Challenges Facing Emergency Managers Today

By Jane Bullock and George Haddow|2019-06-24T16:03:31+00:00June 19th, 2019|0 Comments

By its very definition, emergency management is a field that deals constantly with challenges. Back in 2005, we co-authored an article that examined some specific “critical obstacles” facing emergency managers at the time, including: an imbalance of focus between homeland security and natural disaster management, the challenge of involving the public in preparedness planning, the lack of an effective partnership with the business community, cuts to EM funding, and questions surrounding the evolving organizational structure of the nation’s emergency management system.

Now, 14 years later, we wanted to take a second look to see if any of those obstacles have been eliminated and examine what new challenges emergency managers may be facing. Here’s what we found.

Climate Change

The impact of climate change will be the single biggest issue emergency management will have to address in the future.

In the years since our 2005 article was published, extreme weather events striking the United States have become more frequent and more severe. In 2018 alone there were 14 separate billion-dollar events in the United States. In recent years, climate scientists have become more and more ready to link these large disaster events to the changes occurring in our climate.

The capability and the capacity of our nation’s emergency management system to respond to these more complex events is at a breaking point. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state and local emergency managers, voluntary agencies, and the business sector are doing their best to meet the increased demand required to respond to and recover from these extreme events. There is no such thing as a simple disaster anymore.

More needs to be done to reduce the impacts of future extreme weather events. While emergency managers have a role to play in such an effort, what is really required is leadership by elected officials at the local, state, and national level in advocating for and funding hazard mitigation and risk reduction efforts designed to make our nation’s communities and critical infrastructure more resilient.

Enhancing Community Mitigation (or Risk Reduction) Efforts

One action that can begin to address the impacts of climate change is reducing the risks through mitigation. Experience documents that the most successful mitigation/risk reduction projects are conceived and executed at the local level with support from all the various community members, organizations, the business sector and political entities in that community. FEMA has done an excellent job documenting this and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) recently updated its report on the costs and benefits of mitigation, noting that for every dollar spent on mitigation, there is a cost/benefit savings of more than six dollars. 

Communities know and are experiencing their risks daily, but finding the financial and political support to execute their mitigation options is often difficult. FEMA provides some post- and now pre-disaster mitigation funding, but it’s limited and cannot address the magnitude of needs, especially in this increasingly disaster-prone environment.  

In the 1990s, FEMA created a program called Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities (PI).  The focus of the program was simple. With seed money from the federal government, a community would: form a community-wide partnership that encompassed all elements, including the business sector; identify risks; identify and prioritize actions to mitigate the risks; and then generate the political, public, and financial support required to implement mitigation actions.

From all indications, this program was very successful, and FEMA had communities joining even if they did not receive federal seed monies. The program was discontinued, however, after a federal administration change. Many PI communities continued their work after FEMA pulled out. A considerable part of the success was the leadership, involvement and co-funding for projects from the business sector. 

It is time to resurrect this successful concept with the business sector taking the lead. We need to be innovative in finding funding for the projects that a community identifies. Some federal funding may be available from FEMA and other agencies, but communities need to look to the business sector for their financial commitment and to different philanthropic groups. Other ideas may include local ballot initiatives that provide taxpayer resources, checked boxes on utility bills that provide a percentage of the bill payment to PI actions, and perhaps crowdsourcing websites or other internet options.  

Until PI, the country did not have a focused, non-regulatory mechanism to promote local mitigation and the business sector was the key. With all the emphasis on resiliency right now, it might seem like starting another program is not warranted.  But unlike the resiliency movement, the PI program is totally focused on risk reduction, which in the long term, will enhance any community’s social and economic resiliency.

Cybersecurity and an All-hazards Approach

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, our nation was justifiably focused on terrorism and what it would take to make our homeland secure. This was a top priority for officials at all levels of government and led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). FEMA was incorporated into the DHS and state and local emergency management agencies added homeland security to their titles and their scope of work.

Our nation’s emergency management system went from an all-hazards approach to a single hazard (terrorism) approach. An unfortunate consequence of this new focus on a single hazard resulted in a dramatic reduction in the emergency management system’s ability to adequately respond to natural hazard events as evidenced by the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This is the same mistake that occurred at FEMA’s creation in 1979 when the agency’s all-hazards focus was reduced to a single focus on nuclear attack planning. This caused the agency’s natural hazard capabilities to be drastically diminished as illustrated by the agency’s response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the 1989 Lom Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, and culminating in the disastrous response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Cybersecurity is a critical emerging hazard that could have significant effects on future disasters.  Emergency management has a role in dealing with this hazard, but that role has to be explicitly defined, as do the potential impacts of this activity on all aspects of emergency management. FEMA needs to take a leadership role in examining this issue and providing advice to state and local governments on what they can contribute to reducing this emerging hazard.

While cybersecurity must remain a top priority, we cannot allow it to become our singular focus. We must adhere to an all-hazards approach and ensure we do not ignore other risks and inadvertently reduce our ability to adequately respond to them.

Re-engineering the NFIP

In the end of May 2019, Congress approved a reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for all of two weeks until Congress reconvenes to consider a more long-term plan. In all likelihood, another short-term extension will be required as Congress recognizes the need for a major restructuring of this critical federal program. 

Considering that the past two years have produced record flooding, as evidenced by the almost continuous flooding in the Midwest this spring, increased hurricane-related flooding, and the serious future impacts of climate change, it is time to design a modern, comprehensive program to provide individuals and communities with economic security to recover after a disaster and reduce the burden on the government. But more importantly, to provide financial support for reducing future impacts by requiring – and funding – mitigation actions be taken on every property that is at risk. 

Accomplishing this will require a new approach to determining risk – not just flood risk but other natural and collateral hazards. Modern methods, beyond mapping and loss estimation modelling, must be explored and funded by the federal government and the private sector.  

The NFIP was enacted by Congress because the cost of insurance and its lack of availability in the private sector demanded the federal government’s attention. It did not flourish until it became mandatory for federally secured mortgages and loans. The new program added a requirement that, in exchange for subsidized rates, participating communities passed ordinances restricting development in the floodplain. Revolutionary at its time, the concept worked, reducing risk and saving taxpayer disaster costs. 

Now, the risks and exposure have radically changed. It is time to take the NFIP model, to modernize risk technology and to consider a broader program, such as a natural-hazards insurance program that covers floods, wildfires, wind, earthquakes, landslides, etc. 

There have been efforts in the past to look at the federally backed National Earthquake Hazards Reduction insurance program, but the insurance industry was concerned about rate setting and mitigation requirements, so it never proceeded. Designing such a program will not be easy. Many think the government shouldn’t be in the insurance or mitigation business and the current efforts at FEMA are encouraging more private sector flood insurance without the risk reduction requirements. 

If anything, the past two years have shown us that disasters, not just floods, are now more frequent and more severe, with greater impacts and costs. Insurance, coupled with taking risk reduction measures, will reduce the costs. It’s time for Congress, the insurance industry, and federal, state and local governments to join together to face this reality and take action.


Jane Bullock is a co-founder of Bullock & Haddow LLC and currently serves on the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Advisory Committee on Earthquake Hazards Reduction. Ms. Bullock served as chief of staff to the Federal Emergency Management Agency director and has over 25 years of private and public sector experience, with an emphasis in disaster prevention, response and recovery. She was the chief architect of Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities, a public private partnership in community risk reduction. She is considered an authority in the field of emergency management and implementation of risk reduction programs. Ms. Bullock has continued to work closely with congressional committees to enact legislation that addresses the unique needs of children in disasters.  

George Haddow currently serves as a Senior Fellow and adjunct faculty member at Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy (DRLA). He is a co-author of several university textbooks including: Introduction to Emergency Management (6th Edition); Introduction to Homeland Security (5th Edition); and Disaster Communications in a Changing Media World (2nd Edition). He is a founding partner of Bullock & Haddow LLC, a disaster management consulting firm, and he served as the deputy chief of staff to the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the Clinton administration. The author may be reached by telephone at (301) 332-1150 or by email at [email protected]

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About the Author: Jane Bullock and George Haddow

Jane Bullock is the former FEMA Chief of Staff and the President of Bullock & Haddow LLC.  George Haddow is former FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff and a Principal in Bullock & Haddow LLC.

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