Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, is interviewed.
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.
We discovered through the National Level Exercise 2011 (NLE), which focused on the New Madrid seismic event, that there would absolutely be a shortage of federal urban search and rescue teams in that event. So we can’t simply rely on the federal government for resources. There is a need for states and regions around the country to develop these specialized capabilities that can be brought to bear in very large-scale disasters. Now, does every state need the same exact specialized response capability? No. But if you don’t need that capability on a day-to-day basis, where can you go and get it? Can regions come together to plan? One state may have a fantastic sheltering capability that they can pack up as a turnkey operation to deploy to another state. For example, Oklahoma has developed a shelter in a box. And they already have agreements in place with Shreveport, Louisiana, that can help when New Orleans needs to evacuate and send people to Shreveport.
The problem in Louisiana has been that they don’t have the number of personnel to staff those shelters. Therefore, they’ve had to evacuate their citizens to other states. Wouldn’t it be much better for those citizens to be within their own state borders and closer to home? With Oklahoma’s turnkey operation, they will load up all of the supplies, equipment, and staff needed for a shelter and drive to Shreveport, Louisiana. They have already exercised it. They have already identified where the shelter will be. They actually did a full-scale exercise of this last summer. They have their personnel designated and trained. Those are the types of things that we’re trying to promote. It’s not that every state needs to have the same capability, but we need it strategically located around the country so those who need it will have quick access to it.
Nationwide, what are the greatest emergency preparedness vulnerabilities you see that need fixing?
We don’t spend a lot of time as a nation looking at and talking about the interdependencies of our system, particularly with our critical infrastructure. If the power grid goes down in New England, who else will that affect? Again through the NLE exercise in 2011, it was determined that if the power grid goes down in the New Madrid region, it’s likely that the whole East Coast will lose power, and probably for days. If you’re looking to receive mutual-aid assistance from the East Coast, and they don’t have power for days, that’s a planning scenario that people need to pay attention to. It’s those types of things that we don’t give enough attention to. And quite frankly the homeland security grant program and other programs, which are very well intentioned, don’t really allow us to look strategically at interdependencies and apply funding in ways that allow mitigation against an event that might occur in one state but affect another state.
Why dosen’t homeland security grant funding allow you to do that?
The programs are fairly fragmented and siloed. They’re programmatic as opposed to strategic. Let’s say you have a port that is absolutely critical to commerce in your state, and you want to be able to protect it. There’s a port homeland security grant program that will allow you to harden the port, but you can’t use that money to protect the rail system that may be coming into the port or protect the roads and bridges and transportation routes leading up to the port. That would require a separate grant program.
What technological innovations excite you and should translate into lives saved in the near future?
Emergency management has historically been behind the curve in terms of adopting technology, mainly because of the cost of acquiring and maintaining that technology. The use of social media, though, has exploded. That’s something that everyone is looking to integrate into their systems because it helps get information from the public about what they’re seeing on the ground. You see so many times in recent disasters, citizens tweeting about what they’re seeing: what road is open, what road is closed. And the information is in real time and much quicker than government can get it out. The challenge we face is how do you harness that, and how do you take advantage of that, and use it from a disaster-response perspective.