I spent about 20 dollars printing out all of the FEMA framework documents the other day which have been open for public comment. At first I wanted to write about little nuggets in the documents such as the National Response Plan has only three mentions of collaboration and two mentions of data. So instead I just picked a few topics which popped out at me. Maybe they would for you too.
Iterating in Collaboration
It strikes me that what we keep running round and round about in emergency management (as well as international humanitarian relief) but we don’t talk about is how people who are charged with coordinating in a crisis actually work together or not. What are the methods? What kind of help do they have to support these efforts? How does inclusion and sharing come into play? How can these groups make better decisions (or be empowered to make decisions in the first place) while under extreme pressure to get something done now? We talk about command and control models which work great for the fire services but can that really handle the need to collaborate with stakeholders who often do not speak the language of emergency management? I really think we need to start looking at a new approach for how people work together in disasters. We need to understand how they are collaborating, what tools they are using. It always seems that it is so difficult to go from lessons observed to lessons learned (and to stem any policy revision from those lessons). I’m not sure five frameworks is the answer. Perhaps this is something that could go into the future cast that FEMA Policy shop is looking into?
Emergency management is getting there in sense. Whole of community talks about collaboration but doesn’t give it the policy charge (nor the grant dollars). An example I observed was during Hurricane Ike, ESF-6 was testing out a new approach which was a simple multi-stakeholder forum where anyone who was relevant to the discussion could participate at any level from any organization. This was not true of other coordination points in the JFO where you had to be invited to meetings. What ESF-6 was doing was providing an open forum for collaboration where in essence FEMA (and other agencies) could figure out where the gaps were and how to apply resources to shore those gaps or push the bureaucracy forward. This is a super smart approach, similar to an adhocracy which can be, "Any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results.” I can’t help but think that emergency management may need to evolve to a more adhocratic model which is decentralized, task oriented through group collaboration.
Level the ESF vs. Annex Playing Field
I often wonder why are we are so bent on creating categories where some are more important than others? It continues to baffle me that both the Private Sector and Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources functions are not “Essential” rather they are still provide a support role through “Annexes.” There are states, including the State of Florida, who have addressed this gap in emergency management policy by creating their own ESF for private sector coordination. If we are truly to create a whole of community engagement then that needs to start with how disasters are coordinated. These stakeholders need to be at the table and essential, not in an annex form. This needs to be balances with equity. There can’t be four companies in the EOC getting information that gives them competitive advantage. On the government side, private sector liaisons need to be funded. They need funds to engage the private sector, they need to leverage existing communities. They need to be where their stakeholder are at.
Bye Bye ESF-14. Hello Overlap
I can’t help but think before we talk about whole of community we need to talk about whole of government approach. This is especially true with Recovery where we now have a separate doctrine now focusing on recovery which takes ESF-14 out of the response system and creating its own system which haven’t been mapped between all of these policies. I was in the initial discussions of the Recovery Framework and several people were infatic on having RSFs. So now we have ESFs and RSFs. We now have separated these systems even though we tell them to work together. When does recovery begin? Who has authority and resources? No one at the table could answer that question. It was suggested that the main problem for State and local jurisdiction was the conflicting information coming from federal agencies. In fact, there is not an inventory of resources available from the federal government to state and local jurisdictions during recovery operations (this would be nice for response too). In discussions with stakeholders many just did not know what was available to help their community. It didn’t help that every single agency has its own authorities and resources which are not pooled, rather are executed direct. So in a way a town who has had a disaster not only has to deal with the disaster that has happened to their town but they have to fight a bureaucracy who is not mandated to work together or sometimes be able to obligate their agency in any way.
Technology and Data
Okay. Hardly any of the new revisions really focus on the use of technology as relates to their specific operational mission objectives. What does this say? It could be argued that it is meant to be general not prescriptive but I can’t imagine waiting another three years for the next revision without a significant amount of technology -- this includes data, mobile, geospatial, paid and volunteer expertise. Where does this sit in the ESF structure? ESF-2? ESF-6? ESF-5? ESF-15? This is super important to figure out. It should be derived by lessons learned. There is a lot of them. How will the tech folks have a voice at the decision making table as well? How is this funded to create preparedness to use technology and how to raise the level of digital literacy of the emergency management (including VOADs). For example, where does the Red Cross Digital Operations Center or the Wal-Mart EOC provide its data feeds? To whom in the EOC? Where does that go? How do these feeds get shared back out? While these documents shouldn’t get in the weeds, they should address at a top level these necessary operational (not public affairs) considerations.
Dear Congress: Fund Emergency Management At All Levels
In a way FEMA isn’t built to do all of this. FEMA isn’t getting more support from Congress that it needs to do its job. FEMA needs an investment to modernize its capabilities and capacity. First responders need Congress’ help.
How can localities possibility address all that is has been identified in these documents? How can we be sure that technology is included, including raising the level of digital literacy of practitioners.
How can our national emergency response system at every level be prepared for how their community will be communicating in a crisis?
Private sector coordination is underscored in almost every lessons learned report and still it remains a secondary priority in policy development.
How can local government know what the federal government and provide if they haven’t created an inventory of recovery resources available to communities effected by disasters. Many of those resources aren’t built for disasters -- i.e. HUD grants. Yet HUD was a very strong influence in the development of the Disaster Recovery Framework.
We really need Congress action to not decrease funding for grant programs, rather increase the ability for people-centric funding so they can create open forums for collaboration actually work.
Sidenote: I'll give credit to whomever wrote the below line in the National Response Framework. I had to chuckle because this certainly is aspirational. It's almost like the NRF was executing the laws of attraction.
"Federal and state response operations are highly collaborative and mutually transparent"