- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s top-to-bottom review of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is likely to result in the reorganization of several of DHS’s component elements. One of the agencies that hasn’t received much attention is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which makes up the lion’s share of DHS’s Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) Directorate.

However, as a result of Mr. Chertoff’s review, FEMA will likely either lose its remaining preparedness functions to the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness (OSLGCP), the “one-stop shop” for federal first responder and terrorism preparedness grant programs, or else OSLGCP will be merged into FEMA to create an EPR Directorate with a heavy focus on terrorism preparedness and emergency response,complementing FEMA’s traditional missions of long-term disaster recovery and pre-disaster mitigation. Instead of fighting these potential realignments, each of which reflects ongoing trends since September 11, FEMA should embrace whatever new role the secretary tasks it with.

FEMA was created by executive order on April 1, 1979, by President Jimmy Carter, combining such entities as the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Federal Disaster Assistance Administration and the Defense Department’s Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. At its inception, FEMA was responsible for tasks such as continuity of government plans in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike.

However, after the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida in 1992, the agency was overhauled, and new director James Lee Witt focused the agency on preparing states and local governments to respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of major disasters and emergencies, regardless of cause. All-hazards preparedness programs for state and local emergency management agencies; pre-disaster mitigation programs including flood plain mapping and flood insurance; and long-term recovery programs such as the Public Assistance program were mainstays of FEMA’s disaster-response mission, and figured prominently in money, staffing and attention at the agency.

On September 11, however, FEMA was called upon to lead the response to the deadly terrorist attacks. Using its experience coordinating the federal response to natural disasters, FEMA provided assistance and logistical support from more than two dozen federal agencies to badly impacted local public safety agencies, and sent specialized federal-response teams (including those from its National Urban Search & Rescue Response System) to aid in rescue efforts. (FEMA had responded to acts of terrorism before; its Emergency Response Teams and Urban Search & Rescue task forces played an essential role in supporting state and local agencies after the bombing of the Alfred R. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.)

By making FEMA the heart of DHS’s EPR Directorate, Congress and the president intended FEMA to take a robust role in emergency response. This was put to the test just days after the department’s formal creation on Feb. 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and a massive federal search-and-recovery mission was launched in East Texas that spanned across several states. FEMA was tasked with leading that mission, and it relied on its emergency-response assets to implement an incident command system that could integrate resources from local volunteer search and rescue teams to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

As a result of Mr. Chertoff’s review, FEMA’s role will evolve once again. If its remaining preparedness functions are moved to OSLGCP, it must reinvent itself as an agency with three equally important missions, with emergency response meriting the same commitment of resources and respect as pre-disaster mitigation and long-term disaster recovery. As an emergency-response agency, FEMA would combine its traditional emergency management role with operational responsibilities more akin to fire and rescue departments and wildland-firefighting agencies.

If, however, OSLGCP is integrated into FEMA, the agency should embrace terrorism preparedness as a fourth equal mission. This will require the agency to learn new disciplines, such as law enforcement preparedness for terrorism emergency response, and critical infrastructure protection and preparedness. (Indeed, a joint report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation, titled “DHS 2.0,” recommends combining the preparedness functions of OSLGCP with DHS’s infrastructure protection responsibilities; moving this combined entity into FEMA would centralize the related disciplines of infrastructure protection, preparedness, response and recovery.)

However, FEMA should rise to the challenge. The nation expects nothing less.

Alan D. Cohn, a lawyer, is a member of a federal urban search and rescue task force and a former emergency medical technician in New York.

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