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Hurricane Laura and the Costs of Disaster Response

By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Hurricane Laura has hit the coast. It initially appeared to be a weak hurricane, but Laura gained much strength and created havoc. Now, we must provide the emergency response.

While no one has a vision into the future, we try to deploy resources from around the country to help with responding to disasters such as Hurricane Laura. But deploying resources needs buy-in from many agencies to work effectively.

Who Needs to Buy In to Disaster Response?

With the federal Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) System, local personnel from trained disciplines such as fire departments and healthcare providers join an organized team supported by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). For example, when firefighters and medical doctors are deployed, they are temporarily federalized to allow them to respond as a part of the FEMA response system.

Once those personnel are deployed, local governments request assistance from the state, who in turn requests assistance from FEMA. Each of these requests has a check and balance system to ensure that the federal government doesn’t pay for response capabilities that could be handled by a local jurisdiction. This management tactic ensures that an 80-person specialized team is not being used to rescue a person from a puddle in a parking lot, a form of rescue that can be done by two local firefighters with not much specialized training.

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The buy-in starts with local municipalities buying into the US&R System and the benefits that are derived back at the local level. The FEMA US&R System has 28 teams, ranging from a Los Angeles Team that derives the majority of their personnel from one or two local fire departments to teams that have over 60 participating agencies spread out over five states.

However, local municipalities may not have the extra monies to float the loan for the salaries and benefits required to send personnel. Cost-prohibitive reasons include the COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires in the west.

The next level of buy-in that needs to occur is the local and state-level officials. For many reasons, whether political or budgetary, many states and localities do not want to utilize FEMA resources.

In the past few years, FEMA has developed response plans that shrink the size and costs of the teams to try to make their costs more palatable to the states and localities. But some states still do not make their requests early.

We must have a more quantitative method for requesting and deploying emergency management resources. As disaster management becomes more politicized, we need to force agencies to agree on when and where emergency assistance will be needed and when it should be called.

Disaster Response Funding Is Lacking in Some Communities

While many people argue that the 9/11 grant funding has created local US&R Teams, much of this money has now ceased to exist. As a result, local and state governments have been left to fund these teams.

Some states have done well to keep up with their disaster response funding, but others continue to have dwindling funds. State and local governments should continue to prioritize the funding and training of team members for disaster response.

Funding Flaws

Much of the issue with the local and state teams is the way that personnel are paid. Because no backfill is provided at the local and state level through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) process, local fire departments still have unreimbursed costs.

For instance, fire departments often do not have extra personnel, and they need to bring personnel back on overtime to cover vacancies from others who have been sent to the disaster. Depending on the number of people who go to a disaster, the expense is a large part of the payroll.

FEMA US&R Teams Must Continue to Be Funded for Disaster Response

In future disasters, search and rescue efforts will continue to be needed. It is imperative that we ensure that the FEMA US&R teams are properly funded, requested early and supported through local communities that provide their personnel to the US&R teams.

As we can see in the current disaster response resulting from Hurricane Laura, these teams do great work. They are also providing the needed data to state and local officials to ensure that people are not left trapped in destroyed structures.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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