Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Report from Emmittsburg, MD

FEMA Director W. Craig Fugate was the opening speaker for the All-Hazards Higher Education Conference. He spoke to the 400 or so emergency managers, first responders and academics attending this year’s conference in Emmittsburg, MD. There had been speculation whether President Obama would pull FEMA out from under the Department of Homeland Security, however he and Secretary Napolitano are convinced FEMA should remain under DHS.

Director Fugate is a former paramedic/firefighter who most recently headed the Florida Division of Emergency Management. He has only been on the job officially for a month not leaving him much time to develop a vision for his new agency.

His comments did not really address the purpose of the conference, namely the advancement of professionalism in emergency management through higher education. The Director believes instead of elaborate emergency management systems, the best way to respond to future emergencies is to change people’s behaviors. People react to crisis and disasters in certain ways based on their culture. The director feels the key is to get people to be better prepared and to evacuate when it becomes necessary. He believes that Americans in general are not prepared.

The research material on disaster sociology and psychology tend not to support this view. Behavior is not governed by preparation but rather by resources and cultural factors. If you have the resources to evacuate you will and if you don’t you tend to remain in place.

He did bring up the concept of getting children to understand the need to be prepared and that may provided some needed impetus to parents who don’t have a family emergency plan in place.

Overall, the friction between homeland security and emergency management continues to go on without any near-term resolution. Academic institutions continue to struggle with what it means to produce a emergency management/homeland security professional. There are over 100 colleges and universities that offer courses, certificates, and degrees in emergency management. The curriculums vary but all tend to focus on the basics of mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. The problem is there are few primary sources of information to create courses and textbooks. Many of the titles in publication today tend to previous works and repeat older studies. There is a great need to support and foster more research particularly in the area of recovery.

The unspoken challenge, in my opinion, is not teaching students the basic concepts but making sure they have requisite coursework in ancillary fields. For instance, knowing how to create and practice an emergency management plan is important but students also need to understand laws, logistics, budget managements, risk analysis, technology, and resource management. Many of the degree programs already address these skills however there isn’t as much discussion regarding appropriate courses or textbooks to insure students are receiving relevant coursework.

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