Operations that require 24 by 7 by 365 days a year are expensive, difficult, staff intensive and very necessary in many situations and events. Here are my arguments pro and con considering FEMA as an operational agency and you can choose sides or arguments or make your own arguments.
First, note for the record that Director Louis O. Guiffrida in his major reorganization of FEMA effective September 1981 created an OPERATIONS Directorate. Headed by Acting Associate Directors for most of its time in existence until abolished in 1986 with the majority of the Career SES leading the charge to abolish that Directorate and its name it was never a comprehensive entity with authority over all operational aspects of FEMA programs, functions, and activities. IT did however have standby operations authority for certain classified operations and other activites. Headed by John LeBarre, a Princeton educated PhD for most of its life, and then William Williams, and briefly by Bruce Campbell all of which were career SESs and the order of their acting in the Associate Directorship may be wrong. No person was ever confirmed as a PAS head of the Emergency Operations Directorate but it contained some very senior FEMA career SES personnel including HOMER HERVEY another OEP survivor who had become part of GSA and then the Federal Preparedness Agency in GSA after the implementation of Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1973 which ended the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) as an office within the Executive Offices of the White House. It is interesting to note that no single document or study of the President's Reorganization Project Team exists to my knowledge that addressed the issue or policies necessary to make FEMA an operational agency. Director Guiffrida came to FEMA expecting to look out and see FEMA staff probably in uniforms sandbagging levees along with STATE and LOCAL workers. He was soon made to realize that 80% of FEMA staff and funding was located in the DC area and that was not likely to be changed. The EMPB [Emergency Mobilization Preparedness Board] that operated for several years and in conjunction with the issuance of NSDD-47 entitled "Mobilization Preparedness" certainly comtemplated some mobilization operations in creating its implementation plan but this plan never was to become an architecture that guided any portion of FEMA. That result is explained in part by FEMA's disasterous efforts to become a National Security policy formulation organization which also failed.
The question then of FEMA's operational ambitions, authorities, and their implementation needs to be documented. Their is no operational authority for crisis management operations or even response or recovery outside of the Robert T. Stafford Act and even that statute fails to answer the question of FEMA's operational role even in support of the STATE and LOCAL governments. What has happened historically is that the STATES and LOCALS have deftly ignored disaster operational capability with a small number of exceptions. The leading examples of course are concerns like disaster temporary housing, debris removal and mass care and sheltering. Almost by default these programs have been left to FEMA to contract out or mission assign to other federal entities. Such contracting and mission assignment to me is often done with the urgency of operational needs but certainly cannot be categorized as operations in the sense of FEMA actually conducting the preponderance of the programs, functions or activities. Yet in some circumstances, FEMA has been charged with delegations that could make it operational, including the leading example of E.O. 12657 where FEMA is the operations entity should State and local plans for response to an offsite nuclear power plant fail for any reason, including STATE and LOCAL inability to participate. Is FEMA prepared to do this operation role? Not really! It does not have the staff or funding or whatever to conduct this mission. And it possible is an unlawful delegation given principles of federalism. Has the public been told this? Never specifically so there you have it with 20% of the nation's energy coming from these plants. Nor does FEMA have technical response capability event including Emergency Public Information as opposed to PUBLIC AFFAIRS. Surely some in FEMA have some training on issuance of recommendations of PAR's [Protective Action Recommendations] and PAD's [Protective Action Decisions] as is required under NRC case law but probably in no where near the numbers of personnel necessary. And notice even the Coast Guard in the BP catsatrophe was delinquent in issuance of EMERGENCY PUBLIC INFORMATION guidance to the general public or even STATE and LOCAL governments.
The recent issuance of a exercise policy guidance document by the Secretary DHS on August 17, 2010 failed to make clear whether actual operational tests would be conducted outside of the communications arena. Some may disagree with that conclusion but it is now clear to me that no one in the key appointee positions in DHS now or in the past is really trained as an operations leader with the exception of the Coast Guard, and certain individuals like FEMA's Administrator Craig Fugate. But the latter just does not have the operational horses to conduct operations should other federal entities or the STATE and LOCAL governments be required to conduct those operations and fail.
So here is the fix! Propose an Operations Directorate for FEMA and gain Congressional approval of that function from the Administration and Congress and make it part of the Stafford Act or other law. What does this actually entail? It entails confirming the legality of the postion expressed in E.O. 12657 that FEMA can operate when other entities fail and is given the staffing and fundings and authority to do so. This might in fact mean that on technical Emergency Public Information matters FEMA would be prima inter partes (first among equals) and be charges with saving lives through such operations or ensuring that other entities could do it without fail. Another example would be monitoring for contamination, conducting egress and access, operations, and formulating guidance to protect responders including FEMA personnel. Note that FEMA has never trained its personnel to operate in a Hazardous Environment and to deploy in such an environment without adequate protective gear and training could be considered a felony violation under OSHA.
At any rate hoping this post will cause some interest, including discussion of What should FEMA become in the future? My conclusion is that as current structured, designed and authorized it is very lacking as an operational safety net or for conduction around the clock operations. Please argue the case so I can learn?