FEMA’s Forgotten Civil Defense Role

A recent article posted to the Homeland Security Affairs Journal of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security is quite thought provoking.  The author, Quin Lucie, an attorney with FEMA and former Marine Corps Judge Advocate, posits in his article, How FEMA Could Lose America’s Next Great War, that FEMA’s legal responsibilities for civil defense have been all but forgotten, potentially endangering the welfare of our citizens and our ability to sufficiently mobilize our industrial war complex in the event of a substantial war.

The article has a lot of great depth on the history of civil defense, FEMA, and its predecessor agencies, and the movement of FEMA away from that role, first in favor of work aligned to various mission areas associated with natural hazards, then eventually including human-caused disasters and terrorism.  The author certainly isn’t wrong that civil defense is a ‘hazard’ that we have left out of our all hazards lexicon.

There are arguments that can be made supporting FEMA’s persistence in their civil defense role, with much of the capability they have developed for their own mission and supported for others being truly applicable to all hazards, including civil defense.  We can name myriad programs and capabilities, such as continuity of operations/continuity of government, incident management teams, preparedness standards, and specialized response teams.  Each of these would absolutely have a role in supporting civil defense.  It seems one of the biggest gaps, however, is in planning, where there is little meaningful inclusion of specific civil defense missions, activities, and capabilities; as well as the association of established capabilities and authorities to civil defense missions.

I applaud the author for mentioning that our ways and means of conducting civil defense as we had in the 50s and 60s is not necessarily something to fall back on, as times, needs, and technology have changed.  These factors necessitate even more meaningful analysis, exploration, and deliberation of the role of emergency management as a whole (not just FEMA’s legal responsibilities) in civil defense, especially considering that most, if not all states, have laws on the books for civil defense activity and authority.

As FEMA goes, so does the rest of emergency management, so it’s not a stretch to ascertain that states and localities need to consider this inclusion as well.  At the federal level, laws and executive orders may need to be amended to change with the times and expectations of such activity, followed by frameworks, strategies, and plans, as well as other preparedness measures to support implementation.  Following federal changes, guidance will need to be formulated for states, suggesting any legislative changes they should make to appropriately update to the new vision and synchronize with any changes in federal laws, as well as guidance for state-level planning, which will likely be accompanied by grant funding for this and related activities.

The important perspective with all this is that we are not to be taking a step backwards, but instead re-assessing needs and associated capabilities of an obligation that seems to have been left in the wake of a seemingly forgotten era.  While many of our current capabilities can be leveraged to support civil defense activity, the arrangement and application of such capabilities, as well as the specific laws governing these capabilities, is unique enough to warrant plans exclusive to this function.  We need to look ahead at the challenges we might face in such a situation to ensure our preparedness.   Some have argued that homeland security is the new civil defense, and even I have mentioned that some of these concepts have come full-circle.  While some of that is true, there are also needs and capabilities we haven’t examined since the era of civil defense, which are largely not included in our terrorism preparedness/homeland security efforts.

As always, I’m interested in the thoughts of readers on this topic.  Also, please be sure to read Mr. Lucie’s article referenced at the beginning of this post.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

Private Sector Logistics Support for Disasters, aka. To Stockpile or Not to Stockpile

I recently had an article brought to my attention by my friend Keri.  The article is titled Home Depot or Homeland Security and is written by Max Brooks. Before I dive into some commentary on the article and related matters, I want to give a bit of an introduction of Max Brooks.  While many of you may not know of him, you might know of his work; and I’m quite sure you know of his father and his father’s work.  What seems so unlikely is that this article, and others, have been written by Max for West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Max Brooks is the author of, among other books, the New York Times best seller World War Z.  His father is Mel Brooks, who, in my opinion, is the greatest comedic writer and director of all cinema.  Max is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute (MWI).  He has published three zombie-themed books: World War Z, the Zombie Survival Guide, and The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.  I’ve written in the past about the perspective that unorthodox scenarios can bring to homeland security and emergency management.  Max’s writings inspire just that, bringing him to be recognized by the MWI and Naval War College.  You can check out his biography and other information about him here.

As a fellow of the MWI, Max Brooks has been working on a series of lectures and papers.  The one I’m discussing here was posted about a year ago by the MWI.  In his paper, he briefly outlines the role of the Defense Logistics Agency and the importance of the private sector in supporting disaster response and recovery as well as the military.  He smartly identifies this as a potential vulnerability, but I’ve also seen first-hand the reality behind it.

During the 9/11 response, a representative from Grainger sat in the Logistics Section of the NYS Emergency Operations Center.  While the State of New York owns a lot of resources, the availability of those resources, the practicality of moving those resources, and the timeliness of getting those resources to where they were needed (generally the metro-NYC area) sometimes wasn’t workable, despite the nature of the emergency – especially when those resources are more in the nature of supplies and small equipment, and needed in mass quantity.  With several warehouses in and around the metro-NYC area, Grainger could have orders processed and delivered quickly and efficiently.  The same holds true for other companies, which were also leveraged during this response.

Stockpiling is a smart practice, but it needs to be looked at from a practical and fiscal perspective.  The Civil Defense era saw a lot of stockpiling.  Food, water, cots, blankets, radiological detection equipment, fuel, and other supplies.  Most of this went unused for years until officials saw the utility of drawing on these stockpiles in times of natural disaster.  Still, food and water have a shelf life, as does fuel.  Stocks had to be rotated to ensure viability.  Rodents, insects, and water damage goods like cots and blankets.  Mechanical equipment needs to be maintained, even in dis-use.  The physical space, money, and people needed to manage these rarely used stockpiles have a limited return.

Still, stockpiling is a good thing.  You just have to be smart about what you stockpile and where you position it.  Many states maintain several emergency equipment stockpiles.  The purpose of the stockpiles is to support local governments in extended life-safety activities.  Generators, chain saws, and potable water distribution are among the equipment available.  These do, indeed take up space and require regular maintenance.  The prevalence of floods and storms in the northeast, however, make these high demand items by local governments.  The positioning of the stockpiles helps ensure a timely delivery, often with the support of other state agencies.

There are limits, though, to the ability of a government agency to store, maintain, and distribute supplies and equipment.  Some aren’t often requested, so don’t make sense to stockpile.  Others have such a short shelf life or require expensive maintenance that don’t make financial sense.  Still others may very often be available locally, albeit by the private sector.

Emergency management agencies in recent years have not only looked to private vendors to support supply needs, they have also looked to the private sector to model the management of logistics and resource tracking.  Companies like FedEx or UPS, despite leaving my packages at the wrong door, do an unparalleled job of moving and tracking goods.  Companies like WalMart and Target, who are often victims of local disaster impacts themselves, have a presence in disaster areas to not only restore their own operations, but to also provide as much as they can to communities in need.  Lowes and Home Depot have been better able to meet demands prior to and following disasters with tarps, building materials, generators, and sump pumps.  Despite improvements, the bureaucracy of government simply doesn’t have the capability or capacity to move the quantity of goods needed.

While I acknowledge that there is some vulnerability, as Max Brooks points out, in having a third party as a critical component of your supply chain, we also have strength and efficiency through these partnerships.  Emergency management must continue working with private sector partners, locally, nationally, and internationally to strengthen these partnerships and support the private sector in supporting response and recovery endeavors.

What are your thoughts on the depth of involvement of the private sector in supporting response and recovery?  Do we rely on them too much?  If so, what’s our alternative?

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


Engaging a Nation in Preparedness – Learning from History

June 14, 1954 saw the first nation-wide civil defense drill conducted in the United States.  The Civil Defense Administration organized and promoted the event, which included operations in 54 cities around the country, including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Alaska, and Hawaii.  Canada had also participated in the event.  The History Channel website has a nice write-up on the event.  The History Channel’s article explains some of the activities conducted during the event, which largely consisted of sheltering drills.

Today we do see some nation-wide exercises which engage citizens through the Shake Out earthquake drills.  Their website has a great deal of information on the program, including how you can participate.  The statistics on their site are great, showing not only the US regional exercises but also Shake Out exercises conducted in nations around the world (something I was not familiar with until visiting their site this morning).  The earthquake hazard in the US and around the globe is significant – in fact we just saw two large earthquakes late yesterday – a 7.9 near Alaska and a 7.2 near New Zealand.  While the core activity of the Shake Out exercises is the ‘Drop, Cover, and Hold on’ (similar to the ‘duck and cover’ of the civil defense days), their website also promotes preparedness activities including a ‘hazard hunt’ for items which may fall during an earthquake, a family disaster plan, business and organizational continuity planning, and emergency supply kits.  This is the type of preparedness activity we need to continue, but we also need to do more.  Unfortunately the message still isn’t getting through to many people.

How do you think we should get the message out?


© 2014 Timothy Riecker