New FEMA more decentralized

Agency emphasizes state and local responsibility in disaster response

In the event of a major disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not have the manpower or technical resources to restore critical infrastructure on its own, said Rex Whitacre, FEMA’s chief of information technology operations.

To deal with those limitations, the agency is becoming more decentralized, with a headquarters focused more on support than on command and control.

FEMA’s limitations were graphically demonstrated in its response to Hurricane Katrina. Since then, “there has been an emphasis on pushing control out to the regions and the locals,” Whitacre said today at a Business Continuity Forum hosted by AT&T in Washington. “We communicate more.”

Now part of the Homeland Security Department, FEMA is a relatively small agency with only about 3,500 employees. It is dwarfed by industry giants such as AT&T, which has spent more than $500 million on its disaster recovery capability and has a full-time staff for disaster planning and training supported by a cadre of volunteers who are available for international deployment and take part in quarterly field exercises.

The company’s technical and manpower resources were on display today during a Network Disaster Recovery exercise it conducted in concert with its forum.

“Since Katrina, [FEMA has] developed a lot of satellite capability,” Whitacre said.

But FEMA has only six mobile emergency response support units to meet key tactical communication needs, housing and other short-term demands for key emergency response personnel at disaster sites.

“Frankly, we don’t have enough of them,” Whitacre said of the units.

So FEMA is working more closely with industry to ensure that critical communications are restored as quickly as possible after a disaster to support recovery efforts, even when physical infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed.

The change is more one of emphasis than of role, Whitacre said. “We have never had precedence over the local authorities. We are there in a support capacity.”

State and local authorities are responsible for restoring critical services, and they call on FEMA for assistance when they cannot meet those responsibilities on their own.

FEMA’s relationship with industry is symbiotic. Often, the most effective way for the agency to respond to local needs is by working with companies to establish critical services. Within 72 hours of Hurricane Ike last year, FEMA and AT&T were able to provide the devastated island of Galveston with broader cellular service than had been available before the storm.

But industry also relies on FEMA during disasters. “When they come on the scene, they are at the mercy of the feds and the locals for getting access” to the scene and to resources such as fuel, food, water and transportation, Whitacre said.

The agency is now working with the states to develop disaster response plans. It has completed plans for 28 states in the past two years and hopes to finalize plans for the remaining states this year.

“They have been reluctant to let us come in because it reveals weak points” in their preparedness, Whitacre said.

FEMA also oversees working groups for regional emergency communications in the agency’s 10 geographical regions to improve the interoperability of emergency communications systems.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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