Michael Brown: Give FEMA credit, it gets the job done

Michael Brown: Give FEMA credit, it gets the job done
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The apocalypse is upon us if you consider the number and type of presidentially-declared disasters currently active in the United States in the month of September alone:

  • Oregon Eagle Creek Fire
  • California Mission Fire
  • Utah Uintah Fire
  • California Pier Fire
  • U.S. Virgin Islands Hurricane Irma
  • Puerto Rico Hurricane Irma
  • Florida Hurricane Irma
  • South Carolina Hurricane Irma
  • Georgia Hurricane Irma
  • Seminole Tribe of Florida Hurricane Irma
  • Montana West Fork Fire
  • Montana Alice Creek Fire
  • Montana Rice Ridge Fire
  • Montana Moose Creek Fire
  • Montana Highway 200 Fire Complex
  • Alabama Hurricane Irma

Of course, that list from September doesn’t include Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast and Harris County (Houston) Texas. Nor does the list include the on-going responsibilities the Federal Emergency Management Agency has to respond to man-made disasters. We just commemorated the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which involved the deployment of FEMA resources from every state in the Union to Ground Zero and Pentagon.

So how does FEMA have the flexibility to stretch itself so far and wide?

In one of the more unique relationships between individual citizens and state, local, federal and tribal governments, FEMA has bridged the political boundaries to bring together American citizens. They range from everyday citizens with an urge to volunteer and help, to firefighters, retired military officers, law enforcement officials, medical doctors, nurses, even rescue dogs and veterinarians. 

Working with other countries’ FEMA-like organizations from Russia to Sweden to the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and dozens of others, none can match the uniqueness of FEMA’s ability to organize all of those citizens into virtually armies of expertise and volunteerism to aid fellow citizens. 


The FEMA Reservist Program (originally called Disaster Assistance Employees) are volunteers who undergo training so when FEMA needs to surge its roster of employees to help individuals navigate the maze of federal assistance programs, FEMA can meet the demand regardless of size. For Americans with the time and willingness to help, the reservist program is not only a way to earn income, but to help fellow citizens in times of crisis.

The Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) Teams are comprised of firefighters from local fire departments specially trained in rescue operations, even to respond in events of nuclear catastrophe. Tax dollars are used to train these local firefighters so when they are called upon, their expertise is available to save lives and protect property.

USAR teams don’t get the recognition they deserve. These local firefighters train hard in addition to their standard firefighting training and are ready to deploy on FEMA’s orders in a matter of hours. Along with the rescue dogs, these teams are vital to saving lives and finding victims in horrendous circumstances.

The Disaster Medical Teams, the Disaster Veterinary Teams likewise are local citizens, specially trained to respond and save human and animal life in danger. USAR, DMAT, DVMT for example were deployed to Bam, Iran after that earthquake devastated the country. Those teams were the first American citizens in Iran after the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage takeover. Stories of French teams and others turning to American expertise to deliver babies, amputate limbs, triage patients, would make all Americans proud of these teams.

While FEMA will always be able to surge and meet the demands of virtually any natural or manmade disaster, they could not do it without these specialized teams of every day Americans, firefighters, doctors, nurses, veterinarians and yes, dogs.

If you have a desire to help, start by simply visiting the FEMA Reservist Program webpage. If you want to thank a group of firefighters who are putting their lives on the line by rescuing others, see if there is a USAR team in your state. They may even be in your neighborhood. Reach out and tell them thanks. Remember, while some of those firefighters are deployed to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, other firefighters are back-filling their positions.

FEMA is an example of government collaborating with other cabinet departments, other levels of government and the private sector to ensure the safety and security of all Americans. So yes, at times it seems the apocalypse is happening before our very eyes. For FEMA, it’s simply time to surge and get the job done.

Michael Brown is the former Under Secretary of Homeland Security and Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.” Follow him on Twitter at @michaelbrownusa.