FEMA’s 2020 National Preparedness Report – A Review

It seems an annual tradition for me to be reviewing the National Preparedness Report. I’ve endeavored to provide constructive criticism of these documents, which are compilations of data from state and federal agencies, national-level responses, and other sources.

This year’s National Preparedness Report emphasizes that it is based on data from the 2019 calendar year. In looking back on past reports (note: they are no longer on the FEMA site – I was able to find them in the Homeland Security Digital Library) this has been the past practice. Perhaps I never realized it before, but a report talking about data from practically a full year ago seems to hold even less relevance. That means that enacting changes on a national level based on this data may not even begin to occur until two years have passed. Even taking into consideration that states and UASIs are compiling their reports early in a year for the previous year, it still seems a long time to wait for the national level report. This extent of lag is further emphasized by the document’s foreword, written by the FEMA Administrator, which makes many references to COVID-19 and how much different next year’s report will be, while not really speaking at all about the current report. This speaks a lot to how much we, as a practice, are attracted by the shiny objects dangled in front of us, seemingly ignoring all else.

My first pass of the 2020 report brought two primary impressions: 1) The instructive content of the document is some of the best I’ve seen out of FEMA, and 2) There is a considerable lack of data, with a low value for much of what they have included.

In regard to my first impression, the discussion of concepts such as risk (including emerging risk and systemic risk), capabilities, cascading impacts, community lifelines, public-private partnerships, and vulnerable populations has the perfect level of depth and detail. Not only do they discuss each of these concepts, but they also identify how they each connect to each other. This is EXACTLY the kind of consolidation of information we have needed for a long time. This lends itself to truly integrated preparedness and the kinds of information I’ve mentioned many times as being needed, including in the next version of CPG-101. I’m truly impressed with this content, the examples they provide, and how they demonstrate the interconnectedness of it all. I’ll certainly be using this document as a great source of this consolidated information. Now that I’ve extolled my love and adoration for that content, I’m left wondering why it’s in the National Preparedness Report. It’s great content for instructional material and doctrinal material on integrated preparedness, but it really has no place, at least to this extent of detail in the National Preparedness Report. Aside from the few examples they use, there isn’t much value in this format as a report.

This brings me to my next early observation: that of very little actual data contained in the report. Given the extent to which states, territories, UASIs, and other stakeholders provide data to FEMA each year by way of their Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments (THIRAs) and Stakeholder Preparedness Reviews (SPRs), along with various other sources of data, this document doesn’t contain a fraction of what is being reported. There are two map products contained in the entire report, one showing the number of federal disaster declarations for the year, the other showing low-income housing availability across the nation. Given the wide array of information provided by state and UASI, and compiled by FEMA region, surely there must be some really insightful trends and other analysis to provide. There are a few other data sets included in the report showing either raw numbers or percentages – nothing I would really consider analytics. Much of the data is also presented as a snapshot in time, without any comparison to previous years.

Any attempt to view this document as a timely, meaningful, and relevant report on the current state of preparedness in the nation, much less an examination of preparedness over time, is simply an exercise in frustration. The previous year’s report at least had a section titled ‘findings’, even though any real analysis of data there was largely non-existent. This year’s report doesn’t even feign providing a section on findings. To draw on one consistently frustrating example, I’ll use the Core Capability of housing. While this report dances around doctrine and concepts, and even has a section on housing, it’s not addressing why so little preparedness funding or even moderate effort is directed toward addressing the issue of emergency housing, which has arguably been the biggest preparedness gap for time eternal in every state of the nation. Looking broadly at all Core Capabilities, this year’s report provides a chart similar to what we’ve seen in previous years’ reports, identifying how much preparedness funding has gone toward each Core Capability. In relative numbers, very little has changed; even though we know that issues like housing, long-term vulnerability reduction, infrastructure systems, and supply chains have huge gaps. All these reports are telling me is that we’re doing the same things over and over again with little meaningful change.

So there it is… while I really am thoroughly impressed with some of the content of the report, much of that content really doesn’t have a place in this report (at least to such an extent), and for what little data is provided in the report, most of it has very little value. The introduction to the document states that “this year’s report is the product of rigorous research, analysis, and input from stakeholders”. To be blunt, I call bullshit on this statement. I expect a report to have data and various analysis of that data, not only telling us what is, but examining why it is. We aren’t getting that. The National Preparedness Report is an annual requirement per the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. I challenge that FEMA is not meeting the intent of that law with the reports they have been providing. How can we be expected, as a nation, to improve our state of readiness when we aren’t provided with the data needed to support and justify those improvements?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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