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℠®

My DHS Idea Campaign

No, it’s not my DHS Idea.  It’s theirs.  DHS’, that is.  The ‘My DHS Idea Campaign’ has been developed to solicit input from the private sector about homeland security matters that concern them and what they view as priorities.  This information will help inform the legally required 2018 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, which is slated to be provided to Congress in December of 2017.

Information on the campaign is provided below.  From the link provided, you can browse ideas submitted by others and submit your own ideas.  If you are a member of the private sector, please take a look and provide your input.




My DHS Idea Campaign

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would like to hear from you about the homeland security issues that concern you and your community.

DHS is in the process of completing a major strategic review of the Department’s programs and priorities, and will deliver its finished product – the 2018 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review – to Congress in December 2017.  As part of the review, DHS is inviting members of the private sector to participate in the online “My DHS Idea” campaign.

These are some of the important missions staff of DHS performs every day:

  • Counterterrorism;
  • Border security;
  • Immigration enforcement;
  • Trade enforcement and facilitation;
  • Drug interdiction;
  • Disaster preparedness and response; and
  • Cyber security.

What homeland security issues do you care about?  What areas should DHS prioritize?  What are the most pressing risks facing your community and the nation as a whole?

Using the IdeaScale platform, you can post your own ideas to address the homeland security challenges that are important to you and your community, comment on other people’s ideas, and vote on the issues and approaches you think are the most important for DHS to consider.  This interactive format allows everyone on the site to see the issues that are most important to other participants, and which ideas generate the most interest and support.  The Department’s Office of Policy staff will moderate and contribute to discussions on an occasional basis incorporating key ideas into the strategy review process as appropriate.

You can find the link to the DHS IdeaScale site at https://homelandsecurity.ideascale.com/.  Registration is quick and easy.

10 Years of the Department of Homeland Security

A few days ago I looked at four different links related to the 10 year anniversary of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Every one of these links (here’s one of them) called for the abolishment of the department and decried everything they have done and stand for.  Being the relative moderate that I am, I take a slightly different view on this – let’s make some changes, but in the end DHS will still stand – albeit a different agency.

On November 25, 2002 President George W. Bush signed into law the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which authorized the largest governmental reorganization in the US since the creation of the Department of Defense.  The goal was to bring, in whole or in part, 22 US agencies which were chartered in some way with domestic terrorism protections under one agency umbrella.  Interestingly enough, two agencies who took a lot of heat for perceived intelligence and coordination  failures prior to the 9/11 attacks – the FBI and CIA – were not included in this reorganization… thankfully!  It seems that over the last decade, nearly every entity brought into DHS has suffered in some way.

Looking back, there absolutely was a need for increased coordination amongst federal agencies when it came to intelligence.  The US Intelligence Community is significant, with a multitude of agencies all playing a necessary role.  In my humble opinion, there should have been a strengthening of the role and powers relative to intelligence coordination of the Director of National Intelligence.  Perhaps even some agencies could have been merged, in whole or in part, to streamline missions.

Relative to the agencies brought into the fold of DHS, intelligence is a secondary or tertiary function to many of them (I speak of the function, not mental capacity).  Similar to streamlining missions amongst intelligence agencies, certainly there could have been some mergers, again in whole or in part, amongst these 22 DHS-bound agencies to help streamline the response, training, and critical infrastructure missions that many of them touch upon.  This would have had a much greater (positive) impact to the public safety and emergency management community than stuffing them all into one house and hoping they would get along.  Despite intelligence not being a primary function of these agencies, DHS has jumped head first into the deep end of intelligence as a knee jerk reaction instead of going about it the right way.  In this haste, we see some big mistakes with fusion centers, grabbing a lot of media attention.  In government there tends to be a desire to over-legislate things.  When we see a problem we create a bill and pass a law.  That law creates a new agency or charges an existing agency to do something different.  Often times, an existing agency is already doing what needs to be done or has the resources available to do it – which would be the easy fix.  Instead we see something called mission creep, where agencies will wander into mission areas already occupied by someone else, and using some legal charter to justify the action.  The creation of the US Department of Homeland security was the worst possible amalgamation of these circumstances, forcing changes in command structure and hierarchy of 22 different agencies – even taking away the cabinet-level position held by one of those agencies (FEMA) – a move that was realized as a significant mistake when Hurricane Katrina struck.  The Washington Times even reports that President Bush was resistant to the concept, not seeing a need for such a large agency.

DHS became a massive bureaucracy, not only through the merging of these 22 agencies, but through the creation of a substantial overhead organization.  That overhead organization does little to provide shared services for those 22 agencies such as HR, payroll, purchasing, finance, etc. – which would be an ideal use.  Instead, things grew so complex that for several years of the last decade, KPMG – one of the largest audit firms in the nation – was unable to complete an audit of the agency.  Hundreds of billions of dollars have been budgeted to DHS over the last decade – dollar amounts far in excess of the value to the American public.  Even their grants, which have benefitted many state, county, and local governments, have gone overboard and lack proper accountability.  Some of the grant rules are so cumbersome that many jurisdictions haven’t been able to spend grant funds going back several years.

But should we get rid of DHS?  I say no.  The Department of Homeland Security, originally created as the Office of Homeland Security (prior to the Homeland Security Act) was charged with developing a national strategy to secure our nation from terrorist attacks to include the coordination of detection, preparation, prevention, response, and recovery efforts.  The creation of DHS should have been a modest and conservative reflection of this original charter, drawing in the necessary agencies and resources to accomplish this mission.  It should not have swallowed agencies that have their own distinct missions, those that functionally don’t belong under another agency (i.e. emergency management as a function of homeland security) or those who best function with cabinet-level representation (i.e. FEMA).  Yes, I do stand in obvious defense of FEMA, but 21 other agencies were also impacted significantly by this.

It’s not too late to make the necessary changes.  As I’ve said in the past – let’s be smart and use some common sense.