Observations from the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) 2018 Mid – Year Forum

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

The current FEMA headquarters team seems intent on making a positive difference. FEMA leadership describes itself as building on what was already in place and adapting to new situations and opportunities.

FEMA continues to focus on disaster cost reduction and enlisting its state and local partners to assist in identifying areas of savings, and is recommending some positive changes to allowable management costs for states and locals.

FEMA is making positive noises about promoting mitigation, suggesting strongly that it is not necessary for FEMA to be replacing something that insurance can replace. Finally, FEMA is pushing very hard for advance recovery planning by state and local jurisdictions.

Long – term housing is challenging for FEMA. It is FEMA’s job to coordinate other federal agencies post disaster. Why FEMA does not push HUD, Commerce, etc. to proactively apply their resources in disasters mystifies me, but perhaps I am easily mystified.

FEMA leadership is constrained by its legislative authority. FEMA’s recommendation to give grants and authority to Governors to support private sector partnerships managed by the states merits support.

FEMA would like to emphasize that in Puerto Rico they handled 1973 procurement contracts, and only three were rescinded. Admittedly, a couple of these were whoppers, but Administrator Long showed tremendous class in acknowledging the hard work and accomplishments of his procurement officer (suggesting why some of his staff would run through fire for Long).

Very senior FEMA leaders seem hyper-sensitive to any potential media criticism, and even more to criticism from other elected officials. One official mentioned to me the critique from our state’s governor about FEMA dropping the term “climate change” from a widely circulated report; while I personally concur in that specific criticism of FEMA, someone who has serially neglected supporting emergency management in our state should probably not lob rocks from inside a glass house.

Note: I understand the irritation: on my watch at state EM Department though we successfully handled 200 plus million a year in grant funds, plus our General Fund, for more than eight years, even one mistake, compounded a couple of times, received and merited criticism. We made one such mistake, acknowledged it, fixed it, and accepted the criticism. As administrators of public funds we are not paid to be only 99% right. We should be satisfied only with perfection.

Bottom line on media and elected official criticism: be candid, be clear, correct where necessary, and move on. Finally, in FEMA’s case, much of the FEMA negative tilt is really the product of media reaction to the unrelenting boorishness and ineptitude occurring daily a few levels above the Administrator’s level. FEMA leaders would be wise to avoid being caught up in that distraction.

Lastly, watch the grant programs carefully. Cuts are going to be coming sooner. As much as I like and respect the individuals that are holding key positions in FEMA, it will still be necessary to go to the mat with them as they promote the policy and programmatic choices of their leaders in the Administration and Congress. The new-found unity of purpose observed between the International Association of Emergency Managers and NEMA offers hope for a consistent and more unified approach to elected decision makers.

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