A few days ago, FEMA published its after action report (AAR) for the 2017 hurricane season. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that last year was nothing short of devastating. The major hurricane activity revolved around Hurricane Harvey (Texas), Hurricane Irma (Caribbean/South Atlantic coast), and Hurricane Maria (Caribbean), but domestic response efforts were also significantly dedicated to a rough season of wildfires in California. While each of these major disasters was bad enough on its own, the overlap of incident operations between them is what was most crippling to the federal response. Along with these major incidents were the multitude of typical localized incidents that local, state, and some federal resources manage throughout the year. 2017 was a bad year for disasters. I don’t think any nation could have supported disaster response as well as the US did.
No response is ever perfect, however, and there were certainly plenty of issues associated with last year’s hurricane responses. Politicians and media outlets made issues in Texas and Puerto Rico very apparent. While some of these issues may rest on the shoulders of FEMA and other federal agencies, state and local governments hold the major responsibility for them.
This FEMA AAR contains good information, perspective, and reflections. There are a lot of successes and failures to address. While I’m not going to write a review of the entire document, which you can read for yourself, but I will discuss a few big-picture items and highlight a few specifics.
First, is the overall organization of the document. The document is organized through reflection across each of five ‘focus areas’. I’m not sure why this was the chosen approach. The doctrinal approach should be a reflection on Core Capabilities, as outlined in the National Preparedness Goal. Some of these focus areas seem to easily align with a Core Capability, such as ‘Sustained Whole Community Logistics Operations’, which gives me reason to wonder why Core Capabilities were not referenced. While we use Core Capabilities as a standard in exercises, the purpose for them being part of the National Preparedness Goal is so that we have a standard of reference throughout all preparedness activities. Any AAR – incident, event, or exercise – should bring us back to preparedness activities.
The second issue I have with the document is the focus. While it’s understood that this is FEMA’s AAR, not a wholistic federal government AAR, it’s almost too FEMA-centric. The essence of emergency management is that emergency management agencies are coordination bodies, as such, most of their work gets accomplished through coordinating with other agencies. While it’s true that FEMA certainly has a significant work force and resources, the AAR seems to stop at the inside threshold of FEMA headquarters, without taking the additional step to acknowledge follow-on actions from a FEMA-rooted issue that may involve other agencies.
Among the positive takeaways were some of the planning assumptions outlined in the report. There is a short list of planning assumptions on page 9, for example, that provide some encouraging comparisons between planning assumptions and reality. This is a great reminder for local and state plans to not only include numbers and percentages in their planning assumptions, which will directly lead to identifying capability and resource gaps, but to also reality check those numbers after incidents.
Page 10 of the repost highlights the success of FEMA’s Crisis Action Planning groups. These groups identified future issues and developed strategies to address these issues. This is actually an adaptation of an underutilized function within the ICS Planning Section to examine potential medium and long-term issues.
Pages 11 and 12 highlight how Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) data from states and UASIs can inform response. It’s encouraging to see preparedness data directly inform response. I hope this is something that will continue to evolve.
Pages 22 and 23 discuss the staffing issues FEMA had with massive overlapping deployments. Along with their regular full time workforce, FEMA also deployed a huge volume of their cadre personnel. They also tapped into a pilot program called State Supplemental Staffing. While there were some administrative and bureaucratic difficulties, it seems to have been considerably successful.
Overall, this is a good document citing realistic observations and recommendations. While the document is FEMA-centric, the way of FEMA is the way of emergency management in the US, so it’s always worth keeping an eye on what they are doing, as many of their activities have reach to state and local governments we as other federal agencies.
What important concepts jumped out at you?
© 2018 Timothy Riecker, CEDP