Reply to Question Posed Last Week

Last week I posted the question To what extent does FEMA assess the capabilities of all of the states and territories prior to a disaster? And how adequate are their assessments?

A few days later I got this useful explanation from Joel Palmer, Acting Branch Chief
Preparedness and Analysis Branch, National Preparedness Division
FEMA Region IX.  It is as follows:

You raised the question of what FEMA does to assess the capabilities of jurisdictions, and the main thing on the preparedness side is the THIRA and SPR (threat and hazard identification and risk assessment, state preparedness report). These are linked assessments with the THIRA serving as a risk and resource requirement assessment and the SPR serving as a capability assessment. THIRA has been a requirement for grantees under either EMPG or HSGP (including SHSGP, UASI, and THSGP) for the last five years and SPR has been a requirement on states and territories since PKEMRA. In their current forms the two assessments link and provide a good self-assessment of jurisdictional capability, with the caveat that the data is more complete for states and territories than for tribes and urban areas as the SPR requirement only covers the former.

The THIRA is a four step process, outlined in CPG-201, that has jurisdictions 1) identify their threats and hazards of concern; 2) provide details and context for the most significant threats and hazards; 3) develop Core Capability targets based on the impacts of those threats and hazards and the jurisdictionally-identified desired outcomes for each Core Capability; and 4) estimate some of the resources required to meet the targets. The next piece, the SPR, has jurisdictions rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 for each of their targets, assessing where they may have gaps across the capability elements of planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercises. There are additional contextual questions and details, but that’s the broad overview. (NOTE – details of both assessments and the contextual pieces can be found at

The regions and FEMA HQ use the assessments in a number of different ways. The most publicly visible is the annual National Preparedness Report, which looks across the nation at the 32 Core Capabilities, identified areas of progress, areas for focus, and other trends and key information. That report is submitted to the White House in the spring of each year as required in Presidential Policy directive 8 – National Preparedness. Another primary way HQ uses the data is to build pre-event assessments by looking at specific hazards (e.g. – a Caribbean hurricane) through the jurisdictional lens by seeing which events they included in their assessments would be applicable, what the primary Core Capabilities of interest for that hazard are, and what details the jurisdiction included in their assessment. That report can then be used to help decision-makers anticipate the requests for assistance that are more likely to come from the jurisdiction. A final way we’ve used the assessments at the regional level is to compare the jurisdictional hazards and assessments to regional planning and identify any differences that might exist. For example – many of the joint region-jurisdiction plans use scenarios that are larger and more catastrophic than the jurisdictional THIRA does. This is reasonable, since the THIRA is supposed to assess the jurisdictional capability and capacity and a catastrophic event that results in the jurisdiction needing extensive outside assistance wouldn’t be a good way to judge internal resources.

As I said, these are self-assessments and that’s a concern that has been identified by Congress and is being addressed by HQ. In coordination with the regions and jurisdictions a large portion of 2017 was spent reviewing potential changes to the methodology, testing out proposals with the jurisdictions, and getting feedback. All of this was done with the goal of moving towards a more objective assessment but without generating a massive additional workload on jurisdictions. One good aspect of the current assessments is that the methodology has been stable long enough that we’re able to see some trends emerging, which can be used at all levels to identify where investments have supported increased capability and where further focus might be needed.

Unfortunately, as the current disasters have illustrated, no assessment is perfect. My hope is that the updates to the processes that we’ve already been discussing, informed by the after action analysis from the 2017 hurricane season and other recent events will help us improve the assessments both in terms of what the jurisdictions are asked to provide and what we do with the data once collected, including continuing efforts to align efforts across program lines (e.g. – including mitigation hazard analysis data when assessing jurisdictional and national preparedness).

Thanks again for the asking the question, and I hope this explanation of the existing processes can help inform the conversation on what we should be doing and could be doing better.

Joel Palmer
Acting Branch Chief
Preparedness and Analysis Branch
National Preparedness Division
FEMA Region IX
Phone: 510-627-7193
Cell: 510-333-1349

4 thoughts on “Reply to Question Posed Last Week

  1. Great question and appreciate FEMA’s response. The idea of assessing capability is a good one, but the current THIRA/SPR process needs work. The process is not very intuitive or user-friendly and has led many to view it as a “check the box” exercise.

    My cohort at the EMI Executive Academy examined THIRA and other efforts to assess preparedness, see the link below for an article about our work if anyone is interested.

    • Amen! The taxpayers need accountability. I commend FEMA for their many attempts through the years to account for the money, etc., allocated to State and local jurisdictions. i recall first hand the annual reporting process from my years as a local director. The self assessment factor did not then and does not now make the compiled reports of value in my opinion.

      A few years back the EIIP hosted a webinar on the THIRA — i was not impressed with the overview and remember feeling very grateful I was no longer a local EM. As a former contractor I understand how these things get developed – many times by people who know nothing about the program. Even FEMA personnel in some cases have little understanding of the overall program other than the division they work in. It is difficult to find people with background and expertise that encompasses all three levels of the program. The same thing applies to State and local levels. One size does not fit all in this business, therefore, bureaucratic requirements and forms don’t always make sense and may not work in terms of paperwork and actual content or relevance.

      With that, hopefully a means of accountability based on the real world and needs of local programs will come to fruition with time. I am still a local EM at heart and feel for people in the business and wish them well – FEMA included.

  2. It is helpful when FEMA staff explain some of their programs and systems. Several FEMA staffers read this blog, and I appreciate their interest and clarification.

    Interesting point about the FEMA Administrator having experience in several sectors of society. That seems like a good idea.

  3. Thought it was nice and helpful that FEMA reached out to provide insight into how emergency management capability assessments are performed by the federal agency. While I did not fully understand the response (way too much technical jargon and bureaucratic alphabet soup use) what was important was the effort to directly communicate with the emergency management community. Your blog does a great job reaching many front line emergency managers so FEMA was wise to use it as a means to communicate their message.

    I am encouraged with the recent performance of FEMA, however much more needs to be done in order for FEMA to become an effective and responsive agency. Firmly believe that part of their recent success is a result of having an administrator who has both state and private sector experience which allows for a fulll appreciation of the importance of delivering meaningful services to those in need. Hopefully Brock Long will remain focused on what is important and will not become part of the Washington DC establishment which conveniently forgets or ignores those impacted by disaster, which sadly was the fate of the previous FEMA administrator.

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