Introduction To Emergency Management For Fire Departments

Many articles are written about all of the disciplines in the public safety sector, and both fire operations and EMS have been the focus of many available journals. Yet, emergency management has been largely ignored. Since September 11th, however, fire chiefs and departments have begun to question the role of the Fire Department in Emergency Management. Following is an introduction to emergency management for fire departments.

The History of Federal Emergency Management

In 1803, a major fire ripped through Portsmith, New Hampshire, taxing the community's and state's resources for the extensive recovery effort. When this catastrophe was presented to Congress, the resulting Congressional Act of 1803 became the first piece of legislation created for federal disaster assistance. Throughout the years to follow, Congress responded with federal funds for many disasters, including allowances for the victims and citizens of the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake. It has been noted that between 1803 and 1950 federal assistance was made available for well over 100 disasters of all types throughout America

Congressman Harold Hagan of Minnesota introduced the most significant emergency management legislation in August 1950. Hagan provided "permanent and general legislation for disaster relief" through the Federal Disaster Act of 1950. The Congressman stated the purpose of the statute as to obtain assistance to rebuild streets and farms in order to reestablish the transportation between farms, markets and highways. This Act established the legal foundation for a federal role in disaster relief. Soon additional measures were implemented to assist in this area. For example, in 1968 the National Flood Insurance Act was created which offered flood protection to homeowners, and in 1974 a law was enacted to establish the process for a presidential disaster declaration.

The 1960s and 1970s brought many disasters that required federal response and recovery. The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, created by the 1950 Act and an arm of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), administered these efforts. Various federal agencies assisted at these disasters. Recognizing the considerable presence of the federal agencies at emergencies, the National Governors Association petitioned President Carter to centralize federal emergency functions. In response, President Carter issued an Executive Order in 1979, merging many of these federal agencies into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Today, FEMA is a multi-faceted agency overseeing a range of programs including the National Flood Insurance Program, Natural and Technological Preparedness, the Emergency Management Institute and the Office of National Preparedness.

Local governments prepared for emergencies during the threat of nuclear weapons and at the beginning of the atomic bomb age by instituting Civil Defense groups. At the end of the Cold War these departments became Offices of Emergency Management at the state, county and local levels. These offices are staffed by full and part time employees who handle a wide range of activities, from natural and domestic preparedness to the activation and coordination of the Emergency Operation Centers. In many areas, the county and local governments coordinate yearly disaster exercises. Because local, county, and state emergency management programs are really community-based public safety programs, they are more in tune with the potential disasters that can occur.

Emergency Management Programs

Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery are the four interrelated concepts necessary to an effective emergency management program.

Mitigation involves the reduction of potential exposure from a hazard or event. Just like fire prevention, mitigation programs can stop the spread of the disaster. For example, in a flood prone area, a mitigation plan needs to examine the local zoning and building codes, and flood plan surveys. Having a good mitigation strategy will assist in the reduction of a tremendous loss.

The second factor is Preparedness. The unfortunate truth is that no matter how good a mitigation plan is, not all risks can be eliminated. Mother Nature does not take a vacation. Storms, rain, snow, tornadoes and the like will cause damage in a community in spite of excellent preparation. However, just as mitigation can contain the damage, preparedness can assist in limiting the extent of the damages. This phase of the four necessitates a great deal of deliberation in order to realize all the different steps needed to maintain order. Additionally, a crucial element of the plan is the section on establishing authority and responsibility. While the fire service uses the Incident Command System, in emergency management, preparedness is our ICS. It establishes the laws that govern the authority of the elected officials and our responsibilities in the public safety sector.

The third element is Response. In Emergency Management, the response phase is where the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) is put to use. When the EOC is activated, Emergency Management assists the fire, police, and EMS with resources. For example, at a multiple alarm at a nursing home, emergency management can assist with the sheltering of the victims of the facility or notify additional resources that are needed. For example, if Urban Search and Rescue teams and equipment are needed to assist at an incident, these notifications can be made from the EOC.

And finally the fourth phase is Recovery. This function could take the longest to perform. This is where Emergency Management helps to put the community, city or state back to the level, or as near as possible, to its condition before the incident or disaster. Emergency Management conducts the damage assessments to begin the paper work necessary for financial assistance. Even if a community has had a 'minor' disaster, such as a haz-mat incident, Emergency Management can assist in the recovery of materials.


You have taken Emergency Management 101. Being involved in fire service and emergency management, I have become acutely aware of the importance of having plans that detail these four phases and the significance of interacting with all offices of the public safety sector. Local municipalities and cities have Local Emergency Planning Committees, (LEPCs) - ask the Chief who represents the Fire Department on this committee and offer to serve on it. Input from the fire service in these meetings is essential, yet all too often we don't think it is important to attend.

The next few articles will concern the topics of the Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs), the Fire Department's role in the EOC, Emergency Management and the Incident Command System, and Emergency Management with Special Events. If you need any additional information, I can be reached at