With every incoming administration, there is a chance to hit the “reset” button. From personnel to policies, new leadership, ideas and energy get plugged into the operations of government, allowing it to be refreshed in how it performs its assigned functions. With the Obama-Trump transition in full swing, that time has come again, and all of Washington, the nation and the world are watching. While that process is going on, the President-elect’s team is readying their own plans for stewardship of the country over the next four years. In terms of homeland security, the Trump team is inheriting a far more stable Department than it was four years ago.
Sec. Jeh Johnson has replenished the DHS leadership bench that was left essentially empty by his predecessor, and the headlines blaring operational challenges that roiled TSA and the U.S. Secret Service have all been stabilized and dramatically improved. But as the Trump team and new Congress take office in the coming weeks, I propose something at which the new administration and DHS Secretary should take a look—a revision of the Stafford Act.
Unless you are up on Emergency Management or a die-hard fan of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” you are probably unaware of the Stafford Act’s importance. The Act governs how we as a nation respond to emergency events in all of their forms. It dictates how the response and coordination for an emergency goes from local, regional, state to federal response and all of the powers and resources that can be deployed to remedy it.
First enacted in 1988, the Stafford Act has been amended several times to align with changes that have occurred throughout the federal government and the country. When it was passed, terrorism was an act that occurred far outside of the United States and cybersecurity was a threat reserved solely for the world of fiction and movies. But since then, terrorism has found its way into America from domestic and foreign sources; cybersecurity and infrastructure vulnerability has become an everyday operational reality; and risks, threats and interdependencies have evolved to become more complex and costly.
According to FEMA’s numbers, in 1988 there were 16 presidentially declared disasters; in 2016, there were 101. The highest year was 2011 with 242 declared disasters. All of us can argue about the reasons for these increases, but the truth is the numbers of disaster declarations continue to rise, as well as their costs.
Today, we seem to be in a new renaissance for emergency management, given the enormity of talent we have through the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Additionally, groups like NEMA, the Fusion Centers, ISACs and more are enabling more interaction and collaboration throughout the emergency management community than ever before. As such, we are smarter, better prepared and far better resourced, which is why there is no better time to take a closer look at the Stafford Act to make sure it can do what we want it to do when the bigger, badder and bolder disasters strike us.
Disasters are like dominoes. Where and when they fall produces a cascading ripple effect. That ripple may stop at a local level, but in an age where risks, interdependencies, responsibilities and costs are growing in complexity (especially in the cyber age), we need to be having the conversations about operational support structures now rather than trying to work our way through it as the emergency is unfolding.
A national commission either put forward by the incoming Trump Administration or the next session of Congress to examine the veracity of the Stafford Act in this new era of complex risks and challenges would be a great way to start a worthwhile conversation about our ability to be as prepared and responsive as possible. At no other time have we had a public, private and not-for-profit sector more skilled or prepared to have this type of conversation and analysis.
We can keep amending the Stafford Act, which has been fine, or we can take the intelligence, experience and foresight we’ve gained to craft something that could be even more nimble and responsive to our all-hazard needs. It’s a conversation worth starting, and it needs to be one we have in the coming months.