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Defund Emergency Management

Whose responsibility is it to fund state and local emergency management?

I shared a podcast by the same name as this blog post two days after Christmas when everyone was home recovering from too much eggnog. Now that my International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Disaster Zone column is in print in their January Bulletin, I’m sharing it with you here now.

See below:

Defund Emergency Management

If you don’t like the title of this column or the idea of taking money away from emergency managers and our emergency management programs, let me explain.

I’ve written previously about how we as a profession have become addicted to federal grant programs that exist for the purposes of advancing disaster preparedness activities like public education, training and disaster exercises. Then there is the accelerating list of mitigation grants that fund pre-disaster, post-disaster projects to lessen the impact of disaster. Let’s not forget grants specifically targeting urban areas, the maritime industry, public health, and most recently an entirely new series of cybersecurity grants. I’ll just use the grant acronyms, EMPG; SHSP, UASI; RCPG; MSGP; BRIC;pre-disaster mitigation, etc. to provide a shorthand list of federal grant funding steams.

I fully agree that federal funding should be available for catastrophic disaster response and recovery but should federal grant programs fund state and local emergency preparedness ?

What got me thinking about the topic of “defunding emergency management” was all the campaign ads we were deluged with leading up to the mid-term elections. Currently elected congress members vied competitively with their electoral opponents for who had done the most or would do the most for state and local law enforcement agencies, by providing federal funding for things like body cameras or bullet proof vests.

Which brings me back to the topic of local and state government values and priorities. It is pretty much a given that state and local governments will list public safety at the top of their priority list. Do their actions and their priorities line up—no! If they did, you would not have all the federal dollars flowing to first responder agencies for specialized equipment to detect or to respond to events of all types. If a fire boat or patrol boat is needed for a maritime setting, who should be funding that need?

You also would not have the need for federal grant programs going to emergency management to fund the very basics for what makes up a functional emergency management program. It is not unusual for a larger emergency management program to have a significant number of their staff positions being federally funded. If you did not have the federal funds flowing into state and local emergency management programs they could be hollow shells of the programs that exist today.

Whose responsibility is it to have good schools, functional utilities, passible roads, safe streets and robust emergency medical service (EMS)/fire departments and yes—disaster ready communities? Simple answer: state and local governments! Today these governments shirk those duties knowing that their inaction to fund public safety will be backstopped by Uncle Sugar via the plethora of grants that are available to provide a more robust emergency and disaster ready community.

Our Congressional representatives are more than happy to respond to state and local requests so that they can show they are responsive to the needs of their constituents. Our professional organizations, like the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and our allied first responder associations have lobbyists who actively court sustained support for existing grant programs and the need for additional grant programs. We have fallen into the “Hunger Games” trap of this is how the system works so we as receivers of grant funding compete with other first responder disciplines for the federal funding that becomes available. It is not an “all for one and one for all” approach to grant funding since it is a zero-sum game. If one discipline gets more funding, it means that there is likely less funding available for others.

Yes, I am the pot calling the kettle black. I’ve chased grants with the best of them. I’ve prioritized which ones to compete for. And, fought for more funding for emergency management while very much appreciating the federal funding that was provided. It allowed for the hiring of additional staff and new projects being completed that moved the disaster readiness ball down the court.

It is just that the balance of funding and where it comes from for emergency management is totally out of whack. It is state and local governments that should shoulder the majority of the funding for their jurisdiction. The proper role for the federal government is to backstop states for disaster response and recovery when there are truly major disasters that go way beyond the capability of the state to respond. These are not the “run of mill floods, fires, windstorms” but large-scale disasters like we saw in 2022 with Hurricane Ian and its impacts to the West Coast of Florida.

That said, we will remain in the funding rut we are in. I don’t see it changing in any way in the future, and the imbalance and shifting of funding to go even further to that of federal largess as we continue to have mega disasters fueled by global warming.

For now, “It is what it is!”
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.