Federal Emergency Management Agency

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Besides the better-known military and intelligence reorganizations in the National Security Act of 1947, the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) was created; the OEP, after various reorganizations, is the ancestor of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA, headed by W. Craig Fugate, is now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under Janet Napolitano,

There were many reorganizations during the Cold War, but the U.S. never made civil defense a national priority, and assistance for natural and accidental disasters tended to be an ad hoc Federal response, with much of the work at state and local level. As the Cold War ended, the emphasis of the disaster shifted to response to natural disasters and major accidents; the role was to change again after the 9/11 Attacks.

Civil Defense versus general emergency response

A Civil Defense Board, under Major General Harold R. Bull, had operated during the Second World War. At the end of the war, the wartime Office of Civil Defense was shut down by President Harry S Truman, with Executive Order 9562 on June 4, 1945. In 1947, however, MG Bull presented a report stating that even the management of civilian consequences of military attack, much less natural disasters, was an individual and local responsibility. [1]. Such a view reflected notably different priorities than the Federal view of active military defense.

The Director of Emergency Planning was made a statutory member of the National Security Council, but had no specififc organization. While the Director of Central Intelligence, in principle, was also a direct report to the President, the two officials had vastly different status. In practice, OEP became a small staff office within the NSC apparatus, while other agencies dealt with both civil defense and response to natural disasters and accident. In this context, civil defense is specifically the protection of the civilian population from direct attack.

The OEP never really existed as an operational agency. With the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in 1949, Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration by Executive Order in December 1949. In 1951, the Federal Civil Defense Act formalized the organization and authorized a budget. [2] This Administration was not a high-profile agency. Its first Director , Millard F. Caldwell, (1950-1951) was a former Florida governor and congressman. Caldwell, who had been known as a strong segregationist while governor, had his appointment protested, with suggestions he would protect only white Americans. In office, Caldwell had difficulties in working with state and local governments, a necessity for an organization that assumed much of the response was local.[3]

An exception to its visibility came in 1954, while former Governor of Nebraska Val Peterson headed the Administration, and the Soviet Union tested its first thermonuclear weapon. Peterson was vocal that the previous "duck and cover" recommendation was inadequate, and it would be necessary to evacuate major urban targets. [4] Peterson was especially aware of the potential, given that Strategic Air Command headquarters was in Omaha, Nebraska. Evacuation became the new approach, but with the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the short warning time, shelters again became the approach of the sixties. Evacuation drills showed both that cities could not be evacuated quickly, and there were no rural facilities for the population. This lesson, however, seems to have been forgotten in the hurricane evacuation planning for New Orleans.

There may have been a perception that in such an event, the military would be in top command, so the civilian emergency response organizations did not necessarily need professional leadership. President John F. Kennedy established the Office of Civil Defense within the Department of Defense,[5] replacing the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. It was headed by an appointee, Stewart Pittman. In the Johnson Administration, Pittman resigned, and the organization was placed at a lower reporting level in the Department of the Army. The Army National Guard (ARNG), usually under state control, and sometimes the U.S. Army, has been the principal Federal responding organization in disasters and civil disturbances.

In 1968, an Office of Emergency Planning was formed. As a White House staff office, delivered a report on preparedness in 1970, and the Nixon Administration, in 1972, created Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. Much of its planning was at state and regional level. Parallel to the Defense agencies, there were small White House, then General Services Administration, then Department of Housing and Urban Development civilian emergency planning agencies. Individual functions, such as communications restoral, were scattered throughout other government organizations.

FEMA created

By Carter Administration Executive Order 12127,[6] the Federal Emergency Management Agency was created in 1979, consolidating a variety of agencies, including:[7]

  • Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (DOD)
  • Dam Safety Coordination (EOP)[8]
  • Consequence Management in Terrorism (EOP)
  • Warning and Emergency Broadcast (EOP)
  • Earthquake Hazard Reduction (EOP)
  • National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, (DOC)[9]
  • Community Preparedness Program, National Weather Service, (DOC)
  • Federal Disaster Assistance Administration (HUD)
  • Federal Insurance Administration (HUD)[10]
  • Federal Preparedness Agency [11]

It was headed by John Macy, formerly director of the Office of Personnel Management. There were a series of interim directors, and two retired Army officers with military emergency experience, one who had been an emergency advisor to Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California.

FEMA response and its performance were not seen as a White House concern when it was part of Federal response to the Love Canal, the Cuban refugee boatlift and the Three Mile Island nuclear power incident. Hurricane Hugo, hitting South Carolina in 1989, and Hurricane Andrew, affecting Florida in 1992 (George W. Bush Administration), did cause much political criticism of a perceived poor response.

There was a break with political tradition in 1993, when James Witt was named FEMA director. This was a break because he was the first director with prior professional experience in civilian emergency management. Under Witt, most of the subordinate appointive offices were filled with people with relevant backgrounds; they were not treated as political sinecures. Witt served until 2001.


It seemed logical to consolidate organizations with a more general emergency management response, but, when the overall DHS budget was concerned, in the event of competition between a terrorism-focused line item and a more general one, terrorism took priority. On March 1, 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

FEMA, when independent, had had the capabilities to manage response to three major disasters, which could consist of teams handling geographically distant or otherwise separable aspects of the same event. In DHS, the number of teams were reduced to two, which was a less-known part of the problems in responding to Hurricane Katrina. Given that the damage to the New Orleans, Louisiana area needed a full command team, yet there was equal or greater damage to less densely populated areas in adjacent jurisdictions, there was a problem of ICS/NR resource availability.

Some organizations brought into DHS, such as the Office of the Manager of the National Communications System (NCS), previously part of the Department of Defense, had been effective in their earlier homes, but suffered in DHS. While NCS had managed communications restoration through the Cold War, it became necessary for the Federal Communications Commission, normally a regulatory agency, to take an active role in restoring post-Katrina communications.


The Katrina experience brought renewed attention to the agency. With the George W. Bush Administration, it was first under the direction of the campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. Michael Brown had been legal counsel to Allbaugh, and was named head of FEMA when Allbaugh left in 2003. Prior to working for Allbaugh, Brown had been stewards and judges commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, and had no particular emergency experience. Brown was generally seen as ineffectual in the response,[12], although there were many problems in response at the state and local level.

As a result of the Katrina experience, where the performance of FEMA was much criticized. President George W. Bush signed the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act. This reorganized FEMA, and gave it more resources and responsibilities, becoming effective on December 31, 2007.[13]

The head of FEMA, R. David Paulison, received the higher organizational title of Administrator, and two new Deputy Administrator positions were created in support. The incumbent deputy director, Harvey Johnson, became Chief Operating Officer of FEMA. The other will be a Deputy Administrator for National Preparedness, a new division within FEMA.

Transferred into FEMA were:

  • United States Fire Administration
  • Office of Grants and Training
  • Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Division
  • Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program
  • Office of National Capital Region Coordination

The Act explicitly forbade the transfer of a variety of national infrastructure preparedness organizations into FEMA, making the National Protection and Programs Directorate responsible for infrastructure. These programs include risk analysis, critical infrastructure hardening, and a new combination of telecommunications security and emergency communications, the latter previously under the Manager, National Communications System.

FEMA focuses on operations, including national response and training of responders at all levels.

FEMA Operations

FEMA centers around the National Incident Management System, a national-level structure consistent with the Incident Command System. It has ten regional offices, but, as a policy, the response will normally be controlled by a state government:

  • Region I (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)
  • Region II (New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands)
  • Region III (Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and W. Virginia)
  • Region IV (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, N. Carolina, S. Carolina and Tennessee)
  • Region V (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin)
  • Region VI (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas)
  • Region VII (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska)
  • Region VIII (Colorado, Montana, N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Utah and Wyoming)
  • Region IX (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, American Samoa, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia)
  • Region X (Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington)

Doctrine for incident command under NIMS is spelled out by the Emergency Responder Field Operating Guide, with the somewhat unfortunate abbreviation ERFOG.[14]

FEMA-funded/reimbursed assets

One area of success was creating emergency response units, or at least personnel that trained for unit deployment, that normally operated as part of a local government, but was federally-funded and deployable for national and international incidents. The first unit, under Fairfax County, Virginia, was established in 1986, with a specialty in urban search and rescue, including responding o victims trapped in rubble.[15] Initially, it was funded for international response by the US Agency for International Development's (AID) Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID-OFDA). Its first deployment was to the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. In 1991, as FEMA refocused from Cold War to domestic disasters, it came under FEMA-AID joint support.

Not only was this unit deployable by FEMA, but internationally, by AID, as was a similar function under the Miami-Dade Fire Department in Florida[16] In November 2008, it was dispatched to the school collapse in Haiti.

Jurisdictional issues

In the U.S., first-line authority is often at the state or local level, with federal involvement requiring a determination and proclamation under the Stafford Act. There is often a hierarchy of separately organized emergency response organization starting at local fire department, with the ARNG normally under the authority of the state governor. In a number of the responses to U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes, ARNG units assisting other states were not necessarily under federal authority, but operated under intergovernmental agreements.

Where a regional ICS program was in place, and mutual aid agreements existed under it, resources could flow smoothly. When a jurisdiction had neither adequate local planning nor preexisting mutual aid pacts, the population suffered. For example, the State of Florida, once a disaster exceeds local capabilities, activates a state-level center at the Joint Command level of the Incident Command System, which manages the dispatch of resources to the various Incident Commanders.


  1. Green, Walter G. III, Civil Defense: The Truman Administration: United States. 1945-1952, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Civil Defense and Emergency Management, University of Richmond
  2. Harry S. Truman (January 12, 1951), Statement by the President Upon Signing the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950
  3. Green, Walter G. III, Caldwell, Millard Fillmore, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Civil Defense and Emergency Management, University of Richmond
  4. , Civil Defense, A Cold War and a Hot Bomb, Nebraska Studies
  5. John F. Kennedy (July 20, 1961), Executive Order 10952: Assigning Civil Defense Responsibilities to the Secretary of Defense and Others
  6. Jimmy Carter (April 1, 1979), Executive Order 12127--Federal Emergency Management Agency
  7. Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA History
  8. Executive Office of the President
  9. Department of Commerce
  10. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  11. General Services Administration
  12. "'Can I quit now?' FEMA chief wrote as Katrina raged: E-mails give insight into Brown's leadership, attitude", Cable News Network, November 4, 2005
  13. Department of Homeland Security, Implementation of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act And Other Organizational Changes
  14. National Incident Management System, Federal Emergency Management Agency (Draft, 24 May 2007), Emergency Responder Field Operating Guide (ERFOG)
  15. Virginia Task Force 1: International Search and Rescue
  16. U.S. Agency for International Development, Asian Disaster Preparedness Center: Program for Enhancement of Emergency Response (PEER)