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A History of Emergency Management

A History of Emergency Management

Ancient people responded to natural disasters by inventing frameworks to explain the origin of those disasters.  This was, in a way, a response, because they saw it as a first step toward preventing future disasters.  According to the folklore of the Hawaiian Islands, for example, when the goddess who controlled the volcanoes became angry, she caused molten lava to pour forth from an otherwise quiet mountaintop.  Surveys of other cultures reveal parallels, and we of course know these frameworks today as myths.   Although such supernatural explanations of disasters still exist throughout the world, scientific views of such events have gained ground as are the basis for the modern profession of emergency management.

One of the earliest instances of such efforts was in response to the great fire of London, which struck in 1666.  During a five-day period, 13,200 house, over 90 churches, the Royal Exchange, the Customs House, government buildings, and numerous hospitals and libraries burned to the ground.  Nearly two-thirds of what was then the world's largest city was destroyed.  The losses of 1666 stimulated the gradual adoption of two of the most important forms of non-structural mitigation ever devised - building codes and insurance.  In 1752, nearly a century after the great fire of London, Benjamin Franklin founded the first successful fire insurance company in America.

In 1803, American responses to disasters took a significant turn, starting the pattern of federal involvement that continues today.  After the first of three great fires to sweep through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recovery efforts severely taxed community and state resources.  An appeal to Congress brought the first piece of national disaster legislation.  Congress responded similarly many times during the following decades.

The greatest disaster in the history of the United States happened in September of 1900, when a hurricane literally submerged Galveston Island.  In the city of Galveston alone, at least 6,000 people died, nearly half the homes were swept out of existence, and not a single building went undamaged.  Including the destruction outside the city itself, as many as 12,000 people may have died and well over 3,500 structures destroyed.  The Galveston hurricane was a far greater disaster than better-known events such as the Chicago fire of 1871, which killed 250 people, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which killed 480, or the Johnstown (PA) flood in 1889, which claimed over 2,200 lives.  Between 1803 and 1950, more than 100 disasters of various types across the nation were fought with federal resources.

The early years of the 20th Century brought weapons of great destructive power, and the horrors of chemical warfare and civilian bombing in Europe spurred U. S. efforts to organize for civil defense.  In 1916, Congress enacted the U. S. Army Appropriations Act, the first legislation pertaining to civil defense.  This act established the Council of National Defense (CND).  The CND established the War Industries Board and encouraged states to create state defense councils.  The state councils were encouraged, in turn, to create local defense councils.

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a statement on espionage requesting that all citizens, including state and local officials, turn over relevant information to the FBI.  The FBI began surveying plants that were under contract to manufacture defense materials and prepared a plant protection manual for use by local police chiefs.  Shortly after making his statement, Roosevelt established an Office of Emergency Management.  As the world crisis intensified, the coordination responsibilities of the OEM were expanded.  For example, it coordinated a wide range of defense-related housing.  In 1941, Roosevelt abolished the CND and established the Office of Civil Defense within the Office of Emergency Planning.  Like its predecessor, the OCD was linked with what was by then a nationwide network of 44 state and 1,000 local defense councils.  Between 1945 and 1949, various agencies undertook studies of civil defense.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman appointed the president of Northwestern Bell Telephone Company to direct the newly formed Office of Civil Defense Planning.

In the early 1950s, there was shift in civil defense policy.  A "Blue Book" report proposed that "...the operational responsibility of civil defense would rest with state and local governments and the federal government would assist in ways it believed to be appropriate."  The report also recommended that legislation be submitted to Congress establishing a federal civil defense administration that would report directly to the President.  In December of 1949, President Harry S. Truman established the Federal Civil Defense Administration.

Given this backdrop, let's examine some of the specific events that shaped civil defense, emergency preparedness and emergency management philosophies and programs at the local, state and federal level within the past 50 years of civil defense and emergency management in America.


Although largely viewed as an animal of the 1950s, "civil defense" had been around for years.  There are documented references to the protection of the nation against attackers, and even some mentions of state and federal level response to natural disasters as far back as the 1920s.  While the protection of the nation itself (i.e., the nation's borders) was considered the domain of the federal government, specifically the War Department, response to natural disasters during this period was almost universally the responsibility of local governments.

With respect to the protection of the nation against attackers, there was no organized mechanism for the protection of the civilian population during wars for a great many years, including those fought on American soil (e.g., the Civil War).  Even after World War I, there was never any concentrated, organized attempt to address the protection of the population because it was largely assumed that no one could launch any significant, direct attacks on the vast U. S. land mass.  The Dust Bowl years of the late 1920s and early 1930s saw the first organized attempts by the federal government to provide some type of "disaster assistance" to people who's farms had been largely wiped out by the events that took place during that period.

With the advent of World War II, and the fact that, again, all of the battles and invasions took place on the soil of other countries, there still was no serious discussions given to civil defense.  Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, a great many individual communities, especially along the west coast, began to give some thought to the possibility of being attacked by aircraft or amphibious forces of Japan.  Many of these communities organized civil defense units and issued regulations outlawing leaving lights on after dark and reporting suspicious activities of people. 

Although it happened late in the war, the discovery that Adolph Hitler was developing a missile capable of being launched from a site several hundred miles away would become the first in a series of events that would culminate in the creation of an organized, federal civil defense program.  When you combine this with the advent of the atomic bomb development by the United States, the development of long-range bombers, and the subsequent developments in inter-continental missile capabilities, it was not terribly hard to see that there would eventually be a threat to the U. S. homeland.  So long as only the United States had these weapons, everything was fairly calm.  Once the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb in the 1949, however, all bets were off, and there was serious concern about the possibility that Russia might attack the United States.  Thus, in late 1949, President Harry Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA).


On December 1, 1950, President Harry Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) [EO 10186] within what was called the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), attached to the Executive Office of the President.  OEM's purpose up to that point had been largely to provide the President with a mechanism to monitor emergencies and disasters that affected the United States, and offered no direct assistance to state or local governments.  Congress quickly picked up on this, and passed the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 [64 Stat. 1245].  On January 12, 1951, the FCDA was made an independent agency of the federal government, and absorbed the functions of what had been called the National Security Resources Board (NSRB).  The NSRB had been created by the National Security Act of 1947, and was created to "advise the president on mobilization coordination of the United States" during times of war, specifically the buildup of industrial capabilities and the stockpiling of "critical" national security materiel.  NSRB also laid the groundwork for the development of CONELRAD, the emergency warning system predecessor to the Emergency Broadcast System (and today, the Emergency Alert System).

On September 30, 1950, Congress passed the Federal Disaster Relief Act, which was designed primarily to allow the federal government to provide some limited assistance to the states during times of disaster.  This function was assigned to the Executive Office of the President (EOP), where it remained (in various incarnations) until 1973.  The federal Office of Defense Mobilization (ODM) was created by EO 10193, on December 16, 1950, to coordinate federal mobilization activities (initially for wartime activities), and ODM inherited the disaster relief coordination responsibilities in another EO [10427], dated January 6, 1953.  Another agency, the Defense Production Administration (DPA) was created by EO 10200, January 3, 1950, to exercise general control of the defense production program.

Confused?  No doubt.  So was just about everyone else at all levels of government during this period.  The distinction between wartime-type civil defense activities and natural disaster relief activities and their attendant philosophies would serve to create friction in many different ways even through the 1980s.  Civil defense workers were concerned with the protection of the civilian population from the effects of a hostile attack against the country, had "national security" status, and dealt with critical production issues, etc.  Disaster relief was seen by CD workers as an unrelated, benign task best left to others.

In their original incarnation, Civil Defense programs sought to develop sheltering capabilities to house people in attacked cities.  Civil defense planners, however, were also developing mass evacuation plans for supposed targets of the USSR.  Planners naturally assumed that major cities, defense production facilities, major power plants, etc., would be targeted by the Russians in their attempt to take over the continental U. S., and sought to develop elaborate plans for the evacuations of populations from these areas.  Detailed population and traffic routing studies were undertaken at all levels, including here in Tennessee, in an effort to determine how long it would take to evacuate a city such as Memphis for example.  The entire population of the city of Memphis was to be relocated among some 30 counties in western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas, southeastern Missouri, and northern Mississippi.  There were three main considerations that led planners to believe this would have been a viable option at the time:

1.         The massive development and suburbanization of the country's cities had yet to begin in earnest, so there were few massive neighborhoods or population points in any given area outside the main body of the main city,

2.         It was generally assumed that there would be a "buildup" of tensions between the United States and Russia (or any other country that might wish to launch an attack).  Planners frequently spoke of this buildup in terms of weeks or several days.

3.         In a worst-case scenario (i.e., no-notice attack), it would take at least 6 hours for a Russian bomber to reach the radars established by the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) along the northern portion of the country.  There were no missiles with the capability of reaching the U. S at this time.

All of these combined to suggest to evacuation planners that mass evacuations of large cities could be undertaken successfully in the event of a war with Russia.  A great many people at all levels of government believed that such evacuations were not possible, and Congress refused to provide any substantial funding for any civil defense program, let alone funds needed for major relocation studies.  A good deal of the funding went toward the development of sheltering programs, including the study of existing buildings for use as shelters, and the development of concepts and guidance for the building of underground shelters at individual homes.

In 1953, under Reorganization Plan # 3  (June 12), functions of the former NSRB were removed from FCDA, and along with programs of the existing ODM, FPA, and other disaster and emergency relief responsibilities of the EOP, were consolidated into a new Office of Defense Mobilization, housed within the Executive Office of the President.  The FCDA would concentrate solely on preparing the civilian population for a nuclear attack, while the new ODM would assume all responsibilities related to domestic emergency preparedness and development of the nation's civilian capability to ramp up and go to war.   The CONELRAD program was transferred to a newly created office called the Assistant Director of Telecommunications, who was to be a part of the new ODM.

During the 1953-1958 time period, there continued to be arguments over whether evacuation or sheltering was to be the nation's policy regarding response to a nuclear attack.  There was vigorous debate in Congress, in the Executive Branch, and even among individuals charged with the responsibility of managing the civil defense and ODM programs.  The general public had largely grown tired of civil defense anyway, however, due to the political face put on by the Eisenhower Administration about maintaining a peaceful coexistence with the Russians.  That would soon change, however.  The development of intercontinental ballistic missile capability and the subsequent launch of the Sputnik satellite, along with the Soviet Union's explosion of a hydrogen bomb once again fueled fears of the potential for a Russian attack on the United States.  This time, however, the evacuation planners had to confront the fact that a Soviet missile could reach the U. S. in a few minutes, and that we may not have "several hours" to carry out an evacuation.

In 1958, the major civil defense and emergency preparedness programs at the federal level were reorganized.  Under Reorganization Plan # 1 [July 1, 1958], the FCDA and the ODM were consolidated into a single agency, the Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization (ODCM), which was to be housed in the Executive Office of the President.  It was during this period that the Federal Civil Defense Act was amended to allow the federal government to provide funding for civil emergency preparedness.  The federal government would provide 50/50 matching funds to personnel and administration costs for agencies engaged in civil defense preparedness.  The concept of a joint federal-state-local responsibility for civil defense and attack preparedness was also articulated in guidance distributed by the new ODCM. 


Despite all of these developments, the general public at large had begun to grow weary of the "Duck and Cover" clips, and the occasional discussions about civil defense at local community group meetings.  There was growing realization that an evacuation of major cities in the shadow of a nuclear attack was not feasible, so the primary emphasis continued to be centered around fallout shelters.

In 1961, however, President John F. Kennedy, sensing that the overwhelming majority of state and local governments were doing little if anything to develop a sheltering capability, decided to make civil defense preparedness once again a central issue.  Kennedy once again separated out "civil defense" functions and other emergency preparedness functions into two agencies.  Executive Order 10952 moved the CD functions into and Office of Civil Defense (OCD) within the Department of Defense, and assigned to the Secretary of Defense.  A full-fledged nationwide shelter program, funded by the federal government was developed, resulting in engineering studies of existing structures, the acquisition and deployment of shelter stockpiles (i.e., the crackers and other goods one could find in the basements of these so-designated facilities).  This moved "civilian" defense into the military arena, but it was widely believed that the Defense Department had the resources to undertake such a massive logistics program associated with the development of the sheltering program.

What remained of the emergency preparedness programs was transferred to a newly created Office of Emergency Planning (OEP), which became responsible for all civilian emergency preparedness activities, including resource utilization, disaster relief, economic stabilization, post-attack rehabilitation, and continuity of government functions.  Still we have the separation of CD and other emergency functions at the federal level.  In 1968, this office was renamed the Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962 woke everyone up to the renewed possibility of a nuclear attack upon the United States.  This incident served to bolster the Defense Department's budget requests for accelerated shelter program development, and this was reflected somewhat in the next budget.  Once again, however, the following years would see a dearth of funding for such programs, especially given that with the removal of missiles from Cuba, and the newly developing war in Vietnam, there was once again little interest in the prospect of nuclear attack.


In the early 1970s, under intense pressure from Governors of the states and others who believed that the concept of separated civil defense and emergency preparedness functions was outdated, the federal level organizations moved toward allowing the dual-use of civil defense funds and equipment to be utilized for natural disaster preparedness.   In 1971, the OCD was renamed to the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (DCPA), but retained its basic functions, and the OEP remained intact within the Executive Office of the President.  DCPA continued to provide 50/50 matching funds for the "dual-use" concept of civil defense/emergency preparedness at the state and local level.  The only visible change at DCPA was that their personnel would now assist state and local governments in developing plans for natural disaster as well as nuclear attacks.  Despite the relatively peaceful relationship between the Soviet Union and the U.S., the decision was made to maintain a modest civilian defense program.

Reorganization Plan # 1, April 20, 1970 transferred the responsibility for the CONELRAD system to the Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) within the EOP.  CONELRAD was also renamed the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).  OTP was later absorbed into the Office of Science and Technology Policy, also within the EOP (1978).

On July 1, 1973, Reorganization Plan # 2 took another step backward with the re-delegation of a wide variety of disaster and emergency preparedness activities amongst a tremendous number of disparate federal agencies.  All coordination of federal agency response to major disasters was to be housed at the General Services Administration, specifically in the Federal Preparedness Agency (FPA), and GSA would also create several other internal divisions for other functions related to emergency preparedness.  All coordination of federal disaster relief activities was transferred to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where it was housed in the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration.  HUD also housed the Federal Insurance Administration (FIA), which had been created in 1968 to provide flood, riot and crime insurance (in the wake of the race riots of the late 1960s).  The Defense Department maintained the DCPA in its original form, largely unchanged by the reorganization plan.

The Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 also created two additional emergency preparedness organizations within the Department of Commerce.  The National Fire Prevention and Control Administration (NFPCA) was to assist states and localities in the development of fire prevention and control programs, while the National Academy of Fire Prevention and Control (NAFPC) was to develop model training programs for fire service personnel.  NFPCA later became the United States Fire Administration in 1978 (still housed in DOC), and the NAFPC and would become the National Fire Academy in that same year.

The 1970s saw a dramatic rise in the number of emergencies and disasters that affected the country's states and localities.  The increasing presence of hazardous materials in local communities and in the transportation corridors led to serious hazmat incidents.  Chief among them were the Bromine release in Rockwood, TN, in 1977 and the LPG explosion in Waverly, Tennessee, in February of 1978.  The years 1973-1975 saw dramatic increases in severe weather damages, especially in 1974, where hundreds of people were killed in a series of violent tornado outbreaks across the Midwest.  Major flooding events impacted Tennessee in 1977, there were a couple of major dam failures, and the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant experienced a major malfunction.  For a brief period of time, the federal government allowed the states to treat natural disaster preparedness as their primary role with respect to the use of federal civil defense funds.  This changed again, however, following the ascendancy of Gerald Ford to the Presidency, and once again, states were required to treat planning for a nuclear attack as their primary function.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and consolidated several dozen, disparate emergency preparedness and civil defense functions into a single entity.  Although that sounds efficient, many of these organizations continued to function as their own organization within the new agency, and for many years the "civil defense" and "national security" planners were distinct from those that assisted state and local governments in preparing for and responding to disasters.  FEMA and its programs would become the basis for state and local emergency preparedness and civil defense programs for the next 20 years.


With the creation of FEMA in 1979, the federal government consolidated several dozen emergency-related programs spread across a multitude of departments into a single entity. Its function was supposed to be the coordination of federal response to disasters and the provision of planning and programmatic assistance to state and local governments in the development of mechanisms to protect the civilian population from all threats.  The consolidation of these programs, however, was only cosmetic in nature.  Those personnel who had been associated with national security issues remained compartmented, and FEMA directors through the first Bush administration steered the agency toward "black" and "secret" national security programs such as continuity of government, relocation of executive branch personnel, etc.  Response to civilian disasters and assistance to state and local governments took a back seat to these programs. 

Those within FEMA's civilian programs, however, began to formulate a concept known as "Comprehensive Emergency Management" or CEM.  CEM refers to the responsibility for managing response to all types of disasters and emergencies through the coordination of multiple agencies or entities.  One of the concepts of CEM was the division of emergency activity into four "phases", specifically mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.  These phases can be consistently applied across any type of disaster, whether it is man-made, natural, or even attack-related. The Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS) was also developed during this period.  IEMS emphasized the application of "all-hazard" planning for responding to disasters, and FEMA began to allow state and local agencies to focus primarily on natural and technological disasters that affected their communities, and allowed them to relegate nuclear attack planning to the back burner.

In 1984, a methyl isocyante leak in Bophal, India, killed thousands of people and focused attention in the United States on what kinds of chemicals were being stored in local communities.  As a result of the Bophal tragedy and several high-profile chemical events that occurred in the United States, the U. S. Congress passed the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act in 1986 (SARA).  SARA required any facility that manufactured, used, stored or processed certain kinds and quantities of chemicals to report information about them to local and state emergency officials, and this information was to be made available to the general public.  This would allow community residents to know what kinds of chemicals were being used or stored near their homes, schools, and businesses. 

Disasters, of course, continued to occur and began to attract much more intense media interest.  Major hurricanes such as Hurricane Hugo and earthquakes such as those in Loma Prieta focused attention on the shortcomings in federal assistance to state and local governments.  The overwhelming scope of these events focused attention on the need for a federal "response" role - a concept foreign to the recovery role that FEMA had long played.  FEMA began work on a Federal Response Plan for a Catastrophic Earthquake in California.  Over time this would evolve into a full-fledged, national government response plan known simply as the Federal Response Plan, or FRP.  Unfortunately, the FRP had not been implemented prior to the landfall of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The federal response to this event, perhaps more than any other, focused attention on the need for FEMA to "reinvent" itself.


The 1990s brought with it the "reinvention of government."  Perhaps no other agency was more suited to the "poster child" of this concept than FEMA.  Upon his appointment as director, James Lee Witt set out to remodel the agency and to make it more attuned to the needs of the state and local governments.  FEMA went from being the agency everyone liked to complain about to being one of the more responsive and capable agencies in the federal government - a complete, 180-degree turnaround from the 1992 Hurricane Andrew debacle.

Mr. Witt also changed the focus of emergency management so that hazard mitigation was now the foundation of emergency preparedness at all levels of government.  Recognizing that it was pointless and costly to simply rebuild homes in areas that flooded every other year, his approach was to provide federal and state funds to buy out homeowners in these areas and turn them into parks, golf courses, and other facilities that, if flooded suffered little if any consequential loss.  It was much cheaper in the long run, the theory is, to buy out and relocate a homeowner than to have to rebuild his home every other year.  This mitigation cornerstone remains in place today

Mr. Witt also streamlined the disaster assistance processes of FEMA so that now, when FEMA is called upon to provide temporary housing funds to disaster victims for example, it takes just a couple of days to get money to them.  This stands in stark contrast to the 4-6 WEEKS it took just 8 years ago.  FEMA has also shifted from requiring states to perform certain, specific things in exchange for the funding they receive from the agency, to a program that allows the state to decide which disasters and emergencies affect it most heavily, and develop a program that addresses those issues.  This allows the states to concentrate on those types of situations it is most likely to encounter rather than those that are never likely to occur.

Perhaps fittingly, the decade of the 90s closed out with the most prepared-for non event in history - the Y2K "glitch."  There was a concern that many of the computer systems in the world that run everything from coffee makers to ATMs to the national defense mechanisms might not be able to interpret the last two zeros in a 2-digit date as the year 2000, instead believing it to be 1900.  Thousands of "experts" flooded the media preaching gloom and doom and the end of the world or civilization as we knew it.  Some people even bought houses way out in the backwoods, stocking them with huge quantities of rations just to be on the safe side in case anarchy ensued.  Fortunately, through the dedicated work of thousands of computer professionals, little happened that required the attention of emergency services professionals.  The State Emergency Operations Center was activated, however, staffed by about two dozen personnel just in case something did happen.  Nothing did, of course, but the staff did enjoy watching the Y2K celebrations from around the globe.

The agency continues to focus on natural and common technological disasters.  Today, however, the agency is also forced to focus on such things as domestic preparedness (counter-terrorism), critical infrastructure protection (protection of the state's transportation, utility, communications, financial, public health, and governmental systems) and a wide array of other threats that just ten years ago weren't even on the radar scope.

See the Emergency Management Timeline