How will FEMA work in responding to the coronavirus outbreak?

How will FEMA work in responding to the coronavirus outbreak?
© Getty

So few people understand the inner workings of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Considering it’s been in business since Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterPresidents, crises and revelations Trump: Obama's eulogy of John Lewis a 'terrible,' 'angry' speech Big bank hypocrisy: inconsistent morals to drive consistent profits MORE’s administration in 1979, one would think more people would understand FEMA’s role before the president decides to declare a national emergency.

So let’s walk through what FEMA is doing while HHS, CDC, the White House Task Force, and others, are all in the news.

No different than a predictable natural disaster, FEMA has been monitoring the outbreak since it first occurred in China.

ADVERTISEMENT

As part of the national security apparatus of the United States, FEMA is regularly briefed by the intelligence community on issues that might eventually impact the U.S. domestically. 

Emergency Support Function 8 (ESF8), Public Health & Emergency Services Annex to the National Response Framework, is that part of a coordinated effort. It is an inter-agency effort that is needed during times of natural or humanmade disasters, or public health emergencies. It is headed by the secretary of Health & Human Services. 

The function of ESF8 provides the mechanism for coordinated federal assistance to supplement state, tribal, and local resources in response to public health and medical disaster. It also helps with potential or actual incidents requiring a coordinated national response while developing possible health and medical emergency exactly like the coronavirus outbreak.

FEMA functions as a coordinator for all the interagency activities, regardless of the type of disaster or emergency.

With coronavirus, FEMA is helping the White House Task Force, HHS, CDC, state, local and tribal governments coordinate their response to the outbreak.

Imagine FEMA as the orchestra conductor through which all of the resource requests funnel so that any department or agency, or any level of government, can have their needs met, policies de-conflicted, and resources allocated.

ADVERTISEMENT

If President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE were to declare the coronavirus a national emergency, FEMA would then take the lead in the response, utilizing the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) and its billions to supplement the fiscal and asset needs of all of those groups currently responding to the crisis.

The use of the DRF in a public health emergency is not without precedent. 

The DRF is designed precisely for this type of disaster, just as it is for a natural disaster such as flooding.

While everyone looks to CDC for expert advice on how to prepare and respond to the disaster, and state, local and tribal governments look to Vice President Pence’s White House Task Force for coordination of efforts and resources, FEMA would step in to see that all of those different actors received the financial and asset support they would need to respond to the crisis.

Once — or if — the president declares the coronavirus to be a national emergency, the DRF monies instantly become available to provide financial and asset assistance to all levels of government, including the CDC, HHS, state, local and tribal governments.

It would be the most politically expedient and efficient way to get fiscal resources and other assets to combat the crisis.

Meanwhile, FEMA continues to monitor, coordinate and prepare to leap into action once the president decides on whether or not to declare a national emergency.

It is methodically working behind the scenes, preparing for such a declaration so that resources can quickly and efficiently move to government organizations needing resources to respond to the coronavirus.

Michael Brown is the former Under Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and is a partner/member of The Blue Cell, a homeland security training, consulting and exercise company. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelbrownusa