Since the failed response to hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Department of Homeland Security has been fighting a pitched battle to restore the American people’s faith and confidence that it can prepare for, manage and respond to disasters and terrorist attacks like an integrated, effective, well-managed enterprise.

The department’s latest effort came on Aug. 3 when it brought out Secretary Janet Napolitano, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Craig Fugate, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge for a round of keynote speeches promoting public-private partnerships at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Lauded as the first ever national conference on public-private partnerships for building national resiliency, the event quickly focused on FEMA’s ongoing performance, the decision to bring FEMA under the DHS management umbrella, and the role of state, local and private sector enterprises in responding to disasters.

“There was a little bit of controversy when we set up the DHS about whether or not we should bring FEMA in,” said Ridge. “Ultimately, we made the right decision. If you didn’t have FEMA [in the DHS] you would need to create one,” he said. Ridge added, however, that the “government is incapable of responding to its maximum ability without the private sector.”

Both Napolitano and Fugate acknowledged that there are limits to what the federal government, particularly the DHS, can do on its own to help communities respond to and recover from disasters. State and local agencies must think regionally about disaster preparedness, and must actively work with local retail stores and other private companies to prepare response and recovery plans, they said.

“It’s very nice to say we have great public-private partnerships,” said Napolitano. “The real challenge is to actually do it.” As part of its effort to encourage partnerships, the DHS has elevated the Private Sector Division to an assistant secretary level, Napolitano said.

But FEMA has reengineered everything from how it coordinates with the private sector to how it briefs the President of the United States, said Fugate. FEMA works directly with a consortium of private companies that pays for a representative to work in FEMA’s emergency operations center, he said.

“They’re part of our team,” said Fugate. “As issues are occurring, they’re working with all the companies in that consortium to give them the information in real time, and also working on how to get data feeds back and forth so we have better interoperability.”

Illustrating the extent to which FEMA has changed the way it operates, Fugate said FEMA’s most recent hurricane season briefing to the president involved not only state and county emergency managers, but the CEO of Verizon Wireless. “We briefed it the way it works,” he said.

“There’s a continued maturity. They’ve built greater redundancy,” said Ridge. “You have much closer and better communication with the [private] sector. I think it’s a much stronger agency and it’s where it needs to be.”

Marko Bourne, the former director of FEMA Policy and Program Analysis who led the integration of the DHS Preparedness Directorate into FEMA, credits the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act for better integrating FEMA into DHS. But Bourne, who is now a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, said the new fiscal environment will require new and more creative ideas moving forward.

“Agencies are feeling the pressure to prioritize,” said Bourne. “In particular, now that grants are diminishing across the federal government, even more emphasis must be placed on joint planning, training and exercises,” he said. “As for future workforce issues, there is a recognized need to further regionalize preparedness responsibilities. The workforce must be aligned properly to make that happen.”

FEMA has reengineered everything from how it coordinates with the private sector to how it briefs the President of the United States -according to Craig Fugate, current FEMA Adminstrator

Charlotte Franklin, Deputy Coordinator for Resiliency, Preparedness and Partnerships at the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management in Virginia, is hopeful that DHS will increase its emphasis and grant money on recovery issues.

“We desperately need help with communication systems and technology so the private sector can communicate with emergency managers and each other about logistical issues and get situational updates as they happen immediately after an incident occurs,” she said. “This all needs to be done on the local level.”

In the real world, this merger and acquisition would have been unwound by the shareholders and board long ago.”- Michael Brown, former FEMA Administrator

But former FEMA administrator Michael Brown, who was largely blamed for the federal government’s disastrous response to hurricane Katrina, sees bigger problems, characterizing the rosy outlook of Fugate and Ridge as something akin to Stockholm syndrome – a term used in psychology to describe when hostages express empathy for their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.

“Growing DHS larger and larger doesn’t equate to better and better,” said Brown. “The DHS umbrella is really not much more than an added layer of bureaucracy on top of the legacy agencies. That’s not real integration,” said Brown. “In the real world, this merger and acquisition would have been unwound by the shareholders and board long ago.”

Fugate dismissed Brown’s criticisms and the notion that there has been a “federalization” of disaster response in the last year, during which more than 1,200 tornados were recorded and 28 states had federal disaster declarations in place simultaneously.

“During a lot of the recent tornados and floods, FEMA got there and people thought, well FEMA’s doing the response,” said Fugate. “No. The locals and the state did the response. Our role is support and recovery,” he said. “Previously, FEMA would be an island outside of the security community. We wouldn’t be part of the planning. We wouldn’t be part of the briefings. These are the kinds of things you didn’t have before the Department of Homeland Security.”

Dan Verton is an award-winning journalist, author specializing in homeland security issues and a regular contributor to Breaking Gov.

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