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From the Administrator: Law Enforcement’s Role in Responding to Disasters

W. Craig Fugate, Administrator, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Head shot of Administrator Fugate

he law enforcement community has two vital roles in responding to disasters: to provide for the safety and security of the community and to be first responders during times of crisis. Responding to disasters is a shared responsibility. Every police officer is aware that emergency management planning is for all hazards and that it takes a team effort to keep our communities safe.

We ask a tremendous amount of our first responders during disasters and emergencies. They are the first line of defense; they are the first helping hand extended to survivors. Every police officer knows emergencies can happen without notice. Our ability to respond to and recover from disasters is directly influenced by how well prepared our first responders are and how well we all work together as a team before, during, and after a crisis.

The role of law enforcement in responding to a disaster is very similar to the day-to-day role of public safety and supporting the community. In preparing for a disaster, police officers trust in their training and capitalize on their knowledge of a community. Exercises portraying the situations (large- and small-scale events) help better prepare officers and allow them to fully understand the resources needed for each event and apply that information to each community’s needs. Law enforcement officials know their communities best and interact with residents on a daily basis. This knowledge gives them the ability to provide valuable situational awareness to response and recovery groups coming in to help. For example, where will there be language barriers? Does the community have unique challenges? Law enforcement can help communicate this information to the emergency management team and can offer support to other members of the team by simply being a presence in the neighborhoods.

During a disaster, police officers play a key role in many operations including: search and rescue, evacuations, door-todoor checks, and maintaining overall public safety within the community. These are critical actions that support not only their own communities but neighboring towns as well.

When Hurricane Sandy impacted the United States, the storm brought hurricane and tropical storm force winds, storm surge, and flooding that impacted 12 states, with over eight million people losing power and impacting transportation systems in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Throughout the response and recovery, officers went from house to house searching for the injured or needy in neighborhoods from North Carolina to Maine. Local and state police manned rescue boats, working with the National Guard and the Coast Guard, to perform evacuations and search and rescue operations. The officers were able to provide emergency medical care when needed, support search and rescue operations with other rescue personnel, and maintain security in unsafe areas following the aftermath of the storm.

Bridgewater Police Department, New Jersey, a resident who was an organ transplant survivor and had pneumonia was without power and using a generator. The generator was extremely low on fuel and by reaching out to residents; local officers were aware of the need and able to arrange fuel for the individual.

Often the impacts of a natural disaster will devastate infrastructure causing the loss of electricity and water, making communities unsafe for both traffic and pedestrians. In these situations, police officers depend on their day-to-day skills and can reroute traffic, close roadways, and identify new routes for emergency responders. These actions maintain safety for the survivors and enable the rest of the emergency management team to do their jobs and focus on the more vulnerable populations.

Following a disaster, officers in collaboration with other first responders perform health and welfare checks on residents and work with local organizations to direct survivors to locations where further assistance can be found. It is also important to remember that during a disaster, police have the same concerns as all survivors: Is my family safe and what’s the impact on my property?

In order to fulfill their primary mission of public safety, members of the law enforcement community need to prepare their staff and be prepared themselves. It is difficult to be a first responder when you are torn between serving the needs of your community and the needs of your own family. In this profession, it is vital to make sure you have taken the necessary steps to protect your family so that you are able to support your community. It is critical to plan ahead and FEMA provides resources to help with this planning. Visit and take a look at FEMA’s Ready Responder tool kit, which provides templates and information to help families and departments develop their own organizational preparedness plans.

FEMA also has tools that can help with your response operations. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a standardized, on-scene, all-hazards incident management approach tool that allows for a common organizational structure, enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions, and provides a common process for planning and managing resources. The system is often talked about as an organizational chart identifying the various components of planning, operations, logistics, and support. Primarily, the tool helps you to look at crises through a defined mission with goals and outcomes that everyone on the team understands, so everyone responding knows what they’re going to do and everyone has accountability. This is where ICS can become an invaluable tool to law enforcement. In a disaster, we will perform the way we are trained and the way we operate every day. For more information on the ICS, please visit:

Reviewing Your Emergency Plan
Critical questions to ask
  • Who writes the plan?
  • Where is the plan?
  • Did you contribute to the roles?
  • What are your responsibilities?
Using an incident management system like ICS in your day-to-day operations creates the structure to minimize risks and provide accountability. When you have several people working on a crisis, it is critical that everyone knows where people are and who is doing what. Engaging in the emergency management planning process early and often is important and law enforcement departments should have a more active role in emergency management planning. In certain jurisdictions, law enforcement encompasses emergency management, but in cases where they are separate, coordination and integration is critical. Knowing your local community’s plan and who is in charge of maintaining it will keep you informed and provide accountability.

It is vital that each organization has input; if you do not have input, you do not have ownership. Your department may be tasked with requirements that detract from your primary mission or conflict with your resource allocations. In law enforcement, each group should identify how to apply and integrate existing resources once you have achieved your primary mission: the safety and security of the community. Then, determine how to apply your capabilities to address other challenges presented by the disaster.

Emergency management is a team effort, and FEMA will continue to engage law enforcement and its other partners to build our national emergency management team. We rely on law enforcement every day to provide for the safety and security of our communities, and, during disasters, officers are the first on the scene to assist survivors. We appreciate our partnership with law enforcement and value your contributions as part of our Whole Community approach to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. I thank the International Association of Chiefs of Police and each of its members for your commitment to maintaining safe and well-prepared communities across the United States. ♦

Please cite as:

W. Craig Fugate, "Law Enforcement’s Role in Responding to Disasters," From the Administrator, The Police Chief 80 (August 2013): 100–101.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 8, August 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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