October 20, 2005
Kurt Gallagher
(202) 639-6491

AFGE Offers Practical Solutions for Strengthening FEMA

Agency Changes Need to Start at the Top, Union Says

(WASHINGTON) – American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Vice President Andrea E. Brooks responded to comments made yesterday by Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff about the need to “retool” FEMA. Brooks offered five practical solutions to strengthen the disaster management agency.

“Despite staff attrition and brain drain over the last five years, the FEMA career workforce remains capable and effective,” said Brooks. “The real problem with FEMA starts with the leadership, and that problem extends beyond the former Director Michael Brown. Just as an army comprised of great troops still needs a skilled general to lead it, so too can the FEMA workforce only do so much without competent leadership.”

1. Replace top FEMA managers who have little emergency management experience with qualified, experienced emergency management experts.
Media reports have highlighted the lack of emergency management experience or expertise among several of FEMA’s top managers. Although Michael Brown now personifies incompetence, the remaining top-level FEMA officials who had little or no emergency management experience prior to joining the agency need to be replaced with qualified, experienced emergency management experts.

2. Re-staff FEMA by filling career-level vacancies with qualified, experienced individuals.
Over the past few years FEMA has lost hundreds of experienced full time employees, a significant drop for an agency with only about 2,400 full time workers. For example, FEMA’s Incident Response Section has only 40 actual employees, far fewer than the agency's 60 positions shown in the official numbers. Without full staffing FEMA’s ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies will remain degraded.

3. Make participation in FEMA’s emergency support teams, which are activated in the event of a disaster, a requirement of employment.
In 2000 FEMA had three emergency support teams, each with a 12-hour day shift and a 12-hour night shift, with one team on-call for one month at a time that was always ready to be activated in the event of a disaster. The teams support and coordinate the response, rescue and relief efforts in the field. Because of staff attrition and an unwillingness among some new-hires to volunteer for the teams, only one team is fully staffed and in operation. Unless participation in the emergency teams is made a priority by the leadership of FEMA, our nation’s ability to respond to future national challenges will degrade further.

4. Institute a policy of non-interference for the Department of Homeland Security with regard to the response effort in the event of a disaster.
Following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA’s emergency support team constantly was interrupted by requests for non-operational information from DHS. These requests were made with the expectation that field staff would be contacted–with the potential impact that rescue efforts might be interrupted–if the emergency support team did not have the data in its possession at the time of the request. In most instances the information requested was purely for public relations purposes, such as the number of pounds of ice delivered to a particular Mississippi county. Emergency management professionals need to be allowed to fulfill their responsibilities without interruptions and interference caused by information requests that have nothing to do with running the response effort.

5. Evaluate and revise the “National Response Plan” to make it a useable and agile document.
Just a few years ago, FEMA had a workable plan for contending with disasters called the “Federal Response Plan” that was written in clear and useful language. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the plan was scrapped in favor of a new document called the “National Response Plan” that was intended to take into account the role of state and local governments. To the detriment of any person who may need to rely upon the new plan, it is a behemoth book filled with political propaganda that obscures and buries essential information. The old “Federal Response Plan” was written by FEMA employees and worked well in response to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Midwest floods, Hurricane Marilyn and numerous other emergencies and disasters, including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. By contrast the “National Response Plan” was written by private contractors, at an initial cost to taxpayers of $700,000, and it failed on Hurricane Katrina. The “National Response Plan” should be rewritten, not by hired contractors but by disaster-experienced federal staff working for FEMA, to once again provide the U.S. government with a practical, workable disaster response plan.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union, representing 600,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia, including career employees at FEMA facilities around the country. Andrea E. Brooks, AFGE national vice president for women and fair practices, is one of three nationally-elected AFGE officers.

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