Trina Sheets is the executive director of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), an affiliate organization of the Council of State Governments (CSG). NEMA represents state emergency management directors in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. As executive director of NEMA, Sheets serves as the conduit between the federal government and the state emergency management agencies. She facilitates relationship building and information sharing between NEMA and other emergency management and homeland security stakeholders to develop a unified voice among practitioners that serves to advance the nation’s ability to prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recover from disasters and emergency situations. In addition, Sheets is the coordinator for the National Homeland Security Consortium and represents NEMA on the Emergency Services Sector Coordination Council for Critical Infrastructure Protection. She is also responsible for facilitating interstate mutual aid through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. She holds a B.A. in Public Relations from Eastern Kentucky University.
What are the greatest challenges facing the emergency management community right now?
The number of disasters and emergencies that happen continue to climb at the same time as budgets decline, so there’s a significant challenge to be able to respond to all of those events with reduced resources. NEMA just published its 2012 biannual report, which is a comprehensive survey of all the state emergency management agencies, and from that survey we learned that at least 20 states cut their budgets in the past three years. Beyond that, there were numerous local governments that had budgets cut and programs consolidated. State and local governments are dealing with reductions such as furloughs, hiring freezes, staff reductions. When you’re dealing with fewer numbers of staff and less money, it certainly does make it difficult to maintain capabilities that you have built up over the past decade and have that same level of response that you’ve had in recent years.
Have you heard anyone say that they have lost certain emergency response capabilities and paid the price for that?
I would say the opposite right now, which is actually the good news of this story. Despite budget constraints, I think we’ve seen very effective disaster response at the state and local level across the country. There have been numerous events, yet we’re seeing state and local governments respond with very few federal resources on the ground. In fact, in those instances where disasters have risen to the level to receive a presidential disaster declaration, it’s basically FEMA cutting the state a check for recovery efforts. There have been very few boots on the ground from FEMA in disasters over the past couple of years. It’s a great testament to the will and dedication of emergency managers across the country.
Considering that state emergency managers have to do more with less, what states are leaders in preparing their first responders and citizens for the worst in a cost-effective manner?
Quite honestly, it would be hard to single out states because we’ve seen states large and small do a very good job responding to those events. What we’re seeing is that they’re bringing to bear interstate mutual aid through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). More and more states are relying on other states to bring in those supplemental resources. Mutual aid has been around for a long time but that has certainly been a key to the very quick, rapid, effective response that we’ve seen recently. One example would be the tornadoes in the South and Midwest. FEMA did not have to deploy its urban search and rescue teams. There are many states that have their own state-certified search and rescue teams, and they have been deployed through mutual aid to states that have had tornadoes. And that has lifted the burden and the cost off of the federal government and helped states to be more self-sufficient.