WASHINGTON — Although the U.S. has made significant strides in emergency response since 9/11, experts told a congressional panel Thursday that the country is still lacking appropriate ways to mitigate disasters.
The hearing of a House Homeland Security subcommittee came on the heels of two emergency situations this week: heavy flooding in Colorado and a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington. Witnesses mentioned both events as they stressed the critical need to help communities prepare for emergencies.
“If ever there was a year where we could see the variety of emergencies that can occur, it’s this one,” said Kathy Spangler, vice president of Save the Children, an advocacy group.
The experts all spoke about the importance of strengthening connections between local, regional and federal preparation and response systems.
Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services who testified on behalf of the National Governors Association, said money was only part of the equation.
“It will cost the taxpayers more and more by just throwing responses towards disasters . . . when we could actually reduce the amount that it may cost by . . . making our communities more resilient,” he said.
Other witnesses agreed.
“We oftentimes suffer from a lack of defined processes,” said James Schwartz, the fire chief of Arlington, Va., who represented the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Schwartz said although there has been a push in recent years to focus on local emergency management and build outward, this area needs further strengthening. He recommended increasing the input from fire and emergency responders at the local level. He also said that regional assessment and cooperation among neighboring states would improve efficiency. Localities would then know how they are getting their resources and would be able to respond to hazards specific to them.
The witnesses also said that starting preparedness with the nation’s youth is essential.
According to Save the Children’s 2013 disaster report card, 28 states and the District of Colombia fail to meet one or more of the four basic standards essential for preparedness in schools and childcare facilities; the standards are recommended by the presidentially appointed National Commission on Children and Disasters.
“When it comes to protecting our nation’s children from disaster, America is not prepared,” said Spangler.
Spangler spoke in support of legislation being introduced by Reps. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., that addresses state-level gaps in protecting children in schools. Jeffrey W. Walker, representing the International Association of Emergency Managers, also called the Payne and Thompson bill “a priority.”
Ghilarducci echoed the need to educate children on preparedness, especially, he said, concerning cyber security.
“Cyber security really is the weakest link that is going to be exploited,” he said.
Spangler said the best approach is to focus on growing a generation of prepared adults.
Tim Manning, a top official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that this September – National Preparedness Month – “is all about the children.”