US Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano speaks to the National Association of Counties during their annual legislative conference in Washington, DC, March 10, 2009. Napolitano spoke of the need for counties to work with the Department of Homeland Security in emergencies and offered support to counties in times of need.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano should be vigorously applauded for telling the good folks at the National Emergency Management Agency mid-year conference that FEMA is and should not be a first responder. Napolitano is dead right that too many Americans see FEMA as the end-all and be-all of disaster response activity. We can forgive Napolitano for not owning up to FEMA’s role in fostering that perception given that it has issued declarations at an ever-increasing pace over the last sixteen years for ever more routine-type disasters. Specifically, the yearly average of FEMA declarations has gone from roughly 36 per year from 1980-1992 to 89 per year from 1993 to 2000 to 130 per year from 2001-2008. We hope Napolitano will do more they say FEMA needs to change the perception that it is “always there” and actually reduce the number of FEMA declarations so that it isn’t. To wit, in its first 48 days, the Obama FEMA has issued 21 declarations, which translates into 160 declarations in its first year, or a new declaration every 2 days.

In Homeland Security 3.0, scholars James Carafano and David Heyman emphasize the importance of developing disaster response capabilities “outside the Beltway”–because these folks are the first on the scene in the wake of a disaster. And that this federal approach to disaster response ignores the principle of federalism.

Given the Secretary’s comments and the Obama FEMA realities, we hope to see Napolitano translate her words into action.