FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate

Sept. 16, 2009
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 each of the state's 67 counties and local governments. Fugate began his emergency management career as a volunteer firefighter, paramedic and lieutenant with Alachua County, FL, Fire Rescue and later became the county's emergency manager.

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 each of the state's 67 counties and local governments. Fugate began his emergency management career as a volunteer firefighter, paramedic and lieutenant with Alachua County, FL, Fire Rescue and later became the county's emergency manager. He spent a decade in that role until 1997, when he was appointed bureau chief for Preparedness and Response for FDEM. In 2003, the Florida Emergency Management Program became the first statewide emergency management program in the nation to receive full accreditation from the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). At FDEM, Fugate was the state coordinating officer in Florida for 11 Presidentially declared disasters and the management of $4.5 billion in federal disaster assistance. In 2004, he managed the largest federal disaster response in Florida history as four major hurricanes impacted the state in quick succession (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne). In 2005, Florida was again impacted by major disasters when three more hurricanes made landfall (Dennis, Katrina and Wilma). The impact from Hurricane Katrina was felt more strongly in the Gulf Coast states to the west, but under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), Florida launched the largest mutual aid response in its history in support of those states.

On July 22, 2009, I had the honor of interviewing W. Craig Fugate, who is the new administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). His experience in the fire and rescue community combined with his lead role in Florida's Emergency Management Program provide unique and positive insights on how FEMA can effectively accomplish its mission. I believe the answers to the following questions will give you insight as to this administrator's philosophy and vision for FEMA.

FIREHOUSE: As a state emergency manager, how did that role prepare you for your new role as FEMA administrator?

FUGATE: The biggest insight is that I served as a customer of FEMA representing governors during everything from wildfires, tornadoes, floods to the hurricanes in '04 and '05. Being on the state side working on behalf of the governor and coordinating state and local resources of the impacted areas and in working with FEMA for that assistance, I have been the customer so now that I am a peer it gives me the advantage (and a lot of folks that are joining our team have that same experience coming from state and local government). I think that helps give us more focus to make sure we are servicing and meeting the needs and working with our customers versus just trying to implement policy and programs.

FIREHOUSE: Would you say that this also helped you better understand what worked and what did not?

FUGATE: Absolutely. It's always helpful to have the perspective from being on the receiving end of programs and how those programs actually are being implemented at the state and local levels. Often times, you make policy in Washington, but it's difficult to keep in mind that we are not dealing with one organization, but that we are dealing with 50 states and territories; about 56 different governors and organizations that we (FEMA) actual work with. One size does not fit all and having been a customer you tend to be more sensitive to that approach.

FIREHOUSE: What is your high-level vision for FEMA?

FUGATE: I want people to recognize FEMA as part of the team, but not the team. There is an assumption that FEMA does everything, but the truth is FEMA has a role on the larger emergency response team and it's important we continue to communicate what we do when we are faced with disasters. Some of those disasters never get past the point of the local responders dealing and responding to it and that is as far as it goes. Then you have the other end of the spectrum like Hurricane Katrina or if there is a major earthquake or a major terrorist attack like 9/11, where you have to have all of the aspects of local, state, private sector, volunteers and our citizens are engaged in that response.

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.

Let's take urban search and rescue (USAR) teams. We've got a finite number of those and we often get requests for more funding of them and they have a lot of great capabilities but they are a finite resource. How do we as a force look at what other resources are available? In talking about USAR teams, it means looking at how can we plug in National Guard and other military units to augment them, particularly when we are doing large-scale, area-wide searches like in an earthquake scenario or hurricane scenario. Such that we can attach forces to them so that we can cover more areas faster.

We need to identify now, in our planning phases, what are the criteria or what outcome we are trying to change. This means we have to look at what we are capable of doing and start looking at the impacts of these disasters. Do our capabilities when compared to the impacts meet our response goals, and are we able to change outcomes?

We need to look at the response process and ask, do we have the right pieces, the right concepts, and we must constantly question and test the system. I think too often we fall into a situation where we are building capabilities that will work for most disasters, but not recognize that when a bigger event comes, these systems and capabilities that do succeed in most disasters may fail, and fail catastrophically, at a time that we need it most.

That's why when we are looking at the impacts of these large disasters, we need to not limit our response to the systems that we have in place for the more common events we are dealing with, but really bring new ideas to the table and make sure that we are leveraging all the assets available through the entire response community.

FIREHOUSE: So this is really about partnerships throughout all organizations and governments?

FUGATE: Yes, it is really Emergency Management 101. We have to get out of the concept of the domino theory that the locals have to fail and they go to the state, and the state exhausts its resources and they fail then it goes to the federal level, and then we kick in. That process does not work. You have to go with a team concept and look at how do you move faster and how do you build more synergy between the resources. We have to make sure that we are able to shift from areas that aren't impacted to the areas that are impacted from within states, across state lines and across the federal family. You really have to continue to emphasize speed and teamwork versus a system that always depends upon hitting certain thresholds of pain before you go to the next level.

FIREHOUSE: When it comes to moving into an operational mode what are your thoughts?

FUGATE: The thing that I recognized early on in Florida is that it had nothing to do with me as the individual, but it was all about the team that was built, and the fact that I had the Florida Fire Chiefs Association working with the State Fire Marshal's Office, the Florida Police Chiefs and Sheriff's Associations and all the uniformed state law enforcement agencies, and the National Guard, all working as part of the team. Everybody working toward common goals where we would do search and rescue, we would literally have Fish and Wildlife operating their boats with USAR team members on the boats doing search and rescue, using our statewide law enforcement radio system for communication and having our Department of Environmental Protection, which was our lead for energy supplying fuel, so that everybody could focus on what they did best and not having everyone duplicating what others were doing for the team.

FIREHOUSE: So it is really about effective facilitation?

FUGATE: Well, that is what we saw worked. I think that's when you look at FEMA overall, about a quarter of our mission is to utilize our unique response capabilities, but the biggest piece of our mission is coordinating. Where are most of the resources in this country? They are at local and state levels of government and the other parts of the federal family, with the military, Department of Agriculture, Interior, FBI and other groups.

I think that the way to move forward is continue to build upon the good work that was done but also continue to build the team and focus more and more on facilitating and getting people to work as a team across all levels of government. We also need to recognize that a lot of those resources and capabilities sit in the private sector, or volunteer sector, or among our citizens — all of whom are important members of our response team.

FIREHOUSE: Is your role as administrator what you expected?

FUGATE: It is interesting; overall I have been pleasantly surprised. I had a good sense that I was joining a team that had a lot of great folks and I am very proud to have joined the team.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any other message that you would like to convey to responders?

FUGATE: As one last message of this interview, I want to say thank you, on behalf of FEMA, to all of the first responders for what they do every day, and we recognize we are part of their team.

CHARLES L. WERNER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board and IAFC Communications Committee. Werner is chair of the IAFC Technology Council, first vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee.

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