Direct funding for personnel, and equipment, along with money to address minor inconveniences like snow removal has ingratiated FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security with local public safety personnel and local elected officials.

For decades, the federal government has nurtured an unhealthy relationship with local emergency management agencies.  In return, local governments happily offer their time toiling away at grant paperwork, eagerly adopting federal programs and helping pass-through funds for the occasional condom and tattoo spree.

The results of this relationship are mostly bureaucratic and innocuous.  However, in light of the increasingly authoritarian efforts connected to crises (think COVID, gun violence as a “public health” issue, and disinformation) it is important to discuss the potential downsides of heaping federal funds upon local crisis decision-makers.

The federal government has authored a system of emergency management that turns grassroots preparedness and local authority on its ear.  Federal intervention at the local level now spans all hazards, from flooding, to the war on terror, and most recently, COVID.

As many are now aware, permitting the federal government to devise and implement emergency response strategies is expensive, ineffective, and dangerous.  It has the effect of bolstering and growing federal influence on decisions that should be made in homes or local communities.

Delaware is a leading example of this phenomenon, with homeland security and emergency management agencies being supported with more than $100 million in federal grants just as they take on a critical role in the fight to disarm Delawareans.  Is it any wonder state agencies are leaping at the chance to enforce anti-gun laws?

What could be wrong with a little DHS or CDC money trickling into local governments?

The answer is straightforward.

Through the grantmaking process, local governments lose all autonomy in the management of emergencies.  The federal government now funds an approach to emergency management that positions agents of the state locally who maintain some degree of reliance on the federal government.  By paying local salaries for people that are in decision-making and enforcement roles, the federal government has increased the likelihood local personnel will serve its purposes.  This undoubtedly played a role in COVID policy enforcement, but because the public is generally unaware that the local decision-makers are often federally funded, it doesn’t nearly get the press it deserves.

A question I used to consider in my research was does the federal government have command and control of local response agencies.  But emergency management leaders across the county have already disclosed that they are dependent upon FEMA and DHS, for example, and that their decision-making process is not dialed into local needs, but into federal wants.

The question we must now ask instead is — how will the federal government mobilize those resources that they have funded, trained, and equipped?

The answer to this question lies squarely in the federal government’s ability to garner influence in local public safety organizations, specifically with local emergency managers.

The federal government is wise in how it seeks to influence. It appears they have taken a three-pronged approach:

  • Fund local emergency management and homeland security programs in such a way that makes the funding invaluable to local areas and renders programs permanent
  • Expand the notion of emergencies and the role of emergency management such that this subset of events and people become synonymous with dollars and influence
  • Curate training and professional standards to influence who will be selected for these positions

While we could likely analyze the federal influence on any public safety leader (Police Chief, Public Health Officer) based on grant dollars and compliance metrics, emergency managers are of interest given their role during multi-agency disaster response.

The emergency manager position is charged with coordination and planning before large-scale emergencies and tasked with advising local officials during incidents, including on the matter of resource deployment.  While serving in a coordination and policy-making role, the EM is surrounded by personnel and equipment at the local and state levels that are also funded by the federal government.  To understand the depth and breadth to which federal dollars have crept in and usurped local control over emergency response, we can look to their admissions:

  • Emergency managers admit that their organizations are dependent upon the federal government and that because of this dependence, their local government does not have sufficient autonomy to exercise sound decision making
  • They do not seek to disassociate from federal influence. Only 3% of EMs report turning down federal funding, despite the acknowledgment above
  • An increase in federal grant dollars is, of course, associated with an increase in federal coercion

Many, if not most, local emergency manager salaries are funded by DHS/FEMA grants.  At a minimum, we know that half of EMs acknowledged in the 2015 study linked above that they were reliant upon this funding, specifically for personnel, to respond locally.  Certainly, a larger percentage uses these grant streams even if they do not consider themselves fully reliant.

To stave off reductions of any sort, EMs have worked diligently to build a very strong lobbying arm to ensure that funding never dwindles.  Both the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and the National Association of Emergency Managers (NEMA) promote a centralized system of emergency management and make it their primary lobbying effort to continue to ask for more federal funding.  In fact, the IAEM is quite frank about its accomplishments, noting that it recently secured a huge increase in one particular EM grant stream driving the federal support up from $355 million to $605 million.

There are ways other than funding that the federal government has practiced to influence local emergency management.  Primarily, they are urging along an evolution in the types of people in the EM position.  It is reasonable to assume that they seek to position agents that are more amenable to centralization as this is naturally the position of an expanding government.

As an example, for 22 years FEMA has led a nationwide effort to curate higher education programs dedicated to emergency management to “professionalize” the field and to ensure that practitioners could engage with academics.  In response, colleges have formed hundreds of highly specific emergency management degree and certification programs, many of which are inclusive of standardized FEMA training courses.  Through a focus on education and professionalizing, or by other means, today’s emergency managers are younger, more educated, and increasingly more likely to be female.  Each of these is an attribute associated with the desire for a larger, more centralized government. [1] [2]

The federal government understands that there is less disdain for local governments than for state and federal.  About 75% of citizens report having trust in their local governments. Citizens want to believe that their local agencies, closer to the community and more likely to be run by neighbors, act independently and with the best interest of their constituents in mind.

This is doubly true for public safety agencies, often beloved in their communities and looked to as trustworthy and competent.  Therefore, from a federal perspective, influencing trusted local personnel is key to gaining authority and further centralized control. It has been a quiet and effective strategy to plant federally-funded agents of the state in our local crisis decision-making agencies.

NOTES

[1] Age and Gender: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/14/americans-views-of-government-low-trust-but-some-positive-performance-ratings/

[2] Education Level: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/05/17/americans-see-broad-responsibilities-for-government-little-change-since-2019/

Amy LePore
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