Federal Role and Response to Disasters

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Federal Role and Response to Disasters

David A. Ishida

Regional Administrator

U.S. Administration on Aging

My presentation will focus on the federal role and response to disasters.  I’ll begin by discussing the National Response Plan – a coordinated approach to domestic incident management and I’ll briefly touch on the National Incident Management System which frames and systematizes incident management at all levels of government.  I will then describe a working model the National Response Plan with some of its processes and components.  And lastly, I’ll provide a few resources for disaster preparedness and response.

The National Response Plan, last updated May 25, 2006, establishes a comprehensive all-hazards approach to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents.  The plan incorporates best practices and procedures from incident management disciplines—homeland security, emergency management, law enforcement, firefighting, public works, public health, responder and recovery worker health and safety, emergency medical services, and the private sector—and integrates them into a unified structure.  It forms the basis of how the federal government coordinates with state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector during incidents.

The NRP establishes protocols to help:

– Save lives and protect the health and safety of the public, responders, and recovery workers;

– Ensure security of the homeland;

– Prevent an imminent incident, including acts of terrorism, from occurring;

– Protect and restore critical infrastructure and key resources;

– Conduct law enforcement investigations to resolve the incident, apprehend the perpetrators, and collect and preserve evidence for prosecution and/or attribution;

– Protect property and mitigate damages and impacts to individuals, communities, and the environment; and

– Facilitate recovery of individuals, families, businesses, governments, and the environment.

The Nat’l Response Plan is an all-hazards plan built on the template of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS was developed so responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines can work together better to respond to natural disasters and emergencies, including acts of terrorism.

The Nat’l Incident Management System provides a consistent framework for incident management at all jurisdictional levels regardless of the cause, size, or complexity of the incident. The Nat’l Response Plan, using the NIMS, provides the structure and mechanisms for national-level policy and operational direction for domestic incident management.

The Nat’l Response Plan can be partially or fully implemented in the context of a threat, anticipation of a significant event, or in response to an incident requiring a coordinated Federal response.

The Nat’l Response Plan includes natural disasters, as well as events with potential national or long-term implications such as a public health emergency or a cyber incident.

Selective implementation through the activation of one or more of the Nat’l Response Plan elements allows maximum flexibility to meet the unique operational and information-sharing requirements of any situation and enables effective interaction among various Federal, State, local, tribal, private-sector, and other nongovernmental entities.


When a disaster occurs, the local first responders use their capabilities to respond and if overwhelmed, go to the state for assistance.  The state responds until its resources are exhausted or soon will be.

At this point, the Governor will begin the process of formally requesting a disaster declaration from the President.  This process is a two-channel communication.  First, the State Coordinating Officer will notify the FEMA Regional Director of the Governors intent.

The Regional Director will contact the FEMA Director who, in turn, will advise the President.  Soon after this, the Governor will contact the President directly and certify the state’s needs and lack of capability and ask for a disaster declaration.

The President acting upon the advice from the FEMA Director and the Governor, will either deny the request or sign a “Major Disaster Declaration.”  The declaration will include the area affected, starting date, and appointment of a Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO).

Additionally, the President will charge the FCO to administer all Federal programs to bring relief to the state.

The FCO will proceed to the area of the disaster in conjunction with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) and set up a Disaster Field Office (DFO).  The ERT is task organized based on the states needs, but usually includes representatives from 15 Emergency Support Functions (ESF).

The FCO uses the ERT as his staff to accept Requests for Federal Assistance (RFA) from the state and coordinate the response.

What are Emergency Support Functions (ESFs)?

ESFs are the primary means through which the Federal government provides assistance to State, local, and tribal governments or to Federal departments and agencies conducting missions of primary Federal responsibility.

ESFs were established as an effective mechanism to group capabilities and resources into the functions that are most likely needed during actual or potential incidents where coordinated Federal response is required (e.g., Transportation, Firefighting, Public Health, etc.). ESFs may be selectively activated for both Stafford Act and non-Stafford Act incidents by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

ESFs may also be activated by the ESF Coordinators. The ESF framework provides a modular structure to identify the precise components that can best address the requirements of the incident.

For example, a large-scale natural disaster or significant terrorist incident may require the activation of all ESFs. A localized flood or tornado might only require activation of a few ESFs.


Emergency Support Function (ESF) #6 – Mass Care, Housing, and Human Services supports State, regional, local, and tribal government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) efforts to address the  non-medical mass care, housing – both short and long-term, and human services needs of individuals and/or families impacted by Incidents of National Significance.

ESF #6 support is categorized in the core functional areas of:

-Mass Care

Emergency Support Function (ESF) #8 – Public Health and Medical Services provides the mechanism for coordinated Federal assistance to supplement State, local, and tribal resources in response to public health and medical care needs, including veterinary and/or animal health issues when appropriate, for potential or actual Incidents of National Significance and/or during a developing potential health and medical situation.

ESF #8 is coordinated by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) principally through the Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness (ASPHEP).

ESF #8 support is categorized in the core functional areas of:

– Assessment of public health/medical needs (including behavioral health);

– Public health surveillance;

– Medical care personnel; and

– Medical equipment and supplies.

In conclusion, each year, 30, 40, even 60 or more natural disasters impact the United States and it’s territories with such devastation that they exceed local capacity to respond.

When the President declares these disaster areas eligible for assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates the federal response. FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) respond with loans and grants that help disaster victims recover.

The Administration on Aging (AoA), too, can respond to the special needs of older disaster victims.

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