DHS chief sees FEMA operating like a successful business

Michael Chertoff wants agency to remain within Homeland Security, not return to independent, Cabinet-level status.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday he plans to restructure the besieged Federal Emergency Management Agency to efficiently operate like a 21st century distribution company with the ability to track and locate supplies.

"We want to be able to do what UPS and DHL does," Chertoff said in a speech to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Experts from inside and outside the government are working with FEMA -- widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina -- to build an "effective distribution of supplies and people" during an emergency, he added.

Chertoff announced this summer, before hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast, that he would remove FEMA from underneath layers of bureaucracy and have its director report to him. Chertoff also took away the agency's preparedness responsibilities to focus solely on responding to catastrophic events. The secretary created a separate preparedness directorate, saying today that the country is "not where we need to be" on that front.

Some lawmakers and experts contend that FEMA should be returned to a stand-alone agency with a Cabinet-level director. But Chertoff said the agency benefits from being housed under the Homeland Security Department and having access to other agencies' resources. For example, he said, the agency borrowed aircraft during Hurricane Wilma last month from the Customs and Border Protection division.

The secretary also touted $580 million in firefighter assistance grants this year from his department to help buy equipment and train personnel. He, however, did not mention funding for the so-called SAFER program, which funds the hiring of additional firefighters. The Bush administration has declined to request funding for the initiative the last two years, arguing that states must shoulder the burden of personnel costs. Lawmakers added $110 million to the department's FY06 spending measure for SAFER grants -- $45 million more than last year's level.