The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be best known for coordinating rescue efforts after natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, but it’s now entering new territory: coronavirus response.
President Trump announced on March 18 that FEMA is “now fully engaged at the highest levels” with a Level 1 status. This means that more than 50 FEMA teams are preparing to support regions across the country. According to a FEMA spokesperson, FEMA is dedicating its efforts to “activate their emergency operations centers and address the COVID-19 threat.”
Why Is FEMA Getting Involved?
In the past, FEMA has always concentrated on working with state and local governments hit hardest by natural disasters. But there’s nothing barring FEMA from responding to other sorts of national emergencies. As former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Juliette Kayyem explained, “All of this could have been done before. We have a saying in emergency management… go big or stay home.”
A FEMA Level 1 activation calls for full staffing and all emergency support functions and interagency liaisons. The FEMA website describes the conditions warranting Level 1 activation: “Due to its severity, size, location, actual or potential impact on public health, welfare, and infrastructure, the incident requires an extreme amount of direct Federal assistance for response and recovery efforts.”
How Will FEMA Help?
Water bottles, generators, and other standard FEMA preparations won’t be the focus over the next few weeks and months. Instead, “FEMA now leads federal coordination on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Task Force who are leading the whole-of-government response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,” according to a spokesperson.
This allows state governors to request essential supplies from FEMA’s vast resources and receive reimbursement from the federal government on certain emergency actions. Government leaders, healthcare workers, and citizens alike can now count on FEMA to bolster America’s response to the COVID19 outbreak in many different ways:
- Provide necessary resources that are in short supply and high demand
- Deploy personnel where needed most
- Coordinate between agencies quickly and efficiently
- Set up coronavirus testing centers
Washington state, for example, has already requested face masks, surgical gloves and gowns, and other essential medical tools. Even though FEMA doesn’t keep medical supplies in stock, the organization is best equipped to procure them quickly.
As FEMA puts its personnel on the front lines of this national crisis, exact response strategies are continually evolving. This is the first time that FEMA has responded to a health emergency in this capacity. During outbreaks of Zika, H1N1, and SARS the FEMA organization held only a supporting role to the HHS.
Now the President’s emergency declaration has allowed FEMA to step into a new and incredibly important role. As Trump explained to the American people, “FEMA is fully engaged at the highest levels…. This is a very different kind of work for FEMA, but they will come through as they always do.”