We are all first responders

Editor’s Note:

The following op-ed was submitted by Lee dePalo, FEMA Region 8 administrator. The region serves Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming and the 28 tribal nations located within those states.

The year 2017 brought high winds, fire and floods to our nation in the form of devastating wildfire and hurricane seasons. These events impacted millions of individuals and families across the country and devastated countless communities. The response to these events challenged the nation’s emergency management capabilities, and recovery efforts will go on for years to come.

FEMA has a central role in both response and recovery efforts as the federal government’s coordinator of emergency management operations. But that role is often misunderstood, with FEMA being viewed as a first responder rather than an extension of state and local capabilities. In reality, when an event occurs, response is led by local leaders and officials, who have the greatest understanding of impacts to a community and have vital local knowledge needed to respond immediately. When local resources are insufficient, the state and ultimately the federal government can be called upon to fill needs and provide financial and technical support.

The disasters of 2017 demonstrated that this country must continue to build up its emergency management capacity at all levels. FEMA continues to hire outstanding individuals who strongly believe in the mission of supporting our communities after a disaster. But that alone is not enough. We must continue to work with our state, local and tribal partners to build capabilities and we must be able to work with each other, whether it be a flood in South Dakota, a wildfire in Montana or a tornado in Colorado.

Even more important may be instilling a culture of preparedness and resiliency within our population. To that end, I believe here in the West we already have a great deal of that in our makeup. In communities across the Plains and Rockies, we understand the importance of helping neighbors and relying on ourselves. Our close-knit communities are one of our greatest advantages when it comes to dealing with natural hazards.

Building a strong national emergency management capability is like building a house brick by brick. There are the bricks for government agencies, for voluntary organizations, the business community, and the individual, with FEMA serving as the mortar. In order to ensure that our communities will be able to withstand and rebuild after any hazard event, it is vital that as Americans we understand that we are all first responders.

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