As congressional hearings go, the House Homeland Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications was focused, cordial and insightful, three items you rarely expect to see in Washington nowadays. The topic of the hearing, “The Future of FEMA,” is certainly a timely one. With killer storms that have pounded the South, huge snowstorms impacting large swaths of the Northeast and a fragile dam teetering on the brink of failure in California, every day is a day for FEMA and its emergency management partners to be on duty.
If this hearing had been held nearly a dozen years ago, you undoubtedly would have heard a swirl of four letter words describing the federal government’s disaster agency. But that was then. On both sides of the political aisle, and from each of the non-FEMA witnesses, the agency was described in terms that included “good,” “great,” “significant progress,” “true partner” and “impressive.” This is the “now “ of today’s FEMA.
While much of the country holds a negative view of the federal government and Congress, the subcommittee’s hearing put a spotlight on a once prime target for ridicule and poor performance by showcasing how FEMA is performing with confidence, cross sector collaboration and responsiveness. Members of the subcommittee and its witnesses were quick to credit recently departed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and his predecessor, David Paulison, for the post-Katrina reforms that they used to rebuild the agency after its poor performance in 2005.
But as laudatory as the hearing may have been, there are still actions FEMA needs to attend to for it be ready for the future. The hearing witnesses all came with ideas, but to no one’s surprise, the first of their suggestions focused on preserving existing grant funds in the face of anticipated cuts by the new administration. In describing their importance, Capt. Chris Kelenske, Deputy State Director/Commander for Michigan’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security, explained that any such reduction would “jeopardize safety.” While offering that some of the existing grant programs would benefit from some type of reform, the “grant programs should be sustainable and flexible” to cover the needs of state and local emergency management partners.
Of particular concern to Capt. Kelenske and his fellow witness, Chief John Sinclair, Fire Chief for Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue (WA) and President and Chair of the Board of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), were prospective cuts to grant fund programs to those jurisdictions that are in so-called “sanctuary cities.” Details have not been provided yet, but the Trump administration has proposed withholding such funds from those communities. Kelenske and Sinclair asked Congress to get involved in preserving funding resources from such prospective cuts.
It was also not lost on the subcommittee members and witnesses that as an “all hazards” agency, FEMA also plays a role in cybersecurity. While other parts of the federal government and DHS have played far more substantive roles in this issue, everyone at the hearing agreed that FEMA needs to pay more attention and focus to it given their own skill and expertise in dealing with high-stakes events, as well as their proactive nature of working across sectors to plan, prepare, respond and recover from hazards in all of their forms.
The points about FEMA’s ability and willingness to partner with state, local, tribal and private sector actors remain essential ingredients in the agency’s short and long-term success. Subcommittee members and witnesses also stressed that as qualified and experienced as the next FEMA Administrator is expected to be, that person’s willingness and leadership in exemplifying partnership behavior is paramount to their future success.
The most powerful observations at the hearing came from the hearing’s third witness, Richard Bland, National Director for Policy, Advocacy and Development with Save the Children. Reinforcing many of the good points that had been offered about FEMA’s progress, he noted a shortcoming by the agency to one of our nation’s most vulnerable population: children.
Save the Children is renowned for their tremendous advocacy work on behalf of children around the world. They’ve served in war-torn and disaster locations in some of the most hazardous places around the globe. In 2005 they did something they have never done before. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, they began to provide their services on U.S. soil. Given the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families, the need to look after children impacted by U.S. disasters became an even more urgent priority.
Since then, the organization has continued to provide essential services and guidance to support emergency management operations and how they affect one of our most vulnerable populations. During the hearing, Bland detailed the work and coordination that Save the Children and others have done with FEMA. He had nothing but high praise for that work, but he said there is something more that FEMA and Congress can do to better prepare for future events. FEMA and Congress need to create a new permanent position to serve as a Senior Advisor for Children’s Services. Reporting to the FEMA Administrator, the person in this proposed senior position would be responsible for not only making sure that children are considered as part of the planning, response and recovery processes that FEMA leads, but more importantly, be their voice and advocate at all times. Regardless of their age or maturity, it was a mistake for FEMA or anyone else to just consider that children are “young adults.”
Bland’s comments resonated with the attending members, and it was obvious that he and the Save the Children team had done some pre-hearing spade work with the subcommittee, given the warm reception that both sides of the political aisle had for the idea. The concept of a full-time senior staff member would only complement the great work that FEMA has done with its Office of Disability Integration and Coordination.
That is just one of the things the next FEMA Administrator will have to look after whenever he/she takes the keys to Craig Fugate’s old office. Whenever that happens is anyone’s guess, but whoever they are, it was obvious from this hearing they are taking over a stronger ship than anyone could have imagined a decade ago.