Disaster and Emergency Management Programs

What Is Disaster and Emergency Management?

Offices of disaster and emergency management focus on providing aid to communities and other entities with prevention, preparation, and recovery from disastrous events. In order to accomplish these tasks, those involved with emergency management work with other agencies before, during, and after disasters to coordinate services through programs developed primarily to deal with the disaster itself and its consequences. Prior to disasters, emergency management offices develop or revise emergency plans and programs and also provide training, drills, and exercises to help responding agencies prepare and be ready for disasters. During disasters, emergency management offices focus on preservation of life and property. After disasters, these offices focus on recovery through the coordination of available services and resources to return communities back to the way they were, or better than they were, before the disaster. Overall, the purpose of disaster and emergency management is to work with all parties involved to ensure safety in time of disasters. Disaster and emergency management programs have four main goals: (1) saving lives, (2) preventing injury, (3) protecting property, and (4) protecting the environment.

The Emergency Management Cycle

Effective emergency management is a continuous process, frequently discussed in terms of phases of the emergency management cycle. Although this is a convenient way to categorize the many processes and actions involved with emergency management, it must be stressed that actions in each of the phases can and often are conducted simultaneously with actions in a different phase. The five phases, with examples of actions involved, are:

  • Prevention: Create safety protocols and barriers to aid in the prevention of disasters.

    • Examples: Build dams, conduct security checks at airports and other high-profile public places.

  • Mitigation: Develop ways to minimize the negative effects of disasters.

    • Examples: Hurricane warning systems, tornado sirens, earthquake-resistant buildings, land use management, education programs.

  • Preparedness: Organize and prepare for disasters in coordination with response agencies.

    • Examples: Conduct exercises and drills, create response plans, develop memoranda of understanding between responding agencies, and establish integrated material logistical support.

  • Response: Respond to disasters to ensure safety and the protection of victims and property.

    • Examples: Search and rescue, firefighting, first aid, open shelters, law enforcement, public health.

  • Recovery: Assist communities and individuals to get things back to “normal.”

    • Examples: Clear debris, stabilize critical infrastructure, and rebuild homes.

Why Do We Need Disaster and Emergency Management Programs?

In times of disaster, important tasks are carried out by multiple agencies to assist those in need. Most agencies and first responders are able to respond and handle small-scale emergencies on their own, such as house fires and motor vehicle crashes; however, larger disasters may require coordination across multiple agencies in a jurisdiction or integration of and collaboration with multiple jurisdictions and agencies, and a coordinating body can oversee activities of all these entities.

Historical perspective

History of Disaster and Emergency Management Programs

The federal government has been assisting with disaster relief since the Congressional Act of 1803 was passed in response to a large fire in New Hampshire. From the 1800s until about the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. government response can be best characterized as reactive and primarily financial. Numerous agencies had primary responsibilities, depending on the specific type of disaster. This caused relief efforts to be more complex, complicated, and, at times, not very effective. ,

In the 1970s, following four major hurricanes (Hurricanes Carla 1962, Betsy 1965, Camille 1969, and Agnes 1972), the National Governors Association approached President Jimmy Carter and requested the development of a more centralized federal disaster relief program. In response, Executive Order 12127, establishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was issued. FEMA assumed the bulk of disaster management responsibilities. An all-hazards approach to emergency management was developed, and an Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS) was created to address disaster and emergency management and organize federal emergency management during natural and human-made disasters. ,

From the 1970s to the 1990s, FEMA continued to provide federal disaster relief under the direction of the president. To ensure that the federal government had the constitutional authority to provide disaster response, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act was signed in 1988, creating the legal framework needed for FEMA to operate.

Although there have been a number of outstanding directors of FEMA, James L. Witt, appointed in 1993 by President Clinton, was the first with prior experience in emergency management. Under his leadership, FEMA addressed other aspects of emergency management, specifically recovery and mitigation efforts. This was the first step toward federal involvement in all five phases of the emergency management cycle.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of September 11, 2001, resulted in a major turning point for FEMA. Heretofore, disaster planning had focused primarily on natural, technological, or transportation disasters. The new threat—terrorism with weapons of mass destruction—was added to the list of potential disasters. In order to be more effective in national security, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established in March of 2003. DHS absorbed FEMA as well as 21 other major disaster and emergency management and national security agencies. Some of these agencies included the following:

  • U.S. Coast Guard

  • Immigration and Naturalization Service

  • Transportation and Security Administration

  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center

  • National Disaster Medical Center (returned to Health and Human Services 2004)

  • U.S. Secret Service

The two most current pieces of legislation pertaining to FEMA were developed in 2006 and 2013. Following Hurricane Katrina, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act was created to identify and close the major gaps that FEMA identified during the response and recovery phase of this major disaster. The Act created new leadership positions in FEMA, developed new missions, and gave FEMA administration the ability to participate in a broader range of disaster and emergency management efforts. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 significantly modified public assistance procedures, debris removal, public transportation coordination, community disaster loans, and other disaster-related functions.

Current practice

Federal Programs

Community Emergency Response Team

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) were developed by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1985 to educate, prepare, and engage civilians in disaster response and preparedness. CERT members are trained in basic response and preparedness including fire safety, light search and rescue, hazard identification, and disaster medical operations. This training gives them the ability to respond to disasters in their communities and even their workplace, if the need arises. In some disaster situations, emergency responders are not always able to access all disaster areas immediately. CERTs provide valuable services until professional emergency responders can arrive. CERT members are also encouraged to take active roles in preparedness projects and plans and communicate the importance of preparedness to family, friends, and neighbors to help grow resilience.

Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster

Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is a coalition of nonprofit organizations that form teams of volunteers to assist their communities with disaster recovery and to build disaster-resilient communities. VOAD uses the four Cs—cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration—to ensure that resources and knowledge are shared, planned, and deployed properly in times of disaster.

National Preparedness System

The National Preparedness System provides an outlined process that communities can use when developing their preparedness plans. Inclusion of the “whole community” is highlighted throughout this process to help achieve National Preparedness Goals while keeping all involved entities informed. This process consists of six suggested steps:

  • Conduct a risk assessment: Where and what are the areas of risk for the community?

  • Determine resources required: What is needed to be prepared for community risks?

  • Develop required resources: What is the best way to use available resources and identify resources still needed?

  • Deliver required resources: How can we coordinate with the entire community to deliver the necessary resources?

  • Validate resources: What exercises can we conduct to practice using the plans and resources developed?

  • Regularly review and update plans: How often and what should we do to update plans and ensure that resources still exist?

Along with this six-step process, other tools and resources are provided to assist communities in developing their preparedness plans and goals.

Medical Reserve Corps

Through the Office of the Surgeon General, the Division of Civilian Medical Reserve Corps gives support to medical reserve corps (MRC) throughout the United States. An MRC consists of volunteers in the medical profession, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, and epidemiologists. Along with medical and public health personnel, interpreters, religious officials, and legal advisors are also necessary.

An MRC’s main priority is to make public health, emergency response, and community resilience stronger in their communities. During times of disaster or emergencies, MRCs work with FEMA and American Red Cross (ARC) representatives to provide medical assistance in emergency shelters, hospitals, and health clinics. They provide medical services that are not otherwise available or help alleviate the extra pressure on regular medical staff in a disaster area.

National Disaster Medical System

The National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) is a partnership among FEMA, the Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs, the U.S. Public Health Service, and civilian providers, ancillary personnel, and hospitals. NDMS provides supplemental assistance to all levels of government that have been overwhelmed by a federally declared disaster through the allocation of funds, equipment, and medical personnel that are trained to assist in any way possible, including on-site care and stabilization, patient transportation, and definitive care at remote facilities. During nondisaster times, the NDMS is authorized to assist in the treatment of service personnel returning from combat environments if the Military Healthcare System (MHS) is overwhelmed, through the Integrated CONUS (continental United States) Medical Operations Plan, or ICMOP. Under the National Response Framework, the Department of Health and Human Services has the lead for NDMS activities, which are deployed under Emergency Support Function #8 (ESF#8).

Federal Education Programs

Federal disaster and emergency management programs offer a variety of educational opportunities for students, public officials, emergency managers, and first responders. Two major educational outlets are the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP), both operated by FEMA.

EMI is physically part of the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and develops emergency management education and training curricula. The goal is to better the response capabilities of government officials, volunteers, and organizations in the public and private sector in order to mitigate the consequences of disasters. Course topics include natural and technological hazards, leadership, public information, and integrated emergency management. Students may attend classes, take courses online through the Independent Study Program, or participate in specialized training and drills like the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program.

CDP, located in Anniston, Alabama, provides hands-on training for emergency service providers at the state, local, and tribal level. They offer courses in areas ranging from Emergency Management to Emergency Medical Services to Public Health and Public Works. The CDP comprises three main training facilities. The Chemical, Ordnance, Biological and Radiological Training Facility (COBRATF) provides exercises using actual toxic chemical agents to give civilians the experience of responding to real-life chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive disasters. The Noble Training Facility (NTF) is a converted army hospital now used to train health and medical professionals in the skills necessary to respond to disasters. The Advanced Responder Training Complex (ARTC) operates a mock municipality to provide responders with a realistic training environment.

State Emergency Management

Each state has an Office of Emergency Management (usually called the State Emergency Management Agency, or SEMA) that develops disaster and emergency management programs similar to those of the federal government. Just as the federal government supplements the relief efforts of the state government, the state government supplements the relief efforts of local emergency management within the state. Typically this is done when local emergency management and responders have become overwhelmed by a disaster. SEMAs provide a link between the resources from the federal government or other in-state jurisdictions or facilitate interstate mutual aid through Emergency Management Assistance Compacts. Overall, state emergency management plays a crucial role in the assistance of local emergency management and liaison between federal and local relief.

The governor of a state has specific responsibilities for emergency management. He or she is the sole person able to request federal aid, declare disaster areas within the state, and sign mutual aid agreements.

Local Emergency Management

Depending on the structure of the local and state government, disaster and emergency management responsibilities can fall to the county or parish, city, or other predefined region. Each section of disaster and emergency management works together with emergency responders to ensure that the necessary resources are available when needed. Other roles of local emergency management offices are to conduct hazard vulnerability assessments of their communities and to coordinate all of the disaster-related resources within the community. If additional resources are required, the local emergency manager can communicate with elected leaders to request assistance from the state disaster and emergency management office.

Nongovernment Organizations

The ARC is a worldwide volunteer organization committed to helping people in need. ARC volunteers range from medical professionals to ham radio operators to mass care and feeding personnel. The ARC provides emergency shelter, food, health and mental health services, and other disaster resources and referrals to aid victims after disasters. The ARC also supports responders during recovery operations. The ARC plays a large role in disaster planning and response with all levels of the government and is part of the National Response Framework under Emergency Support Function #6 (ESF #6).

Community and Faith-Based Organizations

Organizations that work with and provide services to the community on a daily basis have gained the trust of most members of the community and therefore play a crucial role in assisting emergency management with disaster relief. Examples of community and faith-based organizations include the following:

  • Functional needs support agencies

  • Local church volunteer groups

  • Local business volunteer groups

These organizations attempt to remain operational during and after disasters to provide information to the community. Some of these organizations can also be used as safe havens during and after a disaster for those who may not have been able to evacuate or do not trust outside organizations with their care. Another way that community and faith-based organizations assist is by providing space for mass shelters, information centers, and medical care distribution centers.

University Programs

Colleges and universities have developed degree and certificate programs that focus on disaster and emergency management. Undergraduate and graduate degrees can be as general as public health or public administration with concentrations in emergency management, or as specific as counterterrorism. These programs are typically designed for students wanting to pursue a career in disaster and emergency management. (Examples can be viewed at training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/edu/collegelist/ .) Certificate programs focus on professionals wanting continuing education credits or refresher training for their current work position and duties. Most certificate programs do not require enrollment at the college or university and can typically be done online or through short courses.

Some of the skills taught in disaster and emergency management programs are the following:

  • Identifying hazards and hazard vulnerability

  • Creating emergency response plans

  • Coordinating mutual aid

  • Role of public health in emergency management

  • International emergency management

Private Sector Programs


Hospitals use Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) resources to assist with the development of surge capacity after disasters and to create preparedness plans to enhance response and community awareness. Participating hospitals are required to develop an emergency operations plan (EOP) that includes communications, safety and security, resources and assets, staff responsibilities and support activities, response procedures, and capabilities. Through skills attained as participants and the utilization of an incident management system aligned with other response organizations, hospitals are able to continue to provide the services needed for patients during and after disasters. Health care facilities also conduct certain activities in preparation for disasters, a requirement for accreditation by The Joint Commission.


Most private-sector companies, especially those that provide essential infrastructure services, have developed highly functional emergency management programs to assist with keeping their businesses operational. When a disaster happens, businesses begin their response and recovery prior to any request from emergency management. This is beneficial because services and supplies are available at a moment’s notice. In order to accomplish this, businesses create their own incident command, develop their own continuity of operations plans, and stage multiple disaster scenarios and drills.

An example of private-sector businesses participating in emergency management is the creation of emergency response teams for utility companies. Local unions are pairing with utility companies to bring in members and train them to become part of these teams. Training takes place in the classroom and the field to prepare members for the types of environments and problems they will encounter during and after disasters. For example, in Detroit, Michigan, a “storm lab” has been established to train electricians on how to properly respond to emergencies, assess damage, and use disaster-related terminology to report problems.

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Aug 25, 2019 | Posted by in EMERGENCY MEDICINE | Comments Off on Disaster and Emergency Management Programs
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