Is Emergency Management Obsolete?

By August 15, 2007 Business Continuity

The OES Relationship to Homeland Security

A look at the traditional concepts of emergency management in regards to the relationship between emergency managers and Homeland Security.

It has become something of a cliché to say that the world has changed since September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, there has been an unprecedented revamping of the government structures that coordinate response to emergencies in the United States. Newly created offices at all levels of government are being created to focus on the threat of terrorism. New national policies are being written that will drive emergency response for years to come. With the emergence of new policies, new governance structures, and new leaders, the question must be asked “Is traditional emergency management obsolete in the post September 11th world?”

It is ironic that this question occurs at a time when emergency management is emerging as a distinct profession. The past five years have seen the development of a national standard for emergency management programs and a national certification program for emergency managers. There is a growing recognition that emergency management requires mastery of a unique body of knowledge and specialized training and education. Yet to a very great extent, the current focus on terrorism has marginalized traditional concepts of emergency management and thrown into question the relationship between emergency managers and Homeland Security.

Emergency Management in the United States

Emergency management in the United States was originally created to meet the homeland security needs of its day. The Civil Defense Act of 1950 and its succeeding revisions defined the roles of Federal and local governments in responding to emergencies, particularly those related to national security. The Act put in place a structure of State and local Civil Defense Offices to prepare the nation for the potential risk of nuclear war. As the threat of nuclear war receded, changes to the Act gradually allowed the use of Civil Defense resources for disaster relief and recovery – the “dual use doctrine”. However, this “dual use” of resources was not codified in the Act until 1976 and it was not until the Act was amended in 1981 that the definition of “dual use” was broadened to include preparedness.

The structure established under the Civil Defense Act of 1950 was geared towards the homeland security issue of its day – the Cold War – and the structure was focused on civil defense preparedness and planning, not response. Actual response was governed under the Disaster Act of 1950, which defined the President’s authority for declaring a disaster and mobilizing Federal resources to provide disaster relief. Succeeding legislation established the various authorities and programs that comprise Federal response to disasters such as the Federal Coordinating Officer and the individual and public assistance programs.

This artificial separation between emergency planning and disaster relief continued for almost thirty years. It was not until the formation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979 that these functions were collocated in a single Federal agency. Even under FEMA, the functions were considered different programs and kept separated. It wasn’t until 1988 that these functions were recognized as components of a single paradigm for emergency management with the incorporation of the Civil Defense Act into Title VI of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Assistance Act (the legislative descendant of the Disaster Act of 1950).

The impetus behind the creation of FEMA was a report from the National Governor’s Association in 1978 on emergency preparedness [1]. The report highlighted the lack of a comprehensive national emergency policy and the lack of understanding among state-level emergency management offices of the relationship between recovery and mitigation versus preparedness and response. The NGA report legitimized the concept of Comprehensive Emergency Management, which would eventually become the cornerstone of modern emergency management. The significance of CEM was that it took an all-hazards approach to emergency management, stressed the importance of multi-agency partnership, and integrated the concepts of mitigation, preparedness, recovery and response into a single emergency management model.

Professional Emergency Managers

The combination of the articulation of the CEM concept and the formation of FEMA laid the foundation for a standardized national approach to emergency planning. While FEMA was reluctant to issue standards, the very fact that there was a single agency responsible for the development of emergency management policy and doctrine, combined with the establishment of the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, MD, has produced broadly accepted guidelines for the development of emergency management programs.

However, the separation of function that had been indirectly encouraged during the Cold War era would continue to have an impact on emergency managers. Since there were no minimum requirements for the position of emergency manager, emergency managers and emergency management programs varied greatly across the United States. For many, emergency management was (and continues to be) a second career entered into following successful service in fire or police services or the military.

At the same time, application of the CEM concept has created an increasingly more complex role for emergency managers. Where Civil Defense planners could get by with a basic knowledge of response systems, an emergency manager most be knowledgeable of and able to strongly advocate for all components of the CEM model. This means that it is not sufficient to only know how to coordinate the activities of first responders – an emergency manager must also have knowledge of esoteric subjects such as cartography, land use planning, political economics, public health protocols, communications systems, public and media relations, adult education techniques and business management practices. In addition, he or she must have expert knowledge of local, state and federal disaster policy and legislation. In a world of specialists, the emergency manager is the consummate generalist.

There is a growing awareness on the national level of the need for standards in emergency management. In the early 1990’s the International Association of Emergency Managers (then known as the National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management) established the Certified Emergency Manager Program to raise and maintain professional standards. While still a work in progress, this certification program recognizes the specialized body of knowledge required by emergency managers by setting minimum standards for education and experience and requiring demonstrated proficiency through a written examination.

Standards for emergency management programs are also emerging in the form of the Emergency Management Accreditation Program. EMAP is a voluntary accreditation process supported by IAEM, the National Emergency Managers Association and FEMA that establishes consistent standards and a methodology for demonstrating compliance. The EMAP standard is based on NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs and requires self-assessment followed by a rigorous peer review before accreditation can be granted by an independent committee. FEMA is currently funding baseline assessments of state programs.

The Impact of Homeland Security

Given the hard-won progress in implementing the comprehensive emergency management concept, the actions of the federal government and many state and local governments following the attacks on September 11th came as shock to many emergency managers. In many jurisdictions, the single-minded rush to develop a response to a potential terrorist attack has either ignored or undermined the CEM concept. In the rush to create local Offices of Homeland Security, many emergency management programs are being seriously neglected. In California, for example, then-Governor Gray Davis created an Office of Homeland Security under a retired FBI agent. His first act was to eliminate county emergency managers from the approval process for Homeland Security Grants, even though these emergency managers were responsible for administering these grants and had been administering similar grants since 1996.

Homeland Security can have severe impacts even when well meaning. The recent influx of Urban Areas Security Initiative grants is a welcome distribution of needed funds on the basis of risk rather than population. However, the well-intentioned requirement for regional application of funds creates hardships for local governments because the governance structure for developing regional strategy and managing regional funds simply does not exist. If regionalization is a goal of Homeland Security, funds for this purpose might be better applied to encouraging state capacity building in this area. It is difficult for local governments to think regionally when faced with critical budget shortfalls and limited resources.

The emergence of Homeland Security has created a situation very analogous to the early years of emergency management. The overwhelming emphasis on national security and nuclear war planning in those days meant that any planning done on natural hazards ran the risk of jeopardizing federal funding. The concept of dual use was not readily accepted and took years to evolve, creating a system where national security planning was viewed as separate and more important than all-hazards planning. A similar situation exists now with terrorism planning being required to be the main planning effort across the country, separate from “routine” all-hazards planning.

Ignoring True Risk

The basis of comprehensive emergency management has always been hazard analysis and risk assessment. Emergency planners are expected to know the hazards faced by their jurisdictions and to base their planning on an assessment of the potential impacts of those hazards. Part of this assessment is an acknowledgement that risk is not static – it may change over time. For example, some hazards such as winter storms and hurricanes are seasonal. New construction as well as seasonal changes may increase or reduce risk in areas such as floodplains and the urban-wild land interface. Risk assessment is therefore an ongoing function of emergency management.

Terrorism has always been a potential hazard for some jurisdictions. The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act that created a weapon of mass destruction response capability in 120 large metropolitan areas in 1996 acknowledged this. Prior to September 11th a number of jurisdictions had invested considerable resources in the development of the Metropolitan Medical Task Forces and Response Systems encouraged by this legislation. As part of this capability development, jurisdictions were required to evaluate their vulnerability to terrorist attack.

There is no question that the attacks of September 11th represent a significant change in the potential for terrorist attack that requires a reevaluation of previous risk assessments. However, where Homeland Security has gone off track is in its implied assumption that terrorism is the greatest risk facing every jurisdiction in the United States. While every jurisdiction certainly has the potential for being attacked by terrorists the actual risk to a jurisdiction is a product of many factors such as population, critical infrastructure, location and so forth. In many cases, the emphasis on terrorism has masked true risks and has distracted local planners with limited resources from more critical projects.

The failure to consider risk is immediately apparent in Homeland Security funding formulas. Wyoming, the least populous state, received $35.31 per person in 2003 as compared with $4.68 for California and $5.05 for New York. Small towns such as Zanesville, OH (pop. 26,000) and Grand Forks ND (pop. 70,000) have received funding for specialized vehicles and equipment at the expense of jurisdictions with higher risk. [2]

The Role for Emergency Managers

In the midst of all this madness, emergency managers have the potential to be a voice of reason. The ugly truth about emergency planning is that one never has all the resources necessary to plan for every eventuality. Consequently, hazard identification and risk analysis become paramount in guiding the application of limited resources to preparing for the hazard that poses the greatest risk. If one is serious about protecting citizens, they must be protected against all hazards, not just the ones that make headlines. This is the core value of comprehensive emergency management.

One begins this process by viewing the potential for terrorist attack within the context of other hazards facing a particular jurisdiction. One must actually go deeper and ask specifically “what kind of terrorism is likely?” The overwhelming emphasis since September 11th has been on weapons of mass destruction – biological, chemical, and nuclear. However, an agricultural community with a scattered population may be more likely to face a threat of an attack on the food chain than a chemical attack. Cyber-terrorism is a difficult concept for many responders to grasp, so it received little emphasis in local emergency plans despite the growing dependence on the Internet and e-commerce. A good risk assessment may even demonstrate that for a large part of the country the incidence of terrorism may rank below more frequently occurring natural disasters.

When one understands the risk for a jurisdiction, one can then consider methods for mitigating or eliminating the risk. Then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt’s 1996 call to “make hazard mitigation the cornerstone of emergency management” was a commitment to comprehensive emergency management that struck a chord with governments and emergency managers across the nation and is as valid today as it was then. The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 allowing for pre-disaster mitigation grants was a major step towards hazard reduction in the United States. If one considers the hardening of a facility against terrorist attack or developing systems to detect or deter attack as mitigation measures, the importance of including terrorism in the list of potential hazards under comprehensive emergency management is apparent. This is particularly true when one contrasts this approach with the current grant process where priority if frequently given to response capability enhancement at the expense of hazard reduction.

Risk assessment and mitigation planning are core competencies that emergency managers bring to the fight against terrorism. Other core competencies include emergency planning, training, and exercises, and public education and preparedness. So long as terrorism is not viewed as something outside the scope of comprehensive emergency management, these competencies represent critical skills needed in this fight. So long as emergency managers are allowed to be key players in their traditional role as coordinators and facilitators, the public will be well protected. But to throw away these valuable skills by marginalizing emergency managers and ignoring years of work in developing comprehensive emergency management is the height of folly and will ultimately hinder the nation’s ability to protect its citizens.

by Lucien G. Canton, TAL Global


[1] National Governors’ Association 1978 Emergency Preparedness Project: Final Report (Washington, DC; National Governors’ Association, 1978)

[2] Mimi Hall, Homeland Security Money Doesn’t Match Terror Threat, (USA Today, October 30, 2003)

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