A Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh

Helping Americans and Fixing FEMA

JURIST Contributing Editor David Crane of Syracuse University College of Law says that the experience of hurricanes Katrina and Rita highlights the need for a new national corps of trained citizen responders under the direction of an independent and revitalized - and perhaps even renamed - FEMA...

As Americans we are always siding with the underdog, the oppressed, and the guy "on the ropes". Our national psyche is a desire to help those in need. That need to serve our fellow citizens and mankind is strong in most Americans.

The double blow of the hurricanes Katrina and Rita highlighted several things last year. First is that our federal, state, and local responders were not ready. Secondly, the responders had no clear chain of command with major communication problems; and third, Americans wanted to respond in any way they could to help—they wanted to serve their country and help their fellow citizens.

There is a close and hard look ongoing at all levels at this failure so we can fix the response system. This ongoing evaluation and review should also look at how best we can provide needed relief efficiently, effectively, as well as fast. I'm not sure it is being given the attention it is due.

Related to this is how do we tap into the vast positive energy of Americans, from all over this country, wanting to assist in a way that is responsive and helpful? In my mind, it is establishing a Public Assistance Service of America (PAS) under an independent and revamped/renamed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Fashioned along the lines of our militia, our national guard, the PAS would be a corps of trained citizens who would mobilize to deal with man-made or natural disasters under a centralized chain of command with appropriate contingency plans and pre-positioned logistic points.

Placed under FEMA, the PAS would be grouped by regions and districts answerable to a career cadre of experienced leaders, managers, and specialists. They would go through an initial basic training at centralized training centers, then be assigned back to their districts to train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer to prepare for whatever disaster befalls the district or region.

The members of the PAS would be paid appropriately for their drills and be eligible to retire at the age of 65, drawing a pension. When called-up, a member of the PAS would be paid an appropriate wage under government personnel rules. The National Guard has a similar system, as does our Reserves.

The PAS would be the domestic responders, trained, equipped, and ready. As the situation and circumstances dictate, further assets could be drawn upon under the PAS to assist with manpower, equipment, security, and logistics. The chain of command would be the director of the PAS under the FEMA director. The regional directors would have onsite command over all assets, federal, state, and local once the PAS was called-up, along with private charitable organizations. The various States would remain the primary responders until they requested the federal government to step in and take over the scene. It must be noted; under our constitutional system the States have the primary responsibility to provide disaster relief. The PAS would be the federal responders to assist State and local authorities and would free up federal troops and our reserves for their primary mission of defending the United States.

We should, also, consider pulling FEMA out from under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Let DHS protect the homeland and its borders. FEMA and its PAS can take care of the interior challenges of various disasters. The FEMA director should be appointed by the President, with the consent of the Senate, and serve for a period of 9 years. My suggestion is to get the emergency management system out of politics. The disaster of Katrina showed how politics and emergency management do not mix. Lives were lost because of politics and inefficiency.

The time to fix the system is now. An independent FEMA, with its Public Assistance Service, made up of trained and motivated Americans from all walks of life and backgrounds is a possible solution. I'm ready to sign up.

David M. Crane is a professor at Syracuse University College of Law, and former founding Chief Prosecutor for the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2002-2005. He is a former paratrooper and judge advocate who helped develop and teach the US Department of Defense Law of War Program for almost 20 years.


Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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Academic Commentary is JURIST's platform for legal academics, offering perspectives by law professors on national and international legal developments. JURIST Forum welcomes submissions (about 1000 words in length - no footnotes, please), inquiries and comments at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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