Why FEMA needs a new administrator, now

Former FEMA Administer Craig Fugate and House Homeland Security subcommittee leadership call for new emergency manager for the agency as soon as possible.

Craig Fugate, FEMA

Former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate wants new agency leadership as soon as possible.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs a new, experienced administrator quickly or it could lose some of its forward momentum, said both the agency's former head and lawmakers during a hearing on FEMA's future.

"FEMA is not the place for on-the-job-training," former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told a House Homeland Security Committee's Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee hearing on Feb. 28.

That new administrator, Fugate said, should understand that FEMA's response to disasters and crisis situations "isn't about putting FEMA in charge." Rather, it's about the agency stepping up to help local, state and tribal governments, as well as other federal agencies in those situations.

Fugate, who had been the disaster response agency's administrator since 2009, quietly stepped down in January as the Trump administration took office. While at FEMA, Fugate moved on several fronts to speed and improve the agency's response capabilities, including better harnessing digital media, including smart phone apps that let citizens report problems using photos and GPS coordinates for trouble spots in disaster areas.

The position remains officially vacant. Robert Fenton Jr., the agency's administrator forRegion IX, is FEMA's acting administrator.

Fugate's testimony before the subcommittee marked his first appearance on Capitol Hill since he left the agency.

House lawmakers agreed with the former administrator that the agency needs a seasoned emergency responder to fill the leadership position and to continue its forward momentum.

"We need an experienced manger to lead FEMA," said subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan (R- NY) in opening remarks at the hearing.

Ranking member Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said the new administration must be engaged with FEMA as threats grow and evolve. FEMA's development and work has become increasingly effective post-Hurricane Katrina, he said. A pause in naming a new administrator could slow that momentum, he said.

The new administrator, said Fugate, has to be a person of action not one that waits for information to trickle in during a disaster to make an optimal, precise decision.

They should also be prepared to make mistakes for the right reasons – taking action, he told the panel.

"FEMA can't be an organization that can't take risks," he said. "Action is a strength" that sometimes produces mistakes, he said.

A new administrator can't be afraid of making mistakes for the right reasons, according to Fugate. "Quick, bold action," is better than waiting for more data to come in during a crisis, but the leader "had better be prepared to take the arrows" for honest mistakes made in that action, he said.