Saturday, November 20, 2010

A national mass care strategy

Last month FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and American Red Cross President Gail McGovern signed a Memorandum of Agreement between the two organizations. The MOA provides a framework for the planning and conduct of feeding and sheltering of survivors in the event of a disaster.

In addition to the American Red Cross, Craig wisely invited representatives from other faith based and voluntary agencies involved in disasters to the signing ceremony. Craig charged them all to come up with a new national mass care strategy. Craig didn't consult with me about whether we needed a new national mass care strategy, but if he had, I would have said yes.

A strategy lays out a plan or method for achieving a specific goal or result. In my mind, I can think of no more important national mass care goal that being able to feed and shelter the survivors of a catastrophic event. I say this because I can think of a number of very plausible disasters (a number of which are in my home state of Florida) where the nation would have a difficult time feeding and sheltering the citizens impacted by the disaster.

The problem is not with the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Convention or any of the other faith based or voluntary agencies that get involved with mass care during a disaster. These organizations are supported by the donations of the American people and these donations are able to sustain a disaster feeding and sheltering capability that works in most disasters.

But what about those disasters where the national resources of the faith based and voluntary community are brought to bear on a single catastrophic disaster, and those resources aren't enough? What happens then?

The resources of the state and federal governments would have to augment the resources of the voluntary community. Unfortunately, because we don't have to do that very often, we aren't very good at it. Figuring out what is needed, ordering it, and then getting it to the right place at the right time is not easy. I had to do just that in 2004 during Hurricanes Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne, and I can vouch for the difficulty of the task.

Even though no one had ever trained me how to coordinate mass care at the state level, I had four hurricanes in six weeks to figure out how to do it. I did a lot better on the fourth hurricane than I did on the first one. 

A new national mass care strategy needs to focus on increasing mass care capability at the state level. To do this we must train state mass care coordinators to perform their role in a catastrophic event. This role involves performing an important series of steps should a big event strike their state: define the scale of the disaster, estimate the state mass care requirements for that size disaster, determine the mass care resources that the voluntary agencies are able to provide, and request the resources needed to meet any shortfalls from other states or the federal government.

Right now, few state mass care coordinators exist that can perform that role. FEMA is preparing a course to teach state mass care coordinators how to perform these tasks. The course will be completed by the end of this year and presented to select state mass care coordinators at the beginning of next year.

A new national mass care strategy must include as a goal the training of state mass care coordinators in all the FEMA Regions. Once they are trained, we need to plan  and conduct exercises that allow these coordinators to practice their new skills in realistic situations.

If this is done, they won't have to learn their jobs on the fly in the midst of their first big disaster, like I did. Furthermore, they will be trained and ready to deploy to assist other states when an big event occurs. The state of Florida, for one, will sure be able to use them.

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