At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there’s this phrase that everyone aspires to be: FEMA Flexible. That’s because FEMA deals with emergencies, and things could change drastically at a moment’s notice. You have plans, but if things don’t go the way you expect, you must be “FEMA flexible.”
FEMA employees’ main job is to help our country plan for and respond to disasters like hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes. Other catastrophes that involve domestic terrorism and pandemics have always been a subtask since there are other government agencies taking the lead on that front.
But that changed last year when the coronavirus hit our shores. Suddenly, FEMA employees were thrusted into the public health arena amid pure chaos derived from a lack of national leadership and political will to stop the spread of the virus early on.
Moreover, on Jan. 6, 2021, FEMA took on another leading role: set up a national watch center to coordinate and support federal and local responses to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
All that is on top of responding to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires as usual.
“In the middle of doing COVID, in the middle of responding to hurricanes and floods and fires, now we got the insurrection. So, our employees have been stretched super thin. Thankfully, knock on wood, we have not lost anybody to COVID,” said Steve Reaves, president of AFGE National Local 4060 representing FEMA employees across the country.
Challenges in protecting public health
23,000 FEMA employees have never stopped working during the entire pandemic. When the COVID-19 outbreak began early last year, FEMA employees’ main job was to find and deliver masks and PPE to everyone – other federal agencies, hospitals, first responders, cities, and states. It was a huge undertaking. The workers were trained in logistics, but the initial shortages of PPE hampered their efforts to deliver life-saving PPE. As it turns out, politics was the main obstacle.
Last April, for example, Local 4060 sought congressional help enforcing the Defense Production Act (DPA), which allows the federal government to require American companies to produce surgical masks and other medical equipment in response to COVID. FEMA leadership agreed with the local and tried to get the Trump administration to make use of DPA, but they were threatened with removal. To the Trump White House, it was left-wing overreach.
FEMA had to resort to other means, like acquiring cloth masks from whoever made them and relying on donations from other countries like Taiwan, which sent six million masks to the U.S. It was a sad moment for these first responders who took pride in our country’s rapid response during an emergency.
The previous administration’s anti-science approach to the pandemic also got some FEMA sites shut down last year. The D.C. regional office, for example, had to be closed after the administration brought in people who tested positive for COVID-19.
FEMA employees were deployed across the country and were exposed to the virus, so the local last March tried to get a mask mandate in all FEMA facilities, but the administration shot down that idea. On the ground, they were met with resistance from state officials like Florida and Texas governors who scoffed at mask wearing. FEMA employees unnecessarily risked their lives and those of their families just by showing up for work. They breathed a sigh of relief when Biden on his first days in office issued a mask mandate on all federal property.
FEMA subject-matter experts and scientists encountered another grave problem. During the previous administration, they were scared to give scientific presentations to higher ups for fear of retaliation.
FEMA employees faced obstacles along the way as they tried to save lives, but they soldiered on.
“I admire and love them,” Reaves said. “They are the closest things to the Red Cross. They are willing to put themselves at risk for the good of the country.”
Ramping up the vaccination efforts
These days, FEMA employees have been involved in setting up 89 super vaccination centers and hundreds of other vaccination sites and mobile vaccination units across the country. They work hand in hand with the Army after Biden activated 1,100 military medics to give vaccinations at FEMA sites. The U.S. National Guard is sending more than 1,000 vaccinators to 349 vaccine sites in 39 states and territories. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the CDC help design mobile, walk-up, and drive-through vaccination sites.
FEMA doesn’t employ doctors and physician assistants to go out into the community and give vaccinations. They rely on a network of pharmacies and clinics that are already in place across the country to help speed up the vaccination program and get as many Americans vaccinated as soon as possible.
FEMA is also partnering with state governments to set up community vaccination sites where FEMA provides financial assistance, equipment and supplies, and staffing support.
Its Surge Capacity Force staff will deploy to vaccination sites across the country to support President Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines within the first 100 days of his administration. The Surge Capacity Force is made up of volunteers from federal agencies who will leave their regular jobs for up to 45 days to help support the program.
FEMA has established a Civil Rights Advisory Group to make sure underserved populations receive vaccinations.
Another historic first at FEMA this year is a collaboration between FEMA and a major hospital to conduct a COVID stress survey nationwide to gauge Americans’ mental health and what we need to do moving forward since the effect of COVID will surely linger on even after the outbreak is over.
FEMA employees are aware of the changing situation. Today they may be dealing with the current strains of COVID. Tomorrow there may be new variants, not to mention the possibility of the Ebola outbreak, which is striking Congo right now.
“At FEMA there’s this phrase ‘FEMA Flexible.’ We adjust to whatever term dictates,” Reaves explained.
Even so, he acknowledged that in the back of FEMA employees’ minds, they always think about the next hurricane season, which will happen in just five months.