FEMA’s Forgotten Civil Defense Role

A recent article posted to the Homeland Security Affairs Journal of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security is quite thought provoking.  The author, Quin Lucie, an attorney with FEMA and former Marine Corps Judge Advocate, posits in his article, How FEMA Could Lose America’s Next Great War, that FEMA’s legal responsibilities for civil defense have been all but forgotten, potentially endangering the welfare of our citizens and our ability to sufficiently mobilize our industrial war complex in the event of a substantial war.

The article has a lot of great depth on the history of civil defense, FEMA, and its predecessor agencies, and the movement of FEMA away from that role, first in favor of work aligned to various mission areas associated with natural hazards, then eventually including human-caused disasters and terrorism.  The author certainly isn’t wrong that civil defense is a ‘hazard’ that we have left out of our all hazards lexicon.

There are arguments that can be made supporting FEMA’s persistence in their civil defense role, with much of the capability they have developed for their own mission and supported for others being truly applicable to all hazards, including civil defense.  We can name myriad programs and capabilities, such as continuity of operations/continuity of government, incident management teams, preparedness standards, and specialized response teams.  Each of these would absolutely have a role in supporting civil defense.  It seems one of the biggest gaps, however, is in planning, where there is little meaningful inclusion of specific civil defense missions, activities, and capabilities; as well as the association of established capabilities and authorities to civil defense missions.

I applaud the author for mentioning that our ways and means of conducting civil defense as we had in the 50s and 60s is not necessarily something to fall back on, as times, needs, and technology have changed.  These factors necessitate even more meaningful analysis, exploration, and deliberation of the role of emergency management as a whole (not just FEMA’s legal responsibilities) in civil defense, especially considering that most, if not all states, have laws on the books for civil defense activity and authority.

As FEMA goes, so does the rest of emergency management, so it’s not a stretch to ascertain that states and localities need to consider this inclusion as well.  At the federal level, laws and executive orders may need to be amended to change with the times and expectations of such activity, followed by frameworks, strategies, and plans, as well as other preparedness measures to support implementation.  Following federal changes, guidance will need to be formulated for states, suggesting any legislative changes they should make to appropriately update to the new vision and synchronize with any changes in federal laws, as well as guidance for state-level planning, which will likely be accompanied by grant funding for this and related activities.

The important perspective with all this is that we are not to be taking a step backwards, but instead re-assessing needs and associated capabilities of an obligation that seems to have been left in the wake of a seemingly forgotten era.  While many of our current capabilities can be leveraged to support civil defense activity, the arrangement and application of such capabilities, as well as the specific laws governing these capabilities, is unique enough to warrant plans exclusive to this function.  We need to look ahead at the challenges we might face in such a situation to ensure our preparedness.   Some have argued that homeland security is the new civil defense, and even I have mentioned that some of these concepts have come full-circle.  While some of that is true, there are also needs and capabilities we haven’t examined since the era of civil defense, which are largely not included in our terrorism preparedness/homeland security efforts.

As always, I’m interested in the thoughts of readers on this topic.  Also, please be sure to read Mr. Lucie’s article referenced at the beginning of this post.

© 2019 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC℠®

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