Opinion: FEMA Still Mired in 'Know-It-All' Mentality

Will Obama administration repair relationships between federal and local agencies?

by / February 25, 2009

Presidential transitions provide opportunities for changing how government and agencies function. A change in overall philosophy of governance by a new administration can lead to very dramatic, even radical changes in agency priorities, programs and grants.

There could be new directions ahead for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under Barack Obama's administration. As federal agencies go, FEMA is a relatively young agency that has already seen significant changes in its 30-year history. I won't tackle here the issue of FEMA remaining part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or reverting to an independent agency, perhaps even a Cabinet-level one. What's discussed below can happen no matter where FEMA resides on the organizational chart, as long as the right leadership is in place.

Is FEMA a response, recovery, preparedness or mitigation agency? The answer is yes to all. The Bush administration's mistake of trying to segment FEMA into one or two categories of emergency management was an error that has been corrected. If there's to be a good interface between federal, state and local organizations with the emergency management function, then all phases of emergency management must remain in FEMA and have emphasis.

Much lip service has been paid to the notion that "all disasters are local," yet FEMA remains mired in a top-down, "headquarters-knows-all" mentality. If the goal is to build a disaster-resilient nation, then it must be done at the state and local levels - only there can broad guidance be turned into local and regional solutions.

The FEMA regions that are geographically dispersed must be empowered to work with their states and local jurisdictions. They can be the cornerstones for restoring trust between emergency managers at all government levels and in the private sector. FEMA regions can also be key to unlocking the power of collaboration between government levels. FEMA shouldn't dictate solutions, but work with those agencies and the private sector that want to be part of building regional coalitions. Building meaningful relationships will be an important contribution to bringing parties to the table and discovering new ways to build regional partnerships.


Chance for a Do-Over

Anyone who works in emergency management knows that strong interpersonal relationships are the most important aspect of what we do. The relationships between FEMA and state and local jurisdictions and agencies are fractured and broken. Trust in FEMA and the DHS is at an all-time low. This is because "listening" to state and local concerns and incorporating what's heard hasn't been valued by many federal agency leaders. The change in the Oval Office presents a unique opportunity for a do-over in order to begin anew at building relationships, then trust between people and organizations, and finally trust between government levels. It won't happen overnight, but the effort must begin immediately after Inauguration Day.

Media - in all its forms - must be embraced by FEMA's leadership. Rather than treating newsgatherers as the enemy, respectful partnering opportunities should be sought. The sad story of the "Fake News Conference" - FEMA staffers misleadingly asked questions in lieu of reporters at a "news briefing" during the 2007 California wildfires - is one example of how you're setting yourself up for failure when you don't train with entities that will be part of a disaster response. I don't believe that FEMA deliberately faked a news conference. The public affairs staff only did what they normally do during disaster exercises. They started asking questions like the media because no media were present. They were in this habit because the media are never invited to "play" in the exercises FEMA holds. Media must be invited to participate in disaster exercises. How else will they learn to cover sensitive issues like a pandemic flu outbreak or a weapons of mass destruction attack if they haven't practiced and understand the issues?

New media, like Web 2.0 solutions, must be employed, and the knowledge and influence of FEMA employees should be unleashed. FEMA should be acknowledged for having established a blog and a Twitter site. However, these are relatively sterile in their execution. FEMA employees should be encouraged to post information and engage one another and their state and local peers in a vigorous dialog.

Can it be messy? Of course it can. But to make this happen, a significant change will need to be made. The lawyers will have to stop running FEMA. Lawyers are not innovators, nor are they communicators; their role is to ensure that what's said or done is legal. Only strong, senior, politically appointed leadership with thick skin and transparent and confident leadership skills will make this happen. There's potential that it can happen in an Obama administration given his campaign's penchant for the use of 21st-century communications tools.


Emphasize Mitigation

Perhaps my most controversial recommendation is this: Establish emergency management and homeland security block grants. This would combine the "alphabet soup" of existing legacy grant programs that sprang up following 9/11, and the establishment of the DHS.

Once a grant program is established, each discipline looks at its funding stream as "its rice bowl" that's not to be messed with. This has led to a lack of coordination between state and local agencies and jurisdictions. Each organization fights to maintain its funding and has its national association and lobbying in Washington, D.C., fighting to maintain or increase its funds. Instead of promoting coordination between agencies and disciplines, this funding process wastes dollars and time, duplicates effort and further fractures preparedness at the local and regional level.

Providing block grants to state and local jurisdictions would force the players to the table to sort out their regional priorities. Send the funds through the states and let them administer the block grants by region, not by jurisdiction. This proposal would shake up the field, and in the end it would promote the relationships, needed coordination and perhaps even collaboration between partners who would have to learn how to play together before there's a disaster.

Last, there needs to be a return to an emphasis on mitigation and a new emphasis on climate adaptation. Emergency management must enhance mitigation-planning efforts to include preparation for more frequent droughts, insect infestations, forest fires, rising sea levels, more frequent and longer rainfalls and floods and events that are already being predicted and possibly experienced.

There's a close alliance between climate adaptation and mitigation. To avoid disaster damages and start protecting our communities from disasters' impacts, we must integrate climate-adaptation strategies into our mitigation plans. FEMA is the agency that can help guide and direct our national efforts in this area.

This is not an exhaustive list of needed actions, but these can make an enduring change on how our nation plans for the future. It's a future that is bright, but also challenging as we face the potential wrathful acts of man and nature. While we hope for the best, we collectively must become prepared for the worst.

This story appears in the Winter 2009 issue of Emergency Management.

Eric E. Holdeman Contributing Writer
Eric Holdeman is the former director for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management and now blogs at www.disaster-zone.com.