The focus of emergency management in the United States has evolved over time as new risks were identified and methods for dealing with these risks were developed. In the early part of the 20th century, ad hoc responses to catastrophic disasters and the implementation of large scale public works projects designed to reduce risks, such as the levee building projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were the norm.
The advent of the Cold War in the 1950s resulted in the establishment Civil Defense programs around the country with their focus on preparing for nuclear war. A series of large scale disasters in the 1960s and 1970s focused the nation’s Governors to prompt the Federal government to consolidate its emergency management functions into one agency and so FEMA was formed in 1979 with the mission of providing a single Federal entity to work with State and local governments to respond to disasters.
FEMA’s mission changed almost instantly in the 1980s with its singular focus on nuclear attack planning. As a result, FEMA and the Federal government was not prepared nor equipped to respond to another series of large scale disaster in the late 1980s and early 1990s. FEMA’s failures in Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Iniki, the Loma Prieta earthquake and finally in Hurricane Andrew led to calls in Congress for its elimination.
The Clinton Administration responded by reorganizing the Agency and refocusing its efforts on an all-hazards approach. The new FEMA strengthened its partnerships with State and local emergency management officials and created new partnerships with the private sector. The response capabilities of the Federal government and FEMA’s role as coordinating agency was enhanced and embodied in the Federal Response Plan. For the first time ever, FEMA established a Mitigation Directorate and further promoted hazard mitigation efforts at the community level through its nationwide initiative, Project Impact.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 prompted dramatic changes in emergency management in the Untied States. These attacks and the subsequent Anthrax scare in Washington, DC in October 2001 have been the impetus for a reexamination of the nation’s emergency management system, its priorities, funding and practices. These changes are ongoing and will continue for the foreseeable future.
Prior to September 11, the Nunn-Lugar legislation provided the primary authority and focus for domestic Federal preparedness activities for terrorism. Several agencies - FEMA, Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS), DOD, and the National Guard - were all involved, and jockeying for leadership of the terrorism issue. There were some attempts at coordination but, in general, agencies pursued their own agendas. The biggest difference among the Agencies was the level of funding available, with DOD and DOJ controlling the most funds. State and local governments were confused, felt unprepared and complained of the need to recognize their vulnerability and needs should an event happen. The TOPOFF exercise held in 1999, reinforced these concerns and vividly demonstrated the problems that could arise in a real event.
The events of September 11, unfortunately, validated their concerns and visibly demonstrated the need for changes in the Federal approach to terrorism. The changes fall into five general categories including: first responder practices and protocols, preparing for terrorist acts, funding the war on terrorism, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the shift in focus of the nation’s emergency management system to the war on terrorism.
In Fall 2002, the first wave of after action reports on the response to the events of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon in Virginia, and in Washington, D.C. were completed and made available to the emergency management community and the public. The principal focus of these after action reports is on the actions taken by first responders – fire, police and emergency medical technicians – at the scene of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, these reports identify some basic changes in the practices and protocols of first responders to future terrorist incidents designed to reduce the terrible toll taken on first responders at the World Trade Center. Most of these changes will be implemented at the local level.
There are five groups that must be fully engaged in the nation’s war on terrorism: the diplomats, the intelligence community, the military, law enforcement and emergency management. The principal goal of the diplomats, intelligence, military and law enforcement is to reduce if not eliminate the possibility of future terrorist attacks on American citizens inside our borders and abroad.
The goal of emergency management should be to reduce the future impacts in terms of loss of life, injuries, property damage and economic disruption caused by the next terrorist attack; to be prepared for the next attack; and, to respond quickly and effectively when the next attack occurs. As President Bush and many of his advisors have repeatedly informed the nation, it is not a question of if but rather when the next terrorist attack occurs.
Therefore, it will be incumbent upon emergency managers to apply the same diligence to preparing for the next bombing or bio-chemical event as they do for the next hurricane or flood or tornado. The focus of emergency management in the war on terrorism must be on reducing the danger to first responders, to the public, the business community, the economy and our way of life from future terrorist attacks. This change must occur at all levels of the emergency management system: Federal, State and local.
The war on terrorism has resulted in unprecedented funding resources being made available to the emergency management community. For the first time, vast sums of money from the Federal government are available for first responder equipment and training, for planning and exercises and for the development of new technologies. Funding for FEMA has increased as has the amount of funds FEMA delivers to State and local emergency management organizations.
Historically, FEMA has distributed about $175 million annually to its State and local emergency management partners. The Federal FY2003 budget contained $3.5 billion for FEMA to distribute to States and local emergency management organizations. This is in addition to funding FEMA received in a supplemental funding bill passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks. New Federal funding sources are also opening up for emergency managers from the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services to fund contingency plans, technology assessment and development and bio-terror equipment and training. This change in funding for emergency management will be felt most significantly at the State and local levels.
The creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) represents a landmark change for the Federal community, especially for emergency management. The consolidation of all Federal agencies involved in fighting the war on terrorism follows the same logic that first established FEMA in 1979. At that time, then President Carter at the request and suggestion of the nation’s Governors consolidated all the Federal agencies and programs involved in federal disaster relief, preparedness and mitigation into one single Federal agency, FEMA.
The Director of FEMA reported directly to the President as will the DHS Secretary. However, with FEMA absorbed into DHS, the FEMA director no longer reports directly to the President but rather to the DHS Secretary. This change could have had a significant impact on FEMA and its State and local partners in managing natural and other technological disasters in the future, but appears to have been managed by the importance placed upon the position of the Secretary of Homeland Security.
At the request of President George W. Bush, FEMA established the Office of National Preparedness in 2001 to focus attention on the then undeclared terrorist threat and other national security issues. This was the first step in the refocusing of FEMA’s mission and attention from an all-hazards approach to emergency management embraced by the Clinton administration. The shift in focus was accelerated by the events of September 11 and has been embraced by State and local emergency management operations across the country.
A similar shift of focus in FEMA occurred in 1981 at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. Then the shift of focus was from disaster management to planning for a nuclear war. For the remaining years of the Reagan Administration and the four years of President George H. W. Bush’s administration, FEMA resources and personnel focused their attention of ensuring continuity of government operations in the event of a nuclear attack. Little attention was paid to natural hazard management and FEMA was left unprepared to deal with a series of catastrophic natural disasters starting with Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and culminating with Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
If history repeats itself, the current change in focus away from the all-hazard approach of the 1990s could result in a weakening of FEMA’s natural disaster management capabilities in the future.