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The Federal Role in Disaster Response Defined

Any first responders expecting immediate help from the federal government following a natural or man-made event should think again, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"During the first few hours or days following a disaster, individuals and families should be ready to act on behalf of their own safety," advises the agency in a press release. In goes on to note that while FEMA may be called in to help following an emergency, it is not the primary responding agency for immediate disaster response.

"The fact is that many expect to see FEMA on the scene immediately, but it is the individuals themselves and then local and state emergency agencies who are first responders in a major emergency," said FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Bill Lokey. "With first responders often come the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other voluntary organizations to provide food, shelter and essential needs to displaced and injured families."

Apparently continuing to feel the sting of criticism aimed at the agency following what many perceived to be a grossly inadequate response at the administrative level following Hurricane Katrina, FEMA is taking steps to clarify and define the role of the agency and the federal government in disaster response.

"FEMA frequently leans far forward in pre-positioning resources and personnel when there is an imminent disaster threat such as a hurricane, but it is only after the president approves a governor's request for a federal disaster declaration that the agency is permitted, by law, to respond with direct assistance to individuals and government entities affected by the disaster," the agency notes in the press release.

Resources that FEMA may pre-position include water, blankets, ready-to-eat meals, generators, medical supplies, air transportation and personnel, including medical teams and urban search and rescue (USAR) teams. If needed, FEMA calls on other federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Public Health Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, OSHA and Department of Justice to add their special capabilities and resources to the federal effort.

After a declaration of federal disaster, FEMA also deploys community relations specialists into damaged neighborhoods to meet victims face-to-face, talk about their needs and counsel them on how to get financial and other assistance to facilitate their recovery. FEMA recovery programs focus on helping disaster victims find temporary housing, repair their homes, replace personal possessions and deal with other uninsured losses. FEMA also provides funds to help communities repair or replace damaged infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pumping stations, electric utilities, to pay overtime for public safety personnel and to help clear debris.

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