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Emergency Management Goes to the Hill

Television shows share the heroic, albeit not always accurate, stories of public safety and emergency response agencies. Realistic or not, these programs help the public understand some of the defined roles and responsibilities of firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and emergency room doctors and nurses. However, a key player is missing from these “emergency” shows: the emergency manager. Russ Strickland, president of the National Emergency Management Association, highlighted this observation in “The State of Emergency Management” Senate briefing on March 21, 2024. He said that one of the biggest challenges for emergency managers is that “Nobody knows who we are.” Unlike the disciplines that make compelling television plotlines, emergency management often occurs behind the scenes. However, these professionals still need support.

Overcoming emergency management challenges brought the leaders of three nationwide organizations together in Washington, D.C., on March 21. Mark Sloan, president of Big City Emergency Managers, and Justin Kates, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, joined Strickland to brief the Senate on the current state of disaster response in the United States and emergency management’s critical legislative priorities. This joint effort highlighted the need for government legislation and funding to support emergency management initiatives and address other gaps within the discipline.

All Disasters Are Local

For each major disaster that draws federal assistance, thousands more events do not. Each year, this leaves communities nationwide managing their response and recovery efforts and making preparedness and mitigation investments to lessen future losses of lives and property without federal funding. Even small incidents can strain local and state emergency management workforces when coupled with demanding daily operations and emerging threats.

The Fiscal Year 2024 congressional appropriations bills call for 9% cuts to key funding programs like the Emergency Management Performance Grant, Urban Area Security Initiative, and the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program. This reduction in federal funding could mean staffing cuts at the local and state levels. Although appropriations funding for the National Weather Service, which Kates called “the backbone of our preparedness efforts,” was not reduced, it would still face significant challenges without additional funding. Staffing shortages and outdated equipment are just two factors that could affect the National Weather Service’s ability to support the weather forecasts, warnings, and alerts that emergency managers depend on to make informed decisions and plans for pending threats.

In addition to response efforts, mitigation is critical. Although mitigation projects can take years to build, investments pre-incident significantly reduce response and recovery dollars later. As the frequency and severity of disasters increase, such funding can have an even greater financial impact on the total cost of each incident. Mitigation investments can include education, training, building codes and standards, and other preparedness actions to increase resilience within each residence, business, or other community facility. In implementing all the phases of emergency management, emergency managers are increasingly emphasizing mitigation during their recovery efforts to better prepare their communities and organizations for future disasters.

Supplemental Funding and Resources

Supplemental grant funding can help at the local, state, tribal, and territorial levels, but it is not always available or adequate to meet the needs. When the federal government reduces program funding or does not adjust it to match the growing needs, some communities will experience gaps that cannot be closed. These economic impacts can delay response and increase recovery times, particularly when disasters overlap or have cascading effects. In addition, as Kates described, red tape and strict guidelines tend to focus on the inputs and outputs rather than the outcomes.

More flexibility in allocating federal funds to where they are needed most at the local level would help close some existing gaps in the process. Emergency management looks at the big picture and the interconnectedness within it. Still, grants tend to focus and restrict funding based on specific components (e.g., funds to rebuild a structure may not allow any changes that could make the structure more resilient during the next incident). There are many federal programs that communities rely upon before, during, and after a disaster, so it is crucial that this support not only continues but also increases as needed to align with the changing threat environment. To highlight this point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) received a record-setting request in FY2023 of $8 billion for two of its infrastructure and resilience grant programs. However, those programs only had $1.8 billion to offer. A few examples of these critical resources with growing demands are listed below.

Funding Streams
Mutual Aid and Training
Legislation to Watch
  • An update to the Wildfire Response Improvement Act (R.7070) has been introduced to elevate wildfire threats to the level of other natural hazards like hurricanes.
  • The Disaster Assistance Simplification Act (1528) has passed the Senate and is with the House. It aims to transform the federal government’s process for providing disaster assistance.
  • The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023 (1669 and H.R.3413) has been introduced to preserve AM radio capabilities in vehicles.
  • The Disaster Management Costs Modernization Act ( 3071) has been introduced to allow state and local emergency managers to utilize management costs across all open disasters. This legislation would get FEMA home sooner, incentivize the close-out of disaster recovery projects, and drive down federal disaster costs.

Professionalization of Emergency Management

NEMA released a white paper in 2023 entitled “Empowering State Emergency Management to Meet Current and Emerging Threats,” which provides recommendations for building state emergency management capacity and prioritizing resilience. FEMA is also crafting survey questions for a comprehensive study that will help identify emergency management needs. While these national-level efforts can help, the definition of emergency management and its roles and responsibilities must begin at the local level because, as emergency managers often say, “all disasters are local.” There are numerous documents related to emergency management. However, for communities to understand the profession as it does other public safety roles, Strickland, Sloan, and Kates said it is time to professionalize emergency management.

“Other duties as assigned” is a common job descriptor. This line item, though, often rises to the top in emergency management to describe an emergency manager’s daily operations. Promoting interagency coordination, creating planning templates, developing public awareness and education campaigns, building resource capacity, and ensuring rapid response and recovery to incidents of all sizes are just a few of emergency managers’ tasks on any given day. A consensus at the briefing was that emergency management needs to clearly define its role and standardize what the profession should look like at the local and state levels. Degree programs that are consistent across states can help develop what the profession looks like. Some national organizations have already established voluntary programs that facilitate a standardized approach to emergency management:

Strickland proposed one model that could help standardize the training and education of new members within the field. In the medical system, after students graduate from medical school, they have additional post-graduate training in a residency program to develop their specialization before being released to practice medicine. A similar track for emergency managers would combine education at an institute of higher learning with a training period, after which they would receive a standard, nationally recognized emergency management certification.

Call to Action for Emergency Managers

During the Senate briefing on March 21, the three leaders from the National Emergency Management Association, International Association of Emergency Managers, and Big City Emergency Managers urged Congress to restore and increase funding for essential federal grant programs that directly impact emergency management operations. They highlighted the importance of financial investments in capabilities like building new technology to improve weather forecasts, warnings, and alerts. However, they also had action items for professionals already in the emergency management field.

People in the profession need to recruit and train a new generation of emergency managers. They should collaborate with nongovernmental organizations to fill gaps created by the recent funding cuts and prioritize lifeline infrastructures to ensure their maintenance during a crisis. Looking across disciplines, they can increase resilience communitywide. For example, it is crucial to understand the cascading effects of an incident within the supply chain. They could also help design emergency management plans to implement new rules under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s proposed overhaul of the Fire Brigade Standard (29 CFR 1910.156), which would be renamed Emergency Response.

The emergency management field is still evolving and discovering ways to define and promote its role within the community and solicit the resources needed to manage a growing number of threats, hazards, and risks. The leaders from three national emergency management organizations went to Washington, D.C., to advocate for more funding, training, and education for emergency managers. The impact of that briefing on Congress and its legislative decisions is yet to be determined. However, the emergency management professionals packed in that room for the Senate briefing are energized to keep moving forward.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal, DomesticPreparedness.com, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.



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