FEMA’s New Strategic Plan: My Thoughts

If, like me, you’ve been to any emergency management conferences lately, you’ve heard much about the recently released FEMA Strategic Plan. The new agency leadership is on-message regarding the Plan, ensuring it is the organizing structure of all presentations - from the National Hurricane Conference, to Getting it Right, to National Homeland Security Conference, and every smaller meeting in between. Having heard it pitched so often, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Maybe you have too.

In case you haven’t been following the rollout, the new Strategic Plan will serve not only as FEMA’s internal guide but also as the country’s main emergency management strategy from 2018 to 2022. The new Agency leadership’s three principal goals for the next four years are:

1. Build a Culture of Preparedness

2. Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters

3. Reduce the Complexity of FEMA

The first goal is in very much in line with our beliefs at Geospiza. We believe fostering a culture of preparedness is crucial to resilience in disasters when they strike, and we pride ourselves in contributing to this movement by harnessing pertinent data and evidence. The plan’s third goal, “Reduce the Complexity of FEMA,” suggests a compelling new focus. Reducing complexity and increasing efficiency, for example by streamlining the post-disaster data collection process, would allow the taxpayers’ dollar to stretch in meaningful and transformative ways. I hope strides towards a more efficient and less complex FEMA creates more room for life-saving programs versus making further budget cuts.

Aside from three principal goals, the plan states that “we need to help individuals and families understand their personal roles in preparing for disasters and taking action” because “they are our true first responders.” Historically we have seen this to be true. The government has proven to be slow in responding to emergencies, so it's refreshing that FEMA recognizes their own shortcomings and is pushing citizens to be more self-reliant. Local communities need to be empowered and have funding to prepare for disasters because they know better than the government what they need and want.

Although the Strategic Plan has some excellent goals, it lacks a specific call-to-action to meet the needs of those especially vulnerable to disaster. Previous plans have made sure to highlight the benefits of a whole community, fully inclusive approach to emergency management. So its absence in this new version is a striking miss. For those who struggle day-to-day with things like affording food or medication, setting aside the recommended resources to have on hand should there be a disaster is likely impossible, not to mention unwise. We saw just such a challenge bear out in and around Portland just a few years ago. Following the publication of The Really Big One, rumors of an impending catastrophic earthquake sent refugees into a panic. Some sold all of their possessions and moved across the country, while others used limited resources to stockpile water and went days without food.

In emphasizing personal preparedness, we as emergency managers must be thoughtful of those in our communities who are already living paycheck to paycheck, with no room in their budgets for stockpiling. 72 hours of food and water is out of reach for the 41 million Americans who are food insecure. FEMA must include realistic recommendations for people who have no extra resources to prepare for disaster and access the life-sustaining supplies they need in the event of a disaster within their planning and messaging. We must make the goal of personal preparedness accessible to the whole community and meet people where they are. By not creating accessible, inclusive approaches, we risk alienating and endangering large swaths of the community.

Another significant difference between this plan and previous plans is that the current plan doesn’t mention “climate change,” “sea level rise,” or even “extreme weather.” Although these exclusions may seem trivial, they may have dire consequences. If we are discussing resilience, it’s necessary to accurately reference climate change as it is directly related to the increased number and severity of many of the disasters for which we are trying to prepare. There is no reason to refuse to name climate change because science has proven it to be happening and we are already witnessing its effects. Refusing to recognize this in the premier document from the US’s lead disaster-related agency is disconcerting at best. As I see it, there are two potential explanations for this: either, FEMA is trying to minimize the reality of climate change, or they are unaware of its existence. I think all of us who have met Brock Long, Dan Kaniewski, and the rest of the stellar leadership at FEMA can agree that the latter is not true.

Disasters are going to get worse, and we are going to need more resources to deal with them. We need international support to get through disasters, and if we don’t acknowledge climate change (something our allies know to be irrefutably happening), we will have a tough time garnering the support we need. The data is clear; climate change is happening, changing the nature and pattern of natural disasters, and FEMA must acknowledge it.

On the flip side, my favorite part of the new plan is the emphasis on data-driven decision making.

"We must also do everything that we can to leverage data to drive decision-making." - FEMA's 2018-2022 Strategic Plan

Using data to improve emergency management is my passion and the central purpose of my company Geospiza, so I am thrilled to see it highlighted. Emergency management is a field that has historically relied on intuition and gut instinct. We do things just ‘because we’ve always done it that way.’ However, if we can shift towards utilizing data, we will perform much better as a field. After each disaster, we engage in after-action processes during which we say we're going to learn from our challenges and strengths. However, we are often ‘learning’ the same things over and over again. A data-driven, evidence-based approach to emergency management is the only way we will understand what strategies, concepts of operations, and interventions actually work to save lives, protect the environment, and mitigate economic losses. It’s time for emergency management to enter the modern era so we can save more lives. 

Oliver SperansComment