Saturday, June 19, 2010

Increasing national mass care capacity

I have been on the road the last two weeks advancing the cause of national mass care capacity, courtesy of FEMA funding and the knowledge that Florida will need to draw on this national capacity should a catastrophic event strike the state. In my humble opinion our national mass care capacity has been hindered by two significant shortfalls: a lack of mass care coordination capability at the state level and a lack of integration of mass care voluntary agencies into emergency management at all levels of government.

Providing shelter and food to survivors is the primary role of mass care in a disaster. The capacity to deliver this mass care role has traditionally been provided by the large voluntary organizations like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention. These agencies have national organizations, mobile equipment, legions of trained volunteers, and full-time staff with the expertise to marshall these resources at a disaster location in order to feed and shelter the survivors.

These organizations respond to hundreds of incidents requiring mass care support every day. My very own Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross in Tallahassee responded yesterday to a multi-unit apartment fire, and was on hand with an Emergency Response Vehicle to assist both the firefighters and affected occupants of the buildings. I donate monthly to my local Red Cross Chapter, as do many others, so that this capability will be there when needed. 

When the disaster is greater than the local capacities of the voluntary organizations, then they call on their national organizations, bringing in personnel, equipment and organizational expertise gained from multiple responses across the country. But what happens when the disaster is catastrophic, when the mass care capacity required for the event exceeds the available national resources of the voluntary agencies?

This is where the overall lack of state mass care capacity comes in.  If the event exceeds the capabilities of the voluntary agencies  then the affected state must either provide resources to address the shortages, or request additional resources from the federal government through FEMA, or both. Unfortunately, because catastrophic events are so rare, most states not only have no one trained to perform this critical function, they have no one identified to perform this critical coordination role in a disaster.

Due to fate and circumstances, I received considerable experience in the role of state mass care coordination when I was involved in the response to eight hurricanes during 2004 and 2005. FEMA provided me the opportunity to assist in the development of a state mass care planning course, and then serve as one of the instructors for the pilot course June 8-9 in Lake Mary, Florida. State mass care planners from 11 states in 4 FEMA Regions were on hand for the pilot, and I think FEMA did more to enhance state mass care capacity in those two days than they have done in the last year.

Now that we have completed and tested a two day planning course, we will develop a two day state mass care operations course. If we don't get too tied up with hurricanes between now and the end of the year, we should have the operations course ready to pilot by the beginning of next year.

As for the lack of integration of mass care voluntary agencies into emergency management at all levels of government, we am working on that, too. I will explain what we are doing in a later post.

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