Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

States’ Capability to Respond to Disasters Increases Despite Shrinking Budgets

National Emergency Management Association’s biennial survey also shows that budgets have decreased while the number of disasters has increased.

It’s been widely reported that 2011 set a record for the number of large disasters — there were 99 presidential disaster declarations and 250 gubernatorial emergencies (an increase from 81 and 180 in fiscal 2009, respectively). In addition, 258 events last year required a significant commitment of state resources — a 111 percent increase from fiscal ’09. But according to the National Emergency Management Association’s (NEMA) 2012 Biennial Report, states demonstrated an increased capacity to handle disasters on their own.

“There are hundreds upon hundreds of events that are handled at the local level and state government level every year that we never hear about,” said Trina Sheets, executive director of NEMA. “We found that to be quite remarkable given the current economic environment and the hits that state and local emergency management budgets have taken over the past three years consecutively in terms of budget reductions, hiring freezes and staff layoffs.”

She added that, “Their response to the disasters that have happened over that period of time has been really outstanding.”

Sheets attributed the states’ ability to handle disasters on their own to investments over the past decade in emergency management and homeland security grants. The funding provided the ability for state and local emergency management agencies to build up their capabilities and purchase resources and equipment. She also pointed to mutual aid — whether within a state between jurisdictions or between states through Emergency Management Assistance Compacts — as another reason for state and local governments’ ability to respond to disasters.

The report’s 52 respondents were composed of the association’s 48 member states, three territories and Washington, D.C.

Although the number of disasters has increased, budgets have been shrinking. According to the NEMA report, 20 states saw their budgets decrease in the last two years and the remaining states’ budgets remained flat. In addition, 17 states reported that funding to local government programs decreased. Other interesting figures include: 13 states consolidated local programs and 12 states enacted other reductions including salary decreases, hiring freezes and eliminating travel.

However, states didn’t lose their focus on the professionalization of emergency management. Sheets said that NEMA found an increase in the number of states that have certification programs for emergency management personnel — 30 states now have a certification program compared to 23 in the 2010 report.

“So when budgets are tight and you have to prioritize, it’s fairly significant that states would continue to invest in training and professional development for their personnel,” she said.

Another positive takeaway from the report is that a majority (39) of state emergency management agency respondents characterized their relationship with the state fusion center as “excellent” or “good,” according to Sheets. “The relationship between emergency management and fusion centers has been evolving over the years. When they first started out, there was maybe a lack of communication or a lack of coordination or they were struggling.”

But one of the biggest takeaways from the report’s findings may be for the public. “It should be comforting to citizens to know that their state emergency management agencies’ capabilities have been growing over the past decade and continue to excel and try to professionalize their staff,” Sheets said. “So as more disasters continue to occur, they should have confidence that their state emergency management agencies will be able to respond.”

Number Rundown

Here is a brief overview of some of the findings in the NEMA 2012 Biennial Report.

In 2011 there were:

  • 99 presidential disaster declarations, compared with 81 in fiscal 2009;
  • 250 gubernatorial emergencies, an increase from 180 in fiscal 2009; and
  • 258 events that required a significant commitment of state resources, an increase of 111 percent from 2009. (Sheets said that each state determined what a significant investment meant; NEMA did not provide criteria for this.)

In regard to budgets:

  • 20 states experienced budget decreases, other states’ budgets remained flat;
  • 17 states reported funding cuts to local programs;
  • 13 states consolidated local programs; and
  • 12 states saw other reductions including salary decreases, hiring freezes and elimination of travel.

State fusion centers:

  • saw their personnel increase from 1,253 in the 2010 report to 1,510 in 2012’s report;
  • bettered their relationships with state emergency management agencies — when asked how was information sharing and coordination between the fusion center and the state emergency management agency, 39 states characterized that relationship as “excellent” or “good”; and
  • have a personnel base that consists of 64 percent law enforcement.
Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

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