The increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters coupled with the reemergence of military threats from peer and near-peer adversaries overseas will greatly reduce the ability of emergency managers to meet the needs of disaster survivors. This will necessitate a paradigm shift in the primary role of emergency management from the delivery of resources to managing the scarcity of resources and making better use of them.
The American public expects government at all levels to respond to disasters quickly and effectively. This expectation seems to grow each year. High on the list of responsibilities is the timely, efficient, and equitable delivery of sufficient resources to protect property and minimize suffering caused by disasters. However, providing this support while the number of disasters and the severity of these disasters increase each year due to climate change is not sustainable. The ability to meet these expectations is further threatened by the reemergence of peer and near-peer international competition for the first time since the early 1990s. This will likely reduce the ability of emergency managers to leverage military capabilities needed for both domestic disaster response and potential overseas warfighting. With no simple solution to this problem, it is important for emergency managers to recognize the need to manage scarce resources effectively and equitably and to work with their stakeholders to manage expectations and adjust to this new reality.
Emergency managers trace the history of the profession to the founding of the nation and early efforts to reduce the suffering and economic impacts caused by natural disasters. These efforts accelerated through the 20th century as the American public demanded government at all levels provide increasing amounts of support following disasters and other emergencies – including well-known events such as hurricanes, floods, fires, and nuclear power plant accidents, and emerging events such as 9/11, other acts of terrorism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. With each year, emergency managers acquire more responsibility and are held to a high standard where any delay in the delivery of support exposes them and their elected leaders to the famous “Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?” criticism levied after Hurricane Andrew by Kate Hale, Dade County’s emergency management director.
Despite increasing severity and frequency of disasters caused by climate change and the inclusion of terrorism into the list of threats emergency managers must address following the attacks of 9/11, the nation benefited from a three-decade period of military and economic dominance. The warfighting considerations present during the Cold War were no longer necessary, and the domestic impacts of catastrophic attacks from peer or near-peer adversaries were deemed so unlikely that consideration for them waned. This shift allowed Congress to reallocate millions of civil defense dollars into pre-disaster preparedness grants that helped offset the impact of natural disasters and better prepared communities for other emergencies through the 1990s and 2000s.
The Current Problem
The current emergency management paradigm provides increasing support and resources from local, state/tribal, and then the federal government as an incident expands in size and complexity. However, this paradigm assumes that there are sufficient resources available to deliver goods and services to an impacted area. That may not be the case if the impacted area suffers catastrophic consequences or if there are multiple impacted areas requiring similar levels of support. Existing national doctrine, exercises, and real-world incidents focus on disasters and human-caused emergencies that affect specific regions or one or two major cities. They exclude incidents that occur in multiple regions as well as any simultaneous domestic military threats that may stretch the military capabilities typically employed domestically for disaster response.
The paradigm was simply not designed to address multiple catastrophic incidents. There are no formal deconfliction mechanisms to assist in the allocation of scarce resources when demand outstrips supply. In situations where either natural disasters or military attacks, or perhaps both, threaten multiple regions, it might take weeks or months for unaffected jurisdictions to feel safe enough to release their own life-saving capabilities to assist the impacted areas. Some communities may be hesitant to deploy resources if they cannot guarantee to their own constituents that these same resources will not be needed to address further natural disasters or follow-on attacks in their previously unaffected communities. The current response model assumes a massive influx of resources will rush the affected area to assist with the response. However, it is uncertain if this commitment can be met.
The concern regarding resourcing shortfalls will be more acute if the military capabilities required for disaster response are needed overseas for contingency operations or domestically for homeland defense. The national preparedness system established by Presidential Policy Directive 8 – implemented through the National Response Framework and other doctrine – is underwritten by military capabilities that might not be available to the extent required for either a natural disaster or response to an attack on the United States if those same capabilities are needed for defense. The U.S. military prioritizes readiness over disaster response, which has not been an issue in recent years in the absence of a major threat from an adversarial foreign government. However, an attack against the United States or one of its allies would likely invite a U.S. military response that could be larger and more immediate than Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. Military planning on this topic is understandably unavailable for public discussion, but there are several general assumptions:
- The top priority of the U.S. military during wartime will be to win the war as quickly as possible.
- The top priority of Congress will be to protect unaffected areas by eliminating the foreign adversary’s ability to inflict further harm as the military seeks to swiftly resolve the conflict.
- The Department of Defense will employ its delegated Defense Production Act (DPA) authorities to assert military necessity for acquiring goods and services needed to prosecute the war – even if it causes critical shortages of items needed for the domestic response and recovery missions. Similarly, other federal departments will utilize their delegated DPA authorities to acquire goods and services, creating a federal competition that will require adjudication and resolution.
The century-long trend to simply deliver more resources more effectively and more equitably cannot be sustained indefinitely. This is not an indictment of emergency managers who have simultaneously addressed a global pandemic, hurricanes, floods, and a wildfire season that breaks new records of destruction each year. It is simply an admission that, at some point, there will not be any more resources to provide. It is time for expectations to change.
The emergency management community must more effectively communicate the constraints that will limit the federal and non-federal responses to catastrophic disasters and nation-state threats. Individuals, families, and local communities need to ensure they are ready to help themselves until outside help arrives. This includes encouraging individual preparedness efforts such as building disaster supply kits and enabling training and education (e.g., basic first aid) that allow neighbors to help each other. It also includes working with community leaders to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are not abandoned when resource shortages impact them. A prepared community is a resilient community, and the resilient communities will best manage the catastrophic effects of tomorrow’s disasters. It will be hard to explain to the public that the federal “cavalry” will not initially arrive with everything the public currently expects. However, this is the truth, and the best time to communicate this reality is now.
Emergency managers also need to understand that managing resource scarcity and making tough choices regarding the efficient use of limited resources will be a much more prominent part of the emergency management mission. Recent experiences allocating scarce items during the COVID-19 pandemic – including examination gloves, surgical masks, etc. – are a forerunner of things to come. It is in everyone’s best interest to design and test resource adjudication and allocation, and mobilization plans and processes before they are needed for a catastrophic emergency. This approach should likewise include using the best science available to make assumptions about future natural disasters that allow for more effective decision-making regarding the use of scarce resources.
The doctrinal issues can be addressed in part by updating recent emergency management and homeland security doctrine to the new/forgotten reality of international competition and planning assumptions relevant to this threat as well as scientific data regarding the impacts of climate change. The Cold War concept of “national mobilization” should return to the national preparedness dialog. The polices and legislation governing its application – many of which are still in effect – also should be examined, updated, and exercised before they are employed to address multiple simultaneous catastrophic disasters or a conflict with a foreign adversary. Most importantly, updated processes, plans, and procedures need to be exercised, employed, and updated to ensure that systems are in place to manage resource scarcity issues well before they are needed. This will be difficult to accomplish. It will be hard to divert time and money away from the crisis of today toward the threats of tomorrow. It will be similarly difficult to realign thinking and budgets to this new reality, but it is necessary to ensure preparedness.
In the 30 years since the end of the Cold War, national preparedness efforts have focused on terrorism and localized natural disasters, largely ignoring threats from hostile foreign nations and increasing impacts of climate change. To address this problem, it is time for the United States to revisit Cold War preparedness assumptions and explore the best scientific data available to align policy and doctrine to the reemergence of these threats. The government then could develop the tools to best use limited resources while helping prepare citizens to care for themselves until an effective whole-of-government response can be implemented.
Robert J. (Bob) Roller
Robert J. (Bob) Roller serves as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Planning Branch Chief and co-led the development of the Response and Recovery Federal Interagency Operational Plans (FIOP). He also has years of experience as a firefighter and emergency medical services (EMS) provider in both wilderness and urban environments. He is a frequent contributor to Domestic Preparedness and recently published a memoir regarding his early experiences as a wildland firefighter. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of FEMA or the United States government.