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The Evolution of Emergency Management and Disaster Response

Posted on Mon, Dec 02, 2013

Historically, emergency management and preparedness has been a reactive science. The industry’s evolution has been the result of catastrophes, calamities, heightened risks, and newly identified threats that affect the population, economic stability, infrastructure, and national resilience. In recent history, disaster awareness through the 24/7-news cycle has intensified the concept of emergency management integration into our daily lives. Through continued awareness and dedicated mitigation advancements, the effects of future disasters can be limited.

Below is a sampling of key events that advanced emergency management and/or disaster response efforts:

Union Fire Company (1736): On a quest to improve fire fighting techniques, Benjamin Franklin organized and led this volunteer fire department to be a city-wide model of fire fighting best practices. Numerous Philadelphia fire companies modeled their operations after the Union Fire Company.

Congressional Act of 1803: One of the first examples of the United States Federal government proactively addressing a local disaster.  The Act enabled the government to provide assistance to a New Hampshire town after an extensive fire.

American Red Cross (1881): Clarissa Harlowe Barton founded the volunteer organization, which has grown into one of the world’s largest volunteer networks. The organization promotes a cooperative effort to protect and enhance lives of individuals in the wake of personal and large scale disasters.

Flood Control Act (1917): Floods on the Mississippi, Ohio, and other rivers in the  northeast  led to the Flood Control Act of 1917, the first act aimed exclusively at controlling floods. In 1934, a version of the legislation increased the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers to design and build flood control projects.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC): On January 22, 1932, the US Congress established and authorized the agency to originate disaster loans for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities following an earthquake, and later, other types of disasters. The 1953 RFC Liquidation Act terminated its lending powers in an effort to fulfill President Dwight Eisenhower’s vision of limiting government’s involvement in the economy. By 1957, its remaining functions had been transferred to other agencies.

Bureau of Public Road: In 1934, the agency was given the authority to provide funding for highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters.

Disaster Relief Act of 1950: Authorized the President of the United States to issue disaster declarations. As a result, the declaration permitted federal agencies to provide direct assistance to state and local governments in the wake of a disaster.

Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950: The threat of nuclear war and its subsequent radioactive fallout precipitated numerous defense legislations.  The Act provided the basic preparedness framework to minimize the effects of an attack on the civilian population and a plan to respond to the immediate emergency conditions created by the attack.2

Office of Emergency Preparedness (1960): As a result of a series of disasters (Hurricane Donna, Hurricane Carla, and a 7.3 Montana earthquake) the Kennedy administration established this agency to oversee the seemingly growing risk of natural disasters.

National Flood Insurance Act of 1968: The legislation was prompted by the unavailability or prohibitively expensive flood insurance coverage.  The Act resulted in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Federal Emergency Management Agency( FEMA):  By 1970, over 100 federal agencies and thousands of state and local entities were involved in risk management and disaster response efforts.  The scattered, fragmented, and decentralized concept led to duplicated efforts, confusion, and political power struggles. FEMA was created to centralize efforts and minimize disorder.

Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90): In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the law created comprehensive prevention, response, liability, and compensation policies for vessel and facilities that could cause oil pollution to U.S. navigable waters.

Federal Response Plan (1992):The plan aimed to provide a systematic process and structure for coordinated delivery of Federal assistance to address the effects of any major disaster or emergency declared under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.3

September 11, 2001: FEMA activates the Federal Response Plan as a response to the worst terrorist attack on the United States. The attacks can be identified as one of history’s turning points for the rapid advancement and coordination of emergency management.

Homeland Security Act of 2002: Was established as a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks in effort to protect the United States from further terrorist attacks, reduce the nation’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential terrorist attacks and natural disasters.  

National Response Plan (2004): Developed out of the need to implement common incident management and response principles. The NRP replaced the Federal Response Plan.

National Response Framework (2008): Through stakeholder feedback, a series of disasters, and subsequent lessons learned, the framework was developed to enhance the principles of the National Response Plan. The changes incorporated the concept that an effective incident response is a shared responsibility of all level of governments, the private sector and NGOs, and individual citizens.4

The above timeline is just a sampling of the historical events that precipitated change in emergency management industry. Lesson learned from recent events like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, massive wildfires, and the earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan will continue to mold response protocols. As history can predict, the 21st century will provide a backdrop for additional improvements to emergency management policies, response efforts, and preparedness. provides an informative infographic detailing various events of the past that have shaped our present, and a nod to anticipated potential threats that create the need for additional preparedness efforts.

1. Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC)
2  Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950
3. Federal Response Plan
4. National Response Framework 

For a free download on the specifics of fire pre-planning, click the image below:

TRP Corp Fire Pre-Plans Pre Fire Plan

Tags: DHS, EHS, Emergency Preparedness, Incident Management, Emergency Response Planning, Department of Homeland Security