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Congress extends work on emergency management reforms.

With Senate-appointed conferees already chosen for the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007 (HR 5441), and the House conferees still being considered, both bodies continued to take action to enhance federal emergency management programs before adjourning for the Congressional summer recess.

Before the August break, a Senate panel approved legislation that would make changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the full House voted to establish an emergency communications office at DHS.

Another Senate panel held a hearing on emergency preparedness and response under the Stafford Act--which authorized federal emergency disaster response activities and aid--with witnesses representing several federal agencies and emergency managers.

In House action to adopt the 21st Century Emergency Communications Act of 2006 (HR 5852) and in action by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to pass the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (S. 3721), emergency communication would be headed by an assistant secretary. This official would have authority to deny homeland security grants for interoperability efforts if state and local governments do not submit proper plans or do not meet voluntary equipment standards.

The legislation responds to communications problems faced by first responders after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and during several other previous disasters.

During debate in the House on HR 5852, some House members noted the need for additional funding for the purchase of interoperable equipment. The bill would establish an Emergency Communications Preparedness Center to serve as the focal point for federal interagency efforts on operable and interoperable communications issues.

The bill also calls for the development of national voluntary consensus standards for interoperable emergency communications and would prohibit a governmental jurisdiction from using DHS homeland security assistance for new equipment or systems that do not meet such standards.

Senate homeland security committee action on S. 3721 sought to strengthen FEMA and keep it within DHS, which was similar to action by the Senate during debate on HR 5441--the FY07 funding bill for DHS--last month. The bill would bring disaster preparedness and emergency response activities back together within the newly reorganized FEMA and strengthen its autonomy within the department, in reaction to weaknesses in the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The bill would also require DHS to develop a National Disaster Recovery Strategy to avoid mistakes made during the response to Hurricane Katrina, and would allow greater discretion over benefits and increase mitigation grants as a percentage of total FEMA grant funding.

Although the House has not acted on legislation similar to S. 3721 due to internal conflicts over whether FEMA should remain within DHS or be reestablished as a separate agency, the House and Senate will have to reconcile their differences during a conference committee on FY07 appropriations for DHS.

Details: For more information on federal emergency management programs, contact Leslie Wollack at (202) 626-3029.
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Title Annotation:Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007
Author:Wollack, Leslie
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 14, 2006
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