The Ripon Forum

Volume 40, No. 4

Aug - Sept 2006 Issue

Reforming FEMA

By on October 19, 2015 with 0 Comments

We should focus more on what it does than where it goes


Congress is often criticized for failing to act in the best interests of Americans. However in the wake of 9/11, Congress acted swiftly and in good faith to create the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an entity designed to address the new era of security and safety concerns America faced. Constructing a new department of the size and scope of DHS was a daunting but necessary undertaking, and one marked by many challenges.  

DHS has enjoyed many successes in its short history, including thwarting several terrorist plots due to intelligence agencies sharing information and the cooperative efforts of law enforcement officials. This type of collaborative effort was made possible by the new department. Unfortunately, all of the transitions and efforts have not been successful. 

The most visible failure has been that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following Hurricane Katrina last year. By all accounts, FEMA is not functioning as it should and it’s imperative that Members of the House of Representatives work together to address this urgent problem immediately. Mother Nature isn’t waiting on us to figure out the solution; we are in the midst of hurricane season, and another Katrina or Rita could be only days away.  


During catastrophic events, the head of FEMA must report directly to the President. The person in the position must be a well qualified emergency management professional, qualified not only to administer a sizable office but also to draw from the knowledge and experience that comes from a career on the front lines while doing so.

The dramatic differences between the threats posed just 10 years ago versus those we face in the 21st century require a new approach to emergency management. The number of changes needed are so many and the characteristics of success so different that it is impossible to achieve the scale of effectiveness required for a 21st century approach to emergency management without altering the way we are conducting the business of emergency response in the United States. After Katrina, the scale of failure evident showed us that any solution must be multi-faceted, as response failed at several levels and in many ways. Making FEMA an entity capable of rendering the response Americans need following catastrophic disasters requires a comprehensive solution. 

The National Emergency Management Reform and Enhancement Act, H.R. 5351, represents comprehensive legislation that is strongly backed by the first responder community. FEMA must be strengthened, given a more accurate mission and the resources and authority to carry it out and its efforts must be integrated with those of   local authorities who respond to disasters.  During catastrophic events, the head of FEMA must report directly to the President. The person in the position must be a well qualified emergency management professional, qualified not only to administer a sizable office but also to draw from the knowledge and experience that comes from a career on the front lines while doing so.

FEMA’s role must be elevated and its resources augmented so that it is able to carry out its mission.  Additionally, FEMA’s resources must be protected, and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security must not be permitted to reprogram any of FEMA’s funds without Congressional approval. It is imperative that FEMA remain within the Department of Homeland Security so that it can rely on the resources DHS offers, in much the same way the United States Coast Guard does.  

FEMA must have responsibility for preparedness (planning for potential disasters, including coordinating federal efforts with that of local authorities), mitigation (taking measures to lessen the severity of harm caused by a disaster), response (responding to a disaster after it occurs) and recovery (rebuilding in the wake of a disaster). It is integral to the success of coordinated emergency response that preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery be integrated under one office.

The Senate voted in July overwhelmingly to adopt an amendment to the FY07 Homeland Security Appropriations Act. The amendment, which is similar to provisions in H.R. 5351, strengthens FEMA while keeping it within DHS.  

The Senate’s action in approving this bipartisan amendment is important. The amendment protects FEMA as a distinct entity within DHS and, like H.R. 5351, reunites preparedness and response, effectively enhancing our Nation’s ability to prepare for,  prevent, respond to, recover from and mitigate the effects of catastrophic events. 

The failure of a competing amendment to remove FEMA shows that this is not a viable solution. As the Hart-Rudman Commission concluded prior to 9/11, FEMA is integral to the foundation of the Department of Homeland Security.  

It also shows that the efforts of first responders to lobby their senators and representatives are working. First responders have been calling, writing and visiting their representatives to explain the importance of keeping FEMA a distinct entity within DHS. This approach has not only been vetted with first responders, but through every step of the drafting process, first responders were crucial, active participants in crafting the language.  

As the commander of the King County Sheriff ’s Office SWAT Team, I was given the authority to make life and death decisions by my superiors; it was my responsibility. It was my job. What we’re doing in this bill is the same — giving authority back to the regional personnel making similar decisions. It’s why our bill strengthens the role of regional directors, using a bottom-up approach that puts the power with the local first responders who will respond in the event of a disaster. 

We need a 21st century approach to emergency management that responds better and faster to the wider variety of threats we are faced with today, whether it is a Category 5 hurricane or a biological attack by terrorists.  We owe it to the American people to respond to those threats with an overwhelming capability that draws on the best of our entire country. With hurricane season upon us, coordinated, effective and timely emergency response depends on it.  RF

Dave Reichert represents the 8th District of Washington in the U.S. House of  Representatives. He serves as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology House Committee on Homeland Security.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *