FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Ignored

FEMA recently released their 2018-2022 Strategic Plan.  While organizational strategic plans are generally internal documents, the strategic plans of certain organizations, such as FEMA, have a significant link to a broader array of stakeholders.  The community of emergency management in the United States is so closely linked, that FEMA, through policy, funding, or practice, has a heavy influence on emergency management at the state and local levels.  Here are my impressions of the 38-page document.

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Right from the beginning, this document continues to reinforce the system of emergency management and the involvement of the whole community. I’m glad these concepts have been carried forward from earlier administrations.  Far too often have we seen new administrations trash the concepts of the previous for reasons none other than politics.  Things often take time in emergency management, and it sometimes seems that just as we are getting a grasp on a good concept or program, it’s stripped away in favor of something new which has yet to be proven.

The foreword of the document, as expected, lays out the overall focus of the strategic plan.  What I’m really turned off by here is the mention, not once but twice, of ‘professionalizing’ emergency management.  Use of this phrase is an unfortunate trend and a continued disappointment.  We are our own worst enemy when statements like this are made.  It seems that some in emergency management lack the confidence in our profession.  While I’m certainly critical of certain aspects of it, there is no doubt in my mind that emergency management is a profession.  I wish people, like Administrator Long, would stop doubting that.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard him recently interviewed on an emergency management podcast where he stressed the same point.  It’s getting old and is honestly insulting to those of us who have been engaged in it as a career.

The strategic goals put forward in this plan make sense.

  1. Build a culture of preparedness
  2. Ready the nation for catastrophic disasters
  3. Reduce the complexity of FEMA

These are all attainable goals that belong in this strategic plan.  They stand to benefit FEMA as an organization, emergency management as a whole, and the nation.  The objectives within these goals make sense and address gaps we continue to deal with across the profession.

A quote on page 8 really stands out… The most effective strategies for emergency management are those that are Federally supported, state managed, and locally executed.  With the system of emergency management in the US and the structure of federalism, this statement makes a lot of sense and I like it.

Based on objective 1.2 – closing the insurance gap – FEMA is standing behind the national flood insurance program.  It’s an important program, to be sure, but it needs to be better managed, better promoted, and possibly restructured.  There is a big red flag planted in this program and it needs some serious attention before it collapses.

Here’s the big one… It’s no secret that morale at FEMA has been a big issue for years.  The third strategic goal includes an objective that relates to employee morale, but unfortunately employee morale itself is not an objective.  Here’s where I think the strategic plan misses the mark.  While several objectives directly reference improving systems and processes at FEMA, none really focus on the employees.  Most mentions of employees in the document really reference them as tools, not as people.  Dancing around this issue is not going to get it resolved.  I’m disappointed for my friends and colleagues at FEMA.  While I applaud the strategic plan for realizing the scope of external stakeholders it influences, they seem to have forgotten their most important ones – their employees.  This is pretty dissatisfying and, ultimately, is an indicator of how poorly this strategic plan will perform, since it’s the employees that are counted on to support every one of these initiatives.  You can make all the policy you want, but if you don’t have a motivated and satisfied work force, change will be elusive.

Overall, I’d give this strategic plan a C.  While it addresses some important goals and objectives and recognizes pertinent performance measures, it still seems to lack a lot of substance.  External stakeholders are pandered to when internal stakeholders don’t seem to get a lot of attention.  While, as mentioned earlier, FEMA has a lot of influence across all of emergency management, they need to be functioning well internally if they are to successful externally.  Employee morale is a big issue that’s not going to go away, and it seems to be largely ignored in this document.  I absolutely want FEMA to be successful, but it looks like leadership lacks the proper focus and perspective.

What thoughts do you have on FEMA’s new strategic plan?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC SM

 

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3 thoughts on “FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Ignored

  1. Good afternoon Tim. I felt compelled to address some of your comments in this article. Specifically those regarding the “professionalizing” of emergency management.

    By way of background, each municipality in Pennsylvania is required by law to have an appointed local emergency management coordinator, who in addition to providing the first level of all 4 phases of emergency management for their municipality, also acts as the conduit to the county-level Emergency Management Office.

    In my area (Central Pennsylvania), the great majority of these positions are held by unpaid volunteers. Frequently it happens to be a volunteer fire chief, who is already strapped for time in that position. Thus, they have no time for the administrative parts of emergency management, and are far too busy being a fire chief when an emergency manager is needed. In fact, sometimes it is difficult to find out who the coordinator is, let alone expecting them to be an active participant in an event.

    Recently the trend in our area has shifted to assigning the emergency management task to someone in a paid position. However, usually that person is either an officer in the police department, or a public safety director, each of whom have other responsibilities during the course of an incident. At the county level, our Emergency Management Office has a full-time staff of 3 (not including the director) to handle all facets of emergency management for a population of 140,000 over 400 square miles. They are supplemented by volunteers, some of whom also have other response priorities.

    I believe that it is instances such as this, that Administrator Long refers to “professionalizing”. Especially in light of the strategy contained in the later phrase “…locally executed”. Our area is woefully understaffed for any major disaster, or a significant emergency of any magnitude for that matter. So I take his statements not as a criticism of those in the profession, but as a suggestion or even a warning to those areas which are not adequately professionally staffed, that FEMA is throwing the major burden of emergency management back on you, and you need to up your game.

    1. Hi David,
      You bring a very valid perspective that I hadn’t considered. There are a lot of areas around the nation that have a similar struggle in appointing a qualified emergency manager. Small jurisdictions typically don’t have the budget to hire someone, much less at a competitive rate, or, as you mention, they add it on as ‘other duties as assigned’. Either way, despite best intentions, the responsibilities of the function may not be performed to the degree needed. That may very well be part of what Long is referring to. I wish he would be more specific in his remarks!

      Thanks for bringing that up!
      Tim

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