EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – September 14, 2005

Revolution Needed in U.S. Emergency Management

Richard T. Sylves, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Senior Policy Fellow, Center on Energy and Environmental Policy
University of Delaware

Avagene Moore
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Amy Sebring, my partner/associate, and I are pleased you could join us today!

Today's topic is "Revolution Needed in US Emergency Management." We selected this topic before the catastrophic events on the Gulf Coast, and what started out as an academic exercise at this year's Higher Ed conference has now taken on new urgency. We hope today's discussion will focus on constructive ideas as we grapple with the implications for the future of emergency management.

Let's now turn to today's session and welcome our distinguished speaker to the Virtual Forum. Richard Sylves, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations and Senior Policy Fellow of the Center on Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware. He has researched presidential disaster declarations for more than fifteen years and he has co-edited with William Waugh two books on disaster management in the U.S and one on a U.S. Political History of Nuclear Energy. He is currently completing a book on presidential disaster declarations with the State University of New York Press. I encourage you to read Dr. Sylves’ bio for more details about his career.

Please help me welcome Dr. Sylves to today's EIIP Virtual Forum. Rick, we are delighted you are here and I now turn the floor to you for your formal remarks.


Richard Sylves: Good day to you all. Last spring I was asked by DHS/FEMA’s Dr. Wayne Blanchard to argue the proposition: Why Revolutionary Change is needed in emergency management. This was for a plenary session of Dr. Blanchard’s Emergency Management Higher Education conference, a very worthwhile event.

I argued, those who favor the perpetuation of emergency management must concede that terrorism events, the threat of terrorism, and existing homeland security law and public policy require a revolutionary change in what emergency management is and what it means.

I want to now add that Hurricane Katrina, arguably the nation’s most expensive natural disaster, has placed extraordinary demands on an emergency management system implanted into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I think the fusion of counter-terrorism homeland security and emergency management, all-hazards conceived, will continue into the indefinite future, though I cannot anticipate what reforms the President and Congress will make in the months ahead.

Whether FEMA is pulled out of DHS and made independent again or whether Congress and the President keep it in DHS, emergency management will have to change. Does the future of emergency management ride on what happens to FEMA in the aftermath of Katrina?

I say those who seek the perpetuation and improvement of emergency management need to press for a revolutionary overhaul of emergency management across all domains. This overhaul must concede that emergency management is neither the exclusive intellectual property of current or former FEMA officials, nor the private domain of current state and local emergency management officials.

Emergency managers are losing out in bureaucratic competitions on all levels of government, particularly in the realm of emergency planning, to other agencies and programs of Department of Homeland Security. This is in part because the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), both admirable organizations, nevertheless lack powerful clientele support and political clout to champion the interests of their emergency manager memberships.

IAEM’s Certified Emergency Manager program is a good start but it needs considerably more substance, academic rigor, and degree credentialing. In poly science terms, government emergency managers are an "imputed interest" in the sense that they succeed or fail as a function of how they can "indirectly" lobby their government employer.

Loss of competitiveness for emergency management (EM) continues owing to a weakly defined self-identity. It continues to be poorly understood by policy makers and the public. It is one reason why several presidents have had no qualms about appointing FEMA directors who lack disaster management expertise or experience. We need to be clearer about what EM does, what EM can be expected to do, how EM performance can be evaluated for specific disasters, and why people need to understand that mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery need to be addressed and considered as inseparable.

Emergency management is now vulnerable to being supplanted by homeland security as both a profession and as a field of academic research, teaching, and practice. I fear emergency managers are losing in the fight to define homeland security. However, when homeland security officials unfamiliar with emergency management are called in to manage disaster response and recovery, their deficiencies in this work underscores the need for them to learn and master a broadened emergency management field.

The National Incident Management System and the new National Response Plan no longer assign many predominant emergency management duties and leadership roles to what’s left of the former FEMA. This poses problems. Experts in law enforcement, port security, intelligence, border control, immigration, transportation security, tend to see emergency management as an "annex" functional activity of secondary importance.

Owing to the continued importance of the National Guard in disasters, and because the active military now have a greater domestic presence and a North American command, and because the Coast Guard resides in DHS, civilian emergency managers would be wise to advance their work and pursue new accommodations with these military authorities.

Emergency managers have been backed out of lead coordinator roles they had assumed when FEMA was an independent agency and when state and local governments had more "stand alone" emergency management agencies. If federal emergency managers fail in their effort to, as someone said, "cross fertilize" emergency management through the Homeland Security Department, the entire field of emergency management will suffer (fertilize is not my metaphor). If emergency management is being "diluted" by terrorism priorities, emergency managers should respond by capitalizing on the overlaps of the two: civil security dual use for example.

What were previously defined as "major disasters" and "emergencies" in presidential declaration decision making are being subsumed under the terms "INCIDENTS" or "INCIDENTS OF NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE" by the President, thus conflating the official definition of disaster (natural or human-caused) with any president perceived threat to the nation. However, the President cannot have missed the significance of Katrina’s aftermath; I predict that future natural mega-disasters will be federalized under presidential declarations of "catastrophic disaster."

While the Stafford Act of 1988 remains law, the processes by which DHS/FEMA considers governor requests for declarations of major disaster and emergency and the nature of what constitutes a disaster agent, have undergone change. Some of these changes reflect a pre-occupation with homeland security and these changes have had ramifications at the state and local levels.

The terrorism disaster of 9/11/01 (at the WTC and the Pentagon) was a mega-disaster that represents an epiphenomenon for both emergency managers and disaster policy makers. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, related laws, and a series of Presidential Homeland Security Directives, have forced epic changes to both FEMA and the domestic and international world of emergency management. American emergency managers must now learn more about disasters and emergencies outside the U.S. Globalization and the disappearance of what was after all an imaginary line between "domestic" U.S. events and events with origins outside the U.S. but which have implications inside the U.S. make this necessary.

Hurricane Katrina also represents something of an epiphenomenon. Katrina may well be the nation’s first $100 billion-plus federal pay-out disaster. For emergency managers Katrina cuts both ways.

On the negative side, the slowness of government’s emergency response, particularly in areas of New Orleans devastated by levy-failure flooding, and the ensuing blame game, represent a huge public relations setback for the image of emergency managers generally. It has also sparked renewed interest in militarizing emergency response, much as happened after Hurricane Andrew.

On the positive side, Katrina has provided an object reminder that natural disasters can be as destructive, or more so, than terror-caused disasters -- even the 9/11 disaster. Katrina also underscores the excellent, though under-publicized, work of emergency managers -- something I think will get more positive publicity during the late response and long-term recovery phases of the disaster.

Katrina has also moved natural disaster back on to the public policy agenda, most particularly at the White House level and in Congress. Other nations have sought to offer help to Katrina victims raising foreign policy issues.

So why is a revolution in emergency management needed now? Emergency management has evolved ostensibly under the rubric of all-hazards emergency management but in fact many first responders such as police, fire, EMS, etc. and many different disaster agent constituencies (flood interests, hurricane interests, earthquake interests, etc.) continue to work quite independently and parochially as if emergency management were merely a sub-category of what they do. This fragmentation makes emergency management vulnerable to ‘hijack’ by more powerful conceptualizations -- like homeland security. Ironically, DHS was formed in part to bring together more federal players in EM.

Emergency management in the U.S. evolved conjointly, and often unhappily, with Civil Defense against Nuclear Attack. In 1993 the shot-gun marriage of civil defense and emergency management ended and emergency management got "the kids, the house, and the car." Nunn-Lugar in the mid-1990s, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the first World Trade Center attack provided a comeback of sorts for weapons of mass destruction concerns. However, it was the terror attack of 9/11 that reintroduced civil defense, now labeled civil security. I contend that civil security, despite the unappealing civil defense "baggage" is a more legitimate concern for emergency managers today than civil defense against nuclear attack was for most of the Cold War.

Emergency management, even in recent years, has been done in fundamentally different ways by federal, state, and local governments, sometimes compatibly but often disjointedly. The federally-led drive to establish the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System both heavily pitched on terrorism concerns, is reshaping the state and local conceptualization of what emergency management is. It is too early to tell whether the massive planning and exercise work under the NRP and NIMS helped or hurt response to Katrina.

Emergency managers need to decide whether to resist the homeland security tide or instead exploit and reshape it from the inside. Exploiting and reshaping it will require revolutionary change in how emergency management is conceived. Emergency management must fundamentally rebuild itself to demonstrate its role in many of the domains of homeland security, most particularly in regard to terrorism consequence management. I think it would be a mistake to isolate FEMA from homeland security and terrorism consequence management work in any post-Katrina reorganization.

Moreover, emergency management cannot simply relegate homeland security to a minor category of all hazards emergency management. Rather, homeland security has been defined in a way that makes all hazards emergency management one component of a much broader schema of security work. Emergency management must break free of its narrow intellectual confines and use the superiority of its systems of coordination, planning, response, mitigation and recovery to penetrate and make contributions to all realms of homeland security.

Emergency management must move beyond the confines of (so far) futilely attempting to integrate with one another public management, disaster-agent focused political interests, and sundry academic disciplines and fields. EM advocates should instead champion a synthesis of emergency management and homeland security responsibilities that makes emergency management much more than it is today.

Reforms to be made in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, and problems revealed in the emergency response to that disaster, may provide a tremendous opportunity for emergency management to either assume a greater role in homeland security or re-establish the legitimacy of professional emergency management in a more workable organizational setting. There are those who long for FEMA’s independence from homeland security. I do not oppose this but I do think emergency managers, across all levels of government, would gain much by taking from homeland security what makes sense and vigorously broadening in scope, and tightening in rigor, emergency management as a profession and field. Emergency management must make accommodation with civil security.

Because homeland security requires that emergency managers need to be re-educated, re-tested, and recertified to prove their qualifications in homeland security work, emergency management should be re-designed in a manner that absorbs whole new sets of responsibilities, beyond the skill sets of conventional emergency managers. However, emergency managers need to insist that new homeland security fields and occupations emphasize the need for, and fundamentals of, emergency management.

Emergency managers should lead a revolutionary transformation of emergency management because like it or not policy makers, led by the President and Congress, have already forced a transformation of emergency management in law, policy, and in government organization (i.e. DHS). In the words of this Trekkie, "Resistance is futile."

Thank you to Avagene Moore for her terrific help and thank you for your attention in going through all of this. I look forward to taking your questions.

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Rick. You have given us much to think about. I am sure there are several questions for you from our audience.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Barry Drogin:
My first question is why didn't DHS result in non-stovepiping of functions?

Richard Sylves: Good question. DHS is still jelling as a department. Mission that dominates is terrorism and everyone has to buy in on that approach.

Amy Sebring:
I agree that we suffer from the fragmentation you describe. Do you have any suggestions as to how to achieve the synthesis you call for?

Richard Sylves: Yes, I think we need to conduct conferences in a national forum and do whatever it takes to broaden the realm of EM for a era of homeland security. The commission that investigates Katrina may provide a good platform.

Claire Rubin:
In addition to re-conceptualizing the field of emergency management, I think a new professional association is needed both o effectively assist in the revolutionary changes you suggest and to more effectively present the views and experience of practitioners. What is your view?

Richard Sylves: It is vitally important for academics and practitioners to chart the future of EM together. I think Dr. Blanchard at FEMA has done a good job at this in his Higher Education Conference each June in Emmitsburg and, so too, the Hazards Workshop of the University of Colorado.

Burt Wallrich:
I must disagree with the thrust of your discussion. The one unquestionable role for government is to provide for the safety and survival of its citizens, and particularly those least able to ensure their own safety. What are the greatest threats to lives and property? That is the starting point for thinking about emergency management. Homeland security is a real, overlapping, but different issue having much more to do with national defense and police work than with emergency management. FEMA under J. L. Witt would not have fallen on its face during Katrina.

Richard Sylves: Yes Burt. I think you are correct though I think homeland security is here to stay and we must accommodate to that.

Ed Jewett:
Bravo! I especially liked your themes of "domain", weakly-defined identity, fragmentation, and hopefully synthesis. Definitely need an approach that allows deep dialogue and experiential interaction. There are literally thousands of players at the local level -- to say nothing of the national "game". I also think your thoughts on the "disconnect" between academic theory and the real world must be addressed.

Richard Sylves: Thank you, Ed. I was curious as to why President Bush did not declare Katrina a catastrophe.

Barry Drogin:
My second question is I feel strongly that EM tools and personnel must be integrated into everyday activities. From that point of view, over characterizing as "incidents" can lead to better integration of EM, but how do we balance that with your concern that EM is just a "sub-category"?

Richard Sylves: On Barry's point, the authority the President has in disasters has expanded mightily since 9/11. The concern is how much is too much and how does the federal government pay on all these declarations? The concern is to promote EM integration into homeland security. We need to win advocates in that group of players.

I am going to load up here something about catastrophic disasters for your audience: The NRP adds a new category of incident beyond major disaster and emergency. "Catastrophic Incidents" are:

"Any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, and national morale and/or government functions. A catastrophic event could result in sustained national impacts over a prolonged period of time; almost immediately exceeds resources normally available to State, local, tribal, and private sector authorities; and significantly interrupts governmental operations and emergency services to such an extent that national security could be threatened. All catastrophic incidents are considered "Incidents of National Significance." (U.S. DHS, Final Draft: National Response Plan)

It is ironic that Secretary Chertoff made a big deal of indicating that President Bush declared Katrina an incident of national significance when all major declarations these days are incidents of national significance. This is a period in which emergency management has many friends and supporters, if we can get around blame for the slow response.

Amy Sebring:
Could you expand a little on "imputed power"? How do we go from that to where we need to be?

Richard Sylves: Imputed power means EM people are in the awkward position of politically pressing for expansion of their jurisdiction when they are actually part of government.

Ed Jewett:
Will the problem of imputed power be helped to some degree by the hue and cry from the public and politicians over Katrina? What can be done NOW to seize the moment and state a case for improvement and "revolution"?

Richard Sylves: We can move forward on this by pressing for a national dialogue on emergency management and where it fits within homeland security in general. We need to make it clear that a great many DHS responders knew little about EM in Katrina and they need to learn more.

Claire Rubin:
Do you have any views on how the federal officials should organize for the long-term recovery phase and to what extent will the massive recovery pose unusual challenges to emergency management as we now know it?

Richard Sylves: The long term recovery phase is where EM can shine. I also predict the demands to militarize EM will fade quickly in the recovery phase. Remember, the military was offered emergency management jurisdiction after Andrew and they did not want it.

Burt Wallrich:
Today's news (NPR) reported that there were only 4 Senators who bothered to attend Michael Brown's confirmation hearing. The responsibility for the present failure goes far back in time and high in government. Disaster response/recovery is just not taken very seriously beyond those people and institutions for which it is a primary task. Those are the people who developed the ICS and core of the NRP. Their work should be supported on its own merits, rather than counseling them to play someone else's game in order to get a piece of the action.

Richard Sylves: You make an excellent point. I think that EM appointments will be taken much more seriously in the future given Katrina's aftermath.

Christopher Effgen:
I believe that EM is the solution to the problem (which isn't yet politically or socially understood.) I would say that until the problem is better defined and understood that the revolution, while needed, is off.

Richard Sylves: Actually we should strike when the iron is hot. This is a great period in which to request reform at the federal level in EM.

Amy Sebring:
From your expertise in political science, to what extent does leadership make a difference? Do we (EM) suffer from a lack of leadership that is independent from the "powers that be"? Do we need a nationally respected spokesperson for example?

Richard Sylves: I think our support is vacillating and not well sustained between disasters. Academics, like me, need to overcome some of our parochialism and leave campus to lobby shoulder to shoulder with EM people.

Ed Jewett:
Perhaps there needs to be a concerted effort to have a presence in the current media debate.

Steve Rottas:
Doesn't the current blame game actually help this cause? A new EM style would be more beneficial to all, including terrorism response. I am glad to see I am not alone in this thought process.

Richard Sylves: The current blame game will end soon, but the need to stay in the counter-terror field is essential for EM. I have been tracking IAEM exchanges and most are excellent and indicative of what we need to do and where to go.

Claire Rubin
: There was a great vacuum in public information starting with no apparent federal Joint Info Center and continuing with no leadership or proactive behavior from either the public management associations or the business continuity and recovery organizations.

Robert Barden:
Dr. Sylves, do you think some of the larger components of the Katrina's issues, were from poor communication, political posturing, and to some degree lack of organization? If so how would you like to see the issues resolved? I think some of the issues have been too many changes at one time and little or no follow through with funding and guidance.

Richard Sylves: Consulting officials who responded to Katrina will offer some solutions and provide a political wedge of advance. Yes, as a political science guy I regularly spot photo opportunity exploitation of disasters. It is part of the field like it or not. Unfortunately, image control and media management is part and parcel of emergency management work at top political levels. On poor communication in Katrina – communication is always a problem in disasters and will never be optimal, especially in big ones.

Isabel McCurdy:
How does one meld with DHS? DHS has different values and beliefs than FEMA. DHS deals with the 'enemy' where as FEMA deals with the 'citizen'. One is to attack and the other is to save. The rules are different. What's the middle ground?

Richard Sylves: Great question, Isabel. FEMA as an independent agency seems like the good old days but floating as a 1800 worker pool of EM coordinators gave EM publicity at times but not much clout. Being in DHS should in theory give FEMA much more clout. The internal advocates need to try harder. EM morale issues are important, too. We are losing too many top grade emergency managers in FEMA.

Michaela Kekedy:
Perhaps one way of stimulating the changes you suggest would be to have more of the population who has been educated in the basics of disasters and what happens in the hours, days, and weeks following an event, natural, man-made or terrorist. This would build on the learn-not-to-burn we teach children, first-aid taught to adults and teens, town hall meetings, etc. But to really move the popular culture we may need to enlist television and film producers and others in the media to present the realities of "emergency management" beyond the typical disaster film. People need to see all the phases of emergency management. Almost like an "EM" version of "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigation). As people search out training beyond what is necessary for just their own safety and are ready as disaster volunteers, CERT members, etc., the push for changes being suggested could gain momentum. People not directly living through such an event could quickly forget the realities once the disaster's headlines become less frequent. Plus we would have a little more patient and ready population when a disaster strikes.

Richard Sylves: Very good, Michaela. I think you are correct; we need to tap imaginations of people. One issue undiscussed so far here is volunteers in response versus contractors in response. We may have relied too much on contractors in Katrina. Yes, public education and use of Citizen Corps is critical. People still don't know limits of their disaster insurance. I see huge recovery problems in Katrina that did not have to happen if people knew more about insurance and the federal relief actually available to them.

Chris Waters:
ICS was developed and refined by the fire service in California in the late 70's early 80's. I have been off line with Ophelia and haven’t followed completely. Did anyone mention that the first round of blame should go to the individuals who could have left and didn't and became a further burden on emergency services? EM needs people who have been in the street to appreciate what needs to be done. Books are great but experience is much better.

Richard Sylves: Mr. Waters offers a good observation. I do not know who is to blame for job abandonment but it may be the case that slow response criticism may be balanced out a little by the success of the pre-event evacuation.

Barry Drogin:
Aside from the slow response, I think there is a best practices and funding problem. The DHS appears to be incompatible with federalism and the recommendations of the 911 commission. If we have stovepiping of functionality again, then advanced warnings in one jurisdiction won't be transferred to the other.

Richard Sylves: I teach public administration. Stovepiping exists in many places in the federal government. Trick is to press for openings that keep the field alive and legitimate at state and local level. Funding problems might be addressed too in Katrina investigations.

Amy Sebring:
I think everyone is going to take a hit on this including academics. For example, the sociological research did not prepare practitioners for the breakdown in civil order in this disaster. Who sets the research agenda for example? Does not the academic community also suffer from "imputed power"? (I do not mean to minimize a lot of good work; am highlighting the perception problem.)

Richard Sylves: You are correct. Academics will take a hit of sorts. I've always been concerned that my friends in disaster sociology minimize the importance or frequency of looting after events. Academics need to weigh in on the future of EM. Labeling emergencies as hazards is sometimes too limiting or a digression.

Burt Wallrich:
I want to note so it is not forgotten, that a disproportionate number of the victims of this disaster will prove to be the most vulnerable: infants, the aged, people with disabilities, those too poor to have means of evacuation, etc. Disasters are not random. Isabel's point is right to the mark: emergency management needs to have a helping, not attacking perspective as its starting point. And I believe C. Waters, to a great extent, is inappropriately blaming the victims for their problems.

Richard Sylves: We should never blame victims but understanding and compensating for how people behave in disasters should be central to what we do.

Barry Drogin:
I agree with Amy; there's plenty of embarrassment to go around. Rick's comment about bringing in civics groups, media, is pertinent. But how do we get DHS to stop thinking that keeping secrets is the solution?

Richard Sylves: Great point. I have long been concerned about secrecy issues in EM and Continuity of Government (COG), etc. This too deserves investigation by the Katrina Commission. EMAP credentialing may be another avenue to fight the revolution I advocate.

Isabel McCurdy:
Richard, would you post your contact information for follow up, please?

Richard Sylves: sylves at udel.edu is my email

Audrey Bezner:
When it comes to managing homeland security and responding to an event, regardless of type, is there a defined DHS process in place showing how the different functions under DHS must work together and who must initiate certain activities, to include EM?

Richard Sylves: Another great question. At risk of embarrassment, I'll tell you I do not know except I have looked at the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System. The NRP and NIMS were supposed to make that all clear but I don't know if it worked that well in Katrina. One problem is that DHS has stacks and stacks of plans, limited exercises, and we don't know if it all comes together for the real thing.

Chris Waters:
I am assigning a degree of blame first to those able to leave. Those in need of help and those responders are further burdened by those who could/should have helped themselves and didn't.

Richard Sylves: Yes, self help is critical. Provision for emergency food and water and population transport for people without cars, are all key. I too hope EM will be changed for the better by Katrina investigations. I also hope civilians will hold key roles. I think a $100 billion disaster gets us a stage for our concerns.

Sophi Beym:
Dr. Sylves, I understand the NIMS plan has yet to be completed. I am in California and we are using the Standard Incident Management Plan for our protocol. I am hoping there will be much difference. Exercises and plans are useless unless you have practiced what is preached. Dr. Sylves, can you offer suggestions to encourage volunteerism within communities?

Richard Sylves: I think Citizen Corps in states needs more funding; non-profits might be used to promote this between disasters too.

Avagene Moore:
A lot of good comments have been made here. I also agree with you, Rick, that some of the discussion on the IAEM and EM Mail Lists has been excellent showing wisdom, expertise and experience. However, how do we get anyone to listen to us? By us, I mean those of us in the field.

Richard Sylves: I think we do. I have given about 30 interviews to media people, many of whom ask great questions like the ones here. I hope that collectively all of us who speak to the media, and we can call them first too right now, that this will get us a ticket to make a difference. Contact your congressman or senator. Many of them invite people to speak at hearings and I did this once after Andrew. Scary but important thing to do. Easier to get invited to than you think. You can do this locally through DC offices they have.


Avagene Moore: Thank you, Rick! We greatly appreciate your effort and time on our behalf.

Richard Sylves: Thanks for allowing me to speak with you all today.

Avagene Moore: Thanks to everyone for participating today. We appreciate you, the audience! Before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Dr. Richard Sylves for a fine job. The EIIP Virtual Forum is adjourned!