History of Emergency Management

Dating back to the Congressional Act of 1803, Emergency Management has seen many changes and an every evolving array of emergency situations and disaster types that must be prepared for, responded to, recovered from, and mitigated against. While emergencies and disaster start and end at the Local level, Federal actions have had a direct impact on the focus of Emergency Management, organizational support and funding avenues. Emergency Management continues to evolve in a more interconnected world that faces new challenges, such as cyberattacks, while continuously reviewing best practices to help ensure the most efficient and effective response possible.    Below are just some of the milestones in Emergency Management’s history.

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.

First Federal Mitigation Efforts (1900): Funds provided by the U.S. Federal Government raised the elevation of Galveston, Texas 17 feet and to build a seawall to protect Galveston from future floods.

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.

Establishment of the National Weather Service (1950’s): Following the devastations of Hurricanes Hazel, Diane and Audrey along the eastern seaboard and gulf coast, the National Weather Service was created in Miami, Florida to attempt to track potentially dangerous weather events.

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.

The Disaster Relief Act of 1974: Federal legislation that was passed into law that established the process of Presidential Disaster Declarations.

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.

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.

FEMA document detailing additional pieces of the history and evolution of Emergency Management