New FEMA Guidance Signals Shift in Sheltering Mindset

November 16th, 2010

Following a build-up of public comments by Administrator Fugate stressing the need for inclusive planning, FEMA officially released its “Functional Needs Support Services Guidance” (FNSS Guidance) on November 3, 2010. Over the past year, FEMA has been introducing the guidance to various state and local agencies at invitation only events in each region. The meetings were guided by outside contractors, FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section. I attended the FEMA Region III meeting on behalf of a client. During that meeting, the FNSS Guidance was presented less as a minimalist floor for compliance, and more as an aspirational goal to strive for.

The FNSS Guidance addresses concerns raised by the advocacy community and embraced by the DOJ. The DOJ has been showing more interest in pursuing cases against emergency managers for violations of civil rights under legislation such as the American with Disabilities Act (actions have been pursued in both Montgomery County, MD, and Broward County, FL).

The guidance represents a shift in mindset for many emergency managers – especially on a local level. While it is commonly said that shelters are a lifeboat and not a cruise ship, under the FNSS Guidance they are now hospital ships. For jurisdictions that simply operate one class of shelter that incorporates both general population and what are often called “special medical needs” there should be little difficulty adapting to the FNSS Guidance. More dramatic changes will be required for those jurisdictions that currently operate different classifications of shelters with different support capacities.

Florida operates a tiered shelter system, and through Broward County, is currently being challenged by the DOJ for alleged civil rights violations during Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The shape of Florida’s plan after that case should be instructive in seeing how the DOJ thinks the guidance should be implemented.

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