Larry J. Gispert, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and director of Hillsborough County, Fla., Emergency Management, was quoted yesterday indicating IAEM’s position calling for the removal of FEMA from DHS.

As President-elect Obama’s team is in the midst of the arduous process of transitioning, issues about America’s emergency management capabilities deserve attention.  Focusing on issues of federal government organization and structure miss the more important point and squander an historic opportunity.  Ensuring America possesses the best national, and not simply federal, capability for managing emergencies and disasters transcends the borders of Washington and any federal agency.

The important discussion needed is how to empower state and local leaders, the private sector and most importantly, our citizens, to succeed in being less reliant on direct federal personnel and equipment for disaster aid when emergencies strike.  The federal government is not a limitless pit of people and equipment.  Continuing to build a national system that ignores this fact places us all in peril, especially for events that are catastrophic in nature.  There are roughly 4.0 million federal employees.  By contrast, there are at least 12.0 million state and local government workers.  Clearly the federal government has more helicopters and dollars, but without a doubt, state and local governments have a significantly higher number of fire trucks, dump trucks and front end loaders.  The key question is where and in what way do we invest our resources to have the most rapid and effective impact on disaster victims.  Will it be in materials that have to be moved across the nation before they reach people in need, or those that can come from next door?

A better debate might be about what investments are needed in state and local government in advance to better harness existing capabilities and – where needed -to develop new capacities.  Our disaster assistance programs are 20th Century relics that have been impeded by provisions designed to prevent fraud and abuse by a small minority. They no longer service the needs of 95% of government organizations and disaster victims who want to use them appropriately and follow the rules.

Maybe our time could be better spent finding out how we can transition disaster service delivery from being federal-centric to a state and local centric model – an especially important goal given these are the entities on the front line of delivering services every day.  Are our current models for government, individual and business disaster aid working? Let’s be clear.  This is not about unfunded mandates from Washington.  It’s about a bold new model of change in disaster aid where the resources support responsibilities – both pre-and post event – are centered at the front line in state and local government.  We just might be better served when authority and accountability are closest to the disaster victim.

Larry makes a good point about the need for the FEMA to get the support needed when and where needed.  This is not an issue of Cabinet status or independence.  Quite the contrary – this is an issue of empowerment.  For good or bad, there exists a “pecking order” in Washington.  Our national history includes instances of Cabinet officials were not overly effective.  By contrast, there are also examples of individuals who were not Cabinet officials but managed to be forces for positive change.  Those who succeed in the Executive Branch do so because it is well-known that they have the backing of the President and Congress to get things done.  Let’s have a discussion about emergency management in America.  But let’s make sure it’s the right discussion – about how to measurably advance a system built in the 20th Century so that it works as it should in the 21st Century.