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UEMA Online Newsletter
September 2011

Emergency Management: Where Did We Come From ?
by Hugh Daniels, CEM

          When I first started in public safety we often had meetings in the "Civil Defense" building that had storerooms and hallways stacked with left over Korean War MREs, gas masks and radiation detectors to protect us during the Cold War. In many ways the latter days of Civil Defense were the early beginnings of modern emergency management some 30 years ago, but it is not where we started. For that you have to go back over 200 years to 1803.

          The Congressional Act of 1803 is generally considered the first piece of disaster legislation that provided assistance to a New Hampshire town following an extensive fire. In the century that followed, ad hoc legislation was passed more than 100 times in response to natural disasters.

          It wasn´t until the 1930s that the Federal government changed from an ad hoc response to natural disasters. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was given authority to make disaster loans for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities following an earthquake, and later, other disasters. In 1934, the Bureau of Public Roads was given authority to provide funding for highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters. The 1934 Flood Control Act, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greater authority to implement flood control. This piecemeal approach to disaster assistance was problematic and it prompted legislation that required greater cooperation between federal agencies and authorized the President to coordinate these activities.

          The 1960s and early 1970s brought several massive disasters requiring major federal response and recovery operations by the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, established within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These events served to focus attention on the issue of natural disasters and brought about increased legislation including the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act, the 1974 Disaster Relief Act which established the process of Presidential disaster declarations and the Office of Emergency Preparedness. The Office of Emergency Preparedness handled natural disaster planning and response, while the Department of Defense was left with civil defense issues. However, emergency and disaster activities were still fragmented with more than 100 federal agencies involved.

          President Carter's 1979 Executive Order merged many of the separate disaster-related responsibilities into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Among other agencies, FEMA absorbed: the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. Civil defense responsibilities were also transferred to the new agency. It is here that our current jobs as emergency managers started to take shape.

          The Civil Defense buildings and bomb shelters are mostly gone and now we have professional Emergency Managers who are planning, responding, recovering and mitigating all hazards. The job is now a recognized profession with increasing visibility.

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