What People Don't Get About My Job: I Worked at FEMA

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"The agency can't enter a state without a governor's request, so many times FEMA's 'slow response' is actually a governor's slow response."

I'm going to write about both my old job and my current job, because there are a lot of misunderstandings about both.

I was formerly an employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the type of employee known as a Disaster Assistance Employee or Disaster Reservist. I am writing this as a former employee speaking about my experiences and anecdotally, and I am in no way a representative of the agency. I recently quit so I could pursue graduate school, however many people seemed to not really understand a lot about my position or what FEMA even did.

Most Americans either have an overly generous view of FEMA or think that FEMA only operates in major disasters a la Katrina. Both of these views are wrong. FEMA doesn't come out if you have a little water in your basement or if a Tornado destroys only two houses in an entire state (usually). Conversely, just because a disaster may seem small, does not mean that it may not rise to the level of requiring FEMA assistance.

Additionally, many Americans seem to miss the fact that the agency can't enter a state without a governor's request, so many times FEMA's "slow response" is actually a governor's slow response. The agency chooses not to ever point this out because governors can become senators, and senators with grudges have the power of the purse. As for my specific position, I was called up when there were disasters and traveled to these disasters. When there were no disasters I didn't work. For the past three years that I worked at FEMA there were plenty of disasters, so I worked most of the year. Additionally most disasters require a lot of overtime so I was able to make a healthy amount of money to hold me over while I sat at home. Other disaster assistance employees (DAEs) were not so lucky. DAEs, unlike the often vilified government employees, are not entitled to the Federal Healthcare plan, only recently began to receive sick time, and can very easily be fired (at least from a specific disaster). My relatives and friends always thought it was outrageous that I was paying out of pocket for health insurance.

We're asking readers to tell us what the public doesn't understand or appreciate about their jobs. Learn more about the project here.

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