A year-round disaster tempo challenges FEMA’s operational capacity and exacerbates existing challenges — such as workforce burnout and the agency’s ability to deliver its full range of services. These challenges were especially evident throughout the COVID-19 pandemic response, which saw staffing numbers peak in the winter and spring of 2021 to volumes typically seen only during active hurricane seasons, and required the National Response Coordination Center to activate for more than 500 days — far surpassing the previous peak of 79 days for the 2017 hurricane season. The pandemic response highlighted the evolving nature of threats that FEMA is now called to organize, coordinate, and manage across a larger spectrum of sectors.
As the scope of FEMA’s mission expands, the agency must envision, plan, and prepare for incidents that do not fall into typical Stafford Act disaster categories. FEMA must be able to quickly assess, adapt, and surge. This effort includes bolstering capacity in its incident management and incident support workforce, continuity communications, and logistics.
Because FEMA’s disaster missions are dependent on mission enablers — such as procurement, security, and human capital specialists — these functions must grow in concert with any growth of the incident management and incident support workforce.
Readiness and Preparedness in Action
In 2020 FEMA began a multi-year initiative to develop an agency Readiness Framework to unify the way the agency defines and evaluates readiness across all mission areas. This Framework will standardize how we define readiness, align FEMA doctrine and policy with readiness concepts, and link readiness measures to solutions that drive decision making and resource allocation.
Recognizing the need to pursue readiness in a realistic, flexible way, FEMA must strive at all levels of the agency to effectively meet disaster operational requirements while maintaining critical steady-state functions. This posture requires the agency to develop a framework that continually assesses FEMA’s readiness and provides a systematic approach for prioritizing resources and mitigating risks to critical functions during large or long duration events.
It is not enough for FEMA to be able to effectively deliver assistance. As we aim to meet partners where they are, FEMA must transform how the agency delivers support so that partners can increase their capacity. This means working directly with whole community partners to strengthen FEMA’s understanding of their capabilities and tailor engagements to enhance their ability to drive their own mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
Through positioning FEMA’s programs, policies, and partnerships to promote the reduction of whole community gaps across all mission areas, the agency increases their ability to manage future events and decreases their need for federal support. This shared understanding of capability requirements between whole community partners and all levels of government enables the prioritization of federal resources to mitigate critical national capability gaps.
“The emergency management workforce is evolving as rapidly as the environment they are asked to prepare for and respond to. Leading organizations, professional associations, and the training and education enterprise all must accelerate their efforts to meet the needs of its people where they will be, not where they have been. As threats, and opportunities, present themselves in an accelerating environment, we have to increase our ability to define and solve novel problem sets.”– Glen Woodbury, Director, Center for Homeland Defense and Security, Naval Postgraduate School