State of Disaster (Part I): Government Rules, Regulations and Structures

Inspired by Gisli Olafsson' post, The Disaster Manifesto: I Have a Dream...", I too am inspired to write about our transforming field as a way to focus efforts on meaningful dialogue, research, and advancement.

The state of disaster management in the U.S. is a cross between the capabilities of today and tomorrow and the conventions of yester-year.  Disaster management in at the crossroads of a transformation that is enabling organizations across the country and around the world better serve their communities.  But our ability to adapt is showing signs of strain and opposition.  This post is part of a three-part series examining the challenges associated with the following issues in Disaster Management:

In each post, I offer industry-wide recommendations to help advance the baseline and adapbility of disaster management. 



In the U.S., we have countless rules and regulations that define our legal structures, authorities and responsibilities.  We need interpreters (lawyers) just to understand how to best navigate through them in order to achieve our missions.  What has been our Founding Fathers' dreams when developing the backbone our country over two hundred years ago continues to challenge us every day in this modern and unimagined era.  An overhaul of the entire legal system is unlikely and certainly not practical.  But our system, based on sound principles, allows us to influence change when needed.  And now more than ever, we need to be advocating change in the laws that have guided us over the past many years.  We need to amend the laws to represent the evolution of our modern capabilities and needs while at the same time preserving the sovereign rights of Federalism that recognize local and state authorities.  


In the disaster world of Federalism, we constantly remind ourselves that all disasters start and end locally.  This is a principle of our country's founding fathers and is noble in intentions, but hard to practice for expanding, complex and overwhelming incidents.  Furthermore, the dichotomy (see figure to the right) of this issue is that the funds necessary to complete our missions are often dictated by the flow of money from the Federal government.  Our tax bases and elected officials haven't fully bought into the need for disaster management nor do they fully understand all of our vital functions until it is too late.  We need to do more to ensure our community needs dictate the priorities of our disaster management organizations and that Federal funding sources offer enough flexibility to create programs, projects, and plans in ways that are relevant and specific to the uniqueness of our communities.  And communities are not just defined by their jurisdictional bounds; but also by a disaster's impact and consequences.  

Authorities and responsibilities

Every day we are bound by the authorities vested in us either by the executive branch and/or by the legislative branch of our jurisdictions.  Personality conflicts and understanding of our mission often complicate and inhibit the missions by which we are charged to serve. Complex processes and rules established by law makers certainly add to the challenges.  However, it is both our right and duty to lobby for change when change is necessary...and it is necessary.  State and local laws need to be updated to give authority where needed and ensure government operates efficiently and effectively.  Instead of advising us about what we can't do, lawmakers, elected officials AND the lawyers on our staff should be looking at ways to support our missions.  They need to be partners in developing the strategies for success. Lobbying, as part of the Executive Branch of our government is our right and we should work with our elected officials to reform outdated laws and pass new laws enabling us to do our jobs better.

Steps to Progress

EMAC and mutual aid agreements are probably the foundation of recognizing that disasters do not respect the bounds of Federalism and that our system must adapt.  In spear heading EMACNEMA has pushed our capabilities further into reality.  But success is in recognizing that we must must go far beyond EMAC and intra-state mutual aid agreements to sufficiently be prepared for the disasters that threaten us.  Regionalization and private-sector partnerships are also evolving greatly as we continue to recognize that we can't do it all by ourselves.  NIMS and ICS are great starts to response management structures, but have not done a very good job of building out complex response management structures for inter-state and/or large-scale disasters in ways that are well-aligned with the principles of Federalism, including the sovereign rights of States.  Localities still have immense trouble scaling their capabilities to the needs of the disaster.  The systems, processes and legal structures needed to support these efforts are complex and with limited precedent; and it is our duty and vital importance to ensure our process-oriented and governing structures adequately allow innovation and progress to succeed AND be captured in a timely manner. 

The simple truth is that we have far more capabilities than we did in the over the last 50 years.  We also have far more responsibility.  Exercising the extent of our capabilities is a hard and convoluted as we bring in more and more response partners at all levels of government and the private sector.  NIMS and ICS are great starts to recognizing the need for more best practices in large-scale disasters.  They are hierarchical structures that need revision to address the decentralized, non-linear, and nodal management structures that have organically evolved in large-scale incidents.  Shared responsibility is becoming an effective model for which we have no great understanding of or resources for.


Change is of course warranted as part of a modern evolution.  But more importantly, recognizing that we have the power to change and influence is of utmost priority.  Yes, we are undoubtedly strained by our budgets, our staffing, and the amount of time in our day; but it is still important to set ourselves up for success by recognizing the change that is needed and acting upon it.  To get us going, here are some recommendations I would like to see implemented 

I call on FEMA, DHS and other Federal organizations to:

  • Comprehensively review existing Federal laws and regulations (either directly or indirectly related to disasters), develop a strategic plan for getting them updated, and identify gaps in which new legislation is needed;
  • Create and/or reform grants so they are more flexible, allow creativity, and push the bounds of expectations.  Requirements should focus on measurable results as opposed to finite outcomes;
  • Spur innovation and advancement through meaningful challenge grants and/or loans that provide support and opportunity for both private (non-profit AND for-profit) AND public sector organizations.  Expand to provide innovation opportunities in a free-market environment.  FEMA can't do it all and a SBA partnership would serve the industry well. 

I call on state and local organizations to:

  • Comprehensively review existing state and local laws and regulations (either directly or indirectly related to disasters), develop a strategic plan for getting them updated, and identify gaps in which new legislation is needed;
  • Find opportunities to work with their elected officials and lobby for change in our legislative branches.
  • Work with your elected officials and/or legislature to ensure budgets are appopriated as best as possible and your mission is better incorporated into the tax-base of your community.  For example, does your community have and need an emergency fund?
  • Develop better working relationships with your legal departments and staff so they understand your needs and can provide meaningful can-do support rather than inefficient restrictions.  They are poised to help you navigate through the complex legal challenges that face your organization and perhaps provide solutions and work-arounds you may never have thought of on your own. 
  • Lay out 5 and 10 year strategic plans that better convey your needs, outlines actionable and measurable programmatic objectives, and ensures your are meeting the comprehensive needs of your community. 

What recommendations do you have?  Where have you succeeded in implementing change?  How?