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PPD-44: Implications for Domestic Incident Management

Presidential Policy Directive 44: Enhancing Domestic Incident Management (PPD-44) is an unclassified guidance document signed by President Barack Obama in 2016 and used extensively to guide the federal response to large-scale domestic incidents requiring federal agency coordination. It was not made publicly available until now. The PPD improves upon earlier incident management guidance promulgated after 9/11 and tested in Hurricane Katrina and the years that followed. It helps establish common expectations for federal agencies during these incidents and was designed to supplement but not supplant existing law and previous presidential policy. It represents a paradigm shift in thinking about incident management, but challenges related to incident management roles and responsibilities remain. However, sharing the PPD with a broader audience will allow more effective coordination with incident management stakeholders at all levels.

Realizing a Need for Better Incident Management

Effectively coordinating large-scale incident response has been a challenge for the federal government for decades. Most federal departments and agencies have specific emergency authority granted by statute, regulatory policy, or presidential guidance in the form of executive orders and a variety of security-related directives. However, these same authorities also are usually limited in scope and prevent one cabinet secretary from directing the work of another. Most of the time, this is a non-issue as each department and agency applies its authorities, capabilities, and congressionally appropriated funds to perform its mission in coordination with others. When they need support from each other, federal departments and agencies routinely employ interagency agreements or reimbursements through the Economy Act, which grants the ability for federal stakeholders to coordinate purchasing. A well-known exception to these arrangements is presidentially-declared emergencies or disasters under the Robert T. Stafford Act, as amended, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may issue a mission assignment to federal departments and agencies to perform specific disaster work that is paid through the Disaster Relief Fund. Further FEMA assistance during Stafford Act incidents includes deploying presidentially appointed federal coordinating officers, establishing unified coordination groups to help establish unity of effort for response and recovery, and supporting field, regional, and national coordination structures.

It was evident after the 9/11 attacks that a gap existed regarding the responsibility to coordinate large-scale incident management when an incident does not qualify for a Stafford Act declaration. Legacy Cold War-era policies, such as Executive Order 12656, addressed this coordination topic. Still, the focus on the threat of nuclear attacks that informed that document made it seem obsolete when the threat of terrorism became the primary domestic concern. The perceived need to ensure government-wide incident management coordination to address catastrophic acts of terrorism resulted in the formation of DHS in 2003 and the promulgation of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5: Management of Domestic Incidents (HSPD-5) by President George W. Bush that same year.

HSPD-5 included several provisions, including the National Incident Management System requirements and what later became the National Response Framework. In addition, paragraph four of HSPD-5 established the secretary of DHS as the principal federal official for domestic incident management and cited four criteria under which the secretary would take responsibility for managing the national response to an incident, including those outside the statutory duties of DHS. However, the same HSPD exempted the Defense Department and circumscribed the authority of the principal federal official role by noting that it did not supersede the existing statutory authority of other federal departments and agencies, non-federal partners, or the private sector. Moreover, it included no provisions for the principal federal official to issue mission assignments or direct the actions of departments and agencies.

“PPD-44 sets expectations for federal agencies assigned to lead responses to major incidents and can help create an enhanced unity of effort for all responders.”

One of the initial HSPD-5 implementation efforts was to delegate the principal federal official authority to a cadre of regional field leaders modeled on the federal coordinating officers employed for Stafford Act incidents. The assumption was that these leaders would manage the federal response to major incidents, primarily concerning law enforcement, that required a considerable coordinated federal effort outside the bounds of a Stafford Act designation. Unfortunately, large-scale non-Stafford incidents did not occur. It created confusion and an unclear chain of command when both delegated principal federal officials and federal coordinating officers responded to Stafford Act incidents. The clearest example of this was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where conflicts related to the principal federal official (who reported to the DHS secretary) and the Stafford Act federal coordinating officer (who reported to the president) were noted in the After Action Report as a significant contributor to the massive loss of life from that incident. Not surprisingly, Congress criticized this confusing overlap of responsibility, and the program was canceled shortly thereafter.

The next significant use of HSPD-5 was the initial response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. In that situation, DHS Secretary Napolitano leveraged the HSPD-5 principal federal official authority to serve as the spokesperson for the incident in support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the lead federal agency until HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was confirmed into her role. However, the lack of a clear chain of command between the DHS secretary applying HSPD-5 principal federal official authority and HHS leaders executing their statutory authority outside the secretary’s control created coordination challenges that the After Action Report noted for that incident. Since 2009, the DHS secretary has not assumed or been assigned overall responsibility for any major incident outside the core mission areas of DHS. However, HSPD-5 remains in effect and untouched since its promulgation nearly 20 years ago.

The Development of PPD-44

The lessons learned from 9/11 and the decade after were that it is helpful to have a single lead federal agency with an accountable cabinet secretary charged with managing the response to major incidents but defaulting to the DHS secretary as described in HSPD-5 is not an effective solution. Those and other hard-learned lessons from smaller yet complex incidents such as Ebola, where a presidentially appointed czar led the coordination, highlighted that the lead federal responsibility should be assigned to the agency with the most statutory authority for a given type of incident. The overall incident management responsibilities of the lead federal agency should be made clear, and other federal stakeholders should be prepared to support the lead federal agency as needed. That led to the development of PPD-44 in late 2016, but it had never been widely available until now.

PPD-44 does not establish new authorities and does not apply to Stafford Act incidents, military operations, or conflict with other presidential guidance, including HSPD-5. Instead, PPD-44 represents a paradigm shift because, for the first time, expectations are set for federal agencies assigned responsibility to lead the response to major incidents, including:

  • Appointing a senior official to lead responsibilities employing the National Response Framework, National Disaster Recovery Framework, and National Incident Management System;
  • Determining the relevant federal agencies required for participation in unified coordination and the level of unified coordination needed;
  • Developing strategic objectives, priorities, and planning activities;
  • Identifying gaps that response and recovery activities should address;
  • Coordinating federal incident response and recovery strategies and execution with federal state, tribal, territorial, private sector, and non-governmental entities;
  • Facilitating appropriate incident information reporting; and
  • Serving as the principal spokesperson to lead communication activities with affected parties and the public.

Furthermore, PPD-44 also establishes responsibilities for agencies tasked with supporting a lead federal agency. This includes specific incident management capabilities FEMA may provide and the reimbursable support other agencies can provide, all according to the National Response Framework, National Disaster Recovery Framework, and National Incident Management System.

The Next Steps for Building an Integrated National Response

PPD-44 was a step forward in setting expectations for all federal departments and agencies to lead overall incident response where they had the most authority to act. However, PPD-44 also created further problems and complexity. For starters, PPD-44 is unclassified but was initially only provided to a small group of federal departments and agencies. Therefore, many who were responsible for leading or supporting incident response pursuant to the directive’s requirements could not access the document to review those requirements. Furthermore, by keeping HSPD-5 and the DHS secretary’s principal federal official role untouched, anytime the president identifies DHS as the lead federal agency for a domestic incident, that designation is consistent with both HSPD-5 and PPD-44, which may create coordination challenges because the expectations for the lead and supporting agencies differ between the two documents.

Finally, PPD-44 is now available for everyone, and its principles can be incorporated into federal plans and plans that exist in parallel or in partnership with the federal government. Furthermore, implementing PPD-44 and its known challenges vis-a-vis HSPD-5 should offer an opportunity to review the older presidential document and align it with current practice and hard-learned lessons of the past two decades.

Robert J. (Bob) Roller

Robert J. (Bob) Roller serves as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Planning Branch Chief and formerly served as the Planning Division Director within the DHS Office of Policy. He is a frequent contributor to Domestic Preparedness, and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of FEMA or the United States government.



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