Six Emergency Management Priorities for the Next Administration

New administrations get to identify their priorities for various areas of focus… this can be both good and bad. It’s not a simple thing. New priorities should embrace progress, while ensuring that certain existing priorities, programs, and projects remain. Yes, some existing programs may deserve to be scrubbed, but far too often we see administrations go ‘clean slate’ doing away wholesale with what has been implemented by their predecessor or their predecessor’s predecessor. Emergency management requires consistency, yet we also require progress. It has been frustrating through the years to see many good practices discarded simply because they were a priority of another administration, and new practices introduced that aren’t well thought through, simply because it was someone’s good idea or they wanted to put their name on something. Emergency management (and I suppose most others) is an area of practice that must embrace forward looking consistency if that makes much sense.  Sometimes tradition needs to be dragged along kicking and screaming, while new practices need to integrate with legacy implementations, lest we continue to create a never-ending complexity of stove piped programs with little to no connective tissue.

Before I jump into the pool, I also want to acknowledge that no one person can obviously be knowledgeable of all the issues facing an area of practice. It requires not just an advisor, but a team of advisors – practitioners with a range of experience and experiences as well as academics. Emergency management is not only a government activity. Emergency management is not only pulled out of the toolbox when a disaster occurs. Emergency management also has more connections to other program areas than arguably any other practice. There is a lot to see and a lot to contextualize.

So on to our show…

Coronavirus/COVID 19

Obviously, this is THE priority of the incoming administration. I’m not going to go on at length about this since I’m pretty sure we’re all aware of the issues, complexities, etc. What I will encourage here is thinking comprehensively. This is a public health crisis, but the solution is not just in the realm of public health. There needs to be a better recognition of the role of emergency management in addressing problems and being part of the solutions, including vaccine distribution. These kinds of logistics are a big part of what emergency management does, so they don’t need to be recreated. Given the scope of this effort, the private sector will be huge partners in this as well. A national-level effort for after action reviews for the pandemic will also be important. Yes, there are a lot of lessons learned that can be put over the whole nation (and even the world), but there are plenty of other lessons learned that may be more dependent upon geography, population, and operational sector. Not only should everyone be doing an after-action report, but a portal where the data (not just the document) can be entered would help the federal government collect this data, the analysis of which would most assuredly provide valuable insight. Speaking of lessons learned…

Public Health Preparedness

The pandemic has shown what works and what doesn’t work. We need to fix what is broken, boost what works, and not forget to examine the grey areas in between (such as our earlier assumptions on pandemic planning… they weren’t all necessarily wrong, they were just wrong for this pandemic). Public health preparedness needs to be re-prioritized, and the relationship with emergency management strengthened (we tried to do this about 18 years ago but fell well short of where it needed to be). Use what exists – there are public health capabilities which are well defined. Public health coalitions have been developed across the nation. We need to do better at supporting public health in meeting and maintaining needs – this needs to be a structured, deliberate effort. DO NOT just throw money at the problem and hope it will get solved. That’s bullshit governing and a waste of tax dollars.

Climate Change

Speaking of bullshit governing and wasting tax dollars, we need a GOOD strategy to integrate climate change issues across everything we do. No more shotgun approach. No more of ‘well that’s the best we can do’. We need a deliberate, coordinated effort. Anything less is a waste of time, money, and effort. Just as emergency management touches practically all other functions, as does climate change. The federal government must do a better job of forming operational coalitions – that is partnering federal agencies, the private sector, non-profits, and even some select state and local governments into functioning entities. (This should be a standard of practice in emergency management as well). The model I’m speaking of isn’t some think tank, group that meets on occasion, or blue-ribbon panel. I’m talking about something that’s operational, with actual employees (specialists) from agencies with responsibility for addressing areas of the problem given temporary duty assignments to an entity whose existence is to work that problem. This is done through identification of priorities and implementation pathways, utilization and allocation of grant funding, advocacy, torch carrying, interagency coordination, problem solving, etc. Just a few of the entities involved in climate change obviously include FEMA, DOT, HHS, DHS, NWS, and more. The best way to solve this is not just getting everyone on the same page or in the same room, but actually organized, led, and synchronized.

Economic Recovery

Economic recovery is an aspect of emergency management, but I’m no economist, so I’ll address it briefly. The pandemic has hit our economy hard. Yes, I think a lot of it will naturally heal as the pandemic comes to an end, but we also can’t just sit around and wait for that nor can we hope for the best and accept (or not) the outcome we get. Economic recovery needs to be deliberate and structured. And remember, in emergency management we don’t just ‘recover’ – we ‘build back better’. This is an opportunity to integrate resiliency into our economy, governments, businesses, and society as a whole.

Integrated Preparedness

I’ve long been complaining about the stove piped programs we see in emergency management. Perhaps from a program administration perspective, focused activity works, but at the state and local levels, practitioners need to see how these things come together so they can easily link efforts. To do it well requires more than crosswalk developed by some junior consultant. It takes a deliberate effort at the doctrinal level to not only demonstrate, but provide sensible pathways to implementation that show how disparate concepts such as NIMS, HSEEP, the National Preparedness Goal, CPG 101, Community Lifelines, etc. actually come together IN PRACTICE. These are all good things taken individually, yet so many either don’t think to combine them, don’t know how to combine them, or are too intimidated or lack the understanding of the benefits to care.

HSEEP has done away with the training and exercise planning workshop (TEPW) and introduced the integrated preparedness planning workshop (IPPW), which we hope would contribute to actual integrated preparedness, but how many know about this? How many actually care? How many know how to do it? Let’s face it… most used the TEPW solely to put exercises on a calendar. That’s all. The training aspect was largely ignored. Is the mention of an IPP in updated HSEEP doctrine alone going to get people to talk even more broadly about preparedness? Nope. If exercises aren’t part of someone’s responsibility (or if they don’t have the time or inclination to do them) they aren’t going to read the updated HSEEP doctrine. Even if they do, will they catch this pretty important change? Possibly not. FEMA held webinars on the IPP concept. These webinars communicated very little, and reinforced that integrated preparedness is an HSEEP concept rather than an EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT concept. You can’t bury something that is so broad reaching into such focused doctrine. Integrated preparedness needs to have its own doctrine and have its own effort – and with the understanding that most mid to large sized emergency management agencies have different parts of the organization responsible for each area of preparedness. If the feds don’t give it the attention it deserves, most state and local governments certainly won’t. We do have a National Integration Center, don’t we? Hmmmm….

Hazard Mitigation Programs, Grants, and Tools

Similar to the matter of integrated preparedness, we really need to do better at hazard mitigation. Hazard mitigation planning has turned into a bureaucratic mess, with jurisdictions spending a lot of money on plans every five years that they rarely reference, much less put into deliberate action. We need to do better.

Standards for hazard mitigation planning also need to be expanded. Rarely is an ‘all hazard’ hazard mitigation plan actually ‘all hazard’. Do they address cyber security? Active shooter/hostile event incidents? Most do not. We also need to see better and more consistent integration of societal data into hazard mitigation planning. There is usually heavy analysis of risk, but not vulnerability in these types of plans. Things like community vulnerability indices give a better perspective on the fragility of our populations. Without doing so, we really aren’t considering the whole community.

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So, these are my top six priorities as I see them. Each of these has lasting impact coupled with a more timely urgency. Certainly, there are other things that can be viewed as priorities, but if the list is exhaustive, it pretty much loses the concept of being priority. These are the primary emergency management efforts I would build an administration around. Obviously other activities must continue, but these form the areas of emphasis.  

In re-reading my post, I realized there is a word I used an awful lot… deliberate. I’m guessing it wasn’t accidental, more an influence of my sub-conscious emphasizing well planned and established activities instead of the hap-hazard and half-hearted efforts we often see. There is no sense in showing up to only play part of the game. We need to see it through to the end. That’s how we make a difference.

What thoughts do you have on emergency management priorities for the incoming administration?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

7 Emergency Management Priorities for the Next Administration

Heritage.org recently published a piece outlining the top four homeland security priorities for the next administration, which can be found here.  It’s a thought provoking article that certainly identifies some important issues.  In the same spirit, I’d like to offer what I think are the emergency management priorities for the next administration.

1) Support an Effective FEMA Organizational Model

The Heritage.org model pointed out several issues with the DHS organization that need to be addressed sooner rather than later.  I’d like to add some FEMA-specific items to their suggestions, regardless of if FEMA is kept within DHS or not (honestly, I think that ship has sailed and FEMA is there to stay).

In building a bit of background for this article, I took a look at FEMA’s current strategic plan, knowing that the document already identifies some of their priorities.  Within in that list of priorities, they mention mission and program delivery, becoming an expeditionary organization, posturing and building capability for catastrophic disasters, and strengthening their organizational foundation.  To me, these four all directly relate to their organizational model.

Along with having a strong central administration of programs, FEMA needs to have agility in their program delivery.  This is best accomplished through the FEMA regional offices, which act as an extension of the ‘central administration’ by coordinating directly with states and neighboring regions to apply those programs in the best possible manner within the guidelines of the program.  While this is currently performed, it is not performed to the greatest extent possible.  John Fass Morton provides some great perspective on this approach in his book ‘Next-Generation Homeland Security’.  Info on the book can be found here.

2) Bolster Risk Reduction Programs

I write often about preparedness, as that has always been a focus of my career.  Risk reduction, however, is essential to eliminating or reducing the impacts of hazards on communities.  Risk reduction includes all aspects of hazard mitigation and resilience, which are ideally applied at the local level but supported by state and federal programs, policies, and resources.

While the National Weather Service has implemented and promoted the StormReady program, which encourages community resilience, the best program we have ever had in our field is Project Impact.  I’d love to see a revival of Project Impact (call it that or something else – I don’t really care), incorporating the concepts of StormReady as well as other best practices in risk reduction.  A big part of this program MUST be incentivization, especially access to funds that can be applied for in the present for hazard mitigation activities.

3) Build a Better Cybersecurity Program

This item was added to the list by a colleague of mine.  It’s also found on the Heritage.org list.  It must be pretty important, then.

Yes, there are a LOT of initiatives right now involving cybersecurity, but I think there can be more.  Jon, the same colleague who suggested this for my list has also stated repeatedly that cybersecurity is really a Core Capability that cuts across all mission areas – Prevention, Protection, Response, Mitigation, and Recovery.  The recent update of the National Preparedness Goal suggests this, but sadly doesn’t commit.

What do we need in regard to cybersecurity?  First of all, we need to demystify it.  There are plenty of people out there who have just enough tech savvy to turn on their computer, send some email, and post to Facebook.  While that may work for them, they are likely intimidated by talk of cybersecurity, hackers, and the like.  We need to continue programs in plain speak that will help to inform the average consumer about how to protect themselves.

Better coordination with the private sector will pay off heavily when it comes to cybersecurity.  Not only is the private sector generally better at it, they also have a tendency to attract experts through better incentives than the government can offer, such as higher pay.  Cybersecurity also impacts everyone.  We’ve seen attacks of all types of systems.  The only way to stop a common enemy is to work together.  Let’s think of it as a virtual whole-community approach.

4) Prepare for Complex Coordinated Attack

Another of Jon’s suggestions.  While terrorism is often quickly shoved into the category of homeland security, there is a lot that emergency management can assist with.  These types of attacks (think Mumbai or Paris) have a significant impact on a community.  They require a multi-faceted approach to all mission areas – again, Prevention, Protection, Response, Mitigation, and Recovery.  While law enforcement is clearly a lead, they must be strongly supported by emergency management as part of a whole-community approach to be successful. Preparedness across all these mission areas must be defined and supported by federal programs.

5) Infrastructure Maintenance

We have roads, bridges, rail, pipes, and other infrastructure that MUST be maintained.  Maintenance (or replacement) will not only prevent failure of the infrastructure as a disaster itself, but will also make it more resilient to impacts from other disasters.  Yes, these are projects with huge price tags, but what alternative do we have?

6) Continuity of Existing Model Programs

There are few things more infuriating than a new administration wiping the slate clean of all predecessor programs to make room for their own.  While every administration is entitled to make their own mark, getting rid of what has been proven to work is not the way to do that.  Eliminating or replacing programs has a significant impact all the way down the line, from the federal program administrators, to the state program people, to the local emergency managers who are often understaffed and underfunded to begin with.

Changing gears is not as simple as using a different form tomorrow, it requires research and training on the new program and costs time to re-tool.  While I would never say there is nothing new under the emergency management sun, as I believe we are still innovating, I’m pretty skeptical of some new appointee walking into their job and making wholesale changes.  While improvements can certainly be made, summary execution of successful programs does no one any good.  Let’s not make change simply for the sake of change.

Related to this, I fully support the efforts of FEMA in the last few years to gain comprehensive input on changes to documents and doctrine through the formation of committees and public comment periods.  This approach works!

7) Pull Together Preparedness Programs

NIMS, HSEEP, NPG, THIRA, etc… While each of these programs have their own purpose and goals, more  can be done to bring them together.  I’m not suggesting a merger of programs – that would simply make a huge mess.  What I’m suggesting is to find the connections between the programs, where one leads to another or informs another, and highlight those.  Things like better application of the Core Capabilities within HSEEP exercises to have a more effective evaluation of NIMS capabilities (I suggested this while being interviewed for a GAO report), or referencing the THIRA when building a multi-year training and exercise plan.  While some jurisdictions may already do this, these are best practices that should be embraced, promoted, and indoctrinated.  These links typically don’t add work, in fact they capitalize on work already done, allowing one project/program/process to be informed or supported by another, creating efficiencies and supporting a synchronization of efforts and outcomes.

There is my list of seven.  What are your thoughts on the list?  There are certainly plenty of other ideas out there.  If you had the ear of the next President, what would you suggest be their administration’s emergency management priorities?

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

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