Thursday, November 1, 2012

Absurd NY Times FEMA editorial is absurd

A big storm requires big government?

Tell that to Craig Fugate, President Obama’s FEMA Director. Fugate is the former director of Florida’s Emergency Management Agency, which is widely regarded as the nation’s best organized and best run state emergency response agency.

When a major hurricane or other natural disaster strikes the state of Florida, the federal government is nothing more that a check-writer under the Stafford Act. FEMA doesn’t do anything except send a few high level bureaucrats to Tallahassee to make sure the checks are signed and that the state is reimbursed.

Texas’ EMA is similarly efficient, and the states of Alabama and Mississippi are making similar strides. Louisiana, once one of the absolute worst in the country, has come so far that during Hurricane Isaac earlier this year, FEMA was essentially a by-stander.

The federal model for disaster response is based on the National Incident Management System.

“A basic premise of NIMS is that all incidents begin and end locally.  NIMS does not take command away from state and local authorities.  NIMS simply provides the framework to enhance the ability of responders, including the private sector and NGOs, to work together more effectively.   The federal government supports state and local authorities when their resources are overwhelmed or anticipated to be overwhelmed. Federal departments and agencies respect the sovereignty and responsibilities of local, tribal and state governments while rendering assistance.  The intention of the federal government in these situations is not to command the response but, rather, to support the affected local, tribal, and/or state governments.”

As a frequent first-responder myself and a consultant on disaster preparedness and response, I often explain NIMS with this analogy:

A man cooking dinner spills some grease on the stove and it catches fire. If he is able to extinguish it himself, he has successfully executed a NIMS exercise. He has managed the incident by assuming the role of Incident Commander and mustering enough resources to prevent the incident from growing into something larger.

If he is unable to put out the fire, he calls 911 and the fire department is dispatched. At this point, the homeowner has relinquished incident command to the fire chief, who musters the resources at his disposal to manage the event.

If the fire department is unable to control the fire and it spreads from house to house, the fire chief then expands the amount of resources by dispatching teams from other stations and perhaps other jurisdictions. If the incident grows beyond these resources, the local fire chief relinquishes control to a higher authority, perhaps a state fire marshall or more likely, a state emergency management director.

Disasters, from kitchen grease fires to major hurricanes, are always and everywhere localized events that, if improperly or ineffectively managed, could grow to overwhelm the resources of the local, tribal or state organization.

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana in 2005, NIMS was in its infancy. Few states outside of Florida and Texas had begun implementing NIMS and the Incident Command System, which is a means of structuring a flexible framework for managing significant incidents.

The ICS is a widely applicable management system designed to enable effective, efficient incident management by integrating a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures and communications operating within a common organizational structure. ICS is a fundamental form of management established in a standard format, with the purpose of enabling incident managers to identify the key concerns associated with the incident—often under urgent conditions—without sacrificing attention to any component of the command system.  It represents organizational "best practices" and, as an element of the Command and Management Component of NIMS, has become the standard for emergency management across the country.  Designers of the system recognized early that ICS must be interdisciplinary and organizationally flexible to meet the following management challenges:

  • Meet the needs of incidents of any kind or size.
  • Allow personnel from a variety of agencies to meld rapidly into a common management structure.
  • Provide logistical and administrative support to operational staff.
  • Be cost effective by avoiding duplication of efforts.

ICS consists of procedures for controlling personnel, facilities, equipment and communications. It is a system designed to be used or applied from the time an incident occurs until the requirement for management and operations no longer exists.

This much is absolutely true—the state of Louisiana was caught flat-footed and totally unprepared for any disaster, much less the monster that was Hurricane Katrina. Absolutely no one at at any level of government in that state even knew what ICS or NIMS stood for, and didn’t even understand basic terminology. This was a function of state and local officials’ false belief that the federal government would take over without being asked to do so. They didn’t understand the Stafford Act and in many cases, local officials didn’t even know what the Stafford Act was.

I know this, because I was there. Mine were some of the first boots on the ground.

I also know this because at the time, I was working to implement NIMS and ICS across the gulf coast. Florida got it quickly. Texas got it. Alabama and Mississippi were coming around. Louisiana was lost.

The NY Times’ notion that a big storm requires big government goes against everything that FEMA’s own model for incident management espouses. Indeed, the Stafford Act requires that the governor of a state affected by the incident must request assistance before FEMA is even allowed to respond to a natural disaster. They may monitor conditions. They may advise. They may even send observers. But FEMA and federal resources don’t start flowing until the local authorities ask for it.

That’s the law.

Even then, federal assistance is limited by the local jurisdictions’ state of preparedness. If the state and local governments don’t have hazard mitigation and incident management systems in place that meet certain standards established industry-wide, federal assistance is greatly limited.

In 2010, I managed the development of a facilities assessment system and database management tool for Harris County, Texas, Harris County is home to the Houston metro area. The HC-FAS produced a comprehensive database of all Harris County’s public facilities, from libraries to fire stations and from lay-down yards to office buildings. The objective was to determine the facilities’ susceptibility to natural disasters and inventory their capabilities in responding to, managing and recovering from the event. The project was funded by a FEMA grant, but it was executed at the local level and as a result, Harris County is much better prepared for a major disaster than it was in 2008, when Hurricane Ike struck the area and caused major damage throughout the region.

I could spend another 1,100 words explaining how the NY Times’ editorial is absurd, but know this—it is always the responsibility of the local authorities to manage events like Katrina and Sandy. Always. That’s the way the Stafford Act envisioned it and that’s the way things are done today.

It is only when NIMS is abandoned for political or ideological reasons that disasters are poorly managed. If you want to get an idea of Obama’s vision for disaster response and incident management, well… click here.

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