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Public and Private Sector Relationships in Emergency Management

Written by  Rebecca Hoog Wednesday, 07 December 2011 16:43

When studying the field of emergency management and how it has evolved over the years, it is virtually impossible to analyze it without also researching the role of the private sector. Charities such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army have a long history in disaster relief, often working hand-in-hand with the government to provide disaster management and recovery services. Most people are aware of the active role many non-profit organizations take in disaster relief; for-profit contractors may not be as obvious but often play just as important a role. However with the outlay of government dollars also comes a variety of opinions on how those dollars should be spent. The application of funding for emergency management can be controversial for a variety of reasons: whether money that has been earmarked as “all-hazards” is funneled towards specifically homeland security functions while emergency managers face chronic limitations, whether the salaries for contractors are reasonable given budget deficits throughout all levels of government, or the problems created when emergency management is treated as a tertiary duty rather than one that deserves a full-time specialist. These issues come into play when funding cuts begin to compromise programs meant to assist the public in preparing for or recovering from disasters. In terms of other permutations of the relationship between the public and private sectors, there are a variety of grant programs and training opportunities funded by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies that encourage businesses and individuals to become more active in their communities. Delving into the literature begs some of the largest questions currently under consideration in the emergency management field: how the public and private sectors are currently interacting, whether the form these partnerships take is effective, and how to improve the field through utilizing new methods and innovative approaches.

If one were to ask the average American citizen what they think of when they hear the phrase “emergency management,” they are most likely to respond with a mention of first responders such as EMTs or firefighters, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These two groups are obviously crucial to EM efforts, but it is important to keep in mind that emergency management is a broad field, encompassing a wide range of individuals, businesses, and agencies. Most people are aware of the Red Cross as an active participant in disaster recovery efforts, but they may not realize the extent to which non-governmental organizations and the private sector actively contribute to the cycle of mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery. This role is so important that it was built into the National Response Framework, which was designed as a guide for the web of relationships that are activated in case of a disaster.

According to DHS, “Many private-sector organizations are responsible for operating and maintaining portions of the Nation’s critical infrastructure.” The interplay between the public and private sectors provides a natural avenue beyond individual preparedness for the public to be involved in disaster mitigation and response efforts. “Communities cannot effectively respond to, or recover from, incidents without strong cooperative relations with the private sector,” it continued. This assertion highlights the intrinsic connection between businesses and their communities, and their ability to foster or weaken the health of a region. The other major player in the private scene is the non-governmental organization (NGO).

According to the NRF, NGOs are independent organizations that tend to focus on a specific area of outreach. This narrowing of focus allows them to become experts at their specialty. The most obvious example, the Red Cross, focuses on mass care, a task they have become so adept at over the years that Emergency Support Function No. 6 names them specifically as a support agency for that function. ESF No. 6 also includes the statement that some of the data collection responsibility which feeds DHS/FEMA is assigned to the Red Cross, thereby emphasizing just how integral the public-private connection can be.

While his article focuses on NGOs working in India, Patrick Kilby’s 2008 case study titled “The Strength of Networks: The Local NGO Response to the Tsunami in India” discusses why NGOs can be such powerful contributors. The massive tsunami that struck many parts of Asia in 2004 resulted in extensive damage, leaving a few million people homeless and/or without a way to support themselves or their families. Kilby’s description of the innovative approach taken by a collection of NGOs working in concert was especially intriguing. In light of the command and control structure favored in the United States, it was somewhat surprising to hear of the success of the “informal systems based on trust, confidence and credibility that enabled the ECDF [East Coast Development Forum] to access the affected communities to determine what was required and how to proceed. These informal systems were complemented by more formal accountability and distribution systems for the work itself.”

It would be useful to the field as a whole to find more literature that discusses the realities of applying non-traditional project management structures to disaster management, potentially combining oversight and responsibility with more decision-making power on the ground and increased flexibility. This style of networking utilizes the human tendency to form communities, and the natural connections that are made among individuals. Their level of creativity allowed the member organizations to address the needs that could not be met through traditional government channels, perfectly illustrating how the work of NGOs and the governments they are associated with should move forward hand-in-hand.

Richard Sylves, author of "Disaster Policy and Politics: Emergency Management and Homeland Security," points out the multiplicity of ways in which voluntary agencies, or VOLAGS, participate in all aspects of the disaster cycle. Some agencies assist in creating disaster plans and training responders, while other organizations work to make disaster areas habitable again or to help displaced families get back on their feet. Assistance is often provided in concert with that of the government, or as a supplement to limited federal or state resources. As evidence of the growing philosophy of cooperation in the United States, Sylves points to the “National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), a group of forty-nine national organizations that have made disaster response a priority and coordinate the planning efforts of many voluntary organizations.” Of course as much as people can be generous with their time and money, there comes a point where the work involved is too intensive to ask of volunteers. At that point the government turns to paid contractors.

While government contracting with private organizations has a long history, the field of contractors has undergone a radical change in the past few decades as more and more public services are being handled by the private sector. Van Johnston and Paul Seidenstat, in their essay titled “Contracting Out Government Services: Privatization at the Millennium” make the point that “the limited use by governments of private producers was evidenced by the fact that the word, ‘privatization,’ did not make the dictionary until the early 1980s.”

Through an analysis of the differing forms these public-private relationships can take, the authors outline several permutations depending on how resources are handled and how funding from the government is allocated. Out of their list of nine options, “contracting out” is the most common form this sort of behavior takes at the federal level. Rather than employing some form of load shedding, most governments have preferred contracting as the method to shift operations to the private sector. This approach leaves the government with a great deal of control over work product but no need for the overhead that would be involved in directly employing the manpower that would be necessary to accomplish the same tasks. The same authors also point out that when bids are submitted for a particularly desirable contract, companies can sometimes underbid to the point where on the contract itself they are losing money. The breakeven point generally comes with later project overruns, which as Johnston and Seidenstat note, “can be ignored or downplayed since sanctions might be difficult to impose and the exposure of the higher costs could be politically damaging to elected officials.”

Such an approach makes sense when millions of dollars are on the line, but it is extremely irresponsible to continue rewarding bad behavior by agreeing to overruns. There should definitely be a way to utilize sanctions in order to deter this sort of behavior, especially since the same sort of action in a private-sector business arrangement would end with the company that overruns its budget not winning contracts again. In the federal arena it seems like it is merely considered another step in the process. The difficulty here is striking a balance between the adaptability needed to address project priorities as they change while still carefully shepherding the funds provided by taxpayers.

In a similar vein, there is continuing controversy over the significant amount of money paid out to private companies in homeland security functions. A recent, extremely controversial Washington Post project ntitled “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William Arkin questioned the massive scale of a variety of government contracting. The issues covered tended more toward the homeland security end of the emergency response spectrum but they still reflect some of the concerns about the rapid growth of government contracting in the post-9/11 era, primarily focused on counter-terrorism actions. While it can be argued that the authors in this case acted irresponsibly in presenting information about physical locations of employees engaged in processing sensitive information, it can also be argued that by finally collecting comprehensive data on the sheer scale of secret projects the public can perhaps push for increased transparency. There will always be cases where there should be limited access to certain materials for the safety and security of the nation, but this project begs the question of how much duplication is too much? When does a different report requirement call for a totally separate team to review the information, and when does it simply require a different approach? According to “Monitoring America,” one of the articles from Priest and Arkin, “the Department of Homeland Security, for example, does not know how much money it spends each year on what are known as state fusion centers, which bring together and analyze information from various agencies within a state.”

This is an exceedingly troubling assertion-while most security specialists would defend the need to safeguard data, the argument that information must remain secret because it is sensitive can be taken too far in an overabundance of caution. There are a variety of ways to veil the numbers in such a manner that specific breakdowns are not accessible while still leaving them in a format where they can be analyzed for the sake of fiscal responsibility. By becoming acquainted with the contracting culture of Washington, D.C., it becomes apparent why authors like Tim Shorrock feel the need to research the topic of government contracting, as he does in his work entitled “Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.”

Steve Weinberg wrote a review of this book for USA Today, noting that “Dozens of previous books by other authors have examined the failures of information collection and analysis, especially leading up to and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Shorrock breaks new dirt by focusing on the business of intelligence, the bottom line in dollars at the private corporations that win government contracts, often without competitive bidding or even public disclosure after the ink is dry.”

This essay is not the place to debate whether or not intelligence activities should be contracted, but the fiscal issues inherent in this sort of behavior definitely fit with the idea that all-hazards funding should not be spent on programs that have virtually zero oversight. Situations like this show that lumping appropriations for disaster management with those for homeland security under the heading “all-hazards” run the risk of diverting funds from smaller community outreach programs and into the pockets of defense contractors. When compared with the other aspects of emergency management planning, it is difficult not to wonder whether every bit of the huge amounts of money being funneled into these projects is strictly necessary, and whether it could do a comparative amount of good if applied to another part of the emergency management budget. As discussed later in this essay, even relatively small amounts like those granted in Project Impact can have a significant effect on individual communities.

Certain areas of outreach between the government and the public are more obvious that others. Beyond the activities of individual responders, we see the active role the Department of Homeland Security takes in funding grants for a wide range of products, both for pre-disaster efforts and those involved in recovery. According to Richard Sylves, “in accord with policymaker wishes, DHS consolidated these programs under the State Homeland Security Grant Program to ensure that all would need to operate with state government as an intermediary between federal and local government.”

In theory this is an excellent idea, since it involves all the levels of stakeholders in major decisions. However, Sylves also notes that that these grants “did not directly permit funding of conventional disaster mitigation and preparedness.”

This focus on the anti-terrorism end of the emergency management spectrum indicates a view of preparedness that leans toward that aspect of the field that has become big business since the events of September 11. Also with the 2012 federal budget difficulties currently being hashed out in Congress, significant amounts of funding are being cut both from DHS as a while and FEMA specifically. In light of these financial difficulties it makes sense for emergency managers across the nation to turn to relatively inexpensive programs that teach Americans some tactics for preparing and protecting themselves.

In the continuum of preparedness efforts, we find aspects that are better suited to institutional and national preparation and mitigation, while others are more tailored to function better on a smaller scale. Two examples of these local-level opportunities are the programs that began as a result of Project Impact, and the Citizen Corps, which include CERT training programs. Project Impact was designed as a way to distribute resources to communities that were willing to test mitigation procedures rather than merely waiting until they needed monetary help recovering from disasters. Eric Holdemann and Ann Patton wrote a 2008 article on the long-lasting effects of the discontinued program, which was cut off nationally in 2001 after only five years of existence. Holdemann and Patton neatly sum up the entire point behind Project Impact (and behind building relationships between the sectors) by noting that “Project Impact towns, from Manhattan to Miami, got in the habit of collaborating — in public-private partnerships to make long-term changes in their disaster profiles.”

This spirit of collaboration is central to all mitigation efforts, and it puts the tools for prevention in the hands of those who have the most to gain by using them: the local community. Several newspaper articles discussed the positive effects of Project Impact in Seattle, where the mitigation effort was especially successful. The Washington Post ran an article entitled “Seattle Breathes a Sigh of Relief After Quake; Officials Say Federal Money and Local Programs to Strengthen Structures Helped Limit Damage" by William Booth, which pointed out that “Ines Pearce, director of Seattle's Project Impact program, said the $1 million given to the city in 1997 by the federal government was ‘absolutely instrumental’ for mitigating against earthquake damage” including projects that focused on removing or bolting down potential hazards at 43 local schools.

The authors also point out how innovative Project Impact was as a government program since it did not take the usual approach of extremely strict funding requirements that dictate every possible application for funds. Instead it provided relatively small amounts of money to give projects the initial boost they needed to get off the ground, with the intention that they would become locally-sustained rather than federally funded. According to Patton and Holdemann there are strong indications that programs like Project Impact can have a significant long-term effect in areas where they are allowed to grow and change, rather than being treated as one-off grants for individual projects.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) also assessed Project Impact in the year after it was discontinued. According to the GAO report, state officials identified four specific features of the Project Impact program as being most beneficial, namely the program’s funding of mitigation planning activities, development of partnerships to address mitigation needs, providing “seed money” to attract additional funding, and heightening of mitigation awareness resulting from education and outreach activities.

These efforts were all funded with relatively small grants – the total outlay over the course of five years was approximately 77 million dollars, which pales in comparison when set against the backdrop of total expenditures of over three trillion dollars. The report also pointed out that grants from the project served as one of the main funding resources for developing effective mitigation plans, which emergency managers recognize as one of the core components of a healthy disaster management program (and one of the documents required as part of a complete Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding request).

Along with hazard mitigation grants and the efforts of state and local emergency management offices, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) is a government-sponsored program that trains individuals how to protect themselves and assist their neighbors in case of emergencies, including first aid care. According to the CERT website, it began in 1985 in the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and in 1993 it was launched nationally under the auspices of FEMA (www.citizencorps.gov). It also points out that “CERT is a positive and realistic approach to emergency and disaster situations where citizens will be initially on their own and their actions can make a difference” (www.citizencorps.gov). This philosophy emphasizes individual empowerment and in that sense removes some of the pressure from the government to spearhead every response. It also encourages a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency among Americans, a concept that is firmly woven into our history as a nation. CERT currently exists under the umbrella of the Citizen Corps, an organization designed to “help coordinate volunteer activities that will make our communities safer, stronger, and better prepared to respond to any emergency situation” (www.citizencorps.gov). One of the main initiatives centers on awareness as a key aspect. Knowing the options and best practices for protecting yourself and your family in case of a disaster is an important first step in survival.

Of course for all the positives that come with a more active public, there are some difficulties associated with an increased level of local and private-sector involvement. In 2007 the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management published an article by Ira Sharkansky titled “Local Autonomy, Non-Governmental Service Providers and Emergency Management: An Israeli Case” which touches on the difficulties in coordination when there are a multitude of providers working in the same emergency. Sharkansky points out that there is a great deal of debate currently about whether the idea of creative and tailored approaches to emergency management on a local level results in a major loss of efficiency and oversight. The main issue with this problem stems from a lack of concrete data since much of the emergency management field is still run with the command-and-control mindset in place. Sharkansky presents an interesting contrast to most American studies, since there are some integral differences between the Israeli style of governance and management and that of the United States. Differences such as a longer history of government dependence and the potential for the military to be involved in civilian functions in case of national emergency are possibly significant divergences between the EM fields in each of the countries. However, even with these contrasts there is still a great deal of information that can be drawn from their experience. One portion of Sharkansky’s article particularly echoed common comments about American emergency management: “Israel, like numerous other countries, now functions with a wide dispersion of authority. Local governments have increased responsibilities.”

Inherently connected to a dispersion of authority comes a lack of standardization in quality of work, and differing views on the appropriateness or effectiveness of any given practice. Sharkansky also comments on an issue that every EM specialist should take to heart: “During normal times, the array of service providers may operate with an acceptable degree of competence, despite oversight that is weaker in practice than formally required. As shown by Israel’s experience in 2006, however, a rapidly developing and protracted emergency can bring these service providers to the point of breakdown.”

That is exactly the reason why an active and open relationship between the government and non-profits or businesses is so crucial: without regular testing and practice, all the arrangements and memoranda of understanding are worthless. Excessive rigidity in a system designed to deal with the chaos of an emergency is a formula for the failure of that system. The United States had a similar example of this with Hurricane Katrina, and although a great deal of study has gone into preventing the mistakes of the past, there are still many questions about how we will actually have changed in the future.

“Emergency Contracting Strategies for Federal Projects” by John Jeffrey and Cindy Menches discusses the ways in which government contracting during emergencies differs from the normal contracting process, and which strategies are available under various circumstances. When compared to the fallout from the events in Israel mentioned above, it becomes clear that the United States has just as much work ahead of it to refine and reconsider existing emergency contracting processes. The creation of frameworks, memoranda of understanding, or professional networks is all laudable, but even the best-laid plans cannot cover every contingency. This is where clear guidelines for emergency purchases come into play. Jeffrey and Menches discuss the possible reasons behind the chaotic application of contracting in response to Katrina, some of which may have stemmed from an incomplete knowledge of Federal Acquisition Regulation, the materials which guide government purchasing. While there is some flexibility built into the system for emergencies, it may not have been obvious to the people authorizing contracts, and so a more casual approach was taken at times, causing problems later since there was a significant lack of documentation. The unacceptably disorganized responses to Hurricane Katrina “highlight a general unfamiliarity [on the part of contract officers] with emergency contracting procedures—and the flexibility built into the FAR to accommodate emergencies.”

The Federal Acquisitions Regulation System was put in place to make sure that federal contracts are awarded in a fair and fiscally responsible fashion, and it provides guidelines for how to accomplish that. The bidding process can be extremely time-consuming, and so is not the best way to handle time-sensitive purchase. This is where the flexibility of FAR comes into play. “Many of these contracting flexibilities do not require an official emergency declaration or designation of contingency operation and, therefore, can be used in a wide variety of situations as long as the specified conditions are met.”

Although still requiring documentation to back up the reasoning behind choosing a given contractor, the easing of restrictions provides a very reasonable option for these situations. Another course is to put in place pre-positioned or existing contracts for situations that possess a reasonable amount of likelihood. Jeffrey and Menches also note, “Through the use of contracts that have been previously competitively bid, agencies can ensure a quick response that is also cost effective,” meeting the expectations of the public that even in situations where rapid decisions are necessary, the government is still being prudent with cash reserves. The Government Accounting Office puts it very succinctly: “The fact that disasters, such as hurricanes, are not entirely predictable must not be an excuse for poor contracting practices.”

As part of an assessment of how contracting was handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the General Services Administration, the GAO delivered some fairly harsh (though apparently not undeserved) criticism about their processes in this instance. These contract openings generally included tasks such as debris removal and building renovation, but in one case ten million dollars were spent working on a building that was sheltering a total of six people when the operation was closed. In providing concrete examples of where lines of communication failed, the GAO outlined several shortcomings in the coordination among government agencies and their utilization of private businesses in the response effort. These communication difficulties continued with the changes in contracting officers and resulting lack of oversight. The GAO found instances where a new contracting officer had taken on an existing role, but was not properly briefed and so was unable to make effective decisions. It would be difficult to believe that these issues are restricted to the particular case of Hurricane Katrina – it seems much more likely that they are indicative of an ongoing problem that must be addressed. Such problems also suggest that a less centralized approach may be worth investigating, as some of the failures could have been prevented by an increased amount on authority for the people actually on the ground during a disaster.

When it comes to emergency response in the United States, we as a nation possess groups of extremely dedicated and oftentimes very experienced personnel, both in volunteer positions and at various levels of government. The key to moving forward and continuously improving our abilities is to push for a greater sense of cooperation and coordination between the public and private sectors, including the sharing of expertise and resources. There are many parts of the field that need work and with limited resources it can often be difficult to accomplish everything, but we are also known for our innovation and thought leadership. In order to overcome the challenges the field currently faces, we must be willing to give the people trying to improve our processes the freedom to make changes. One of the crucial adjustments must be an honest assessment of current funding arrangements, especially in light of the fact that important programs are not always the ones that get flashy media attention. Without an accurate breakdown of costs in some sort of comprehensive approach, we will not be able to determine whether taxpayer funds are being directed to where they are most needed. It may very well be that most protection funds are being applied to projects that are well worth the cost of highly specialized employees, but it is difficult to take such an assertion on trust when the actual numbers are not available. Another major consideration should be the possibility of returning to a Project Impact-style funding opportunity that encourages communities to take control of their own preparedness. People prefer to have a say in what happens to them, and the coordination of efforts between the government and the public offers a sense of control over situations that can be exceedingly chaotic. All in all there are currently glimpses of how safe and secure we can make our country, but it is up to emergency management officials and average Americans alike to make those necessary changes happen.

Rebecca Hoog is currently working on her master’s degree in emergency and disaster management from American Military University. She received her BA from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2007, majoring in British and American literature.

When studying the field of emergency management and how it has evolved over the years, it is virtually impossible to analyze it without also researching the role of the private sector. Charities such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army have a long history in disaster relief, often working hand-in-hand with the government to provide disaster management and recovery services. Most people are aware of the active role many non-profit organizations take in disaster relief; for-profit contractors may not be as obvious but often play just as important a role. However with the outlay of government dollars also comes a variety of opinions on how those dollars should be spent. The application of funding for emergency management can be controversial for a variety of reasons: whether money that has been earmarked as “all-hazards” is funneled towards specifically homeland security functions while emergency managers face chronic limitations, whether the salaries for contractors are reasonable given budget deficits throughout all levels of government, or the problems created when emergency management is treated as a tertiary duty rather than one that deserves a full-time specialist. These issues come into play when funding cuts begin to compromise programs meant to assist the public in preparing for or recovering from disasters. In terms of other permutations of the relationship between the public and private sectors, there are a variety of grant programs and training opportunities funded by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies that encourage businesses and individuals to become more active in their communities. Delving into the literature begs some of the largest questions currently under consideration in the emergency management field: how the public and private sectors are currently interacting, whether the form these partnerships take is effective, and how to improve the field through utilizing new methods and innovative approaches.

If one were to ask the average American citizen what they think of when they hear the phrase “emergency management,” they are most likely to respond with a mention of first responders such as EMTs or firefighters, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These two groups are obviously crucial to EM efforts, but it is important to keep in mind that emergency management is a broad field, encompassing a wide range of individuals, businesses, and agencies. Most people are aware of the Red Cross as an active participant in disaster recovery efforts, but they may not realize the extent to which non-governmental organizations and the private sector actively contribute to the cycle of mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery. This role is so important that it was built into the National Response Framework, which was designed as a guide for the web of relationships that are activated in case of a disaster.

According to DHS, “Many private-sector organizations are responsible for operating and maintaining portions of the Nation’s critical infrastructure.” The interplay between the public and private sectors provides a natural avenue beyond individual preparedness for the public to be involved in disaster mitigation and response efforts. “Communities cannot effectively respond to, or recover from, incidents without strong cooperative relations with the private sector,” it continued. This assertion highlights the intrinsic connection between businesses and their communities, and their ability to foster or weaken the health of a region. The other major player in the private scene is the non-governmental organization (NGO).

According to the NRF, NGOs are independent organizations that tend to focus on a specific area of outreach. This narrowing of focus allows them to become experts at their specialty. The most obvious example, the Red Cross, focuses on mass care, a task they have become so adept at over the years that Emergency Support Function No. 6 names them specifically as a support agency for that function. ESF No. 6 also includes the statement that some of the data collection responsibility which feeds DHS/FEMA is assigned to the Red Cross, thereby emphasizing just how integral the public-private connection can be.

While his article focuses on NGOs working in India, Patrick Kilby’s 2008 case study titled “The Strength of Networks: The Local NGO Response to the Tsunami in India” discusses why NGOs can be such powerful contributors. The massive tsunami that struck many parts of Asia in 2004 resulted in extensive damage, leaving a few million people homeless and/or without a way to support themselves or their families. Kilby’s description of the innovative approach taken by a collection of NGOs working in concert was especially intriguing. In light of the command and control structure favored in the United States, it was somewhat surprising to hear of the success of the “informal systems based on trust, confidence and credibility that enabled the ECDF [East Coast Development Forum] to access the affected communities to determine what was required and how to proceed. These informal systems were complemented by more formal accountability and distribution systems for the work itself.”

It would be useful to the field as a whole to find more literature that discusses the realities of applying non-traditional project management structures to disaster management, potentially combining oversight and responsibility with more decision-making power on the ground and increased flexibility. This style of networking utilizes the human tendency to form communities, and the natural connections that are made among individuals. Their level of creativity allowed the member organizations to address the needs that could not be met through traditional government channels, perfectly illustrating how the work of NGOs and the governments they are associated with should move forward hand-in-hand.

Richard Sylves, author of "Disaster Policy and Politics: Emergency Management and Homeland Security," points out the multiplicity of ways in which voluntary agencies, or VOLAGS, participate in all aspects of the disaster cycle. Some agencies assist in creating disaster plans and training responders, while other organizations work to make disaster areas habitable again or to help displaced families get back on their feet. Assistance is often provided in concert with that of the government, or as a supplement to limited federal or state resources. As evidence of the growing philosophy of cooperation in the United States, Sylves points to the “National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), a group of forty-nine national organizations that have made disaster response a priority and coordinate the planning efforts of many voluntary organizations.” Of course as much as people can be generous with their time and money, there comes a point where the work involved is too intensive to ask of volunteers. At that point the government turns to paid contractors.

While government contracting with private organizations has a long history, the field of contractors has undergone a radical change in the past few decades as more and more public services are being handled by the private sector. Van Johnston and Paul Seidenstat, in their essay titled “Contracting Out Government Services: Privatization at the Millennium” make the point that “the limited use by governments of private producers was evidenced by the fact that the word, ‘privatization,’ did not make the dictionary until the early 1980s.”

Through an analysis of the differing forms these public-private relationships can take, the authors outline several permutations depending on how resources are handled and how funding from the government is allocated. Out of their list of nine options, “contracting out” is the most common form this sort of behavior takes at the federal level. Rather than employing some form of load shedding, most governments have preferred contracting as the method to shift operations to the private sector. This approach leaves the government with a great deal of control over work product but no need for the overhead that would be involved in directly employing the manpower that would be necessary to accomplish the same tasks. The same authors also point out that when bids are submitted for a particularly desirable contract, companies can sometimes underbid to the point where on the contract itself they are losing money. The breakeven point generally comes with later project overruns, which as Johnston and Seidenstat note, “can be ignored or downplayed since sanctions might be difficult to impose and the exposure of the higher costs could be politically damaging to elected officials.”

Such an approach makes sense when millions of dollars are on the line, but it is extremely irresponsible to continue rewarding bad behavior by agreeing to overruns. There should definitely be a way to utilize sanctions in order to deter this sort of behavior, especially since the same sort of action in a private-sector business arrangement would end with the company that overruns its budget not winning contracts again. In the federal arena it seems like it is merely considered another step in the process. The difficulty here is striking a balance between the adaptability needed to address project priorities as they change while still carefully shepherding the funds provided by taxpayers.

In a similar vein, there is continuing controversy over the significant amount of money paid out to private companies in homeland security functions. A recent, extremely controversial Washington Post project ntitled “Top Secret America” by Dana Priest and William Arkin questioned the massive scale of a variety of government contracting. The issues covered tended more toward the homeland security end of the emergency response spectrum but they still reflect some of the concerns about the rapid growth of government contracting in the post-9/11 era, primarily focused on counter-terrorism actions. While it can be argued that the authors in this case acted irresponsibly in presenting information about physical locations of employees engaged in processing sensitive information, it can also be argued that by finally collecting comprehensive data on the sheer scale of secret projects the public can perhaps push for increased transparency. There will always be cases where there should be limited access to certain materials for the safety and security of the nation, but this project begs the question of how much duplication is too much? When does a different report requirement call for a totally separate team to review the information, and when does it simply require a different approach? According to “Monitoring America,” one of the articles from Priest and Arkin, “the Department of Homeland Security, for example, does not know how much money it spends each year on what are known as state fusion centers, which bring together and analyze information from various agencies within a state.”

This is an exceedingly troubling assertion-while most security specialists would defend the need to safeguard data, the argument that information must remain secret because it is sensitive can be taken too far in an overabundance of caution. There are a variety of ways to veil the numbers in such a manner that specific breakdowns are not accessible while still leaving them in a format where they can be analyzed for the sake of fiscal responsibility. By becoming acquainted with the contracting culture of Washington, D.C., it becomes apparent why authors like Tim Shorrock feel the need to research the topic of government contracting, as he does in his work entitled “Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.”

Steve Weinberg wrote a review of this book for USA Today, noting that “Dozens of previous books by other authors have examined the failures of information collection and analysis, especially leading up to and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Shorrock breaks new dirt by focusing on the business of intelligence, the bottom line in dollars at the private corporations that win government contracts, often without competitive bidding or even public disclosure after the ink is dry.”

This essay is not the place to debate whether or not intelligence activities should be contracted, but the fiscal issues inherent in this sort of behavior definitely fit with the idea that all-hazards funding should not be spent on programs that have virtually zero oversight. Situations like this show that lumping appropriations for disaster management with those for homeland security under the heading “all-hazards” run the risk of diverting funds from smaller community outreach programs and into the pockets of defense contractors. When compared with the other aspects of emergency management planning, it is difficult not to wonder whether every bit of the huge amounts of money being funneled into these projects is strictly necessary, and whether it could do a comparative amount of good if applied to another part of the emergency management budget. As discussed later in this essay, even relatively small amounts like those granted in Project Impact can have a significant effect on individual communities.

Certain areas of outreach between the government and the public are more obvious that others. Beyond the activities of individual responders, we see the active role the Department of Homeland Security takes in funding grants for a wide range of products, both for pre-disaster efforts and those involved in recovery. According to Richard Sylves, “in accord with policymaker wishes, DHS consolidated these programs under the State Homeland Security Grant Program to ensure that all would need to operate with state government as an intermediary between federal and local government.”

In theory this is an excellent idea, since it involves all the levels of stakeholders in major decisions. However, Sylves also notes that that these grants “did not directly permit funding of conventional disaster mitigation and preparedness.”

This focus on the anti-terrorism end of the emergency management spectrum indicates a view of preparedness that leans toward that aspect of the field that has become big business since the events of September 11. Also with the 2012 federal budget difficulties currently being hashed out in Congress, significant amounts of funding are being cut both from DHS as a while and FEMA specifically. In light of these financial difficulties it makes sense for emergency managers across the nation to turn to relatively inexpensive programs that teach Americans some tactics for preparing and protecting themselves.

In the continuum of preparedness efforts, we find aspects that are better suited to institutional and national preparation and mitigation, while others are more tailored to function better on a smaller scale. Two examples of these local-level opportunities are the programs that began as a result of Project Impact, and the Citizen Corps, which include CERT training programs. Project Impact was designed as a way to distribute resources to communities that were willing to test mitigation procedures rather than merely waiting until they needed monetary help recovering from disasters. Eric Holdemann and Ann Patton wrote a 2008 article on the long-lasting effects of the discontinued program, which was cut off nationally in 2001 after only five years of existence. Holdemann and Patton neatly sum up the entire point behind Project Impact (and behind building relationships between the sectors) by noting that “Project Impact towns, from Manhattan to Miami, got in the habit of collaborating — in public-private partnerships to make long-term changes in their disaster profiles.”

This spirit of collaboration is central to all mitigation efforts, and it puts the tools for prevention in the hands of those who have the most to gain by using them: the local community. Several newspaper articles discussed the positive effects of Project Impact in Seattle, where the mitigation effort was especially successful. The Washington Post ran an article entitled “Seattle Breathes a Sigh of Relief After Quake; Officials Say Federal Money and Local Programs to Strengthen Structures Helped Limit Damage" by William Booth, which pointed out that “Ines Pearce, director of Seattle's Project Impact program, said the $1 million given to the city in 1997 by the federal government was ‘absolutely instrumental’ for mitigating against earthquake damage” including projects that focused on removing or bolting down potential hazards at 43 local schools.

The authors also point out how innovative Project Impact was as a government program since it did not take the usual approach of extremely strict funding requirements that dictate every possible application for funds. Instead it provided relatively small amounts of money to give projects the initial boost they needed to get off the ground, with the intention that they would become locally-sustained rather than federally funded. According to Patton and Holdemann there are strong indications that programs like Project Impact can have a significant long-term effect in areas where they are allowed to grow and change, rather than being treated as one-off grants for individual projects.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) also assessed Project Impact in the year after it was discontinued. According to the GAO report, state officials identified four specific features of the Project Impact program as being most beneficial, namely the program’s funding of mitigation planning activities, development of partnerships to address mitigation needs, providing “seed money” to attract additional funding, and heightening of mitigation awareness resulting from education and outreach activities.

These efforts were all funded with relatively small grants – the total outlay over the course of five years was approximately 77 million dollars, which pales in comparison when set against the backdrop of total expenditures of over three trillion dollars. The report also pointed out that grants from the project served as one of the main funding resources for developing effective mitigation plans, which emergency managers recognize as one of the core components of a healthy disaster management program (and one of the documents required as part of a complete Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding request).

Along with hazard mitigation grants and the efforts of state and local emergency management offices, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) is a government-sponsored program that trains individuals how to protect themselves and assist their neighbors in case of emergencies, including first aid care. According to the CERT website, it began in 1985 in the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and in 1993 it was launched nationally under the auspices of FEMA (www.citizencorps.gov). It also points out that “CERT is a positive and realistic approach to emergency and disaster situations where citizens will be initially on their own and their actions can make a difference” (www.citizencorps.gov). This philosophy emphasizes individual empowerment and in that sense removes some of the pressure from the government to spearhead every response. It also encourages a spirit of independence and self-sufficiency among Americans, a concept that is firmly woven into our history as a nation. CERT currently exists under the umbrella of the Citizen Corps, an organization designed to “help coordinate volunteer activities that will make our communities safer, stronger, and better prepared to respond to any emergency situation” (www.citizencorps.gov). One of the main initiatives centers on awareness as a key aspect. Knowing the options and best practices for protecting yourself and your family in case of a disaster is an important first step in survival.

Of course for all the positives that come with a more active public, there are some difficulties associated with an increased level of local and private-sector involvement. In 2007 the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management published an article by Ira Sharkansky titled “Local Autonomy, Non-Governmental Service Providers and Emergency Management: An Israeli Case” which touches on the difficulties in coordination when there are a multitude of providers working in the same emergency. Sharkansky points out that there is a great deal of debate currently about whether the idea of creative and tailored approaches to emergency management on a local level results in a major loss of efficiency and oversight. The main issue with this problem stems from a lack of concrete data since much of the emergency management field is still run with the command-and-control mindset in place. Sharkansky presents an interesting contrast to most American studies, since there are some integral differences between the Israeli style of governance and management and that of the United States. Differences such as a longer history of government dependence and the potential for the military to be involved in civilian functions in case of national emergency are possibly significant divergences between the EM fields in each of the countries. However, even with these contrasts there is still a great deal of information that can be drawn from their experience. One portion of Sharkansky’s article particularly echoed common comments about American emergency management: “Israel, like numerous other countries, now functions with a wide dispersion of authority. Local governments have increased responsibilities.”

Inherently connected to a dispersion of authority comes a lack of standardization in quality of work, and differing views on the appropriateness or effectiveness of any given practice. Sharkansky also comments on an issue that every EM specialist should take to heart: “During normal times, the array of service providers may operate with an acceptable degree of competence, despite oversight that is weaker in practice than formally required. As shown by Israel’s experience in 2006, however, a rapidly developing and protracted emergency can bring these service providers to the point of breakdown.”

That is exactly the reason why an active and open relationship between the government and non-profits or businesses is so crucial: without regular testing and practice, all the arrangements and memoranda of understanding are worthless. Excessive rigidity in a system designed to deal with the chaos of an emergency is a formula for the failure of that system. The United States had a similar example of this with Hurricane Katrina, and although a great deal of study has gone into preventing the mistakes of the past, there are still many questions about how we will actually have changed in the future.

“Emergency Contracting Strategies for Federal Projects” by John Jeffrey and Cindy Menches discusses the ways in which government contracting during emergencies differs from the normal contracting process, and which strategies are available under various circumstances. When compared to the fallout from the events in Israel mentioned above, it becomes clear that the United States has just as much work ahead of it to refine and reconsider existing emergency contracting processes. The creation of frameworks, memoranda of understanding, or professional networks is all laudable, but even the best-laid plans cannot cover every contingency. This is where clear guidelines for emergency purchases come into play. Jeffrey and Menches discuss the possible reasons behind the chaotic application of contracting in response to Katrina, some of which may have stemmed from an incomplete knowledge of Federal Acquisition Regulation, the materials which guide government purchasing. While there is some flexibility built into the system for emergencies, it may not have been obvious to the people authorizing contracts, and so a more casual approach was taken at times, causing problems later since there was a significant lack of documentation. The unacceptably disorganized responses to Hurricane Katrina “highlight a general unfamiliarity [on the part of contract officers] with emergency contracting procedures—and the flexibility built into the FAR to accommodate emergencies.”

The Federal Acquisitions Regulation System was put in place to make sure that federal contracts are awarded in a fair and fiscally responsible fashion, and it provides guidelines for how to accomplish that. The bidding process can be extremely time-consuming, and so is not the best way to handle time-sensitive purchase. This is where the flexibility of FAR comes into play. “Many of these contracting flexibilities do not require an official emergency declaration or designation of contingency operation and, therefore, can be used in a wide variety of situations as long as the specified conditions are met.”

Although still requiring documentation to back up the reasoning behind choosing a given contractor, the easing of restrictions provides a very reasonable option for these situations. Another course is to put in place pre-positioned or existing contracts for situations that possess a reasonable amount of likelihood. Jeffrey and Menches also note, “Through the use of contracts that have been previously competitively bid, agencies can ensure a quick response that is also cost effective,” meeting the expectations of the public that even in situations where rapid decisions are necessary, the government is still being prudent with cash reserves. The Government Accounting Office puts it very succinctly: “The fact that disasters, such as hurricanes, are not entirely predictable must not be an excuse for poor contracting practices.”

As part of an assessment of how contracting was handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the General Services Administration, the GAO delivered some fairly harsh (though apparently not undeserved) criticism about their processes in this instance. These contract openings generally included tasks such as debris removal and building renovation, but in one case ten million dollars were spent working on a building that was sheltering a total of six people when the operation was closed. In providing concrete examples of where lines of communication failed, the GAO outlined several shortcomings in the coordination among government agencies and their utilization of private businesses in the response effort. These communication difficulties continued with the changes in contracting officers and resulting lack of oversight. The GAO found instances where a new contracting officer had taken on an existing role, but was not properly briefed and so was unable to make effective decisions. It would be difficult to believe that these issues are restricted to the particular case of Hurricane Katrina – it seems much more likely that they are indicative of an ongoing problem that must be addressed. Such problems also suggest that a less centralized approach may be worth investigating, as some of the failures could have been prevented by an increased amount on authority for the people actually on the ground during a disaster.

When it comes to emergency response in the United States, we as a nation possess groups of extremely dedicated and oftentimes very experienced personnel, both in volunteer positions and at various levels of government. The key to moving forward and continuously improving our abilities is to push for a greater sense of cooperation and coordination between the public and private sectors, including the sharing of expertise and resources. There are many parts of the field that need work and with limited resources it can often be difficult to accomplish everything, but we are also known for our innovation and thought leadership. In order to overcome the challenges the field currently faces, we must be willing to give the people trying to improve our processes the freedom to make changes. One of the crucial adjustments must be an honest assessment of current funding arrangements, especially in light of the fact that important programs are not always the ones that get flashy media attention. Without an accurate breakdown of costs in some sort of comprehensive approach, we will not be able to determine whether taxpayer funds are being directed to where they are most needed. It may very well be that most protection funds are being applied to projects that are well worth the cost of highly specialized employees, but it is difficult to take such an assertion on trust when the actual numbers are not available. Another major consideration should be the possibility of returning to a Project Impact-style funding opportunity that encourages communities to take control of their own preparedness. People prefer to have a say in what happens to them, and the coordination of efforts between the government and the public offers a sense of control over situations that can be exceedingly chaotic. All in all there are currently glimpses of how safe and secure we can make our country, but it is up to emergency management officials and average Americans alike to make those necessary changes happen.

 

Rebecca Hoog is currently working on her master’s degree in emergency and disaster management from American Military University. She received her BA from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2007, majoring in British and American literature.