Strengthening Our Emergency Response Systems

—an invited comment

The events of September 11, 2001, launched this country on a rigorous and resolute examination of its ability to protect its citizens and better prepare its emergency responders for any kind of emergency or disaster, including acts of terrorism. As we learn from the lessons of that fateful day and work to become better prepared, we must continue to enhance the response systems and processes that have worked effectively in hundreds of emergency situations and disaster operations over the years. Our approach is all-hazards and our priorities are establishing a nationwide mutual aid capability, a common command and control system, baseline capability assessments and national standards, support of state and local emergency management and responders, citizen preparedness, and coordination of federal preparedness programs.

Mutual Aid

One of the most important things we can do to help respond more effectively to any emergency is to build a National Mutual Aid System based on agreements among local jurisdictions and states. We must also establish concurrent national standards for equipment, personnel, training, assessments, and exercises. We are working to facilitate mutual aid arrangements within and among states so local, state, federal, and volunteer response networks can operate more smoothly. This requires leveraging assets to the greatest extent possible, along with resource typing, standardized credentialing of individuals and teams, and equipment and communications interoperability.

Currently, we are developing a national system that will categorize resources commonly exchanged during disasters through mutual aid—an important step on the way to the standardization process. This information will be stored in a database to identify resource type, location, utilization requirements, availability, and cost. This will allow emergency managers to locate, obtain, and track resources as well as return them to their point of origin.

Funds are available for this type of planning at the state and local level, and we are specifically encouraging planners to focus on mutual aid. We urge jurisdictions that have effective agreements already in place to share the details of those arrangements by sending an e-mail to our new “Smart Practices” project (Smart so we can share them with others in the emergency management community (see the article in this Observer).

Command and Control

Critical to building a more efficient and successful national response structure is the acceptance and use of a common command and control system that everyone understands, trains for, and practices.

The Incident Command System (ICS), including the operational concept of unified command, provides a foundation for effectively and collaboratively responding to all kinds of emergencies. It is an effective tool for coordinating emergency responses that involve multiple agencies, jurisdictions, and responders. It is the standard emergency response system for many states and has been adopted and endorsed by numerous federal agencies and organizations.

After the attack on the Pentagon, officials in Arlington County, Virginia, reported that operations conducted under ICS contributed significantly to an integrated and efficient response. Well before the attack, under the leadership of Chief Edward Plaugher, the Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD) had adopted the ICS as its response structure for large-scale incidents. Primary responders understood the ICS and were able to implement it effectively. The county’s after-action report noted, “the ACFD, an experienced ICS practitioner, established its command presence literally within minutes of the attack . . . Other supporting jurisdictions and agencies, with few exceptions, operated seamlessly within the ICS framework [because] there is a common understanding of basic working relationships among local jurisdictions.”

Baseline Capability Assessments

Workng with other federal, state, and local stakeholders, FEMA is committed to a leadership role in the establishment of national emergency management standards and a capability assessment process. Currently, we are working with the National Emergency Management Association and the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP) Commission to use the EMAP standard and process to conduct, during FY 2003 and FY 2004, assessments of all state and territorial emergency management programs. Our goal is to establish a reliable national baseline of our current capability to respond to and recover from emergencies and disasters. This effort will enable us to target assistance to important areas and, over time, measure and report resulting improvements in the capabilities of states and territories.

Efforts also are under way to revise the State Capability Assessment for Readiness (State CAR) so that it directly corresponds with and supports the EMAP Standard. The re-engineered State CAR is envisioned as a self-assessment augmentation tool to help states achieve a minimum baseline capability.

Supporting State and Local Responders

One of the most important lessons learned from the response to September 11 is the value of a strong and effective local response. Supporting state and local responders and helping them build their preparedness and response capabilities is one of our principal missions.

Using FY 2002 supplemental funds, we are moving forward with a $100 million grants package for state and local governments to update their all-hazards emergency operations plans to include terrorist incident annexes, particularly incidents of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (see the related article in this Observer).

Updated emergency operations plans should address the use of a standard incident command system, state-wide mutual aid, state and local continuity of operations and government, critical infrastructure protection, and volunteer management. The funds will flow through the states, with at least 75% going to local emergency planners. There is no match requirement for these funds. Additionally, FEMA is providing $56 million in 2002 funds for grants to upgrade state and local emergency operations centers. FY 2002 funds for state and local training and exercises and equipment for law enforcement personnel will be available through the Department of Justice’s Office of Domestic Preparedness.

Citizen Corps and FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Teams

An important component of the preparedness effort is the good will and enthusiasm of the country’s citizens. The Citizen Corps program builds on existing crime prevention, natural disaster preparedness, and public health response networks. Citizen Corps is coordinated nationally by FEMA, which also provides training standards, general information, and materials (see the Observer, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, p. 6). We will identify additional volunteer programs and initiatives that support the goals of the Corps. FY 2002 supplemental funds have been made available for Citizen Corps activities and to expand training for FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) across the country.

Coordinating Federal Preparedness Programs

The need for a single agency to take the lead in coordinating federal emergency preparedness programs for state and local responders is well established. While the new Department of Homeland Security will address the problems of fragmentation and duplication, our work will continue as we transition into the new department. In the meantime, FEMA is leading regular meetings of an interagency coordinating group of federal departments and agencies with emergency preparedness and first responder responsibilities.

Additionally, we are creating a web-accessible, searchable database of federal terrorism response training courses for state and local responders and emergency management officials. Users will be able to search the FEMA web site for training programs by functional area, event phase, competency level, instruction medium, class size, and more.

We know the difficulties state and local governments confront with the range of planning requirements imposed upon them by the federal agencies that provide grants to first responders. To ease this process, FEMA, the Office of Domestic Preparedness in the Department of Justice, and the Office of Emergency Public Health Preparedness in the Department of Health and Human Services, are working together to develop an integrated, unified approach to strategic planning for emergencies and disasters.

FEMA’s mission to lead the federal government’s emergency response to disasters and emergencies will be greatly strengthened by the Department of Homeland Security. The department will have complete responsibility and accountability for providing the federal government’s emergency response and for coordinating its support with other federal entities such as the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Meanwhile, we will continue to look to our federal, state, and local partners nationwide to help us build systems to respond effectively to all hazards. While the devastation of September 11 served to remind us of the fragility of human life, the fierce determination demonstrated by our nation in its response serves as a constant reminder of the strength of the human spirit.

Bruce Baughman, Director, Office of National Preparedness, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Editor’s Note: On November 25, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which will restructure the executive branch of government to better deal with terrorism, natural disasters, and other catastrophic events. Those parts of FEMA’s Office of National Preparedness (ONP) that focus on terrorism will be moved to the new Homeland Security Department’s Directorate of Border and Transportation Security, while the remainder of ONP and FEMA will be moved to the Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response. For more information on the new department, as well as FEMA’s role in it, see the article in this Observer.

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