2021: Another Horrible National Preparedness Report

FEMA’s Christmas present to us in 2021, as with the past several years, was the National Preparedness Report. Before I dive in, a few of reminders. 1) You can find my reviews of the reports of prior years here. 2) To get copies of the reports of prior years, FEMA archives these in the unrestricted side of the Homeland Security Digital Library. 3) Each report is derived from data from the year prior, so this December 2021 report actually covers the calendar year of 2020.

The 2021 report covers risks and capabilities, as have the reports of past years. It also covers ‘Management Opportunities’ which “the Federal Government, SLTTs (state, local, territories, and tribes), and the private sector could use to build capability and address capacity gaps.” It offers a slightly different perspective than the prior year’s ‘Critical Considerations for Emergency Management’, but fundamentally offers the same type of constructive commentary.

Keeping in mind that through much of 2020, the US, as with nations across the globe, was managing the COVID 19 Coronavirus pandemic. An observation from this report is that the word ‘COVID’ comes up 222 times in the document. That is a LOT of focus on one particular hazard. While I’ll grant that it impacted everyone, had a number of cascading impacts, and there are some statements made in the document about other hazards and concurrent incidents, I fear that when nearly every paragraph mentions COVID, we seem to lose a sense of all-hazard emergency management in the document and thus in the state of the nation’s preparedness. What I do appreciate, as with FEMA’s new Strategic Plan and other recent documents, there is acknowledgement and discussion around inequities in disaster relief. This is an important topic which needs to continue getting exposure. Related to this they also reference the National Risk Index that was released in 2020, which includes indices of social vulnerability. This is a valuable tool for all emergency managers.

The information on Risk included in the 2021 report is much more comprehensive and informative than that in the 2020 report, though they once again miss an opportunity to provide metrics and displays of infographics. While words are valuable, well-designed infographics tell an even better story. Most numbers given in this section of the report were buried in seemingly endless paragraphs of text, and there certainly were no deep analytics provided. It’s simply poor story telling and buries much of the value of this section.

While the mention of climate change had been forbidden in the past few reports, I would have expected the 2021 report to have some significant inclusion on the matter. Instead, it’s highlighted in two pages covering ‘Emerging Risks’ with very little information given. Climate change isn’t emerging, folks, it’s here.

Capabilities are a significant focus of the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) and Stakeholder Preparedness Review (SPR) completed by states, Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funded regions, and others. As part of the THIRA/SPR process, stakeholders traditionally identify their own preparedness goals (capability targets) for each of the 32 Core Capabilities outlined in the National Preparedness Goal. For the 2021 report, FEMA limited the capability targets to a given set focused on pandemic-related capabilities. As mentioned earlier, while the pandemic is certainly a principal concern, and many of the capability targets can be leveraged toward other hazards, I think this was a failure of the all-hazards approach. Further, with this focus, the 2021 report fails to provide most of the metrics provided in reports of the past, identifying, in aggregate, where stakeholders assessed their own standing in each Core Capability. This is the most significant gauge of preparedness, and they provide so little information on it in this report that I feel the report fails at its primary goal.

I’ve mentioned in the past that the metrics provided in previous reports are superficial at best and provide little by way of analysis. Unfortunately, the metrics provided in the 2021 report are even more lacking, and what there is only provides a snapshot of 2020 instead of any trend analysis.

What is included in this section of the document that I appreciated were some infographics compiling information on some of the capability targets that FEMA pre-determined. Unfortunately, they didn’t even provide these infographics for all of the limited set of capability targets, and the information provided is still fairly weak. Again, this severely limits the value of this being a national report on preparedness.

The last major component of the document is Management Opportunities. This section similarly provides seemingly endless paragraphs of text, but does approach these management opportunities like a strategic plan, setting goals, objectives, and (some) possible metrics for each opportunity. These offer valuable approaches, which coincidentally dovetail well into the goals of FEMA’s new strategic plan and will hopefully provide some solid value to emergency management programs at all levels. I think this section is really the most valuable component of the entire report. Unfortunately, it’s the shortest. The opportunities identified in the report are:

  • Developing a Preparedness Investment Strategy
  • Addressing Steady-State Inequities, Vulnerabilities, and a Dynamic Risk Landscape
  • Strengthen Processes Within and Better Connect Areas of the National Preparedness System

Overall, while there are some pockets of good content, this is another disappointing report. FEMA still isn’t telling us much about the state of preparedness across the nation; and in fact this report tells us even less than prior reports, which I didn’t think was possible. They attempt to tell stories through some focused discussion on a few capability targets, which has some value, but are providing little to no information on the big picture; not the current state of preparedness and certainly not any analysis of trends. Even the section on Management Opportunities isn’t consistent in identifying metrics for each opportunity.

What remains a mystery to me is that it takes a full year to develop this report. The metrics I allude to throughout my commentary are largely easy to obtain and analyze, as much of this information comes to FEMA in quantifiable data; also making trend analysis a rather easy chore. Last year’s report, while still severely lacking, was formatted much better than this year’s, which lacked a vision for story telling and communication of data.

Simply put, emergency managers and other recipients of this report (Congress?) should not accept this type of reporting. Despite coming in at 94 pages, it tells us so little and in my mind does not meet the spirit of the requirement for a National Preparedness Report (this is defined in Presidential Policy Directive 8). States, UASIs, and others who complete and submit THIRAs and SPRs should be livid that their efforts, while certainly (hopefully) valuable to them, are being poorly aggregated, studied, analyzed, and reported as part of the National Preparedness Report. In fact I feel that the 2021 report is telling a story that FEMA wants to tell, supported by select data and case studies; rather than actually reporting on the state of preparedness across the nation, as informed by federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, private sector, and non-profit stakeholders.  

As always, the thoughts of my readers are more than welcome.

Happy New Year to everyone!

© 2022 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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