With Gustav, Hanna, and Ike just behind us and many more letters of the alphabet still to go, the GAO’s report Voluntary Organizations:  FEMA Should More Fully Assess Organizations’ Mass Care Capabilities and Update the Red Cross Role in Catastrophic Events asks what the federal government’s role should be in coordinating between disaster management providers (i.e. voluntary organizations) during times of crisis.

As the report points out, “State and local governments generally have the principal responsibility for meeting mass care and other needs in g to a disaster; however, governments largely carry out this responsibility by relying on the services provided by voluntary organizations.”

Should FEMA be responsible for laying out the duties for which organizations, such as the Red Cross, would be responsible?  Should the federal government take a larger role in orchestrating the coordination of voluntary organizations when a disaster strikes?

FEMA agrees with some of the GAO’s recommendations including: establishing a time frame for updating the role of the American Red Cross in the Catastrophic Incident Supplement, which describes the federal vision a national response to catastrophic disaster, and clarifying federal guidance to states on potential recipients of preparedness grants.  However, FEMA disagreed on their role in incorporating voluntary organizations’ capabilities in assessments – citing that the government cannot command and control private sector resources.  (Like bailing out the private financial sector?)

Good commentary on the report is offered in the NY Times, the Post, and CNN.

With hurricane season barely underway and the Red Cross asking for $150 million in federal aid for victims of Gustav and Ike, its a good time to acknowledge that disaster management can not be handled by one organization.  Voluntary organizations, along with local, state, and federal assistance is needed.  Without an assessment of what each participant can manage in a disaster, the government will have an incomplete picture of available resources.  Assessing capabilities does not automatically imply a need to control these resources – rather it is an example of cooperation, in obtaining and sharing information.

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