There is a comforting feeling in attending a meeting with the National Emergency Managers Association (NEMA). You are literally surrounded by some of the world’s best and brightest emergency managers in the public and private sectors. Probably no where else in the world could you assemble the talent, experience, and character in one room and fulfill the Allstate marketing adage of “you’re in good hands.”
Such was my experience last weekend at NEMA’s annual mid-year conference in Alexandria, VA. The feel in each of the meeting rooms is one of collaboration, partnership, open minds, proactive action and positive energy. Those are certainly the buzzwords you hear describing the goals of any professional society that assembles for an annual conference, but I can honestly say I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have observed firsthand the confluence of those words with reality.
Now why is that?
I guess I would have to start by saying that every one of the people in that room was committed to the same mission – the safety, security, and resilience of their communities and their citizens.
As altruistic as that may sound, I’m going to offer a couple other reasons why there needs to be national pride in NEMA and its members.
I have no doubt that there are still institutional suspicions between state and local government on the one hand and their federal peers on the other (as well as wariness between the public safety, national security/intelligence, and public and private sectors). The people leading NEMA, however, seemed to have gone out of their way to make sure each and every constituency had a seat at the table, had an opportunity to share insights and was able to do so in an open, respectful dialogue.
Talk about refreshing. As I sat in a number of the sessions, I couldn’t help but think of what a model the exchanges were for so many things. With no posturing performances for media cameras and microphones or echoing the government/company issued talking points, participants figuratively (and in some cases literally) rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Before my eyes and those of the other attendees, you could see the range of diverse constituencies coming together to plan, prepare and partner. There was no room for stovepipes or silo-thinking, but rather, plenty of room for those who wanted to work together to address some big challenges.
While metrics to measure how far we’ve come since the 9/11 attacks are relatively elusive, it is more than obvious that the emergency management community that has emerged is a positive metric for how far we’ve come as a nation and as a profession. Once focused primarily on preparing for, and responding to, Mother Nature’s furies and other stray disasters (e.g., chemical spills, blackouts, etc.), the emergency management community has emerged since 9/11 as one of the most progressive and proactive forces helping our nation deal with the range of dynamic threats we have today.
While they are not perfect (there is no profession that is), it is a community that understands the deep responsibilities they have for making things right the minute things go horribly wrong.
Another reason for the positive mood at the mid-year conference is that the biggest question for the emergency management community has finally been settled. During last year’s conference, the question about whether FEMA would stay inside DHS or be taken out of it and returned to its an independent agency status hung over everyone’s heads. The days of wondering are long over as the Obama Administration and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano have made it quite clear that FEMA is, and will remain an integral part of DHS and how this nation plans for every threat and hazard it faces.
While there are still vocal proponents for FEMA independence (notably Rep. Jim Oberstar [D-MN] and a few others) who bellow about making things like they were in the good ol’ days, the fact remains that this battle is over. As a result, the distractions of last year are gone and unencumbered focus can be given to the litany of items on the “to do” list.
Also giving comfort to the NEMA crowd were the leaders the Obama Administration has put in place at FEMA, led by Craig Fugate, Chief Richard Serino, Tim Manning and others. Their appointments in this critical part of America’s security architecture have been nothing short of outstanding.
When you couple these leaders with people like the new head of FEMA’s Private Sector Office, Dan Stoneking (who delivered one of the weekend’s most impressive presentations), the State of California’s Matt Bettenhausen, Wal-Mart’s Bryan Koon, the US Chamber’s Ann Beauchesne and the hundreds of other public and private sector leaders assembled in Alexandria, how could you not feel you were in good hands?