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Emergency managers face a chaotic and uncertain future

From wildfires in the west to hurricanes in the east, and myriad public health crises in between, a new era of continuous disasters is transforming the role of the nation’s emergency managers, and forcing them to step up collaboration and vigilance to confront an ever more chaotic future.

“We’ve seen this enormous shift from disasters being an episodic number of acute events on a regular cycle, with a mega event every three to four years,” to major events now “happening every year, multiple times per year,” said Trevor Riggen, head of disaster response for the American Red Cross.

“And for a lot of communities, disaster has become a chronic condition — like poverty or homelessness,” he added. 

{mosads}The compounding public health and climate crises could transform the field of emergency management — as previous “big ones” have in the past, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell told The Hill.

The past two years have seen a torrent of these major disasters — a string of accelerating climate-driven disasters mixed with a grinding, lethal pandemic, all of which has overwhelmed local systems already dealing with more insidious crises.

Emergency managers, Criswell said, “have been engaged in the opioid crisis, they’ve been engaged in homelessness, they’ve been engaged in civil unrest.” All of this has dramatically broadened the role of emergency response, she said, forcing managers to respond to “things that don’t fall into a specific discipline, like responding to a disaster.”

That’s where FEMA can best fit in, Criswell said. Deploying its resources to knit together a network of state and local actors so communities can spring back more quickly when disasters happen. 

Right now, she said, public services such as police, fire and emergency medical services “work really well when they’re managing the problems that don’t need to go outside of their lane. But they need to start to cross-collaborate, especially when we’re talking about large-scale problems.”

The word Criswell comes back to is “interoperability,” the idea that emergency response should be a tapestry of working relationships and institutional knowledge that all parties can deploy when disaster comes — or ideally use to avoid disasters — with emergency managers weaving the components together. 

Criswell’s vision expands on changes that have been underway at FEMA since the Obama administration, during the tenure of former Administrator Craig Fugate, who pushed a “whole of community” approach to avoid debacles like the response to Hurricane Katrina. 

By working more closely with large nonprofit “voluntary organizations” like Catholic Charities and the American Red Cross, FEMA could plug into the experience and resources that already exist in communities where disasters were happening, said Kim Burgo of Catholic Charities.

Before Fugate’s reforms, Catholic Charities and FEMA would have been “siloed,” Burgo said. “They do their thing, we do ours,” she said. But when Superstorm Sandy hit New York, that working relationship let the groups combine forces: FEMA brought resources, but “didn’t have to search for the location to distribute them.”

These changes were a seed for what Criswell is proposing now: a broad change in organizational mandate, spurred by the demands of a period of nearly constant and compounding disasters. 

COVID-19, for example, “had direct cascading impacts on food insecurity, and it had cascading impacts on the transportation sector and it had cascading impacts on continuity of operations for the government,” Criswell said.

“And it was emergency managers across the country that were able to create this network, this approach to manage the different impacts that communities were facing,” she added. 

{mossecondads}Those experiences taught FEMA some important lessons, Criswell said. The agency needs to devote more efforts toward mitigating crises before they happened — which means deepening relationships with local civil society groups.  

These efforts were bolstered by $3.46 billion in hazard mitigation money through the COVID-19 relief packages. “These are big dollars. System-level, major investment dollars that will allow your communities to tackle larger projects,” Criswell told a National Emergency Managers Association conference earlier this month.

Those resources might also help communities access FEMA benefits, a process often subject to criticism and calls for reform.

“It takes special skill to access individual assistance, and you get similar challenges at the community level. The research we compiled has shown that better-resourced communities can better access FEMA processes,” said Aaron Clark-Ginsberg of RAND Corp.

FEMA’s move to automated, online benefit applications, for example, didn’t take into account the wide disparities in internet access, and the know-how to use it — not to mention what would happen if the grid was knocked out, as it was in much of Louisiana after Hurricane Ida.

“There’s no cellphones, no power. How are they supposed to apply?” asked Burgo. “But having that partnership with FEMA lets us … set up areas where people can come and get assistance and information, get access to the internet, or help them ourselves.” 

Yet Riggen of the Red Cross said FEMA and large charities need to keep moving down to the grassroots, engaging the often ad hoc and spontaneous local groups that spring up or pivot to face disasters. To build that deeper resilience, “presence is key, and relationships drive success,” he said.  

Preparing for future disasters will also require emergency managers to switch from looking backward to anticipating a truly unprecedented future.

“We have to have this cultural shift, this mind shift,” Criswell said, “of forcing people to think about what the potential could be, and not just relying on what we know.”

Tags Climate change Craig Fugate Deanne Criswell Emergency management FEMA first responders Front Lines
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