My thoughts on Craig Fugate’s IAEM Keynote

It is always a pleasure to hear Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator, talk at conferences.  He has a no nonsense approach that is a breath of fresh air.  Fugate is not afraid to speak his mind and talk openly.  This write up is based on his keynote address at the International Association of Emergency Managers conference in November 2010.  You can view the blow by blow reporting by searching for #IAEM on Twitter.

At the IAEM conference, Craig Fugate made a point that has really stuck with me.  I would tag it as a perspective changer.  It isn’t a radical change that requires a huge effort to agree with, it only requires a person to look at something from another point of view.  Granted it can be easier to move mountains then change some people’s perspectives, and then implementation is a whole other step.

Fugate said: ADA is not an architectural issue.  ADA is a civil rights issue.  We tell people who come to our shelters that they can’t stay in this shelter.  They need to go to another shelter where they can be served.  It is an equal shelter, but separate.  Separate but equal.  Separate but equal.  Separate but equal was struck down by the US Supreme Court more than five decades ago.  First in the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and again in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separate_but_equal)

People with disabilities do not like the term special needs.  Terminology is a whole thing into itself.  When a group of people doesn’t want to be referred to by a specific term and request that another term is used; we need to respect that.  The challenge may come when an organization serving that population has stacks of documents that need regular updating and review to ensure the correct lexicon is being used.

Fugate underscored a couple of times during his keynote that we have a Federal Government and not a National Government.  In a federal system, most of the power rests with the states and localities.  State constitutions should be reviewed by EM to understand what rights, authorities and responsibilities the state has in responding to disasters, evacuations and other key actions.  It is a high school civics lesson that needs re-teaching.  Fugate said we tend to be government centric in solving problems.  Few people are included in the problem solving because government likes to create structure from chaos.  This is easiest when fewer people are included because it gives the illusion of more control, when in reality that is far from the truth.

Many emergency operation plans have planned for easy stated Fugate.  The plans do not include children, frail, elderly, poor and people with disabilities.  Anyone that is actually considered is relegated to an annex.  Why is this?  Emergency planning needs to be based on the entirety of the population being served.  The plans needs to address the population in the core of the plan.  Don’t plan for the easy, plan for all.  To do this properly will require the engagement of the population.  The perspective changer here is that emergency managers will need to stop looking at the public as a liability and instead as a resource.  They know what they have, want and need.  Following a disaster, survivors will share information faster than official sources whether EM likes it or not.  Fugate said adjust to the public or isolate yourself more.  He also pointed out that EMs must be representative of the population they serve, then drove it home by stating the IAEM conference is a mostly gray group of people – referring to their hair color.  More youth and diversity is needed in EM to reach communities in the way they want to be reached.

Success or failure of a disaster response in the first few hours and days rests with the local responders.  The true first responders are the bystanders and survivors themselves.  Therefore, the public needs to be engaged as part of the solution.  Fugate said the public’s expectation of disaster response is set for Utopia, and we need to ratchet that down a couple notches.  It is unrealistic for survivors of a massively catastrophic events to expect to be taken care of.  These events are called MOM, or Maximum of Maximums.  Fugate regularly states that the private sector needs to be part of the solution, that the public needs to be part of the solution, and that FEMA is just one member of an emergency response team.  A response needs to be built on the capacity of the whole community.

Fugate was asked a question about NIMS and ICS.  His response captured the attention of the audience.  He said that he inherited NIMS.  It isn’t the way he would have designed it, nor was it worked on by any of his leadership team or approved by legal counsel.  Then he topped it off with the statement that emergency management is about communications and networking, not tools and processes.  ICS is a tool, not a religion Fugate said.  This brought a loud round of applause from the audience.

Were you there?  Did I forget a point?  Let me know.