession. “I would like to see FEMA come out with a core set of ideas and fundamentals for emergency management.”

In Prince William County, Va., Emergency Management Planner Amy Tarte would settle for a bit more clarity. If FEMA sometimes stumbles, it happens partly because the agency is following vague congressional instructions. “So much of the guidance is open to interpretation, it creates a lot of confusion, which makes it look inadequate, which leads to distrust in the system as a whole,” she said.

Quinn, meanwhile, has a laundry list.

It starts with land use. FEMA or some other high-up authority approves construction on a flood plain. The plain … floods. FEMA denies the disaster claim, arguing that the locals employed dumb land-use practices. That’s not fair, he said. “In some instances it was FEMA who signed off on the hydrology, it was FEMA who certified the levees,” Quinn said. “The federal government makes decisions, the local government makes decisions relying on those and then the local government is blamed for the outcomes.”

Sometimes the state approves a road, the county builds it, the road goes bad and FEMA again denies the claim. Quinn wants to see FEMA respect the claims of counties that were, after all, given the go-ahead by those higher up.

Just as with the Stafford Act, FEMA generates mixed feelings in terms of the delicate balance between federal and state authorities, often placing a heavy burden on states even as it comes in to help with a situation.

“Is it painful at times for states and locals? Yes, certainly,” Pennington said. “But it is forcing us to examine our own capabilities and not simply build into our policies the expectation that FEMA and assets and programs will automatically be engaged.”

Pennington has no great quibble with FEMA asking states to carry a share of the load. But he notes that at the same time, states must be given the autonomy to carry that load as they see fit. The regional model for FEMA “is at its best and strongest when its regions have the capabilities to do their jobs and the authority to act as autonomously as possible,” he said. While states must coordinate with FEMA, they also must have “the ability to work with their respective states, tribes, and yes, even directly with local jurisdictions.”


Incident Command System

While Stafford and FEMA draw attention at the national level, the Incident Command System unfolds much closer to the ground as the core operating procedure managers are tasked to put into place in times of crisis. It’s been a helpful tool — no one disputes that. But questions have come up. Is ICS too rigid? Do we depend too much on its structure as being the only way to get things done? Even among those who basically endorse the system, the answers are complicated.

Of the hot-button issues considered in this article, ICS is in some ways the most complicated — not because of all the voices raised against it, but because of the deep ambivalence even among its supporters.

Pennington lays it out this way, starting with the practical reality. “When 75 different outside agencies come into a rural EOC, each with a different method of operations, coordination or resource ordering, chaos will almost certainly ensue unless there is that common denominator such as ICS to default to,” he said. As a result of this logical necessity, “ICS is now truly part of the fabric of our response culture.”

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One criticism of the Incident Command System is that training is perishable and needs constant refreshing. Photo by APImages.com


The trouble is ICS sets a high bar for how things get organized and managed. “Clearly small communities cannot often fill all or even a few of the ICS boxes. They want to make it work, but they do not have the realistic capability to make it happen,” he said.

Consultant Lucien Canton wrote that ICS has two significant drawbacks. It was developed to coordinate the activities of hierarchical agencies that have a defined chain of command. But not all organizations are hierarchical. For instance, in the corporate sector, many companies are more consensus driven and use flattened management structures. Attempting to use an incident management structure that is contrary to your corporate culture inevitably leads to failure. This is particularly true, Canton says, when you consider the second ICS drawback, which is the extensive training burden it places on an organization. Unless practiced very day, ICS training is perishable and needs constant refreshing.

Another criticism, which was voiced repeatedly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, is that ICS doesn’t scale to large catastrophes because it wasn’t created for them. And it was reported that many working the oil spill were unfamiliar with ICS. It’s a checkbox, critics say, and not really learned.

Tarte gives the system high marks, but she sees where others can get stuck. ICS is a management-oriented, task-based structure that appeals to responders from, say, public health. Cops and firefighters might see its chain of command as too rigid, especially when they are used to working with greater autonomy. Not a shortcoming, but instead a cultural issue, she said.

Such problems can be overcome without changing the system, but rather by changing the mindset. Instead of teaching ICS as a set of rules, training should position it as a set of principles. “In every working environment, you have superiors and subordinates, you have common terminology. All ICS does is define those things and give them a framework,” Tarte said. “Within that, you let people explore and do what they need to do, but there is still accountability.”

Bunner rides the same horse. He has no problem with the system — “the pieces are in place, the structure is there” — but he’d like to see smarter training. Even those who understand ICS still muddle the documentation; they think too locally without pondering the global picture; they fail to articulate objectives and strategies.

But that doesn’t mean the system is flawed. “You can massage it to be whatever is applicable to you during that event. It boils down to education,” Bunner said, especially in smaller jurisdictions, which may not be able to tap into the needed resources.

Maybe it is all about education, but that’s not a trivial statement. A poorly understood ICS will be a poorly implemented ICS. “When I go into an EOC, I have no problem with people running that EOC under ICS. But if people don’t understand the objective, if they don’t understand the discipline, that is going to be an issue,” Quinn said.

Even when key players have been trained up to speed, cultural issues will keep coming back. Those who have issues with ICS called it “too rigid,” and ultimately it doesn’t matter how true that perception is. To make the system deliver to its best potential, such perceptions must be overcome.

It is easy for rescuers to get mired in their own biases. “ICS is built on a military model and I dislike that, because civilians don’t say ‘Yes, Sir,’” said Quinn. In fact, he acknowledges, the military vibe only coats the surface. “There is a lot of adaptability as part of the structure. But independent operators don’t get to just make decisions in a vacuum.”

Perhaps most important, those on both sides of the fence acknowledge that when all is said and done, there does need to be some baseline, some playbook with all the basic moves laid out. For today at least, ICS is that playbook. “It truly is the common denominator,” Pennington said.

Those who fear the hierarchical nature of ICS need to be taught a different view. Any incident commander is free to make changes on the fly; any responder can make the case for a change in tactic. “There is no impediment to doing that. You can do it. But you can’t do it unilaterally,” Quinn said.

Emergency managers know that for the most part things work most of the time, not just at ground level in times of crisis, but also at the level of policy. Even big-picture federal policies, procedures and agencies very often get the job done.

Still, things can always get better. Laws can be changed to respond to current needs, agencies can be fine-tuned and even the processes that govern the fundamentals of emergency management can stand to come under the microscope from time to time.

As for these three in particular? It would be great to be able to say that the time is ripe, that the political and financial stars have aligned at the local, state and federal levels, and that important changes are in the wind. But change is incremental when and if it comes at all. For any advances to be made, the emergency management community will need to advocate on its own behalf, to speak up among those who wield the power, ensuring that the issues are understood and the priorities are recognized by those in a position to implement change.

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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