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Disasters will happen, and Massachusetts is not prepared for them

Emergency managers not only address climate-related risks, but are also responsible for a growing repertoire of dangers. In recent years, the state has faced boil water orders for E. coli, chemical fires and COVID-19. MEMA was even asked to take care of the migrants sent here from Florida. Every crisis has had emergency managers working behind the scenes to keep residents safe and help them recover.

For more than 15 years I have traveled from disaster to disaster across the country. From New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the levee breach to the Gulf Coast during the BP oil spill of 2010 and Joplin, Mo., after the 2011 tornado. I’ve seen communities struggle, how they deal with the to handle emergency management. This struggle has become even more pronounced now as risk grows and changes. Massachusetts is no different.

Although emergency managers accomplish so much with so little, the way they triage crises is unsustainable. In order for emergency managers to continue meeting the needs of the state and focus on preventing disasters, they need the appropriate resources.

There are two ways lawmakers can provide immediate assistance. First, it can better fund emergency management. The governor’s budget for fiscal year 2024 for MEMA is $4.9 million.

An increase in MEMA’s budget would allow the agency to hire more staff. MEMA currently has 90 full-time employees, which pales in comparison to other states of a similar size. Indiana has 200 full-time positions. There are 139 in Colorado and 127 in Tennessee. More staff means more people can help with projects like B. In providing technical assistance to local communities applying for mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This would be especially helpful for marginalized communities, which are often at higher risk but lack the resources to compete for federal funding compared to whiter, more affluent communities.

A well funded and staffed MEMA will also benefit local emergency management authorities.

For example, the federal government provides each state with annual funds through the Emergency Management Performance Grant that are used for emergency preparedness. Massachusetts’ share is about $8 million annually. Each federal state decides for itself how to spend its share of the funding. Ideally, government agencies would pass the full grant to local emergency management agencies that are underfunded and understaffed. Across the country, EMPG funds support local emergency management agencies. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in Massachusetts. Because the state has underfunded MEMA, it has only been able to pass on about $2.5 million of EMPG funding to local communities annually. MEMA withheld the additional $5.5 million just to keep the lights going.

At a minimum, the Legislature should recommend doubling the governor’s proposed MEMA budget to allow the full $8 million in EMPG funding to be passed on to local emergency management agencies in every community statewide. This would help them hire full-time emergency managers (rather than part-time, which is largely the case today) and do more to mitigate risk and prepare for future disasters. This is especially important because, as we say in emergency management, disasters start and end locally.

In addition to adequate funding for our civil protection authorities, the state must do more to contribute to the professionalization of emergency management. A first step is to ask the legislature to set up a special commission in the field of emergency management. This commission will help officials better understand needs across the state.

As the climate crisis and other risks materialize, the state must have a robust emergency management system in place — at the state and local levels — to prevent the worst and protect residents when disasters inevitably happen.

Samantha L. Montano is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.