November 1, 2022
Last month, FEMA published a new guide (linked here) for local government senior officials to assist with better preparation, organization, and responsiveness to emergencies and disasters in an effort to create more resilient communities. The FEMA Guide is a helpful tool for municipalities to measure disaster readiness. It examines available resource assistance, disaster declarations, and stakeholder considerations.
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright spotlight on this critical component of municipal government. The ability of local governments to pre-plan, assess risk, execute relief, and avail themselves of state and federal resources during a crisis determines how a community will thrive – or suffer – as a result.
The FEMA Guide
The FEMA Guide provides a “gut check” for municipalities. The Guide directs local governments to appoint emergency managers to facilitate and execute disaster plans. FEMA recommends that time (and resources) be carved out for staff to draft emergency operation plans and formulate emergency operation teams. The Guide urges local governments to host meetings and discussions now, before a disaster, with stakeholders concerning how resources will be combined and shared in the event of an emergency. Key stakeholders include other local governments, not-for-profit partners, medical facilities, energy facilities, educational institutions, and large employers. While not specifically discussed in the FEMA Guide, Illinois local governments may want to consider reviewing existing, or creating new, memoranda of understanding and intergovernmental agreements with partner agencies so that roles, responsibilities, and funding are all in place in advance of an emergency.
Lack of Preparedness May Cost More Than You Think
The FEMA Guide states that “in a 23-year cost-benefit analysis, the National Institute of Building Sciences identified a national $6 savings for every $1 invested from federal hazard mitigation grants provided by the Economic Development Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and FEMA.” In building resilience before disaster strikes, FEMA recommends that local governments:
- Work with their emergency manager to establish preparedness priorities and encourage all government agency heads, academic and not-for-profit organizations and business leaders to coordinate and collaborate mitigation response and recovery efforts.
- Champion community risk education by implementing mitigating climate adaptation strategies (think building codes and land use planning).
- Encourage residents and businesses to create their own plans so that they are prepared in the event of an emergency.
- Participate in preparedness exercises. Senior officials should show support to the emergency manager by participating and reiterating the importance to staff.
- Work with their public information officer to create various methods of communicating to the public and to staff.
- Understand how to keep the private sector operational and what functions they may need in an emergency.
In addition, though not covered in the FEMA Guide, local governments should make plans for emergency housing, beds, clothes, and supplies. Understanding what space (either government- or privately-owned) is ideal to create a local emergency shelter.
Preparedness Costs Money—Where Can Local Governments Find Funding?
The FEMA Guide outlines federal grant opportunities to help municipalities fund preparedness. Examples of grant programs are:
- FEMA Grant Funds
- Emergency Management Performance Grants
- FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grants
Local Ordinances and Disaster Declarations
The FEMA Guide correctly notes that “[s]enior officials are often responsible for issuing and rescinding disaster declarations. However, executive processes may differ based on jurisdictional authorities.” In Illinois, disaster declarations are almost always issued by municipal corporate authorities. Code provisions on disaster response, authorities, and procedures should be reviewed in light of COVID experiences to resolve any conflicts, deficiencies, or gaps in process or authorities. On a practical level, draft template disaster declarations and related legislation should be ready in advance of any actual emergency. FEMA recommends that drafts of these important documents should be saved to secure network drives and printed in hard copy so that they can be accessed quickly. Periodic review of emergency and disaster ordinances is important to ensure they will meet local emergency needs and conform to state and federal law.
Ensuring Emergency Preparedness
The FEMA Guide provides a “Senior Officials Checklist” that outlines key ways local governments can be ready before, during, and after an emergency event. See Appendix A. The Checklist provides helpful information to senior level officials. In addition, we recommend the following:
- Discuss emergency preparedness and review ordinances, policies, and procedures with senior staff, legal counsel, and elected officials, and consider recommendations for amendments.
- Meet with senior emergency personnel, and select an emergency operations manager.
- Allow the emergency operations manager to create a team to formulate plans and procedures to prepare for emergencies.
- Don’t silo! Talk to every department about their needs and resources and determine deficiencies. Ensure that department heads talk to each other so that resources can be shared.
- Identify a budget for disaster and emergency planning. Explore grants and local partnerships to help shore up funding gaps.
- Track grants reporting and funding and set up a process for regular reporting and updates to appropriate municipal staff.
- Coordinate with municipal public information officer to ensure an emergency communication plan is in place, including contingencies for when key officials, employees, and community members may not have traditional lines of communication open in a crisis.
- Communicate to corporate authorities budgetary needs, preparedness plans, grant opportunities, and required disaster resources.
Webinar seminars on the FEMA Guide may be found here.
Please contact Kelley A. Gandurski at Kelley.Gandurski@elrodfriedman.com or any attorney at Elrod Friedman LLP for consultation on disaster or crisis management.