Disaster Response in the United States

Response to emergencies and disasters for the protection of life, health, safety, and the preservation of property is a government responsibility. In the United States, governors, not the president, are primarily responsible for the health and welfare of their respective citizens, and they possess broad “police powers” that include the various legal authorities to order evacuations, commandeer private property, require quarantine, and take other actions to protect public safety. Emergency response is carried out by local government entities within their defined jurisdictions (e.g., towns, cities, and counties). State governments coordinate needs identified by local governments with resources available at either the state or federal level.

In this chapter, the evolution of emergency and disaster management in the United States is discussed, and an overview of disaster response as currently practiced in this country is provided.

Historical perspective

The Early Years: 1776 to 1945

The first recorded involvement of the federal government in disaster response dates to 1803, when the state of New Hampshire requested funding assistance after a series of devastating fires.

During the ensuing 150 years, response to major emergencies and disasters by government entities above the local level can only be characterized as reactive. Typically, a significant event would occur, outside resources would arrive from neighboring communities, and the event would be contained. Recovery operations were often slow, prompting requests to state governments for economic assistance. Only when the state was unable or unwilling to assist these local communities would the federal government become involved. At that point, federal legislation was often required to authorize the expenditure of supplemental funds to assist the state and community involved.

Certain disasters occurred with greater frequency than others did, and when the frequency and severity of these events became significant enough to draw national attention, Congress would establish an office or agency to address them. Thus during the first half of the twentieth century, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was established to make disaster loans after certain types of disasters. The Bureau of Public Roads provided funding for transportation infrastructure damage. The Flood Control Act, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greater authority to implement flood control projects, was also passed. This uncontrolled and disorganized approach remained in effect until after World War II.

Civil Defense Era: 1945 to 1974

Although during World War II, sporadic coastal watch groups and other organizations were established in various locales for protection against possible invasion or attack, the development of modern emergency management began in the 1950s, with the passage of two pieces of federal legislation : the Civil Defense Act, aimed at funding initiatives that prepared for civil defense against enemy attack (shelter programs and packaged disaster hospitals), and the Disaster Relief Act, which provided funds to state and local governments for rebuilding damage to public infrastructure.

During the 1950s and much of the 1960s, civil defense from enemy attack was a federal government priority, as exemplified by the threat from nuclear attack during the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, state and local governments were contending with significant natural disasters, such as the Alaskan Earthquake in 1964 and Hurricanes Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969. Federal funding for civil defense greatly outweighed that provided for natural disasters, and federal requirements prohibited the use of civil defense funds for either preparedness or response to natural disasters.

In addition, research and guidelines for disaster response started to appear. Severe wildfires in Southern California in the early 1970s gave rise to the congressional-funded project, Firefighting Resources Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE), which developed the Incident Management System (IMS) concept. The first standards for disaster management were authored by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and were aimed at health care facility preparedness (J. Kerr, personal communication, 2000). The “first assessment” of disaster research occurred in 1975, and it summarized the findings of the disaster research community.

Coordinating State and Federal Response: 1974 to 2001

In the early 1970s, the National Governor’s Association (NGA) called for streamlining the fragmentation of federal civil defense and disaster assistance programs. In 1974, Congress passed the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which unified federal funding of civil defense and disaster assistance programs. In 1979, President Carter established the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to serve as the overall executive branch coordination agency for disaster response. Parallel efforts at the state level resulted in the establishment of either a state emergency management agency or the assignment of similar coordination functions to other offices, such as the Adjutant General of the State National Guard.

The creation of FEMA and promulgation of various executive orders during the 1970s and 1980s improved overall federal response, but in general, authorities and responsibilities remained confusing and, on occasion, contentious. In an attempt to resolve many of these conflicts and promote a coordinated approach to disaster response, the Federal Response Plan (FRP) was developed to serve as the principal organizational guide for defining the roles and responsibilities of 26 federal member agencies and the American Red Cross, which are charged with the delivery of national-level emergency assistance during major crises. Although revised several times, the FRP did not solve all response and coordination problems and, in reaction to various disasters, additional federal plans were developed, including the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan (FRERP) and the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan, more commonly referred to as the National Contingency Plan (NCP). These various plans were often at odds with other plans, resulting in confusion as to which plan should be used if criteria were met for more than one.

Problems other than coordination continued. One example was the often-significant delay in the arrival of state and federal response resources. To obviate this, a number of states entered into compacts with other specific states to provide limited services across state lines during disasters. These agreements were most often used for wildland firefighting resources in the Midwestern and Western United States. The National Governors’ Association (NGA) successfully lobbied Congress to enact the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) legislation, the first significant alteration to the model state civil defense legislation passed in the 1950s. This legislation established a template for state-to-state resource sharing during disaster response.

Thus, by the turn of the century, the framework existed at the state and federal levels for coordinated response and recovery operations to disasters caused by nature or as the result of technological mishaps. Unfortunately, a new threat loomed that would again result in a major revision of the approach to disaster management.

New Millennium, New Threats: Post-2001

Terrorism arrived in the United States in the 1990s, with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, followed by the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Internationally, terrorist organizations were growing in numbers, and terrorist acts were becoming more lethal. In addition to conventional weapons, these organizations were using chemical, biological, and radiological agents to cause greater harm, and they were turning these threats against civilians as well as the political or industrial figures attacked in the past. The Aum Shinrikyo religious sect used the nerve agent sarin unsuccessfully against several magistrates in Japan in 1994, and, in the following year, successfully attacked passengers in a Tokyo subway station. Aum Shinrikyo also attempted, unsuccessfully, to weaponize botulinum toxin. In 1995, Chechen rebels directed a reporter to a park in central Moscow, where she found a package containing 15 kg of explosives and cesium-137. U.S. interests were increasingly under attack overseas, evidenced by dual embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, which were followed by the maritime attack on the destroyer USS Cole .

These events drew the attention of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Under the Clinton administration (1992-2000), a series of executive orders, referred to as Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs), were promulgated, and a number of federal statutes were enacted, to improve the defensive posture of and to protect the United States and its citizens against terrorist attacks. Several new offices and programs were established in federal agencies, including in the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Defense. The most significant legislation was the Defense against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, commonly referred to as the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici legislation. One of the act’s many purposes was to provide resources for equipment and the training of local response personnel for mitigating a weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) incident.

These initiatives, while significant, proved insufficient to prevent the terrorist attacks that totally destroyed three World Trade Center buildings in New York, significantly damaged the Pentagon, and resulted in nearly 3000 deaths on September 11, 2001. One month later, weaponized Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores were distributed through the U.S. mail system, resulting in 11 deaths and another 11 infected persons. In combination, these events resulted in some of the greatest restructuring of the federal government since its inception.

Current concepts of disaster response

The terrorist events of 2001 sent shock waves throughout the U.S. government. New legislation was introduced in the first three months after the attacks that surpassed all antiterrorism legislation of the previous decade. President Bush, who had been recently elected, issued new and revised executive orders, now termed Homeland Security Presidential Directives, which called for changes in executive branch agencies to meet the current threat of terrorism. Funding to fight the “global war on terrorism” at home and abroad, beyond massive expenditures needed to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increased by a full order of magnitude.

To understand the current emergency management system in the United States, first it is important to realize that all levels of government have certain roles and responsibilities in mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, and that various government entities have different functions in preparedness and response. Regardless of the government level, however, the designated emergency management agency is responsible for day-to-day coordination of mitigation and preparedness activities involving agencies and organizations at that level and for synchronization of these agencies during response and recovery phases. The designated emergency management agency also serves as the focal point for hierarchical coordination between local, state, and federal response agencies.

Local Level Emergency Management

Because there are subordinate jurisdictions within each state that are usually established by geographic boundaries, local emergency management may occur at the city, township, borough, county, or (in some states) parish level. Largely, the attention given to emergency and disaster preparedness and response will be dictated by the overall population within the jurisdiction, actual or perceived threats to the area, and population concentration. Ultimately, however, emergency management comes down to funding.

Regardless of the type of jurisdiction, an executive/managerial official will be in charge of emergency management operations. This official may be the community safety official, the fire chief, or the police chief. It is this individual’s responsibility to form a multicratic organizational model within the community that brings together the disparate response and recovery organizations, including entities such as hazardous materials teams, fire services, law enforcement agencies, public works departments, and city, county, or district health departments.

State-Level Emergency Management

All 50 states and the 6 territories have emergency management agencies that fall under the executive branch of the state government. In most cases, these agencies either are independent entities or increasingly are incorporated into the agency responsible for the state’s National Guard. State Emergency Management Agencies (SEMAs) are responsible for standards and the training, oversight, and guidance of emergency management organizations at lower jurisdictional levels; coordination with other state-level agencies and organizations in their preparedness and planning activities; and the administration and distribution of state or federal funds earmarked for emergency management. In some states, disaster-related organizations, such as the state emergency medical service(s) (EMS) office, are part of the SEMA, but this subordinate organization is by no means uniform across the states.

During response and recovery operations, SEMAs usually provide overall operations and support at state-level emergency operations centers, provide liaison personnel to federal coordinating officers (the on-scene federal emergency manager), receive requests for assistance from local Emergency Management Agencies (EMAs), and provide state-level resources (both personnel and material) and expertise to local emergency managers.

In addition to its own resources, a state could request outside assistance from other states that are EMAC signatories. Initially, few states signed on to this agreement, but in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, many states rushed in, enabling statutes through their legislatures. As of 2014, all states and four territories have approved these compacts. Under an EMAC, an affected state may request material resources and personnel from a signatory state. If available, the assisting state will provide those resources, with the understanding that the requesting state will provide appropriate legal coverage from assisting personnel and will reimburse the assisting state for resources used. Depending on the actual wording and annexes of individual EMACs, such resources could include the National Guard or medical personnel who are not state employees. A number of states, particularly in the Northeast, have also signed international EMACs with provinces in Canada, to allow resource sharing.

Federal-Level Emergency Management

With the rare exception of a disaster that meets the criteria of a national security event, coordinated federal response to disasters usually does not occur unless the governor of the affected state requests a presidential declaration of a national disaster, which then must be approved. However, each federal agency that could be involved in disaster response is still able to exercise its autonomy and respond directly to a request for assistance outside this coordinated federal response. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency could provide expert assistance during clean-up operations from an oil spill that did not meet national emergency thresholds. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could mobilize one of its Epidemiological Investigative Service teams to assist in the evaluation and containment of a contagious disease outbreak. Under these circumstances, however, the funding stream to reimburse the agencies would fall outside that which is established for presidential declarations and may have to come through either state or agency resources. The Department of Defense (DoD) is a notable exception to this. A number of specific statutes preclude autonomous response of DoD forces to disasters, beyond local events that would affect military establishments in the jurisdictional area.

Department of Homeland Security

Because of its pivotal role in overall federal-level emergency management, the current organization and functions of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are important to understand. Initially, DHS was authorized to serve an advisory role to the president; however, a shift toward the concept of “Homeland Security” evolved, and, through congressional efforts, DHS became the federal entity focused exclusively on this issue. In November 2002, the president signed into law H.R. 5005, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the DHS as a cabinet-level executive agency. DHS consolidated 22 agencies and 180,000 employees (now almost 250,000) and unified many federal functions into a single agency dedicated to protecting the United States. Agencies under the DHS include the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and FEMA. FEMA’s traditional role as the lead coordinating agency for all disaster response in the United States continues, but under the oversight of DHS. The secretary of DHS was given extraordinary powers, including the authorization to initiate a federal response under the Stafford Act, without prior consultation with the president under certain exigencies.

DHS has expanded from its original 4 primary directorates, and it is now organized at the headquarters level, into 14 different subordinate directorates, offices, and components, plus a supporting, management directorate. Additionally, it exercises operational control over seven independent federal organizations, the most important of which from a disaster management perspective are the U.S. Coast Guard and FEMA, the latter of which has absorbed many of the functions of the original Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate.

All responses to disasters and emergencies that reach the threshold for a presidential declaration of a national disaster fall under the coordination purview of DHS. Under these circumstances, FEMA is the primary operational arm of DHS in executing response and recovery initiatives, and it does so within the framework of two documents, the National Response Framework and the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

On February 28, 2003, the president issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive #5 to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents. To implement this directive, the secretary of DHS directed that a single, integrated federal Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) be developed. The resultant National Response Plan (NRP) paralleled the earlier FRP in format and linked the following hazard-specific EOPs:

  • FRP

  • U.S. Government Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan


  • Mass migration response plans

  • National Contingency Plan

As further evolution of the shared responsibilities between local, state, and federal response agencies ensued, and as shortcomings in the NRP were highlighted by such catastrophic events as Hurricane Katrina, a shift in the focus of the overall response plan was deemed necessary by DHS leadership. With this shift of focus, the NRP was reissued as the National Response Framework (NRF), and as with its predecessor documents, under the NRF, FEMA serves as the overall coordinator for federal support. However, under the NRF construct, support is considered to fall within 15 different Emergency Support Functions (ESFs), which are listed in Table 13-1 . Because resources and expertise in these various functions may exist within multiple federal agencies, each ESF response is coordinated by an ESF coordinating agency: a primary agency, which is usually the same as the coordinating agency, and a number of secondary (supporting) agencies. The NRF also identifies a number of support annexes, covering a range of topics from critical infrastructure protection to public affairs, and seven incident-specific annexes focused on events that present unique national challenges. These incident annexes include nuclear/radiological and biological incidents, mass evacuation situations, and others. The DHS continues to develop additional publications and tools to assist emergency management entities, both in preparedness and response. For example, one challenge identified during response activities was ensuring that all response organizations had a common understanding of the capabilities of response resources, and that the right capability resource was requested and provided. These issues were addressed by the development of the Target Capabilities List, which identifies 36 discrete response capabilities and embedded “Universal Task Lists” that identify discrete tasks to be accomplished to specific standards.

Aug 25, 2019 | Posted by in EMERGENCY MEDICINE | Comments Off on Disaster Response in the United States
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