Report From NEMA Midyear Forum 2023
Emergency Management Once Removed
By Jim Mullen
The National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) biannual gatherings are opportunities for information-sharing and straightforward discussions with government and private sector leaders. State (and territorial) emergency management directors occupy unique roles. Responsible to the governor or a senior official – in Washington State it’s The Adjutant General (TAG) – they not only deal with issues affecting their respective jurisdictions (while balancing the political inclinations of elected officials), but aided by Association staff must be alert to developments on the national front that could impact local and state government. An important agenda item of every Midyear Forum is gauging the mood of the Administration and Congress with respect to the impact of budget and policy issues on emergency management.
The ongoing political spat over the raising of the debt ceiling by Congress is troublesome. Why, you might ask, is that a concern of emergency management? Well, failure to raise the debt ceiling to pay the bills already incurred by Congress risks a devastating impact on the national and global economy. “Discretionary” programs supporting emergency management and homeland security, including appropriations for mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery are historically among the “targets” when draconian federal budget cuts are threatened.
Among other issues:
The Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) request of $355 million is only $5 million above the level that was achieved when I was NEMA president in 2011-12. NEMA st
aff assembled an overwhelming case for not only maintenance of funding but for an increase due to the number and complexity of disasters in recent years.
White House officials are considering an overhaul of the cumbersome national recovery program. To avoid a top-down policy revision that makes perfect sense within the federal “bubble” – but not necessarily elsewhere, NEMA and its counterpart associations will engage in advising and as necessary, insisting on changes that actually will enhance recovery processes.
FEMA Administrator, Deanne Criswell, not only presented to the plenary session but spent an additional 90 minutes in a candid executive session with the state directors. Without revealing any “off the record” discussions, I can report that I have seldom seen a FEMA Administrator in that setting take copious notes, respond with extreme candor, and exhibit zero defensiveness in response to criticism. She pledged, credibly, to maintain a collaborative dialogue with NEMA during her tenure.
Note: the forum was held against the backdrop of the deadly tornados in Mississippi and elsewhere, as well as the tragic mass shooting in a Nashville, Tennessee school. The disaster wheel keeps spinning, and NEMA’s dedicated members, despite the political differences that divide their respective states’ leaders, are shining reminders that whatever political or social differences exist we still belong to the human family.
And yet, I came away with unanswered questions that NEMA attendees cannot resolve: when does gun violence become a homeland security issue? Uvalde, Nashville, Louisville, …who’s next? Why have we allowed this to fester? Our grandchildren might ask that question one day. Hopefully we’ll have an answer.
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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.
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