Proven Systems and Enhanced Approaches for New Threats

It’s not just cold air slamming against warm that creates disasters. Disasters come from a variety of threats: rising rivers and unprecedented snowfalls, cyberattacks and infectious diseases. There are also other kinds of risks, such as inadequate budgets and shifting political sands. Regardless of the cause, the consequences are predictable and can be tragic. Disasters hurt people and property. They tear lives apart. They can make political careers or bring them to a screeching halt. Disasters can change the course of history. While disasters can be difficult and present challenges to a neighborhood, community, state and a nation, their impact can be mitigated through strong and decisive action. Often, the only thing standing between the worst outcomes and manageable ones are citizens and public officials who refuse to be helpless pawns or victims, but instead prepare for the inevitable, conduct a thorough response and develop together a well-thought out recovery that acknowledges evolving threats without fear.

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About the Author

Beverly Bell is the policy and program manager for the National Emergency Management Association, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments. She assists in national policy coordination and grant implementation, while also conducting research and acting as an information clearinghouse for emergency management and homeland security issues.

For those who work in disaster management, a year is often judged by two factors: the scope and destruction of any single disaster that occurred in that year and the total number of events that took place.

Using those parameters, 2014 was a quiet year in the United States. There were 51 presidential and emergency disaster declarations, the fewest since 2002. The country certainly had its share of disasters: tornadoes in the Southeast; the deadly landslide in Oso, Wash.; ice jams and flooding in Montana; dangerous lava flow in Hawaii and constant wildfires in the West. Still, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief because there wasn’t anything like Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina.

Professionals call a so-called “down year” an opportunity. It’s a chance to further test existing plans, to add another complexity to an exercise and to push the system beyond its breaking point without any real damages. It means taking a hypothetical event to the next level, and asking, “what if” so that a future disaster poses less harm than the last.

Ebola—A Deadly Disaster with Worldwide Consequences

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in several West African countries was the largest in the disease’s history. An estimated 25,000 people were infected, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths. This includes four infections and one death in the U.S.

The crisis brought to light in this country the crucial relationship between state emergency management and health departments. These two critical agencies have been working more closely together since the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, resulting in improved information sharing and coordination that played a key role in the Ebola scare. In addition to this interface, some states also established task forces and planning groups that included state emergency management and homeland security. Other states created additional annexes for their emergency operational plans to address infectious disease scenarios.

It’s important to note that many of these enhancements are possible because of federal grants. Sufficient funding in the grant programs allows more robust planning and exercises for an Ebola event.

Droughts, Rising Sea Levels and Weather Extremes

Drought remains one of the most insidious threats in the United States, compromising the potable water supply, reducing the ability to grow food and endangering millions of agricultural jobs. When it comes to drought, California is on the front lines, experiencing drought conditions for more than four years. For the first time, the state imposed mandatory water restrictions in 2015. Other states such Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington are starting to face similar issues.

So, how does drought affect emergency management? The growing number of wildfires—about 5,6001 in California alone in 2014, up 20 percent from a five-year average—requires more firefighters, water, equipment and other resources. On a federal level, the resulting presidential disaster declarations demand additional funding at a time when many politicians are arguing for significant budget cuts. Another consideration is the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Relief Act (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.) itself. This is the legislation that guides the declaration process. It includes drought as a major disaster declaration eligible under the act. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have specific programs and policies in place to address drought emergencies.

Beyond drought, the changing climate is shaping other areas. FEMA is requiring states to include climate adaptation in their mitigation plans beginning in 2016. This could include rising sea levels or any condition that would influence long-term hazards and vulnerabilities. The goal is to assist states in reducing risk and increasing resiliency. For their part, state disaster management officials must deal with more intense and more frequent storms, even while state budgets have shrunk—perhaps permanently—leaving fewer resources to manage the threat and provide for people in need.

Emergency Management— A Shared Responsibility

Sixty-five years ago, Congress passed the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 and recognized that protecting citizens from hazards was a joint responsibility shared by the federal, state and local governments. Today, Congress continues that commitment by funding the Emergency Management Performance Grant. These grants are the only source of federal funding directed to state and local governments for planning, training, exercises and professional expertise for all-hazards emergency preparedness. It also requires a dollar-for-dollar match, which means every state and local jurisdiction must invest its own money in order to participate. Even as select state and local budgets have faced serious challenges and some within the federal government have proposed a higher federal cost share, state government has stood behind the match, believing that every level of government has a responsibility in building emergency management capacity nationwide.

Emergency Management Performance Grants and the capacity they afford, allow local jurisdictions and state government to coordinate most events rather than turning to federal support. Since 2011, state and local emergency management has provided an annual report to Congress, measuring deliverables of the program and demonstrating a return on investment. It quantifies the thousands of local and state warnings systems, operational, special needs and evacuation plans, training and educational classes, full-scale exercises, mutual aid agreements and outreach campaigns that are possible in this country because of Emergency Management Performance Grant dollars.

Turnover in State Emergency Management

State emergency management has experienced a significant turnover in its ranks, with 19 new state directors appointed since March 2014. An additional 16 directors have been in their jobs three years or less. Only three people have been state director for 12 years or more. Much of the turnover is the result of 2014 gubernatorial elections, but some can be attributed to a normal maturation of the field. The question remains as to how emergency management can develop new talent, as well as retain its knowledge base, so that lessons learned can be applied to better prepare for and manage future disasters.

The Critical Role of Emergency Management

Regardless of whether a disaster is natural or manmade, state emergency management acts as the central coordination point for all resources and assistance provided during the event. When a disaster strikes, emergency management remains one of the most crucial functions of state government. It also has the overarching responsibility of saving lives, protecting property and helping people recover once a disaster has occurred. Typically, emergency management comes to the forefront once an event has taken place. In reality, much of the work comes before—in the form of disaster drills and exercises, plans and programs, public warning tests and preparedness education.

Emergency management includes four main parts, referred to as the Four Pillars:

  • Mitigation— Activities that reduce or eliminate the degree of risk to human life and property;
  • Preparedness— Activities that take place before a disaster to develop and maintain a capability to respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies and disasters;
  • Response— Activities to assess and contain the immediate effects of disasters, provide life support to victims and deliver emergency services; and
  • Recovery— Activities to restore damaged facilities and equipment, and support the economic and social revitalization of affected areas to their pre-emergency status.

On the state level, these four elements encompass many different aspects, from planning and implementation to training and exercises. A state emergency manager will interact with all sectors of the population, including other state agencies, elected officials, local jurisdictions, all public safety personnel, the private sector, volunteer organizations and the general public.

State Emergency Management Organizational Structures, Budgets and Staff

States use a variety of structures when it comes to the emergency management function. A 2015 fiscal year survey2 of 50 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories found that 15 states have the emergency management office located within their department of public safety, an increase from 13 in the 2014 fiscal year. In 15 states, it’s in the military department under the auspices of the adjutant general. This represents a decrease from 17 previously. Eleven states have it in the governor’s office and in 10 states, it’s located in a combined emergency management/homeland security agency. The remaining states use other organizational structures.

Regardless of how an agency’s daily operations are organized, most governors make the final decision on who serves as the state emergency management director. The governor appoints the state emergency management director in 35—or almost two-thirds—of the states.

Continuing a trend for the past few years, the majority of states—36—combine their emergency management and homeland security full-time equivalent positions. The total number of full-time equivalents for these states is about 3,964 and averages about 110 per state. For those states that have a stand-alone emergency management office, fulltime equivalents total 1,976 or averaging about 110 per state. Agency operating budgets for the 2015 fiscal year range up to $139 million. Some states saw significant increases as the result of absorbing additional functions/departments into the state emergency management agency. As a result, the average state budget is approximately $9 million, while the median is about $3.2 million.

State Homeland Security Funding and Responsibilities

After several years of eroding budgets, the federal State Homeland Security Grant Program has remained steady for the 2015 fiscal year at $402 million, up slightly from $401 million in the previous year. The program is a central federal funding source that supports and sustains state and local government homeland security capabilities. As recently as the 2010 fiscal year, $842 million was allotted to states. The next year due to overall budget cuts, this amount fell to $527 million and the decline continued through fiscal year 2012, when the total was $294 million.

Fifteen states in 2014 relied solely on federal grants to fund their homeland security offices. This represents a decrease from the previous year, when 19 states depended on federal grants. Thirty-nine states receive 60 percent or more from federal money to fund their state homeland security office, down from 42 last year. On average, states rely on 75.7 percent federal funding, 20.4 percent state appropriations and 3.9 percent from other sources to pay for their homeland security function.

When it comes to the state homeland security offices, responsibilities and organizational structures vary from state to state. In some cases, state homeland security directors manage grants and budgets; in others, they have very limited roles. In 15 states, a combined emergency management/homeland security office oversees daily operations of the homeland security function. Thirteen states keep the homeland security function in their public safety department and nine states have it in the adjutant general/military affairs department. Nine states run it out of the governor’s office. The rest of the states have other organizational structures for their homeland security function.

What’s Next?
Growing Threat from Cyberattacks

Cyber vulnerabilities continue to threaten the nation and all sectors of the economy, government, education and even the White House. In an informal survey3 of state emergency management and homeland security directors in 2014, cybersecurity was ranked as the top issue.

One of the most difficult aspects to address from an emergency management perspective is physical damage to infrastructure or to a community from a major cyberattack. How the response and recovery will be managed and the type of federal assistance available to states and jurisdictions are important questions that must be addressed if emergency management is to be an active and fully engaged partner.

Potential Changes for Disaster Assistance to States, Jurisdictions and Others

Two recent developments in the area of federal disaster assistance will have far-reaching implications on states, countless jurisdictions and tens of millions of citizens. The first is an appeals court ruling in 2014 against FEMA.

FEMA had approved funding in 2004-06 for disaster repair work conducted by the Florida South Water Management District, but then reversed that decision, eventually demanding repayment of $21 million. Referred to as deobligation, the common practice has wreaked havoc on state, local and nonprofit budgets because they’re expected to return sometimes millions of dollars—money they don’t have. FEMA is now implementing numerous internal changes as a result of the ruling, but the full ramifications are unclear. It could mean the agency will take a more conservative approach in approving disaster assistance.

The second development involves FEMA’s public assistance program, which is designed to help states, tribes, jurisdictions and certain private nonprofit organizations after a presidentially declared disaster. It’s a multi-billion dollar program that impacts the entire country. Because of persistent problems with the program, however, FEMA has initiated a redesign and has asked state emergency management to partner in the process. The new concept is expected to be piloted in 2015. If done effectively, the improved program could result in faster assistance to recipients, less bureaucracy, fewer deobligations and better coordination with other federal programs.

  Download "Table A: State Emergency Management: Agency Structure, Budget and Staffing" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

  Download "Table B: Homeland Security Structures" in PDF / E-Reader Compatible Format

EMAC—Maturation of a Nationwide Capability

For more than 20 years, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact has served as the leading state-to-state mutual aid agreement, providing well-established mechanisms for states to help each other when a disaster occurs. Examples of this assistance across state lines include recent flooding events in New Mexico, Colorado and Alaska; severe winter storms in 2014 when 165 personnel were sent through EMAC to Connecticut and Massachusetts; and Hurricane Sandy in 2013, which resulted in more than 2,600 people on 142 missions helping in six states.

As the federal budget is further scrutinized and debated, more states will continue to use EMAC as a vehicle to leverage regional resources. For example, instead of each state investing in a search and rescue team, the compact gives states within a geographical area the option of sharing that capability. This also allows a broader leverage of federal grant dollars and individual state investments in providing a true nationwide, disaster management capability.


2National Emergency Management Association, “NEMA FY 2015 Annual Survey of State Emergency Management Directors,” March 2015.
3Conducted by National Emergency Management Association on behalf of the National Homeland Security Consortium, a group of 21 national associations representing first and second responders, government, business and key resources in the event of a disaster/threat.