How FEMA Works

FEMA Jobs and Functions
Three FEMA specialists work out of a mobile command center set up at the St. Tammany Parish Emergency Operations Center to assist those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Three FEMA specialists work out of a mobile command center set up at the St. Tammany Parish Emergency Operations Center to assist those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Photo courtesy Win Henderson / FEMA

Prior to the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FEMA performed many of its current functions. In the 1990s, FEMA was made a cabinet-level agency, and the all-hazards aim of the agency was very much in line with overall homeland security functions. However, the 2001 terrorist attacks exposed the need for a more comprehensive agency that would also coordinate border security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Now, FEMA is just one part of the Department of Homeland Security.

FEMA is divided into ten regional offices. These offices work with the states within their region to coordinate disaster mitigation and response. FEMA employs about 2,600 people full-time nationwide, with a reserve of 4,000 more who remain on standby until a disaster strikes.

When a disaster occurs (or prior to it happening, if they have some warning), FEMA starts working with the affected state's Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO). This person is recommended by FEMA and appointed by the president. A Disaster Field Office is set up near the scene of the disaster -- from there, the FCO coordinates relief efforts and works to maintain a flow of information to rescue personnel and political leaders. Federal and state groups work together to provide the necessary relief efforts.

Federal disaster relief is divided into 12 Emergency Support Functions (ESF), each provided by a different agency or agencies. The 12 ESFs are:

ESF 1: Transportation

Provides civilian and military transportation

Lead agency: Department of Transportation

ESF 2: Communications

Provides telecommunications support

Lead agency: National Communications System

ESF 3: Public Works and Engineering

Restores essential public services and facilities

Lead agency: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Defense

ESF 4: Fire Fighting

Detects and suppresses wildland, rural and urban fires

Lead agency: U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture

ESF 5: Information and Planning

Collects, analyzes and disseminates critical information to facilitate the overall federal response and recovery operations

Lead agency: Federal Emergency Management Agency

ESF 6: Mass Care

Manages and coordinates food, shelter and first aid for victims; provides bulk distribution of relief supplies; operates a system to assist family reunification

Lead agency: American Red Cross

ESF 7: Resource Support

Provides equipment, materials, supplies and personnel to federal entities during response operations

Lead agency: General Services Administration

ESF 8: Health and Medical Services

Provides assistance for public health and medical care needs

Lead agency: U.S. Public Health Service, Department of Health and Human Services

ESF 9: Urban Search and Rescue

Locates, extricates and provides initial medical treatment to victims trapped in collapsed structures

Lead agency:Federal Emergency Management Agency

FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force members pose with their rescue dogs in a neighborhood impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
Photo courtesy Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA

ESF 10: Hazardous Materials

Supports federal response to actual or potential releases of oil and hazardous materials

Lead agency: Environmental Protection Agency

ESF 11: Food

Identifies food needs; ensures that food gets to areas affected by disaster

Lead agency: Food and Nutrition Service, Department of Agriculture

ESF 12: Energy

Restores power systems and fuel supplies

Lead agency: Department of Energy

ESF 13: Public Safety and Security

Provides law enforcement services

Lead agency: Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice

ESF 14: Long-Term Community Recovery and Mitigation

Enables community recovery from the long-term consequences of a disaster

Lead agency: Department of Homeland Security/Emergency Preparedness and Response/Federal Emergency Management Agency

ESF 15: External Affairs Annex

Ensures that Federal assets are deployed to the field during incidents requiring a coordinated Federal response

Lead agency: Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency

In the next section, we'll look at some of the problems with FEMA.