House bill would put FEMA 'on steroids'

The House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday considered legislation to fix the Federal Emergency Management Agency after it failed last fall in responding to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Policy-makers reviewed the proposed National Emergency Management Reform and Enhancement Act of 2006, a bill boosting FEMA's strength. The bill would beef up FEMA by creating the position of an undersecretary to head the agency. That person would have a direct link to the president in an emergency.

“Moving the furniture is not just good enough,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s top Democrat. “We have to fix the internal controls.”

When the Homeland Security Department was created, it absorbed a weakened FEMA, which was damaged further when the DHS secretary split preparedness duties from response roles.

The bill would establish a cybersecurity and telecommunications office, which would oversee the National Cyber Security Division and the National Communications System.

Other proposed legislation would make FEMA an independent agency.

The legislation would set job requirements regarding experience and expertise for the FEMA undersecretary position. Committee Democrats voiced their annoyance with political appointees, such as former Director Michael Brown, heading FEMA.

“The issue is, do they have the experience,” said Eric Holdeman, director of the Office of Emergency Management in King County, Wash. Holdeman, a supporter of the bill, testified at the committee hearing.

The bill would establish regional offices to coordinate efforts with state and local officials and emergency response providers, instead of having decisions come from Washington, D.C.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former first responder and the bill’s co-sponsor, said the success of disaster response hinges on how local officials react.

The central tenet of the legislation is reunifying preparedness and response functions in FEMA, which would remain part of DHS.

The committee’s legislation “would essentially put FEMA on steroids,” a congressional staff member said.

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