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

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLCYour Partner in Preparedness

EM, HS, and Politics

As the mechanizations of election season warm up their engines, let’s be sure to identify the standing of candidates in regard to emergency management and homeland security policies.  While we will never get a fully accurate picture of their intentions in these programs this early on (I’m sure few candidates are even thinking about EM/HS policy aside from immigration), we can get some indication of what their thoughts are and, once primary season is over, who the final candidates might be considering to head important agencies such as DHS and FEMA.

Any examination of this history of emergency management shows that politics seem to shape the direction of what we do as much as significant disasters do.  If you are interested in reading up on this, there are two great sources I’d recommend – Emergency Management: The American Experience 1900-2010 (Rubin. 2012.) provides good summaries of benchmark disasters and legislation through the years; and Next-Generation Homeland Security: Network Federalism and the Course to National Preparedness (Morton. 2012.) provides an in-depth look at this history with detailed references to the administrations, agencies, and people involved.

Rubin and Morton References

Rubin and Morton References

While we have certainly seen an overall positive trend of progress in emergency management (which is heavily influenced and sometimes dictated by federal policy), this has come despite some political actions which have either slowed progress or sometimes fully did away with positive and effective programs.  Having major changes in policy and programs every few years has become unsustainable for our practice, especially at the local level where EM/HS programs are often coordinated by one person.  Change isn’t always bad, but changes should be put in place only after being thought-through and reviewed by professionals to ensure they are effective and sustainable – not just politically motivated.  FEMA has been doing a great job in the last several years by providing public comment periods on new and major changes to guidance.  I hope this continues.

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC


Book Review – Next-Generation Homeland Security by John Fass Morton

I’m a firm believer that professionals need to keep current on trends and major discussions in their field of practice.  Homeland security and emergency management are no different, which is why I spend a great deal of time reading – books, blogs, newsletters, etc.

A book I finished in recent months was Next-Generation Homeland Security by John Fass Morton.  The book offers a great history of the roots of emergency management and homeland security, insights into the politics involved in the evolution of the two related fields, and thoughts on how preparedness agendas of the federal government and preparedness needs of local and state governments can be better merged moving forward.

Mr. Morton provides a highly detailed history of EM/HS – the most detail I’ve ever seen published anywhere.  This history doesn’t just cover new laws and changes in agency names, but also identifies key players and influencers, missteps, and practices along the way.  His detail of EM/HS over the past two decades is even greater as he has been able to obtain information and insights from his own experiences and those of his colleagues and contemporaries.  These details include all of our current programs such as NIMS, EMAC, and others – including many of the predecessors of those programs.  If you have interests in history or politics, much of the book will be very interesting to you simply based on this content.

Much of the book’s focus is on all-hazard preparedness, so you won’t find a great deal of information on DHS member agencies and their mission areas.  The book primarily follows the evolution of emergency management and its relationship with homeland security, while also providing some insight into the roots of homeland security which well predate 9/11.  Mr. Morton’s research certainly demonstrates how cyclic these evolutions have been.

Mr. Morton offers some interesting perspectives on our current state of preparedness and offers thoughts on organizational models which can enhance the coordination between the federal government and state and local authorities through strengthening of the FEMA/DHS regional offices, particularly the regional preparedness staff.  It’s apparent that there often conflicts between the federal government and state and local governments in regard to EM/HS priorities across all mission areas.  Mr. Morton’s perspectives offer a viable solution.

As I read I marked a lot of pages in the book for future reference, particularly in the second half (about 200 pages).  If you don’t have much interest in the histories Mr. Morton provides, as they are quite detailed, the second half of the book is where there will still be great value to you as this is where more contemporary practices, policies, and organizations are detailed as well as Mr. Morton’s thoughts on the further evolutions of our practice including the Federal regional approach and other topics such as professional development.  This is an excellent book for the dedicated practitioner who is looking for not only a detailed history but also thought provoking insight, not just a regurgitation of doctrine.  I believe it would also serve as an excellent book for graduate level academics, as it not only provides a great deal of information but can certainly stimulate quite a bit of discussion.  I hope to see some of Mr. Morton’s ideas get discussed broadly for the benefit of our profession.

What’s the (next) Big Idea in Emergency Management?

Innovation.  It seems to be what everyone clamors for.  In emergency management we see people striving for it across the board: in government and in education we try to build the better emergency management mouse trap.  We establish think tanks to find new solutions and the private sector looks for better ways to protect their investments.  But what is it that we are looking for?  What systemic problems do we still face in emergency management that require change? 

There is plenty out there that needs to be improved upon.  There always will be.  Until we can prepare for, prevent, and mitigate disasters to the point that little to no response is ever needed and no loss of life occurs we will continue to strive for better ways of doing things.  I’m guessing that day is a long way off, so we have plenty of work to do.  Before we can innovate, however, we must find cause.  Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.  So what needs exist that must be corrected? 

Certainly our after action reports (AARs) identify areas of needed change.  But those generally only show us gaps in local systems.  Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Analysis (THIRA) likewise shows gaps in local systems.  Does this information ever get fed to higher levels?  Of course it does… in some measure but only some of the time.  States assemble State Preparedness Reports (SPRs) which, in current practice, conduct an analysis of each core capability through each of the POETE elements (planning, organizing, equipping, training, and exercising).  These in turn inform the National Preparedness Report (NPR).  The 2014 NPR was released by FEMA earlier this month, identifying areas for improvement in several of the core capabilities.  This is certainly a resource to help us identify needs, but none of these resources or mechanisms are perfect.  What is missing?  How do we improve them?

Interestingly enough, some opine that we aren’t examining the right data.  The Congressional Research Service suggests that we might need better measures of preparedness, according to their report and this article from FierceHomelandSecurity.com.  The report gives no answers, but poses several questions.  Overall, what can we do better?

Returning to innovation, where do the gaps truly exist?  How do we validate those gaps?  Can we address those gaps with current systems or do we need to create new systems (innovations)?  If it is with current systems, what are the barriers to getting the gaps addressed in the short term?  If it is not with current systems where does the innovation come from? 

Despite having worked in Emergency Management for over fifteen years and having seen, felt, and experienced the myriad changes which have occurred – especially since 9/11 – and with every administration subsequent to the attacks I really hadn’t sat and considered the changes that have occurred.  I’m about half way through an amazing book by John Fass Morton called Next-Generation Homeland Security: Network Federalism and the Course to National Preparedness.  The first 200 pages or so of the book provide a thorough review of civil defense/emergency management/homeland security through decades and over a dozen presidential administrations.  The gravity of it all has left my head spinning.  So many changes – and most simply for the sake of politics.  Much of it seems like wasted effort, but Mr. Morton connects the dots so brilliantly and identifies that D certainly could not have happened if not for A, B, and C… even though C and A were essentially the same.  IT seems that through these years so much has occurred, but so little has actually changed.  I would argue that the practice of emergency management is in a better place now than ever, but what will emergency management look like tomorrow?  Will our continued evolution be through measured change or through innovation?  What makes that determination? 

© 2014 – Timothy Riecker