FEMA: The "Whole" can be greater than the sum of its parts FEMA's Whole Community initiative is a way of doing business, or maybe more accurately, it is a recognition of how we have to do business
By Dr. Jeff Rubin
I'll put the disclaimers up front: This is not a sponsored column, I'm not under the influence, and we're (probably) still in the same universe. Why am I pointing this out? Because I write not to bury a FEMA initiative, but to praise it.
It has become difficult for emergency managers to see FEMA policy documents as anything except (mostly unfunded) mandates, but it's worth suspending the reflexive resistance long enough to look at this one.
Despite the document appearance and a whole bunch of policy references, FEMA's Whole Community initiative is not a mandate. It's a way of doing business, or maybe it's more accurate to say that it's a recognition of how we have to do business.
Preparedness as a whole is not seeing much improvement, and simply telling people how to prepare is no more effective than it used to be. More to the point, if we're effective, community engagement is as much a part of what we do as equipment checks, but less formulaic. Particularly at the local level, we rely on our communities for our budgets as well as non-fiscal support.
We know that we can do our jobs better if people trust us, and it's a two-way street. Given that budgets are pretty thin these days, what are the alternatives?
The Whole Communities approach represents domestic application of some international work as well as a clear policy direction from FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. The original working paper, released in January 2011, was based in part on community-resilience initiatives in the UK and elsewhere, but also drew focus from the first of four initiatives listed in FEMA's four-year Strategic Plan: "Foster a whole community approach to emergency management nationally." All of this, in turn, is consistent with incorporating community-based preparedness, as stated in Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8, National Preparedness).
The process behind the published product was led by three senior FEMA managers: David Kaufman, Office of Policy and Program Analysis director; Paulette Aniskoff, Individual and Community Preparedness director; and Donald "Doc" Lumpkins, National Planning Coordination and Assistance Branch chief.
In the 11 months between the release of the original working paper and that of the public policy document, the three oversaw creation of a Core Group of approximately 60 members, who provided broad representation of geography; urban, suburban and rural providers; every level of government; and private and non-profit sectors, as well as professions related to the five core missions from the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review: terrorism prevention/protection, border security, immigration regulation, cyberspace security and disaster resilience.
The Core Group provided input on multiple drafts as well as potential case studies in application of the principles represented by the initiative. Between their input and responses from solicitations at major meetings and through professional organizations, the Whole Community team received a few hundred comments.
The series of changes through multiple drafts made it obvious that input was incorporated, but some overarching strategic themes have remained at the Whole Communities core.
- Understand community complexity: We tend to assign "communities" based on our perception or even convenience, rather than how the groups we refer to see themselves, which makes as much sense as citing a monolithic "emergency management community." Do you know your communities' "DNA"? How do they define themselves? Demography? Geography? Ethnicity? Religion? Where their kids go to school? Whose football jersey they wear? How do they organize their social activities?
- Recognize community capabilities and needs: Many of us see our communities as consumers of our services, but have you looked at them as resources? How do you assess community resilience?
- Foster relationships with community leaders: One of the elements of the initial working paper that grabbed me was the recognition that "trust-building" exercises, long a clichéd favorite of "progressive" policies, are more oxymoronic than effective. As with preparedness, there are no shortcuts to building trust; it's a gradual progression involving more than public speaking and preparedness events.
- Build and maintain partnerships: This has been an enabling process of emergency management as long as emergency management has existed. We know that "big tents" isn't just an election-year bromide. Who's under your tent?
- Empower local action: Who's leading whom? There are plenty of emergency managers and other professionals who've recognized that you don't always have to be in the driver's seat to make it to your destination.
- Leverage and strengthen social infrastructure, networks and assets: This is an application of knowing your communities' DNA. How are needs addressed on a daily basis? Understanding that gives you a good idea of how to address needs in a disaster.
Full disclosure: I was part of the Core Group and glad of it, but that's not why I'm writing this. From the time, as I read the working paper on a listserv, I was struck by the combination of cogent writing, realistic concepts and the incorporation of the right amount of (and just the right) sociology (still not making this up).
I also noticed how well this fit with my agency's goals, and not just in emergency preparedness. This is the way we need to do business.