interpretation of famous quote of B. Franklin "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." handwritten on blackboard

National Preparedness Failure: Hindsight Is 2020

In February 2021, the Congressional Research Service released an evaluative nonpartisan report on the National Preparedness System (NPS). This report noted problems and difficulties experienced in 2020 during the Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic. For example, lack of personal protective equipment, disorganized logistical distribution, and other issues that demand attention. In essence, the report can be interpreted as revealing the NPS’s failure. The report’s summary states, “Congress may also consider mechanisms to strengthen the development of preparedness to ensure the National Preparedness Goal can be met.”

Presidential Policy Directive-8 (PPD-8) and the National Preparedness Goals (NPG) provide an outline for building national sustainable resilience using a whole community approach, which includes:

  • All individuals and families
  • Private businesses
  • Faith-based and nongovernmental organizations
  • Medical/healthcare and educational institutions
  • Media and social media platforms
  • Federal, state, local, territories, and tribes.

An important part of this national strategy is to gather the collective resources (i.e., strategic stockpiles) and exploit them to benefit and sustain the socioeconomic stability, safety, and security of communities across the country. This ensures the ability to provide much needed resources to areas where capacity is exceeded.

Functions of the NPS

The National Preparedness System (NPS) is a cyclical process that includes six functions. However, the first of these must be accomplished before any of the other functions can be completed:

  1. Assessment to identify risks as well as potential threats, hazards, and consequences
  2. Estimate of required capabilities
  3. Enhancement and building of core capabilities
  4. Development of best practices for delivering resources and capabilities to partners and stakeholders
  5. Testing and validation of resilience and capabilities to ensure their efficacy
  6. Assurance that all aforementioned processes are updated and that mitigation is embraced to ensure long-term remedies … then repeat.

Testing and validation as well as need assessments can be done during responses. This is where the National Response Framework is important.

According to the National Response Framework, the disaster preparedness system is supposed to follow the National Incident Management System and its operational jurisdictional scaffolding response under the Incident Command System, which provides for a standardized command and control as well as a coordinated, integrated, and collaborative emergency management effort. The execution of federally led Incident Command System requires, above all, effective communications to ensure a common operating picture by all partners. The response to Hurricane Katrina revealed the need for better building of the national response and communications. Additionally, collaborative emergency management requires that emergency management professionals have strong and trusted managerial leadership skill sets. Further, if influence is the main ingredient in leadership, then collaboration is the cornerstone of emergency management. Expectation by state, local, tribal, and territorial partners was that the federal government would follow the NPS principles and those of the NPG and whole community approach using its influence and, through collaboration, take the lead for providing guidelines and resources. COVID-19 revealed political and institutional fractures in the U.S. national preparedness and public health infrastructure.

The NPS Failed

Ineffective and fragmented communications, a lack of coordination between the federal and subordinate jurisdictions, poor logistical supply chains, and a lack of clear command and control – all necessary for effective disaster preparedness response – were basically absent. The results were socioeconomic disparities, increased political partisan divides, racial tensioninequities in the distribution of resources, poor public health, and deficiencies in medical protection and prevention. Leadership in collaborative emergency management networking includes providing coordination, communication, and additional support, but only if a request is elevated from subordinate jurisdictions. This is because the federal government possesses vast resources and is expected to support subordinate jurisdictions when their capabilities are exceeded. In this context, there is an assumption that the capabilities and mutual aid of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact has been overtasked with the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that the federal government was relied upon to provide resources such as additional medical supplies.

In 2020, the federal government’s interpretation, understanding, and implementation of PPD-8, NPS, and whole community approach were not using the same common operating picture with some of states and subordinate governments. Miscommunication ensured all stakeholders and partners were not operating with the same COP, which increased the country’s vulnerability. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the failure of the federal government to adhere to the PPD-8 and NPS created cascading anthropogenic happenings in education, private industry, race relations, healthcare, and sociopolitical interactions. The NPS outlines a process for the whole community to prepare and build more resilient and sustainable preparedness and achieve NPG.

The failure of some actors to implement the NPS and to allow emergency management and public health professionals to adhere to the six-step process impeded the fiscal year 2020 COVID-19 response. Remember that communications, coordination, and command and control are key to ensuring effective collaborative networking in Incident Command System and for the NPS/NPG and the whole community approach. Given the complexity of this pandemic, strong leadership is needed. Messaging to the community must be clear, concise, and trustworthy. Contradictions from persons in leadership positions would cause problems with interoperability and trust. Additionally, the NPS must be adhered to as outlined and followed by the thousands of professionals in disaster and emergency management and healthcare professionals with a common operating picture.

The systemic failures of the federal government to execute the tenets and principles provided in the NPS and the whole community approach leave voids in leadership and questions about NPS’s effectiveness and relevance. There was a lack of inclusivity of all persons – those with functional needs, families, private businesses, faith-based organizations, nongovernmental organizations, educational institutions, state, local, territories, and tribal agencies, and the media platforms. This was noted when a senior advisor to the president argued that the Strategic National Stockpile was not to be used by the states because it was theirs (federal government). This advisor’s interpretation and position was supported by the administration and is contrary to the actual objective and stated use of this national repository.

Actions Needed to Repair the NPS

The nation’s buy-in to a whole community approach is a difficult task with a haphazard adherence to the NPS guidelines. DHS/FEMA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services must work on restoring and nurturing trust in future national preparedness challenges. Achieving goals such as those outlined in the NPG are made even more difficult given the present uncertainty and challenges that permeate societies domestically and globally. This means there will be resistance and pains felt by the subordinate jurisdictions and other partners to adapt, given the disposition of the outer environment and existential forces – for example, requirements to meet the NPG.

According to the 2021 Congressional Report on NPS, FEMA must take lead to restore trust moving forward. Further, emergency management and public health professionals must be allowed to autonomously and without interference make assessments and provide their expert evidence-based data and empirical premised guidance as FEMA uses after-action reports and lessons learned to improve national preparedness. The same holds true for all levels of government and the whole community if the United States is to strengthen its core capabilities and build resilient and sustainable communities.

Michael A. Brown

Michael A. Brown, Ph.D., is the president of One World One Way, The O.W.O.W. Foundation Inc., a 501c3 policy institute in Atlanta, Georgia. He has taught graduate level emergency management and homeland security at Capella and Park Universities. He served in the United States Air Force as an intelligence and nuclear weapons officer. His national presentations are on diversified topics, such as unmanned aircraft vehicles, social vulnerability of African American males at historically Black colleges and universities, and the need for emergency managers to prepare for radiological dispersal devices and improvised nuclear weapons. He possesses an Associates of Applied Science degree in intelligence and imagery analysis, a B.S. in criminal justice administration, master’s in emergency management, and Ph.D. in public safety with a specialization in emergency management. He is certified in critical infrastructure protection from FEMA’s Texas A&M Engineering Extension Services (TEEX) program. He is the co-author of the book “Transforming Disaster Response: Federalism and Leadership.”



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