W. Craig Fugate began serving as administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in May 2009. Prior to coming to FEMA, he was director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM), which coordinated disaster response, recovery, preparedness and mitigation efforts with...
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I think if nothing else, the big high-level vision for FEMA is making sure that everybody understands that we are part of the team; we are not the team. And it is really making sure that the other parts of that team have ownership and buy-in of that process. You have to establish that. I learned that in Florida, and the lesson I learned at the local level is what I bring as FEMA moves forward.
FIREHOUSE: There is often concern raised when FEMA seems to be "operational" in nature. Do you share that same concern?
FUGATE: That goes back to why I say we are a part of the team and when you look at who actually does what in a response and during the immediate recovery, very little of that is FEMA directly doing anything. We are more of a coordinator, we are a facilitator.
If you just look at the federal government, a lot of the assistance that you see in a disaster is going to come from other parts of the federal government, outside of FEMA. Our primary role, on behalf of the Secretary and the President, is to ensure that when a governor has made a request for assistance and we are providing that assistance, we've got the mechanisms in place so that the governor's team only has to work with one coordinating entity and they are not having to go agency by agency trying to figure out who can do what. That coordinator is FEMA, and our job is to coordinate all of those federal resources and assistance to the state.
FIREHOUSE: What do you see as FEMA's biggest challenges and what strategy do you have to overcome these challenges?
FUGATE: The biggest challenge we have on the team is getting the public to take more ownership of preparing to the best of their ability so we as the response community, and the federal family supporting that response community can focus on our most vulnerable citizens. Historically, in most major disasters, the best response is the quickest local response and sometimes that is neighbor helping neighbor.
Part of the challenge that FEMA has is really getting to the point where not only do people see FEMA as part of the larger team, but the rest of the team actually works as one and that they have ownership, they have the buy-in. That buy-in is a shift that I think takes more time because it means that people have to be willing to trust each other more and that is not something that has always taken place between the dynamics of local and state, state and federal, private sector and government and often times the public needs to understand they play the most important role in this. They are not just bystanders, they are not victims, but rather they are survivors. We need to engage the public so that people are taking the steps to prepare, so that emergency managers and responders can focus on our more vulnerable citizen.
FIREHOUSE: How can we as public safety responders and emergency managers help you achieve that mindset?
FUGATE: Part of it is when we plan for disasters. We have this trap we fall into when we base our plans around what our capabilities are, while what really needs to happen is that we've got to look at the type of threats we face across a variety of threat spectrums and determine what needs to be done.
Let's talk about fire departments. Most fire departments, when you talk about response, can tell you what their average response time is, from the time 911 has rung until the time they are on the scene of a structure fire. That defines how they equip, staff, look for funding, and it is a measure of their Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating and everything is driven around how many units and in what time frame they can bring to bear when a 911 call comes in for a structure fire. Same thing for EMS — we know in cardiac arrest, if it is taking you 30 or 40 minutes to get there; you are not changing outcomes.
We have not taken that approach in disasters. We need to define our outcome by a response that is robust enough to change outcomes. Too often, we keep adding and building pieces and hope we get there fast enough, but we do not really define what we are trying to achieve. Instead, we need to look at the system that we have built and say, "Does that system get us there or do we need to change-up and do things differently to get resources there and be faster?" Again, if I was just looking only at FEMA internally, I would never get there.