FEMA Cannot Be your Disaster Preparedness Plan

***(Note: this is in no way intended to be a comprehensive explanation of FEMA, emergency management or of all the potential outcomes during a disaster. This is merely a simplified outline of the realities and limitations of FEMA and of large scale emergency preparedness).

In our last article we briefly covered the idea of preparedness and a bit about the framework that modern preparedness is built upon.  In this article we are going to flesh that point out a bit.  I alluded to the notion that perhaps the massive machine that is FEMA and its influence deep into our communities might not be as comprehensive as we all think.  While this article does not seek, in any way, to impugn the dedication or effort of any emergency preparedness or response professional it needs to be understood that the manner and methods employed in this mission are simply not sufficient to ensure the safety and welfare of every member of our society. 

The mission of the original Civilian Defense Corps created during World War I were not used to great effect until its re-creation in 1941 at the beginning of World War II.  The Civilian Defense Corps organized during WWII mustered some 10 million people who focused on such things as firefighting, enforcing blackout restrictions, first aid, decontamination duties after chemical attacks and many other related missions.  In addition, both the Civil Air Patrol and the Civilian Observer Corps were created and incorporated into this mission to great effect during the war.  The Civilian Defense Corps offered training, support and most of all improved moral of citizens by allowing citizens to participate in the war effort in active roles. 

            Most of us will remember Civil Defense as logos on fallout shelters, pamphlets about bomb shelters and about fallout.  While I am not old enough to remember duck and cover drills or CONELRAD announcements I am certainly old enough to remember those yellow and black fallout shelter signs hanging on many buildings and the continual talk of possible nuclear war in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I was so moved by this constant threat as a child that I have studied endless amounts of information as an adult about radiation, nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction (MAD) and later about chemical and biological warfare and terrorism.  CONERLRAD, duck and cover, fallout shelters, warning sirens, and the emergency alert system dominated US culture beginning in the 1950’s and continued on through the 1980’s under the threat of all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

            While this walk down memory lane has been fun let’s talk about why this is important.  Although the mission of Civil Defense and later FEMA was focused on the pressing threat of nuclear war as global threats changed, so has the mission of FEMA.  FEMA’s declared mission today is, “Helping people before, during and after and after disasters”; but what does that mean really?  FEMA focuses on creating educational coursework, guidance and training for federal, state and local emergency management professionals in an “all-hazards” approach to holistically prepare for and respond to any possible disaster whether man-made or natural in origin.  While this sounds like it pretty well takes care of all of us in every possible situation the reality is quite different. 

Primarily, during a disaster the federal government supports the people (via state government) in a handful of ways.  FEMA, under presidential order, supports a disaster area by providing a guarantee of funding reimbursement; they provide access to vital materials (strategic stockpiles) such as food, water, medical supplies etc., and by offering direct guidance and logistical support via liaisons that help to coordinate the needs of the state and the resources of the federal government.  State government reacts by deploying these assets, coordinating evacuations, assessing damage and coordinating recovery efforts according to their state wide disaster management plans; this assistance trickles down to the county level that react as directed by their disaster plans and so on.  The interaction between federal, state and local authorities in conjunction with private stakeholders, NGO’s and the public is a massive undertaking and allows for addressing major issues such as search and rescue efforts, health care restoration, public works/utility/infrastructure restoration and the like.  Clearly, a significant focus is placed upon search and rescue efforts in the immediate post event moments but somewhere between the planning and the search and rescue efforts there is a critical gap.  This gap is what has prompted the creation of Civil Defense Supply and is the driving force behind the products we offer and also the classes and consultations we provide.  While the old Civil Defense mission focused heavily on bringing training, materials and support to the public, the current mission of FEMA provides primarily for the preparation and support of professional emergency preparedness personnel before, during and after a disaster.  While FEMA does provide access to information though its website, the public lacks the experience in field training and expertise previously available through Civil Defense initiatives to make best use of the information provided. 

            Times have changed in this country and in the world.  While we no longer go to sleep every night with the very real expectation that we might be awoken by the sound of warning sirens or emergency alert tones indicating an imminent nuclear attack; however, we certainly do not live in a place and time where we can live our lives underprepared for the possibilities of our current reality.  The ever present threat created by mother-nature through earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, blackouts and flooding is added to by our concerns of terrorist attacks, war and disease outbreaks. 

            Much emphasis has been placed on “Prepping” or on “Preppers” in recent years.  Sadly, what began as a movement to encourage self-sufficiency has become a term that frequently represents over-zealous people preparing for the end of the world.  While we certainly do not see preppers in this light (we view people in 3 categories: unprepared, prepared, and very well prepared), we do acknowledge that social movements have caused these terms to become tainted.  The reality is simple, the federal, state and local governments are focused upon doing the most good for the most people.  The unfortunately does not allow for everyone to be helped every time, in every way, in every moment.  As such, it is crucial that individuals prepare for the reality that exists in every disaster—you must be able to take care of yourself and your loved ones until such a time as rescuers can reach you or the disaster event abates.  This is done thought realistic planning, education and practice.  While the time you need to care for your total needs may be hours or even days, depending on the size of the event or events, it is very possible that it could be weeks or months before help can arrive or essential services are restored.  There is credible evidence to suggest that if events the size of September 11th occurring in a few cities, a disease outbreak that affects a sizeable part of the population, a cyber-attack that plunges our cities into darkness or large scale natural disasters happened in multiple locations concurrently our government assets would be rapidly depleted rendering them ineffective-- that is the very real reality.  All assets are finite; laboring under the assumption that because it has never has happened is not clear evidence that it can never happen. 

            What is the take away here?  Be Prepared—a motto I learned in Boy Scouts and that has continually guided me in my time in local, state and federal government service.  Let our products and services help you, your family, your community group, church or business to become prepared and to stay that way.