The mission of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to keep people safe and secure across the United States during times of emergency, but its work doesn’t start only after disasters strike.
FEMA focuses on all aspects of emergency management, such as preparing for and responding to disasters and emergencies, working to mitigate the effects and recovering from the impacts.
“That’s the continuous cycle within the emergency management field and it’s constantly evolving,” said Kim Kadesch, director of FEMA’s office of national capital region coordination.
Although FEMA is a leader in emergency management at the federal level, it is part of a broader team that includes state and local emergency managers, affiliated partners within the federal government and the private sector.
When dealing with emergencies and disasters, FEMA works with state partners to establish joint field offices where the entire response is managed in support of local leadership.
Those coordination centers are focused on achieving unity and recognizing that at every level of government, everyone involved has their own responsibilities.
“Emergency management is a broad enterprise that hinges on relationships at all levels,” Kadesch said. “Building strong relationships is really one of the things that our agency does very well.”
FEMA is organized with its headquarters in Washington, D.C. along with 10 regional offices across the United States to support states, territories and Native American tribes.
The private sector’s role
The private sector plays a critical role in the “community approach” that FEMA takes in responding to disasters and emergencies.
“We rely on the media to help us get information out to the public,” said Kadesch. “The media is incredibly important in many instances in resolving issues with misinformation and disinformation.”
FEMA’s partners in the retail industry, especially big box stores, are able to help by sponsoring preparedness events that focus on mitigation and steps that individuals and families can take.
Businesses can play a significant role in helping their workforces prepare themselves and their families to potentially deal with emergencies.
“That takes the load off government at all levels in terms of being able to provide a response, said Kadesch. “The quicker that the private sector can recover and be up and running following a disaster, the quicker we can all re-establish a degree of normalcy and restore services to the public.”
How Katrina changed FEMA
The mission of FEMA has expanded since 2005, when the historic Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi, causing large-scale devastation along the Gulf Coast.
It led Congress to pass the “Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act” which effectively gave FEMA and regional administrators the ability to move and pre-position assets – including people, equipment and supplies – in advance of an impending disaster.
The act designated the FEMA administrator as the principal advisor to the president and Department of Homeland Security officials for all matters related to emergency management nationwide.
“It caused the agency to build specific response teams and procedures to rapidly respond to support states and local governments,” said Kadesch. “Now, FEMA is constantly learning and adapting and we’ve evolved in our capabilities.”
A recent example of FEMA’s expanded role is how it responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the pandemic first hit, FEMA took the lead in coordinating resources in support of its partners at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“FEMA already had tools in place for operating in dispersed operations,” said Kadesch. “Those tools put us in a great position to work remotely during the pandemic, so we were prepared and our employees were all set and ready to go.”
Where is technology taking FEMA?
Through technological advancements, FEMA’s capabilities and responsibilities are only expected to grow in the coming years.
“I think our imaginations are really the only limiting factor in the realm of technology enhancements for emergency management,” said Kadesch.
For instance, FEMA may be able to utilize artificial intelligence to better understand the cascading impacts of a disaster.
Severe weather forecast models from FEMA’s partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are evolving, making it easier for emergency officials to provide better alerts and warnings to the public.
However, with improved technology comes cybersecurity risks.
That’s why FEMA has been reviewing redundancies, including analog systems, in an effort to make sure that officials can communicate if a primary system ever goes down.
“Our partners in local governments are very active and collaborative in approaching cybersecurity threats,” said Kadesch. “We all need to practice cyber hygiene.”