IN THE NEWS
Following the blogging breadcrumbs today, I found this interesting proposal for "militarizing" FEMA. The author of the post argues for a military command structure, a la the Coast Guard, while keeping FEMA out of the military's chain of command.
Although I'm bit worried that Americans see the military as omnicapable (it's not), I do see the logic for a "militarized" FEMA. Like police and fire departments, which echo the military model, FEMA needs to mobilize quickly to handle emergencies. Military organizations are usually good at "wargaming" scenarios they'll likely face, identifying flaws, and correcting them. The result, a set of contingency plans that are always sitting on the shelf, ensure a quick response to a crisis.
However, FEMA hs some significant differences from military, police, and fire organizations that might undercut this proposal. First of all, FEMA doesn't have daily operational responsibilities that train their personnel on a daily basis to better handle the bigger emergencies that may arise. Police departments patrol neighborhoods and arrest suspects. Fire departments regularly handle small- to medium-sized fires and accidents involving toxic materials. Military organizations drill their "rank and file" in both general and specialized tasks, provide a highly structured system of training and advancement, and cultivate officers and NCOs through advanced forms of education. FEMA can't reproduce fully these real and simulated experiences that ensure quick and effective responses.
The biggest problem, however, is that FEMA never builds the level of shared experiences that a single regiment, squadron, police department, or fire department does. They can strategize and train to a limited extent with their state, county, and local counterparts, but they'll always be in the same position as the FBI, swooping into a town or city where the locals don't know them.
In other words, FEMA may need to sharpen its collaborative skills, something that a military command structure may not help (and, depending how it's implemented, could definitely hinder). Instead of the kind of master plan FEMA had pre-Katrina, the agency may need to develop smller plns dealing with particular facets of a disaster (flooding, blocked roads, lack of drinking water, alligators, etc.). In that case, FEMA officials will need to be able to assemble the right mosaic of mini-plans, and then move immediately to work with local emergency responders. I'm not sure a "militarization" of FEMA would help achieve that result.