FEMA must overhaul its operation before next disaster strikes
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While the nation has been fortunate in avoiding a Hurricane Katrina-level disaster during the tenure of outgoing Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, the agency’s ability to respond nimbly to a major catastrophe can be vastly improved by focusing on five crucial issues.

Rejuvenate the reservist corps

The federal government’s response to disasters depends on the successful mobilization of hundreds of disaster reservists – dedicated volunteers who are paid only when deployed. New rules, however, treat them more like full-time employees, placing them on constant call and terminating the service of those who decline three deployments. These individuals joined FEMA in a true spirit of public service, but many have no interest in constant deployments, resulting in thousands of resignations and, today, a shortage of immediately deployable reservists.

Train the field staff

FEMA provides plenty of training in the field, of the "How-to-Pack-a-Ready-Kit" variety, but scant training related to the Agency’s programs or mission. Many field staff (especially the newcomers) would be hard-pressed to provide a cogent overview of their own jobs, much less an overview of the Agency. The new Administrator should mandate meaningful training for new and current reservists.

Empower field leadership

Federal Coordinating Officers (FCOs) represent the top-line FEMA official at any disaster, but their hands are tied by headquarters managers who know FEMA programs but little about disaster response or developing facts on the ground.  In situations that require swift decisiveness, FCOs cannot wait hours (or even days) for multi-layer approvals and instructions from a distant Agency management. Observe basic rules of management and delegation, allow FCOs to act, and support their actions.

Follow the law

FEMA operates in a complex network of laws, regulations, standard operating procedures and policy, but FCOs are too often told to set them all aside if a Senator, Governor or State Emergency Manager squawks loudly enough.  During the initial, crucial response phase of a disaster, FEMA often wastes valuable time obtaining guidance from the State on which ground rules apply for that disaster. While FEMA is the guest of the requesting State during response and recovery, if a State avails itself of federal money and FEMA resources, it should not be allowed to adopt its own “cafeteria plan” of which policies FEMA will follow or disregard.

Scrap FEMA Corps

The FEMA Corps program recruits young adults for a 10-month training and deployment program to prepare them for careers in emergency management and related fields, but the experiment has proven itself an abject failure. Many participants are less interested in emergency management careers than in avoiding college, and the largely unskilled FEMA Corps are deployed in such large, unmanageable numbers that supervisors and specialists waste precious time in managing them. The FEMA Corps experiment should be scuttled with all due speed.

We are fortunate with a new administration comes new leadership and hopefully a full assessment of the agencies deficiencies. I implore whoever the new Administrator is to take a good look at the agency and implement these and other changes that are dearly needed.

Christopher E. Hagerup is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Sheriffs Association, a former FEMA Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and serves as a FEMA Reservist.


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