Importance of Presidential Leadership in Emergency Management

With over 30 years working in emergency management – 12 years in a state governor’s office, almost 8 years at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as associate director in charge of national preparedness, training, and exercises, and 11 years in the private sector at Electronic Data Systems and Systems Research and Analysis International, it became apparent that presidential leadership has been quite important at all levels and for all sectors.

The first issue to consider in presidential leadership is governance – how presidents shape the lumbering federal bureaucracy to address the gravest threats. Over recent decades, emergency management has become an increasingly important profession and the related government agencies, FEMA, states, tribes, and local governments, as well as institutions of higher education and professional nonprofit organizations, have responded rapidly by pushing forward on standards, certifications, and accreditations. Related developments from natural and technological hazards to pandemics and terrorism have forced this new focus on building this skills-based profession. The reasons include housing in flood- and fire-prone terrains, deferred maintenance on aging infrastructure, rapid development, climate change, and international threats of terrorism.

In the past, officials with local and short-term perspectives once were unwilling to learn much from disaster history or to plan ahead for the inevitable. This “disaster amnesia” sometimes causes the public to be perpetually surprised that the worst can and occasionally does happen. Thus, the need for the president, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appointees, and all of the agencies that support them to focus on and fully support the crucial roles they play and the extensive expertise that is required to lead in these times. Adequate funding is also a must.

The Increasing Expectations of Presidents

Many articles have been written on this topic through the years. One of the most comprehensive is from Naim Kapucu, Montgomery Van Wart, Richard Sylves, and Farhod Yuldashev, in a 2011 article, entitled “U.S. Presidents and Their Roles in Emergency Management and Disaster Policy 1950-2009.” Although it was published more than five years ago, it still has points worth considering during this time of transition:

The major factors are the ability and willingness to appropriately distinguish the needs and priorities of disaster management apart from civil defense needs and priorities, the selection of well-qualified disaster management leaders with a background in natural and accidental disasters, and the quality of implementation of programs including administrative execution, number and level of presidential disaster declarations, and timely presidential involvement in catastrophes.

Using this framework, two presidents emerged as excellent, three as good, four as average, and two as poor. Interestingly, while some presidents learned from previous executive types of experiences, others did not. While some presidents learned from major catastrophes (focusing events) that occurred just before or during their administrations, others were hard-pressed simply to recover from especially disruptive or new disasters and failed to improve the system as a result. A consistent finding is that the performance of presidents in emergency management has had a growing effect on their overall reputations by the public and experts. Before 1950, presidential roles were extremely modest and expectations almost nonexistent. After Truman and through Reagan, roles increased substantially and expectations were modest. From Clinton through Obama, the roles have continued to increase and expectations have become exceedingly high.

Looking at current areas in which presidential leadership matter the most, there are seven areas for consideration during this fragile period of transition: personal experience, knowledge base, appointments, vision, speech, personal time, and compassion.

Personal Experience

Presidents come from local areas, some of which have frequent disasters. Many presidents have been previous governors, members of Congress, mayors, county executives, or other officials who have personally experienced the importance and process of excellent emergency management. However, that is not a necessity, as every citizen who has experienced a disaster learns quickly that it is a job for solid, experienced, vigorous, and professional emergency managers.

Knowledge Base

Presidents often come to the job with a basic knowledge of emergency management due to these previous experiences. If not, they should take the time to be briefed early in their candidacies on the challenges of risk assessments, preparedness initiatives (planning, training, exercises, technology, standards, certification, accreditation, outreach), mitigation, prevention, protection, response (National Incident Management System, Urban Search and Rescue, Incident Management Assistance Teams, etc.), and recovery. Long-term and community-based recoveries include individual and public assistance, as well as efforts necessary to get the community’s economy working again.


Governance is key – that is, how the president shapes the lumbering federal bureaucracy to address the gravest threats. The early presidential appointments send a strong message about the understanding and respect that a president has for FEMA and DHS. Appointing people with strong related professional experience and recognized expertise to FEMA and DHS, known personally by the president, shows the president’s focus on emergency management and homeland security. It also demonstrates an understanding of the nuanced intergovernmental, interagency, and interdisciplinary processes involved. FEMA refers to this as the “whole of community” organizing concept, which involves national, tribal, state, and local levels of government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and the public. Appointees that are active in organizations such as the National Emergency Management Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers can provide well-versed leadership in the profession.

Opportunities are available to potential appointees in the area of higher education. The FEMA Higher Education Program was launched in 1994 and now includes more than 300 degree and certificate programs, with another 150 such programs in homeland security. Additionally, an accreditation program has been developed: the Council for Accreditation of Emergency Management Education, with a FEMA Focus Group providing guidance for these academic programs.

Knowledge of professional emergency management standards is helpful for related presidential appointees. An outstanding standards and assessment program is administered through the Emergency Management Assessment Program (EMAP), located in Lexington, Kentucky, as part of the Council of State Governments, endorsed by NEMA and IAEM. A majority of states and numerous localities, as well as a number of institutions of higher education, have had their emergency management programs accredited through this process. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an international standards organization, also has recommended standards for emergency management and business continuity, as general guidance, but do not offer accreditation.


The president should reflect a strong vision of how FEMA and DHS will operate in “the new normal” in emergency management and homeland security, with many more natural disasters and human-induced incidents expected. There is no time for learning on the job. For example, William Jefferson Clinton’s administration faced a series of disasters in his first term. In the first months of his first year, the administration faced the Midwest floods (1993); in the second year, the Northridge Earthquake (1994); in the third year, the Kobe Earthquake in Japan, in which Japan requested FEMA advice and counsel, then Oklahoma City Bombing (1995); and in subsequent years a historic Nor’easter storm, a huge hurricane coming up the east coast, numerous tornadoes, and flooding in almost every state.


The public speeches and press conferences that presidents have before, during, and after disasters have enormous impacts on the attitudes and feelings of disaster victims and survivors, as well as on the profession of emergency management or homeland security. It sets the tone for all those impacted and those in surrounding areas, as well as the nation as a whole. Increasingly, these events are covered by traditional media and social media worldwide. The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, for example, houses 150 speeches the president delivered that mentioned emergency management.

Personal Time

Personal visits to disaster sites and to the responding agencies, like FEMA, DHS, Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation sends a strong message of deep caring and understanding. The importance of specific attention by the president to those most directly impacted cannot be overestimated.


The public, in advance of a disaster, appreciates knowing that the president would be, to the extent possible, caring about disastrous events on every one in the country. This kind of soft power of outreach and understanding cannot be overestimated, but is often underestimated. Presidents with compassion tend to be more proactive during disasters. The public, as well as related officials, notice this and take their cues and comfort from such leadership.

In Closing

Disasters are frequent, high profile, and require effective presidential attention. When this does not occur, it is apparent to all. Press coverage will include, and potentially emphasize, any disorganization, oversight, flub, or false start. If presidents let disasters get ahead of them, it is almost impossible to catch up. Applying lessons learned from how past presidents managed disasters will ensure the effective recovery of communities in need and solidify the reputation of president in the eyes of experts and the public.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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