A Disasterous Trend: Cuts in Preparedness Funding

This post was initially inspired by an article from CBS News on funding cuts to disaster preparedness programs.  These cuts go further and deeper than the current sequester cuts we are now seeing.  These cuts are a dangerous and disastrous trend.  To quote the article…

“In fiscal year 2010, Congress appropriated $3.05 billion to FEMA for preparedness grants designed to strengthen “our nation’s ability to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies, …. In fiscal year 2012, that appropriation was less than half that figure – $1.35 billion. The same trend could be seen in FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grants, which fell from $100 million in 2010 to $35.5 million two years later.”

Have all the terrorists gone away?  Has Mother Nature stopped having temper tantrums?  Have stupid people stopped doing stupid things?  I don’t think so!  So why the cuts?

Let’s put some things in perspective… On one hand, we do need to have a bit of fiscal prudence and restraint.  GAO reports have repeatedly shown that many state and local governments are simply not spending down the grant funds they have been allocated.  DHS grants are backed up several grant years with unspent funds.  That said, as we peel back the layers of the onion, there are certain facts that need to be mentioned.  Why aren’t they spending the money they have been given?  First, grant periods have generally been too short.  The most significant reason for this is the inefficiency of bureaucracy we live in.  Follow this trail… The federal fiscal year begins October 1st.  The budget gets passed at some undermined point around that.  DHS, along with all the other agencies, get their allocations.  They then need time to formulate their grant guidance for the funds going to states and locals.  By the time states see this grant guidance and their respective allocations it’s usually close to the end of the second quarter of the federal fiscal year.  States then have to formulate their own grant guidance as they pass through funds to locals.  All this bureaucracy delays the grant year about six months.  Recognizing that nothing could be done about the bureaucracy, DHS finally extended grant years only recently, giving folks a more reasonable amount of time to spend the money.

Another reason why grant funds are slow to spend is that in most cases the grantees don’t actually ask for the money, therefore they don’t have a budget prepared beforehand.  DHS distributes funds based upon a formula.  While an application exists, it’s nothing more than an afterthought and formality.  That leaves states and locals with a pile of cash and no plan on how to spend it.  Here lies the beginning of the breakdown in accountability.  Now most folks will say that it’s easy to spend money.  In government, not so much.  Especially when you consider a few factors: 1) every level of government has spending rules (accountability is a good thing, but that can get in the way of efficiency when RFPs have to be issued for darn near everything); 2) a great deal of equipment was purchased in the big push of funds immediately surrounding 9/11 – what else do we need?; and 3) grants are restricting what funds can be spent on (i.e. there are limits on personnel (salary) expenses, and the purchase of disposables and maintenance costs of equipment – which are of particular importance for exercises).

So governments don’t have a lot of time to spend the money and face a few obstacles in getting the money spent.  But how is this a factor of cuts?  One reason for these cuts is that Congress is seeing that states and locals have a lot of money left over going back several grant years.  Failing to realize the whys and wherefores of it all, they are simply giving less money (because, to them, it’s not needed – but nothing could be further from the truth!).  They are also looking to reduce spending overall, as the article cites, and that’s a hit that will impact nearly everyone.

Taking a look at the grantees, however, there are a few criticisms.  Better and more proactive fiscal planning needs to be implemented.  Costs should be forecasted out several years to better anticipate needs.  They may, sadly, have to trim programs and streamline operations (although most emergency management programs certainly are not living in the lap of luxury).  They also need to be more creative with the declining funds they receive, especially through partnerships and regionalization.  An area doesn’t need to be regarded as a UASI or Catastrophic Planning Zone to work cooperatively as a region, which should include some pooling of funds for collective projects.

What can be approached regionally?  Most preparedness efforts fit well into that category: planning, training, and exercising.  Think about it, you work with your neighbors all the time and disasters don’t seem to stop at the county line, so why not make your cooperation more effective and efficient?  In the absence of regional catastrophic planning, which most areas don’t need to do, consider planning for some credible worst case scenarios and cascading impacts such as flooding and mass care.  Obviously regional mutual aid planning is essential.  How about working with your public health partners?  What about the private sector – how can you strengthen your relationships with them?  Regional planning conferences are a good start!  Regionalized training is obviously a no-brainer and regional exercises are essential making sure that the planning and training are effective and to give folks an opportunity to practice what they have learned.  Lastly, speaking as someone who has experience working for government and as a consultant, in many cases it’s actually more cost-effective and easier to coordinate regional preparedness activities by hiring a consulting firm, some of which have proven experience and expertise in working with the multiple stakeholders that a regional effort would include.

As we face reduced funding, we have to be more creative, cooperative, and communicate specific needs on a regular basis up the chain of government.  If you are with county or local government, let the state know what your needs are.  And don’t just tell them once – be sure to repeat yourself – not in an annoying wintertime house fly kind of way, but when the appropriate opportunity presents itself.  Make sure that you show justification for your needs through after action reports and documented strategies and plans.  Ask the State to take these needs up to federal partners – and when you have the opportunity to speak with these federal partners directly, take advantage of it; be they representatives of FEMA or your local representative of Congress or US Senator.  Remember to be specific and cite the need.  Don’t complain but be direct.  With funding that emergency management programs simply receive without asking being on the decline, we need to be proactive about receiving funds.

Emergency management and, to a greater degree homeland security, have been fortunate to have a good deal of funding over the last decade.  There has been so much money, though, with such short time lines, that things haven’t been done as well as they should have.  Now is the time to re-tool and reexamine how we do business.  Conduct needs assessments to determine what should be focused on and build upon community partnerships.  Consider what the community as a whole – the citizens – are willing to help in preparedness; as well as the private sector.  Whole-community partnerships have perhaps never been so important as they are now.

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