Regionalizing Emergency Management: Counties as State and Local Government

By Waugh, William L., Jr. | Public Administration Review, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

Regionalizing Emergency Management: Counties as State and Local Government


Waugh, William L., Jr., Public Administration Review


Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, and Iniki and the Loma Prieta earthquake are still having profound impacts on the national emergency management system. The failures to prepare and respond adequately to these emergencies may well lead to fundamental reform of the system. The U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs has been holding hearings on the reauthorization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has borne much of the criticism for the recent failures. In 1992, Congress commissioned a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) study of the national emergency management system and a General Accounting Office (GAO) study of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Both studies focused on improving federal executive leadership, transferring resources from FEMA's national security and civil defense programs to its natural disaster programs, and building state and local capacities to manage their own emergency management systems better. States and communities, too, are reexamining their emergency management organizations and capabilities.

This analysis examines the emergency management function in terms of its fit within the emerging roles of county government in the United States. The thesis is that county governments may in fact be the most logical and hospitable hosts for emergency management agencies because of their unique roles in state and local governance. Indeed, county governments are the most appropriate and effective vehicles for regionalizing policy making and program administration in a variety of functional areas, as well as emergency management.

In fact, the NAPA report recognized the crucial roles of county governments in implementing and maintaining emergency management programs and pointed out the uneven state and local government commitment to emergency management and limited capacity to design and administer programs (1993; pp. 82-88). GAO (1993) focused on the problem of bringing federal resources to bear when state and local government and volunteer agency capacities are overwhelmed. GAO recommended improvements in the damage assessment process and in state and local capacities (pp. 6-12), as well as in the structure and function of FEMA. Both NAPA and GAO recognized the need for sustained federal action to build state and local capacities to handle such events.

In response to the NAPA and GAO studies and recent congressional hearings, the sponsors of S.995, the "Federal Disaster Preparedness and Response Act of 1993," sought to reorganize FEMA and to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5131) to (1) authorize federal agencies to be more proactive in preparing for anticipated disasters; (2) clarify federal, state, and local government and private organization roles in disaster preparedness and response; (3) create an accessible inventory of disaster response resources; (4) manage private agency and volunteer participation; (5) assist state and local officials in assessing damage and requesting federal aid; and (6) improve state and local government capacities (including financial incentives for state compliance).

The Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs scheduled hearings on S.995 for the fall of 1993 (Glenn, 1993). The principal goal was to designate a lead agency with the capacity to ensure communication between the President and governors and effective interaction among emergency management agencies at all levels. The major question was whether a reformed Federal Emergency Management Agency can fulfill those responsibilities. The logical next question was whether similar reforms could encourage better communication and interaction among state and load emergency management agencies, including governors' offices. That is the question addressed here. Brief overviews of emergency management and county government will provide the context for the managements for central roles for counties in state and local emergency management. …

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