All disasters are local … and the IMATs are at the other end.

FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team

An emergency is a situation requiring immediate action to protect life and property.  All jurisdictions have law enforcement, fire department and medical service that respond to emergencies on a daily basis.  A larger incident is met with a larger response.  When a county needs assistance, they turn to the state governor.  When the state needs assistance, they turn to the President and Federal government.  The President turns to FEMA to handle the situation.  FEMA turns to the IMATs to lead the response.

The National IMATs are the last stop as there is nobody next in line to turn to take the lead.  The National IMATs prepare and exercise for the largest, most complex, and nastiest disasters that may impact the states and territories.  The National IMAT is a team of about 30 people.  Each is an experienced expert in their respective areas and expected to take their place the co-lead of that function.  Remember, even when a state is completely overwhelmed, the state governor and the state emergency manager is still responsible.

The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution keeps power to the states that is not specifically granted to the Federal government.  The state Governor remains the final authority in a disaster. A presidential declaration is really an acknowledgement that federal resources will be made available to the Governor to support the state’s response to the disaster.  POTUS and FEMA are not there to lead the response.  This is a commonly misunderstood fact.  A governor can (and does) restrict what the federal government can do during a response. When the Governor doesn’t want to pay the cost share, then FEMA can’t do it.

The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (S.3721) requires the FEMA administrator to “develop a national emergency management system capable of responding to catastrophic incidents” and “each Regional Administrator to establish multi-agency strike teams to respond to disasters, including catastrophic incidents”.  This led to the creation of the Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMATs).  Each FEMA region maintains at least one IMAT.  Three additional National IMATs are maintained by FEMA headquarters.

The three National IMAT names refer to their primary office location, not their geographic coverage.  They are East 1, East 2 and West.  The primary on-call team is expected to respond in two hours and be on the ground in twelve hours.  The secondary on-call team has a 48-hour respond time.  The third team is off-call.  When a team deploys, the other two team take a step up so there is always an on-call team.

FEMA is mandated to respond to presidential declarations through the process established by the Stafford Act.  An IMAT typically responds at the direction of the FEMA administrator and the President.  Note, there precedents where FEMA has been engaged for non-Stafford Act declarations.