The U.S. Emergency Management System Is Not Perfect, but It Works - Room for Debate -

The is a great article from a leading disaster researcher about the privatization of emergency management.  via The U.S. Emergency Management System Is Not Perfect, but It Works - Room for Debate - Here is the full text:

Questions regarding the privatization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the assignment of its functions to states must be addressed within the context of the agency's responsibilities and how it functions in relation to state and local government capabilities.

Most people think of FEMA as a disaster response agency, but that is only partly true. FEMA has many responsibilities both during disasters and at other times. These responsibilities include assisting states, local governments, tribal governments and U.S. territories in the preparation of disaster mitigation plans aimed at taking long-term steps to reduce losses from future disasters, pursuant to the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000; providing funding and guidance so that communities can make sound decisions regarding their mitigation options; and managing the National Flood Insurance Program, which was set up specifically because of a market failure in the private insurance industry for flood coverage.

If private companies fail us during disasters, what recourse would the public have? Private corporations are responsible to their shareholders, not the general public.

These and other functions, including the provision of disaster assistance, are carried out through an extensive web of public-private partnerships and contracting agreements. Private entities like Booz Allen Hamilton and Michael Baker, Jr., Inc. work closely with FEMA in areas like preparedness planning and flood hazard mapping, and many disaster-related services are provided through contracts with private-sector service providers. Both the National Response Framework, our current federal plan for managing disaster events, and FEMA’s “whole community” approach to disaster loss reduction, explicitly acknowledge that the private and nonprofit sectors are integral players in emergency management activities. So our current approach to disaster management is one that is based on the concept of public-private partnerships, not on a government monopoly over disaster management tasks.

Those who would argue for a privatized emergency management system must address a series of questions. Under a profit-motivated private sector system, what would prevent private entities from “cherry-picking” easy emergency management activities while shunning more difficult tasks, like preparing huge, highly diverse cities with large vulnerable populations? What private-sector entities would offer assistance to bankrupt, but still vulnerable, communities, like many California jurisdictions, or communities caught in the vise of the fiscal downturn? Would services be more abundant in communities that are willing and able to pay for them? What would prevent companies from overpromising results and gaming the system, as they have in offering infeasible solutions in the war on terror while racking up large profits?

A cornerstone of our democratic system is that responsibility for governance rests with elected and appointed officials at all levels of government. That system gives us the ability to “throw the rascals out.” If private companies fail us during disasters, what recourse would the public have? Private corporations are responsible to their shareholders, not the general public, which should give us pause in thinking about the privatization of essential life-safety and disaster relief activities.

Regarding the devolution of emergency management activities to states, researchers have long pointed out that states, as well as local communities, vary significantly in their emergency management capabilities — a pattern known as the “leaders and laggers” phenomenon. Frankly, while strong programs do exist nationwide, many states and cities lack the expertise and capacity to manage disasters effectively; think here of the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Federal guidance, technical assistance and incentives aim at addressing these disparities. How would the public feel about having an uneven patchwork of state policies, practices and capabilities? Under state control and with all the financial pressures experienced by states, would we see a “race to the bottom” in disaster loss reduction programs? Disasters do not respect state borders, as shown by Hurricane Sandy and numerous other disasters. Many federally initiated policy directives and programs seek to protect the public against nationwide threats like pandemic influenza and intentional acts of bioterrorism. Would state-by-state pandemic planning be preferable? How would that work out in practice?

The bottom line is that the U.S. currently has an emergency management system that is second to none in the world. It is by no means perfect, and it needs to continually evolve in response to new threats and disaster experiences. But it is clearly not in need of a radical overhaul.