FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, It’s an acronym and name that can cause panic or a sense of calm. The real question that many people don’t know is who exactly is FEMA and what do they do? How do they show up on the scene of a disaster event?  There are a lot of urban myths and falsehoods that surround the agency, so we figured since its Emergency Preparedness Month maybe we should drop some knowledge on our readers.

FEMA’s Beginnings

The current entity known as the Federal Emergency Management Agency was founded in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter when he signed Executive Order 12127 into law. The Executive Action essentially combined quite a few preexisting federal agencies under one umbrella, to centralize and eventually eliminate over lapping responsibilities. The five main agencies absorbed into the new agency were

  • The Federal Insurance Agency
  • The National Fire Prevention and Control Agency
  • The National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program
  • The Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration
  • The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD
  • Shifted Civil Defense responsibilities to a newly created agency from the Defense Department’s Defense Civil Preparedness Agency

Post 9/11 Reaction and Expansion

After the events of September 11th 2001, things changed fast and often as President George Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and began shifting federal assets and responsibilities. In 2003 FEMA was placed under the umbrellas of DHS and developed the official mission statement for the agency as it appears today

“FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.”

Today’s FEMA is divided into ten regional offices that cover the entire United States as well as its territories and possessions such as American Samoa, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia. These regions work directly with State, Territory and even recognized Tribal Governments in conjunction with respective civil and National Guard authorities to design, and implement practices and policies to help plan and prepare for the worst disasters an area can face.

How Does FEMA Arrive On the Scene?

Here is where the rubber meets the road so to speak, FEMA can’t show up unless they are requested and there is a process to FEMA being authorized and allowed on the scene. First as we have stated many times, every disaster is a local disaster first. That means that a city, country etc. has to run out of assets, manpower or resources OR expects to and has stated they can’t respond appropriately. Essentially they have to say they need help. Once the smallest form of government is overloaded they have to appeal to the next highest level and to process is repeated until it reaches the state level. At the state level the State Emergency Operations Center Director along with their staff and the respective Governor have to make the determination that they need to request what is known as a Federally Declared Disaster to the appropriate FEMA Regional Head. From there it goes to FEMA Headquarters and ultimately to the President who signs the paperwork and unleashes a quiver full of Federal Agencies that can help. This sounds like a labor intensive and long process but it’s not. The paperwork moves fast and most of the time everyone knows it’s coming so they are ready with pen in hand.

The Truth about FEMA
BROWNFIELD, ME – MAY 28: Maine Game Wardens and members of the American Red Cross gather at the Walker’s Falls Canoe Campground staging area during the search for Jennifer Bousquet of South Berwick who is missing following a canoe accident on the Saco River Saturday in Fryeburg. (Staff photo by Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

WHAT Happens Next?

In most instances everyone knows the event is coming and things have begun to spin up days or weeks before the event. Assets are staged, inventoried and readied for the call. State, Federal, and Local agencies including nonfederal nonprofit agencies have notified their people and identified who will deploy to what locations. This is especially true during known times of potential hazards like Tornado Season, Wildfire Season and Hurricane Season. Historical data and past trends help in the planning of events and preparing of equipment in some states

This is a very over simplified look at who FEMA is and what they do from what I like to call the 30,000 ft. level. FEMA does not build political re-education camps or prison farms. They don’t have a secret army to round up political dissenters. Their mission is evolving and changing and the agency is staffed by highly trained professionals who are passionate about emergency preparedness. They also have a large cadre of FEMA Reservists who leave their homes and deploy to disaster areas when the need arises.

I want to take the last part of this article to say, the lessons of emergency management, especially the Incident Command System have been learned at the cost of real people and lives, some of whom have been injured or killed in the line of duty. The legacies of past wildfire seasons and past hurricanes, storms and tornados help shape where we are now. We learn from every event and work towards a safer and more resilient American and a response scenario where our first responders and support staff return home safe and sound when the event it over. If you look at the differences between Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy you can see the evolution of the trade across the board.

What to do if you want to help?

Talk is cheap, if you think you can help you should take the time to get information on agencies like The International Red Cross, Team Rubicon, FEMA Volunteer Reservist Corp to name a few. Critiquing events from the sidelines is easy, getting in and being part of an organized response can be a pain in the ass, but is a rewarding experience.

One word of caution though, if you are the kind of person who wants to run off and do your own thing without any training on how to operate in a unified command or under anyone’s command and control you will be swimming upstream. The great things about the NIMS and ICS system is that common language and credentials across all agencies makes it simple to figure how who does what and the lay of the land. In the military you wouldn’t just take a platoon of soldiers and drop them into an area of operations without any coordination between fire support, supply , medical, and signal corp etc. You have to look at responding to a disaster in the same light, if not you can easily go from being a rescuer to someone NEEDING to be rescued instead.