What Goes Around…

Emergency Management Once Removed

March 22, 2024

By Jim Mullen

The Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) program has long been the life’s blood of state and local government’s ability to prepare, mitigate, respond, and recover from disasters. A recent joint letter from NEMA, IAEM and the Big Cities  emergency management associations to the Biden Administration urged that the most  significant increase in a decade be made to EMPG in the 2025 budget.

The letter cites FY22 statistics: beyond COVID-related declarations, there were just 52 disasters resulting in presidential declarations, but more than 19,000 events that required local or state assets – but not federal assets – because EMPG was in place! It remains a “pay less now or pay more later” proposition.

This issue has been joined before. In 2011-12, EMPG, along with other “discretionary” programs, was also at risk. Congress, controlled by the ”Tea Party” faction, was determined to cut every “non-essential” program. Though they tried, national defense and Social Security were off limits. Thus, many “domestic” programs of significance, like EMPG, were at severe risk of underfunding, or worse.

The Congressional majority in the US House was hostile to an Administration seeking reelection (familiar?). False representations, some from local emergency managers, propagated the myth that states were not sharing appropriately with local emergency management, prompting proposals that Congress consider eliminating EMPG altogether.

In 2011-12, I was President of the National Emergency Management Association  (NEMA). Thus, it fell to me to present NEMA’s defense of EMPG to a highly partisan House. Fortunately, NEMA’s Washington DC staff was/is outstanding, thorough, and singularly respected by Congressional staff. Ignoring the chippy atmosphere,  NEMA provided the following data to skeptical Congressional committees: the previous year (2011) had seen 99 presidential disasters, which Congress felt was “too many” for federal resources to support. In testimony before a crucial House subcommittee, I acknowledged the 99 presidential disasters in 2011,  then noted that during that same period, 2011, there had been about 500 state declarations nationwide that did not require a presidential declaration – EMPG-funded resources at the state level were sufficient to manage those situations. In addition, about 1200 local declarations nationwide had not required state intervention because of EMPG’s support for local governments. I concluded with words to the effect that if Congress thought 99 federal declarations was “too many”  they should contemplate the prospect having to approve approximately 1700 more declarations if there was no one on the ground to tamp down an event at its most minimal stage. The Chairman, a budget hawk himself, responded that NEMA had presented a “winning argument.”

The lesson from that 2011-12 budget crisis bears repeating, because the associations’ proposed increase in EMPG faces a political environment even more toxic. The ongoing conflict over border security and assistance to our allies could fuel a fevered effort to find cuts “elsewhere” to accommodate compromises on these” hotter” political issues. A significant increase in EMPG seems problematic despite the “budget truth” NEMA, IAEM and the Big Cities associations have provided. Stay tuned.

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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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