With the Presidential Transition underway, the nearly constant debate about whether FEMA belongs inside or outside the Department of Homeland Security is picking up steam again.

For years, we’ve heard arguments from former FEMA Administrators James Lee Witt and Michael Brown that the Agency should be independent.

Former Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as well as several other Members of Congress have also gone on the record to say that FEMA should be removed from DHS.

The newest voice to this chorus for FEMA independence comes from the International Assembly of Emergency Managers, whose Board of Directors voted unanimously this week to call upon the incoming Administration to remove FEMA from DHS and establish it as free-standing Cabinet Agency reporting directly to the President.

The assembling FEMA Independence Chorus is probably comparable to what a gathering of the Flat Earth Society might  have been in King Ferdinand’s and Queen Isabella’s Court if they had assembled for a reunion in 1497.  Five years after Columbus’ discovery of the new world, the same people who told him that he couldn’t sail West without falling off the face of the Earth were still holding fast to beliefs anchored in the past long after being proven wrong.

All too often, the failsafe position in life is to go back to the way things used to be.  Unfortunately, the FEMA that these vocal critics want to see as an independent entity is not the FEMA the country needs or wants. Our threats and challenges are bigger and more complex than ever, and we need the new partnerships and strategies that are being built inside FEMA today.  Making FEMA a solitary unit operating independently of the nation’s efforts in intelligence, national security, infrastructure protection, law enforcement, military access, public health and more (all of which DHS has) is not a recipe for success.  It’s a recipe for renewing legacy turf battles, operational confusion and the pre-9/11 go-it-alone approaches that we do not have the time or luxury to afford.

If we have learned anything in the post 9/11 and post-Katrina era, it is that integration and evolution work. These two words should be at the center of the FEMA debate.  Integration calls upon bringing various parts together to function towards a common goal.  Evolution requires adaptation to survive in new and hostile environments.  What we are doing with FEMA inside DHS speaks volumes for the country’s progress in building the federal emergency management capacity and the larger homeland mission.

While it has not  been smooth or easy, the performance of FEMA since Katrina has embodied the principles and success of integration and evolution.  From dealing with almost constant California wildfires; devastating tornadoes in the Midwest and South;  another huge hurricane (Ike) and more, the FEMA of today operating as part of DHS is doing more today than ever before – and its doing a helluva job.

Why?  It has more people, more resources, more reach and more involvement than ever before. It has access to more capabilities and equipment (military, law enforcement assets, etc.) and it is part of a larger mission of homeland security.

The past two years serve as proof that the post-Katrina FEMA improvement measures enacted by Congress and the Bush Administration are working.  Ripping FEMA out of DHS means starting anew. With everything else the incoming Administration has on its plate, this is one area where drastic reform is unneeded.

FEMA is already the undisputed leader of the nation’s preparedness and response efforts, serving as the point on the National Response Framework and the focal point of the Homeland Security Grant Programs.  The Agency has also widened its reach through an increased number of public-private partnerships and strengthening coordination between its Regions and state, local and tribal governments and involvement with many of the Fusion Centers.

Are there still areas where FEMA can improve?  Absolutely, and guess what? There always will be.

The decision regarding FEMA’s fate is ultimately up to the incoming Administration and Congress.  If the new decision-makers give in to the calls for FEMA independence, they will face some weighty questions.  Most immediately, an independent FEMA would create uncertainty for the future of the National Response Framework and would undoubtedly disrupt the Agency’s Grant Programs and the monies they distribute back state, local and tribal governments to secure back home.  Additionally, the move will likely increase pressure from other legacy DHS components (Immigration & Naturalization Service, Secret Service, US Customs, etc) who have expressed a desire to reassert their independence from the DHS umbrella.  More fundamentally,  when a disaster strikes, which agency will take the lead on response and recovery efforts – the FEMA-free DHS or the newly independent agency?

Disasters already create confusion – independent of those who respond to them.  Removing emergency management from DHS will increase that confusion and will do nothing to improve the nation’s security; instead, it weakens it. While the integration of FEMA and the other 20+ components into DHS was far from a flawless effort, patience and perseverance are paying off.  The lessons learned and results of the past 2+ years prove it.

Before the Obama Administration starts moving around the government’s organizational boxes, they should seriously look at FEMA’s recent successes.  They may just find out they’ve already got a helluva engine to help them secure the homeland.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More