Should stricter standards be in place for wildfire disaster funds?

Exploring emergency management solutions to the continual upward trend in government response and recovery spending


By American Military University

In November, President Trump significantly upset many people with his improperly timed and delivered tweet about forest management. His remarks came at a time of grief for many who lost their homes and even loved ones in the Camp Fire or the Woolsey Fire in California.

At some point, however, emergency management must find a solution to the continual upward trend in government response and recovery spending. The Wharton School’s Risk Management and Processes Center published an article on disaster recovery monies spent from FEMA.

The article showed an increase in spending that set record levels in 2017. However, the same article also showed that only a small percentage of the overall recovery funds goes to mitigation efforts, as opposed to rebuilding costs.

Only a small percentage of recovery funds goes to mitigation efforts, as opposed to rebuilding costs. (Photo/courtesy https://morriscountynj.gov)
Only a small percentage of recovery funds goes to mitigation efforts, as opposed to rebuilding costs. (Photo/courtesy https://morriscountynj.gov)

Standards for creating a federal response test

If we had a different test that people would have to pass to qualify for federal response and recovery funds, what would the test look like? Some considerations would be the following:

  • Would we have to exclude people who have located their homes or businesses in harm’s way?
  • Would we need to purchase the fair or limited replacement value of a home or business only once?
  • How would that purchase affect our freedom to build on our own land?
  • Would this be different than current zoning laws?

One suggestion might be to conduct hazard assessments on community areas and determine through a risk management model whether there is a high probability that a rebuilt structure would be subject to a similar risk and the probability of destruction. As a result, there would be no coverage for the area after the initial payout.

Hazard assessments would allow a home or business owner to gain a predetermined value for the property in exchange for deeding the land to the government with rebuilding restrictions. Consequently, a home or business owner would know in advance that the property would be replaced at a certain value only once. The owner would not be allowed to rebuild on the same site a second time.

Some people might argue that such a regulation would reduce the resale value of the property. However, we must consider that some home and business owners might have sufficient finances and not need federal replacement financing. Depending on the location of their property, they might accept the loss of federal money.

It would then be the responsibility of local and state emergency management agencies to perform annual checks to ensure that populated areas meet prescribed criteria prior to a disaster.

While emergency management is rarely thought of as an enforcement agency, this would be a way for local emergency managers to connect with residents. Typically, emergency managers must relay safety messages to the community, but they would then have the ability to ensure compliance with set standards.

Privatization of prevention, response and mitigation

A recent article noted that private firefighters were hired to protect high-value properties during the recent Woolsey Fire, which affected many homes in the wealthy Malibu community near Los Angeles. While this practice was seen as the rich affording a different level of fire protection, could it be a possible solution in the future?

Let’s say that a homeowner chooses to locate or purchase a property in an area that is prone to a natural disaster like a wildfire. Could the homeowner hire a team of fire specialists to examine the location and suggest and/or perform mitigation efforts, teach the homeowner how to prepare for a fire, and respond to that location when a wildfire breaks out?

Is this the type of program insurance companies will use to reduce their risk rather than not insure properties at all, as some companies have done? After all, insurance companies admit they are in the business of making money; they do so by pooling risks and by not writing high-risk policies.

One difficulty in managing privatized prevention services would be the role of emergency management command and control. Some considerations might be:

  • Will the incident command team account for these privatized forces?
  • Who will give the orders to evacuate?
  • Will any liability transfer back to the municipality for property losses?
  • Will the command team be liable for any deaths or injuries of the private firefighters?

This firefighting model raises numerous issues that need to be addressed. However, as municipal, state and federal government resources are limited, privatization could be a feasible solution.

New ways of avoiding financial losses to public funds must be found

We must find a new way of combating repeated losses that drain funds and cost taxpayers unsustainable amounts. If it becomes necessary to find a new method of disaster mitigation and response that is effective in reducing property losses, we will not have to live with the thought that we failed to save lives. This is the true loss as emergency management agencies continue to encounter and combat disasters.

About the author

Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control.” Randall serves as the executive chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a taskforce leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the vice-chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a fire officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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