Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

DHS, FEMA, and the National Incident Management System

on September 22, 2020
9/11

Introduction

After the end of the Cold War, America faced new challenges as the world’s leading military power. The failure of the old Soviet Union left a leadership vacuum which created new opportunities for terrorist organizations, petty dictators, and rogue countries to asset their influence and power. The end result was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001 by an Islamic group known as Al Qaeda.

Amid all the post-attack horror and shock, two questions stood out: what did the U.S. government know — and why wasn’t the threat taken more seriously? Congress created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States on November 27, 2002 to answer those questions and to address the need for a more comprehensive national preparedness system.

A Discussion of the Origins of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Al Qaeda was organized by Osama bin Laden in 1988 after the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan. After the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and several attacks on foreign soil, the CIA concluded in 1995 that there would be increasing terrorist attacks against and in the United States but attributed these attacks to loosely-affiliated individuals with special training who could disappear underground. It wasn’t until 1996-1997 that the CIA became aware of Bin Laden’s terrorist organization. In spite of this knowledge, officials failed to share the complete information about Bid Laden and his activities in their updated reports.

Between 1998 and 2001, more information was compiled about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but the CIA failed to comprehend the importance or urgency of the information. Even when select individuals tried to point out the threat and devised plans of action, those plans were usually shot down by Washington, D.C. bureaucrats as too expensive, too unrealistic, or too inadequate.

Part of the problem was the expectation that a major terrorist attack would be achieved through chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons. And since Al Qaeda possessed none of these, the threat it posed was minimized. The few small-scale attacks the group had achieved overseas, such as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, were not considered important enough to beef up national security. And the idea of using airplanes for suicide bombings was not considered a credible scenario for most Washington bureaucrats — including Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

It’s no surprise, then, that the American people were horrified to learn that a small group of radical Islamic terrorists — armed only with simple box cutters — were able to hijack American commercial jets and slam into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The federal government was compelled to act.

The Department of Homeland Security was created by President George W. Bush with Executive Order 13228 on October 8, 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The mission of the new department was “to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks.” It was specifically mandated “to coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States.”

President Bush’s order covers the five basic elements of emergency management: preparedness, prevention (mitigation), protection, response, and recovery in coordination with federal, state, and local agencies, private businesses, and non-profit organizations. But one of the most important features of the order is the gathering and dissemination of information relating to homeland security with “state and local governments and private entities.” The order establishes the Homeland Security Council, with members representing the most important departments in the federal government.

An Examination of the Relationship between the DHS and FEMA

With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, President Bush focused the nation’s attention on terrorism and potential terrorist threats and attacks. Executive Order 13228 orders the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to “assist in the implementation of national security emergency preparedness policy by coordinating with the other federal departments and agencies and with state and local governments, and by providing periodic reports to the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council on implementation of national security emergency preparedness policy.”

Section 503 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 transfers accountability and responsibility of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — including its Director — to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security as part of the department’s overall goal of building a comprehensive National Incident Management System (NIMS). “NIMS was [ultimately] created to integrate effective practices in emergency preparedness and response into a comprehensive national framework for incident management. NIMS enables responders at all levels to work together more effectively and efficiently to manage domestic incidents no matter what the cause, size, or complexity, including catastrophic acts of terrorism and disasters.” By making NIMS “a requirement for many federal grant programs,” the federal government has been able to promote a formalized, centralized, and coordinated national response plan which “provides a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at all levels of government” in the event of disaster. “NIMS provides the template for the management of incidents, while the NRF [National Response Framework] provides the structure and mechanisms for national-level policy for incident management.”

Section 507 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 outlines the role and functions of FEMA and mandates that the agency follow a comprehensive emergency management program (NIMS) which includes mitigation, planning, preparedness, response, and recovery. The act designates FEMA as the leading agency for implementing the national emergency response plan.

FEMA successfully responded to the Midwest Floods of 1993, the Northridge, California earthquake, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Seattle earthquake, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. But, once FEMA was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, its effectiveness declined. The agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina under President George W. Bush, for example, was considered a failure.

FEMA’s failure has been attributed to loss of autonomy and access to the White House, loss of power and status, redistribution of funds and personnel to projects given higher priority (such as terrorism), excess bureaucracy in the upper levels of the Department of Homeland Security, and a lack of coordination with state and local governments. Congress passed several reform bills to help resolve these issues.

Discussion of HSPD-5 and HSPD-8

Although the Homeland Security Act of 2002 ordered the development and implementation of a comprehensive national response plan, it was Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5 (February 28, 2003) which formally called for the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a national incident management system and national response plan that would improve coordination between departments, states, and local governments in the event of a major incident.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-8 (December 17, 2003) proposed policies that would strengthen domestic preparedness to deal with major disasters (including terrorist attacks). Once again, coordination responsibility fell onto the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security with the goal of keeping the country ready at all times. This directive was aimed particularly at first responders by providing training programs and offering incentive rewards to the states.

With the Department of Homeland Security in control of devising and implementing a well-coordinated national response plan, it is ironic that the department failed so miserably in the face of Hurricane Katrina.

Conclusion

With the continued threats facing America, it is more important then ever for the country to avoid complacency and stay alert in order to recognize, prevent, and respond effectively to potential and actual disasters. We must learn from both our successes and our failures as we move forward into the future.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University, 2019

Copyright 2019-2020 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Please contact author for sources.


6 responses to “DHS, FEMA, and the National Incident Management System

  1. Gersom Clark says:

    Thank you for this informative post on the NIMS and the relationship between FEMA and DHS, Dawn. This is my field and interest as well. GOD bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so welcome! I really enjoyed the emergency management class that I took!

      Like

      • Gersom Clark says:

        Actually, I’m glad to know someone who enjoyed and is interested with EM and DRM in the blogsphere, particularly, the planning and plan development side of it. Aside from its relevance to the world we are operating, this field “saves lives, property,” and even institutions. EM is my specialization and I enjoyed the F2F trainings, FEMA’s online courses and determining gaps in tne EM System.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Eternity says:

    I love your work. It is always a pleasant experience to visit your site.

    Liked by 1 person

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