Chertoff: FEMA Not a First Responder

Feb. 16, 2006
In testimony Feb. 15 to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) "is not – nor has it ever been – a first responder."

"For 25 years," he continued, "under our legal and constitutional framework, FEMA has worked to support state and local first responders during a disaster and provides assistance when a state makes a formal request for support."

Chertoff said DHS has identified a number of issues within FEMA, including a series of long-term policy issues that must be addressed with Congress. These include long-term housing and possible changes to how we provide individual assistance and short-term sheltering. Obviously, decisions about these policy issues will await findings by a "lessons learned" and by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House of Representatives. However, said Chertoff, some issues need to be addressed and their resolution underway by the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season.

"When state and local capabilities are clearly overwhelmed, as was the case in Katrina, the federal government must be prepared to assume responsibility for some aspects of the response," Chertoff added. "And that means DHS must be able to function effectively, it must be able to provide assistance in a timely manner, and when a potential disaster looms, it must be prepared to lean forward and get help and supplies into the pipeline before a formal request is made."

Building Blocks

Chertoff told the Senate committee that three elements form the foundation of the government's ability to effectively respond to disasters. First, the integration of a unified incident command at DHS must be completed.

"Just as intelligence functions were stove-piped before 9/11, incident management has been stove-piped even after the formation of DHS," said Chertoff. "We need to better integrate our incident management functions. We must have a common operating picture and a clear chain of command for managing incidents, especially catastrophes. And we must have a unity of purpose across our department."

Second, DHS must improve operational capabilities and become a 21st century department – with the focus, discipline and technology that are the hallmarks of all great 21st century organizations.

Third, DHS must not lose sight of the need to foster its employees. "They are our best asset, and many of them have decades of experience for which there is no substitute. But these men and women deserve better tools to match their skills and needs," said Chertoff.


In further testimony, Chertoff noted that even given the flooded streets and extensive damage to critical infrastructure that prevented supplies from reaching the most heavily damaged areas in the timely fashion, FEMA's logistics systems "simply were not up to the task of handling a truly catastrophic event. FEMA lacks the technology and information management systems to effectively track shipments and manage inventories."

To be successful in the future, DHS must be capable of routinely tracking, monitoring and dispatching commodities where needed. Therefore, the first step for strengthening FEMA will be to create a 21st century logistics management system that will require the establishment of a logistics supply chain working with other federal agencies and the private sector.

"In the first instance, that means we must put agreements in place before the need arises again to ensure a network of relief products, supplies and transportation support are in place that can be rapidly tracked and managed," said Chertoff.

This expanded logistics system will also include a better command and control structure so that FEMA can track shipments and ensure supplies get to the people who need them the most.

Claims Management

The second major area of improvement will be to upgrade FEMA's claims management systems, including its registration and intake procedures.

"It doesn't matter what business you're in – if you can't meet the needs of your customers then you are failing at your job," admitted Chertoff. "FEMA's customers are disaster victims. FEMA must be able to identify and communicate with them wherever they are."

FEMA's disaster intake systems must be able to adjust and scale to the changing needs of disaster populations during surge periods. They also must protect against fraud and abuse, he noted. Key to improvement in those systems will be to enhance and strengthen FEMA's disaster registration and processing systems, its Web site, and its 1-800 call-in number – including giving FEMA the capacity to handle up to 200,000 disaster registrations per day. FEMA's outdated information technology and computer systems also will be updated.

In most cases, disaster victims who require sheltering can be accommodated within their own communities or at least within their own state. With Katrina, an entire geographic region of the country required sheltering in all 50 states. As a result, FEMA was challenged with a set of victim management challenges that severely tested the capabilities of the agency.

"In the future," promised Chertoff, "we will both expand and de-centralize FEMA's mass disaster claims management architecture when there is a significant displacement of people. In anticipation of this next hurricane season, we also intend to develop a pilot program for deploying mobile disaster registration trucks to areas where victims have taken shelter, enabling those victims to apply for assistance closer to where they live and work."

Finally, rather than relying primarily on volunteers to provide services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, FEMA will develop a highly-trained nucleus of permanent employees to serve as its core disaster workforce. Volunteers will always be an important part of the FEMA team, but in the future, FEMA must have a larger dedicated disaster workforce that can respond to the unique challenges of surge populations, said Chertoff.

Better Communication and Information

To address what is commonly known as the "fog of war," DHS is creating a hardened set of communications capabilities that will allow the department, FEMA and federal, state and local partners to gain better situational awareness about conditions and events on the ground as they unfold during a disaster.

"What we know from experience is that initial reports are often wrong during a crisis," said Chertoff. "Furthermore, we know that a powerful storm like Katrina can render even the most sophisticated communications equipment useless if it is not sufficiently hardened. Without an effective ability to communicate or to obtain reliable information, we simply cannot make good decisions."

DHS has begun the process of creating specialized reconnaissance teams from existing Homeland Security assets, including the aerial assets of the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In addition to the government assets, DHS will take better advantage of aerial and satellite imagery possible from commercial providers. Several of these companies provided imagery that improved the ability of DHS to assess damage and estimate the scope of response needed.

These teams will be self-sustaining and will enter a disaster zone, establish emergency communications and relay vital information back to FEMA and its partners so that they have a better grasp of events and needs and can make sound decisions. DHS will also work to ensure a level of basic interoperability among federal agencies responding to a disaster, including DOD and NORTHCOM.

"Our proposed changes underscore an underlying philosophy and approach to everything we do – which is to address major challenges not as independent, stove-piped agencies, but as a unified team and a national network of partners who share a common goal of protecting our homeland," said Chertoff.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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