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1.4: The Development and Tasks of the Emergency Management System

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    Most hazard/disaster researchers and emergency managers would probably agree that it presumes much to claim that an integrated emergency management system exists in the United States. Certainly this is so if by an integrated system one means a well-defined and clearly differentiated structure of components with mutually agreed upon roles interacting over time in a coordinated manner to achieve common goals (see Katz & Kahn, 1978, for a discussion of the systems perspective on organizations). However, there is a loosely-coupled collection of organizations that perform relatively differentiated roles in planning for, responding to, and recovering from disasters. Indeed, a basic understanding of the emergency management system and the demands that shape it has existed only since the late 1970s. Even this basic conception of emergency management continues to change and the rudiments of what may yet become an integrated system for managing emergencies continues to evolve. Clearly, even after the intense efforts to enhance the system after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, much of what currently exists remains both fragmented and incomplete. In many respects, the old adage that “disasters are a local problem” seems as true now as it was thirty years ago (Perry, 1979). What is different today is the fact that there is a greater degree of consensus regarding how to assess and respond to the risks of natural and technological hazards. Concomitantly, there appears to be increasing agreement regarding the goals and structures by which federal, state, and local governments work with private organizations and the general public to develop an integrated emergency management system.

    By focusing upon an ideal emergency management system, the current state of the art, imperfect as it may be, can be described and placed into historical perspective. Since the primary aim here is to describe rather than evaluate, the purpose of the following section is to provide a picture of the organizations comprising the system as it has changed over time. To some extent, the discussion will include what might be with respect to an emergency management system as well as what is. Consequently, instances will be noted in which organizational links are tenuous at best and where functions assigned to agencies (particularly at the federal level) are minimally fulfilled or in some cases completely ignored. What follows, then, is an attempt to describe in a very short space what is really a very complex and extensive constellation of agencies, programs, and interrelationships. Although the limited space available here requires compressing and simplifying many complex issues, the next two sections will describe the history of emergency management organizations, followed by a discussion of the functions that comprise emergency management.

    A Brief History of Federal Emergency Management

    Since the founding of the United States, the responsibility for and the locus of emergency and disaster management has moved from one agency to another within the federal government (and the same is true for many state and local governments). Except for two pieces of legislation, however, very little systematic work was done that resembles modern emergency management until the 1930s. Drabek (1991b, p. 6) reports that the first national disaster management effort was the 1803 Fire Disaster Relief Act, which made funds available to help the city of Portsmouth and the state of New Hampshire recover from extensive fires. The next piece of legislation came 125 years later when the Lower Mississippi Flood Control Act of 1928 was passed as a means of responding to the lower Mississippi River flooding in 1927 (Platt, 1998, p.38). It is important to note that both of these pieces of early legislation followed a disaster and were aimed at supporting recovery because this is a pattern that has been continued to the present day. An emphasis on reconstruction after disaster has characterized emergency response efforts at the federal level even in the 21st Century.

    Federal disaster management, if we characterize it as concerted attempts to manage the negative consequences of natural forces, really began when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1933 and authorized it to make loans for repairing public buildings damaged by earthquakes (Drabek, 1991b). In addition, many New Deal social programs provided services and various types of financial aid to natural disaster victims. Aside from individual programs, the National Emergency Council operated within the White House between 1933 and 1939, primarily to cope with the Great Depression, but also to oversee natural disaster relief. The Flood Control Act of 1936 established the Army Corps of Engineers as an important agency in the management of American waterways. In 1939, when the worst part of the Great Depression had begun to subside, the National Emergency Council was moved to the Executive Office of the President and renamed the Office for Emergency Management. Natural disaster relief continued to be centered in this agency, which functioned as a crisis management team for national scale threats of various types.

    The beginning of World War II demanded the full attention of the Roosevelt administration in much the same way as the Depression had previously. In addition to its responsibilities for natural hazards, the Office for Emergency Management became the President’s agency for developing civil defense plans and addressing war-related emergencies on the home front. Many programs devised by the Office for Emergency Management were based in the Department of War, under the Office of Civil Defense (directed by Fiorello La Guardia). This office was abolished in 1945, leaving the Office for Emergency Management again as the principal federal emergency agency (Yoshpe, 1981, p.72).

    Following World War II, President Harry Truman initially resisted pressures to establish another civil defense agency, believing that civil defense should be the responsibility of the states (Perry, 1982). An Office of Civil Defense Planning was created in 1948 under the year-old Defense Department, and the Office for Emergency Management was again left to concentrate on natural disasters and other domestic emergencies. This separation of planning for civil defense versus natural and domestic disasters continued for nearly two years, but has reappeared over the decades with subsequent reorganizations of federal efforts. After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in the summer of 1949, Truman relented and created the Federal Civil Defense Administration within the Executive Office of the President as a successor to the Office for Emergency Management. Responsibility for federal assistance in the case of major natural disasters became the responsibility of the Housing and Home Finance Administration. Legislation quickly followed with the passage of the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 and the Disaster Relief Act of 1950 (Blanchard, 1986, p. 2). It is noteworthy that this legislation continued to assign responsibility for civil defense and disasters to the states and attempted to spell out specific federal obligations. At the end of President Truman’s administration on January 16, 1953, Executive Order 10427 removed natural disaster relief responsibility from Housing and Home Finance and added it to FCDA (Yoshpe, 1981, p.166).

    This arrangement of functions and agencies persisted through both Eisenhower administrations, though the primary agency name changed first to the Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization and then to the Office of Civil Defense Mobilization. The Office of Civil Defense Mobilization was the first emergency organization to be given independent agency status (in 1958) rather than being under another cabinet department or the White House. On the policy side, the Federal Civil Defense Act was amended in 1958 to make civil defense a joint responsibility of the federal government and state and local governments. This amendment also provided for federal matching of state and local government civil defense expenditures, which actually began to be funded in 1961 under the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Thus, the Kennedy era saw the first rapid expansion of civil defense agencies at the state and local level. President Kennedy again separated federal responsibility for domestic disasters and civil defense in 1961 when he created the Office of Emergency Planning (in the White House) and the Office of Civil Defense (in the Defense Department). Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, moved the OCD to the Department of the Army in 1964, signaling a reduction in importance (and funding) for this function. This general separation of functions was maintained until 1978, although the Office of Civil Defense became the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency in 1972. Beginning with the creation of the Office of Emergency Preparedness under the Executive Office of the President in 1968, programs dealing with natural and technological hazards began to be reconstituted and parceled out among a variety of federal agencies. For example, the Federal Insurance Administration was established in 1968 as part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon dismantled the Office of Emergency Preparedness and assigned responsibility for post-disaster relief and reconstruction to the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. General management and oversight of federal programs was assigned to the Office of Preparedness, which was moved to the General Services Administration and, in 1975, became the Federal Preparedness Agency.

    Throughout the 1970s, as new federal legislation or executive orders mandated federal government concern with different aspects of natural and man-made hazards, new programs were created within a variety of federal offices and agencies. These were included in the Department of Commerce’s National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program (1973) and the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration (1974). Following the 1972 havoc wreaked by Hurricane Agnes, the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 was passed granting individual and family assistance to disaster victims (administered through the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration). In the late 1970s, four major programs were established within the Executive Office of the President: Dam Safety Coordination, Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, Warning and Emergency Broadcast System, and Consequences Management in Terrorism. Other technological hazards programs also involved such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Departments of Energy and Transportation.

    This diffuse assignment of responsibilities for emergency management programs to a diverse set of federal agencies persisted through the late 1970s and, as time passed, created a growing concern in the executive branch and the Congress that federal programs for disaster management were too fragmented. Similar concerns by state and local governments became the focus of the National Governors’ Association (NGA) Disaster Project in the late 1970s. The project’s staff traced many state and local problems in emergency management back to federal administrative arrangements. They argued that federal fragmentation hampered effective preparedness planning and response, masked duplicate efforts, and made national preparedness a very expensive enterprise. The Director of the Federal Preparedness Agency, General Leslie W. Bray, acknowledged that when the emergency preparedness function was taken out of the Executive Office of the President and assigned sub-agency status, many people perceived that the function had been downgraded to a lower priority, and his job of coordinating became more complicated. The states argued that their job of responding to disasters was hampered by being forced to coordinate with so many federal agencies. In 1975, a study of these issues sponsored by the Joint Committee on Defense Production (1976, p. 27) concluded:

    The civil preparedness system as it exists today is fraught with problems that seriously hamper its effectiveness even in peacetime disasters. . . It is a system where literally dozens of agencies, often with duplicate, overlapping, and even conflicting responsibilities, interact.

    In addition to the administrative and structural difficulties, there was also concern the scope of the functions performed as part of emergency management was too narrow, too many resources were devoted to post-disaster response and recovery, and too few resources devoted to the disaster prevention. When the federal response to the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island was severely criticized, calls for reorganization became very loud (Perry, 1982).

    Responding to these concerns in 1978, President Jimmy Carter initiated a process of reorganizing federal agencies charged with emergency planning, response, and recovery. This reorganization resulted in the creation, in 1979, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose director reported directly to the President of the United States. Far from being an entirely new organization, FEMA was a consolidation of the major federal disaster agencies and programs. Most of FEMA’s administrative apparatus came from combining the three largest disaster agencies: the Federal Preparedness Agency, Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, and Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. Thirteen separate hazard-relevant programs were moved to FEMA, including most of the programs and offices created in the 1970s (Drabek, 1991b). These moves gave FEMA responsibility for nearly all federal emergency programs of any size, including civil defense, warning dissemination for severe weather threats, hazard insurance, fire prevention and control, dam safety coordination, emergency broadcast and warning system, earthquake hazard reduction, terrorism, and technological hazards planning and response. Where FEMA did not absorb a program in its entirety, interagency agreements were developed giving FEMA coordinating responsibility. These agreements included such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

    At least on paper, the Executive Order made FEMA the focal point for all federal efforts in emergency management. Although FEMA remained the designated federal lead agency in most cases, there were 12 other independent agencies with disaster responsibilities. The EPA is the largest of these agencies, but others included the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), NRC, Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Because disaster related federal relief programs were so scattered through the government, many small programs remained in their home agencies. For example, the Emergency Hay and Grazing program allows federal officials to authorize the harvesting of hay for emergency feed from land assigned for conservation and environmental uses under the Conservation Reserve Program. This program is operated in the Farm Service Agency of the US Department of Agriculture. Ultimately, some emergency or disaster related programs remained in thirteen cabinet level departments, including Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation and Treasury. Certainly the creation of FEMA moved federal emergency management to a much more central position than it had ever been given previously, but it was not possible to completely consolidate all federal programs and offices within the new agency.

    The FEMA Director is appointed by the President of the United States and, until the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, was part of the cabinet. The organization has a regional structure composed of ten offices throughout the United States plus two larger area offices. Although by far the most comprehensive effort, the establishment of FEMA represented the third time that all federal disaster efforts and functions were combined; the first was the National Emergency Council (1933-1939), followed by the Office of Civil Defense Mobilization (1958-1961). The early history of FEMA was dominated by attempts to define its mission and organize its own bureaucracy. John Macy, the agency’s first director, was faced with organizational consolidation as a most pressing task: converting thirty separate nation-wide offices to 16 and eight Washington, D.C. offices to five (Macy, 1980). Ultimately, creating a single bureaucracy (with a $630 million budget) from thirteen entrenched organizations proved to be a herculean task.

    The efforts to obtain an optimal structure for FEMA continued over the next two decades; later directors undertook major reorganizations of headquarters and FEMA’s mission, like its structure, continued to evolve. The early years of FEMA saw much significant legislation and activity. In 1979, the NGA Disaster Project published the first statement of Comprehensive Emergency Management (CEM, the notion that authorities should develop a capacity to manage all phases of all types of disasters), and the concept was subsequently adopted by both the NGA and FEMA. In 1980, the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 was amended to emphasize crisis relocation of population (evacuation of people from cities to areas less likely to be Soviet nuclear targets), signaling a fundamental change in US civil defense strategy. Also in 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (called the Superfund Law) was passed, precipitated by the 1978 dioxin contamination of Love Canal, New York (Rubin, Renda-Tanali & Cumming, 2006— In 1983, FEMA adopted the concept of Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS) as part of the strategy for achieving CEM (Blanchard, 1986; Drabek, 1985). The basic notion was to identify generic emergency functions—applicable across a variety of hazards—and develop modules to be used where and when appropriate. For example, population evacuation is a useful protective technique in the case of hurricanes, floods, nuclear power plant accidents, or a wartime attack (Perry, 1985). Similar generic utility exists is developing systems for population warning, interagency communication, victim sheltering, and other functions. Thus, in the early 1980s, FEMA was formed, shaped by organizational growing pains, and also shaped through the adoption of new philosophies of emergency management. While FEMA’s basic charge of developing a strategy and capability to manage all phases of all types of environmental hazards remained, the precise definitions of hazards, the basic conception of emergency management, and the organizational arrangements through which its mission should be accomplished continued to evolve through the end of the 20th Century.

    The end of the 1980s saw passage of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA Title III) in 1986 (Lindell & Perry, 2001) and President Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Policy Guidance (1987) that became the last gasp of nuclear attack related civil defense programs in the United States (Blanchard, 1986). Passage of the Robert Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 again boosted state and local emergency management efforts. The Stafford Act established federal cost sharing for planning and public assistance (family grants and housing).

    The 1990s opened with controversy for FEMA. In 1989, FEMA response to Hurricane Hugo was criticized as inept—a charge repeated in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. In 1993, flooding in the mid-western US caused more than 15 billion dollars in damage and resulted in six states receiving federal disaster declarations. President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt Director of FEMA in 1993, marking the only time a professional emergency manager held the post. Witt (1995) aggressively increased the federal emergency management emphasis on hazard mitigation and began a reorganization effort. Prior to this time, the federal emphasis had been largely upon emergency response and, to a lesser extent, short-term disaster recovery. Witt began the first real change in federal strategy since emergency management efforts had begun. By the close of the 1990s, FEMA’s organization reflected its critical functions. In 1997, there were seven directorates within FEMA: Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery, the Federal Insurance Administration, the United States Fire Administration, Information Technology Services, and Operations Support (Witt, 1997). As the 21st Century began, the overall emphasis of FEMA remained mitigation and both comprehensive emergency management and integrated emergency management systems remained concepts in force.

    The most recent epoch in American emergency management began on September 11, 2001, when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon shocked Americans and challenged government disaster response capabilities. The attack initiated a comprehensive rethinking of “security”, “emergencies”, and the appropriate role of the federal government. During October, 2001, President George W. Bush used Executive Orders to create the Office of Homeland Security (appointing Governor Tom Ridge as Director) and the Office of Combating Terrorism (General Wayne Downing as Director). On October 29th, President Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive Number 1 (HSPD-1), establishing the Homeland Security Council, chaired by the President. In June of 2002, President Bush submitted his proposal to Congress to establish a cabinet level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was passed later that year.

    Since the establishment of DHS, the department’s mission has encompassed three goals: preventing terrorist attacks within the United States, reducing vulnerability to terrorism, and minimizing the damage and recovering rapidly from terrorist attacks (Bush, 2002, p. 8). Although not reflected in the mission statement, DHS would also retain the all hazards responsibilities assigned to FEMA. As was the case in the establishment of FEMA over two decades earlier, DHS incorporated a variety of agencies and programs from many cabinet-level departments, including Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, and Treasury. The US Secret Service reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security, as does the Coast Guard. The line agencies of DHS comprise four Directorates. The Border and Transportation Security Directorate incorporated the Customs Service from the Department of Treasury, Immigration and Naturalization Service from the Department of Justice, Federal Protective Service, the Transportation Security Agency from the Department of Transportation, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center from the Department of Treasury, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service from the Department of Agriculture, and Office of Domestic Preparedness from the Department of Justice. The Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate was built around FEMA and also included the Strategic National Stockpile and National Disaster Medical System of the Department of Health and Human Services, Nuclear Incident Response Team from the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice’s Domestic Emergency Support Teams, and the FBI National Domestic Preparedness Office. The Science and Technology Directorate incorporates the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures Programs and the Environmental Measurements Laboratory from the Department of Energy, the National BW Defense Analysis Center from the Department of Defense, and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center from the Department of Agriculture. Finally, the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate absorbed the Federal Computer Incident Response Center from the General Services Administration, the National Communications System from the Department of Defense, the National Infrastructure Protection center from the FBI, and the Energy Security and Assurance Program from the Department of Energy.

    Since 2001, the President has issued additional HSPDs defining the fundamental policies governing homeland security operations ( Thirteen HSPDs were issued through mid-2006. Recent documents have established the National Incident Management System (HSPD-5), the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSPD-3), the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (HSPD-6), and a common identification standard for all federal employees (HSPD-12). Other documents proposed strategies to combat weapons of mass destruction (HSPD-4), protect critical infrastructure (HSPD-7) and the agriculture and food system (HSPD-9), coordinate incident response (HSPD-8), and enhance protection from biohazards (HSPD-10). In addition, these documents have established policies for protecting international borders from illegal immigration (HSPD-2), promoting terrorist-related screening (HSPD-11), and securing maritime activities (HSPD-13).

    These developments make it clear that the President and the Congress consider homeland security to be much broader than emergency management. Incorporation of FEMA into DHS’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate seems to imply FEMA is responsible only for preparedness and response (and perhaps disaster recovery if this is viewed as an extension of the emergency response phase). Consistent with this line of reasoning, one can interpret the mission of the Border and Transportation Security Directorate and the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate in terms of incident prevention. This gives these directorates responsibilities analogous to what emergency managers call hazard mitigation. Even so, the DHS organization chart seems to indicate a significant loss in the priority given to mitigation of natural and accidental technological hazards.

    1.4: The Development and Tasks of the Emergency Management System is shared under a Public Domain license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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