There is a saying in emergency management that all disasters are local. While the saying is pithy, it embodies the approach used, by emergency management officials in the United States, to manage emergencies and disasters.

When an incident takes place, individuals, communities, and local governments respond to the event. When these local entities become overwhelmed, they depend on the state for additional assistance. When the state becomes overwhelmed, the governor requests support from the federal government.

The above description is both practical and consistent with the reality of responding to incidents (imagine responding to an event in the reverse order). However, the structure also reflects the governing system of the United States that is known as federalism. It is crucial to have an understanding of federalism in order to grasp the legal framework through which emergency management functions are executed.

Federalism is the system of government set up by the Framers of the Constitution in which state governments have a protected existence and can make independent decisions concerning certain realms of governmental activity. This sovereignty cannot be superseded by the federal government unless the Constitution, law, and the federal courts decide otherwise.

Federalism creates a unique set of bureaucratic challenges whenever activities involve multiple levels of government. Disasters, especially significant and catastrophic disasters, often severely test the federalist system because they usually include not only all levels of government but also nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector. Emergency management authorities have been designed to be mindful of state sovereignty by developing an emergency management system capable of working across all levels of government.

Federal assistance for emergencies and disasters is contingent on the President issuing either an emergency or a major disaster declaration. However, the President cannot issue a declaration without a governor’s request for federal assistance. The only exception to this is the authority given to the President to declare an emergency when he or she “determines that an emergency exists for which the primary responsibility for response rests with the United States because of the emergency involv[ing] a subject area for which, under the Constitution or laws of the United States, the United States can exercise exclusive or preeminent responsibility and authority.”

Once requested, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) meets with state officials, and together they create a Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) to determine loss and recovery needs. FEMA provides the PDA to the President along with their recommendation as to whether the incident should be declared an emergency or major disaster (depending on which was requested). However, declarations are not automatic, nor are they based on a formula: the authority to make the decision resides solely with the President.

If an emergency or major disaster is declared, the role of the federal government is to coordinate national assets on behalf of the state, not manage the incident. This is commonly misunderstood. Some have called FEMA as the “nation’s 911,” and it is not uncommon to see news reports of disaster victims bemoaning the absence of FEMA, when in fact, the state either did not request assistance or failed to persuade the President that it was overwhelmed by the incident.