Federal Emergency Management Agency

Recommendations and Actions

FEMA01: Shift Emphasis to Preparing for and Responding to the Consequences of All Disasters


The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) primary functions fall into two broad categories:

---preparedness for military attack (i.e., continuity of government, civil defense, and state and local preparedness for a large-scale military emergency), and

---response to natural hazards (i.e., preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery by all levels of government).

During the early and mid-1980's, FEMA focused on the national security function of enabling the U.S. government to function after a massive nuclear attack. Preparing for that uncertain eventuality has detracted from the agency's ability to effectively perform its major responsibility of managing the federal government's preparation for and response to natural disasters. With the end of the Cold War, this country's defense strategy has begun to shift from preparing for a major nuclear attack to dealing with smaller attacks by foreign aggressors. From an emergency response point of view, the impact of a small-scale nuclear attack is very similar to that of a natural disaster, and entails similar response procedures (such as evacuation plans, securing safety and medical attention, and attending to basic human needs like food and shelter).

Yet, in spite of the similarity of the responses to these two types of events, FEMA's two-track approach--address preparedness for nuclear attack (which is partly classified), and preparedness for natural disaster (which is unclassified)--has diluted its effectiveness in properly preparing for, mitigating, and responding to disasters.

The tension between its national security and disaster response missions occurs in part because agency directorates do not communicate well with each other. For example, during Hurricane Andrew, employees of the State and Local Programs and Support directorate, frustrated at working practically around the clock, charged that employees in the National Preparedness directorate did very little to help. The latter said that they were never asked.[1]

NPR found that, in some cases, employees have been told not to talk to people outside their units on projects. The serious communication problems among the agency's internal units are intensified by classification restrictions in the agency's national preparedness programs.

In November 1992, an agency review board found that part of the internal communications problem was caused by the classification restrictions. To correct this, the board recommended a reduction in the number of positions with security clearances from nearly 1,900 (1,501 top-secret clearances and 381 secret clearances) to approximately 300.[2] As of August 1993, the agency had 1,582 top- secret clearances and 365 secret clearances.

The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) agrees with the agency board that a dramatic reduction in security clearances will significantly improve internal communications.[3] FEMA's new director has indicated that under his plan to consolidate agency activities, fewer employees will continue to have classified responsibilities.

Most of the National Preparedness Directorate's resources seem to be spent on ensuring the continuation of civilian government in the event of a nuclear war, through what are known as the enduring constitu-tional government programs. The directorate also supports ongoing studies through war gaming, computer modeling, and other methods.

A review is needed to determine how national security concerns fit into FEMA's current and future mission. Consensus exists among Congress, the General Accounting Office, NAPA, and the agency's director that its resources and emphasis should shift from national security and nuclear preparedness to all-hazards preparedness (including preparedness for natural and man-made disasters).


1. FEMA should continue to shift emphasis to preparation for and response to the consequences of all disasters.

FEMA should redirect the efforts of its employees and resources to preparing for and responding to all hazards. Strong Clinton Administration support will be required to change the direction away from the emphasis of the 1980's.

2. The director of FEMA should review the agency's classified responsibilities and ensure that they do not detract from its unclassified mission of general disaster preparedness. As part of that review, the director should ensure the maintenance of a single point of contact to manage the scaled-down enduring constitutional government programs.

The director should submit a report on his review to the President by the end of fiscal year 1994. The national security component of FEMA's mission has dominated the agency for a very long time. The dual nature of the agency's mission, the confusion about its identity, the division of resources, and the communications barriers that exist in the agency are the most important factors in its shortcomings.

With the reduced threat to this country of nuclear attack by the former Soviet Union and its successor nations, enduring constitutional government programs (the former continuity of government programs) are being scaled back. The director should ensure the maintenance of a single point of contact to manage these programs. It is vital, however, that the agency's classified activities do not threaten or interfere with its main focus on the unclassified mission of preparing for all hazards.

3. FEMA should sharply reduce the number of security clearances.

Fiscal Impact

Shifting FEMA's focus to its unclassified activities would have minimal fiscal impact, but would permit the agency to respond to disasters more effectively.


1. Interviews with FEMA employees in the State and Local Programs and Support directorate and the National Preparedness directorate (Washington, D.C., May-July 1993).

2. Trefry, Richard G., Chairman, FEMA Security Practices Board of Review, Final Report and Recommendations (Washington, D.C., November 1992), p. 9.

3. Odeen, Philip A., Panel Chair, National Academy of Public Administration, Coping With Catastrophe: Building an Emergency Management System to Meet People's Needs in Natural and Man-made Disasters (Washington, D.C., February 1993), p. 54.

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