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The first thing you need to know is that all emergency and major disaster declarations are made solely at the discretion of the President of the United States.

The Preliminaries

If it is obvious that a Presidential disaster declaration is necessary to aid recovery efforts, the State or Indian tribal government should contact their respective FEMA Regional Office and request a joint Federal, State/Tribal Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA). Include local government officials.

A thorough assessment will determine the extent of the disaster, its impact on individuals and public facilities, and the types of federal assistance that may be needed. This assessment is used to show if the damage is beyond the capabilities of the State, local governments, or Indian tribal government – and that supplemental federal assistance is necessary.

Declaration Types

There are two types of disaster declarations: emergency declarations and major disaster declarations. Both declaration types authorize the President to provide supplemental federal disaster assistance, but, the assistance dollars will vary.

Emergency Declarations

Emergency declarations supplement State and local or Indian tribal government efforts in providing emergency services for the protection of lives, property, public health, and safety, or to alleviate the threat of a catastrophe. The total amount of assistance provided for in a single emergency may not exceed $5 million.


  • Governor or Tribal Chief Executive submits a request to the President within 30 days of the occurrence of the incident
  • The request must be based upon a finding that the situation is beyond the capability of the state and local governments/Indian tribal government and that supplemental federal emergency assistance is necessary to save lives and protect property, public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster.
  • Confirmation that the Governor/Tribal Chief Executive has taken appropriate action under State or Tribal law and directed the execution of the State or Tribal emergency plan
  • A description of other federal agency efforts and resources utilized in response to the emergency; and
  • A description of the type and extent of additional federal assistance required

Assistance Available Under Emergency Declarations

  • Public Assistance (PA) - Only Categories A (debris removal) and B (emergency protective measures) can be authorized under an emergency emergency declaration. Categories C-G (permanent work) are not available under an emergency declaration. Emergency declarations often include only Category B and will typically be limited to DFA, absent damage assessments showing significant need for financial assistance. This assistance is generally provided on a 75% federal, 25% non-federal cost sharing basis.
  • Individual Assistance (IA) - The Individuals and Households Program (IHP) is the only form of IA that may be authorized under an emergency declaration. Authorization of IHP under an emergency is rare. Housing Assistance under IHP is provided at a 100% federal share, while Other Needs Assistance under IHP requires a 25% non-federal cost share.
  • The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) is not available for emergency declarations.

Pre-Disaster Emergency Declarations:

A Governor or Tribal Chief Executive may request an emergency declaration in advance or anticipation of an imminent incident that threatens destruction – but there are statutory and regulatory requirements that need to be met.

  • Requests must prove that the cited emergency protective measure needs are beyond the capability of the State and affected local governments/Indian tribal government
  • Identify specific unmet emergency needs that can be met through DFA. Such DFA may include, but not limited to, personnel, equipment, supplies, and evacuation assistance.
  • Pre-positioning of assets generally does not require a declaration. Assistance made available under a pre-disaster emergency declaration will typically be Category B (emergency protective measures), limited to DFA
  • FEMA may require damage assessments and/or verified cost estimates if other types of assistance are requested

Emergency Declarations With Federal Primary Responsibility:

The President can declare an emergency if the primary responsibility rests with the federal government. The President can do this without any request from a head of state, although heads of state can still submit requests.

Major Disaster Declarations

The President can declare a major disaster for any natural event, including hurricanes, tornados, storms, high water, wind-driven water, tidal waves, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, mudslides, snowstorms, or droughts, regardless of cause. If the President determines said event has caused damage beyond the capabilities of state and local governments to respond. A major disaster declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work.


The Governor/Tribal Chief Executive must submit the request to the President through the appropriate Regional Administrator within 30 days of the occurrence of the incident. The request must be based upon a finding that the situation is beyond the capability of the heads of state. These requests also require:

  • Confirmation that the Governor/Tribal Chief Executive has taken appropriate action under State/Tribal law and directed execution of the respective emergency plans
  • An estimate of the amount and severity of damage to the public and private sector
  • A description of the State/Tribal government efforts and resources utilized to alleviate the disaster
  • Preliminary estimates of the type and amount of Stafford Act assistance needed
  • Certification by the Governor/Tribal Chief Executive that their respective states will comply with all applicable cost sharing requirements

Assistance Available Under Major Disaster Declarations:

Not all programs are activated for every disaster. The determination of which programs are authorized is based on the types of assistance specified in the Governor’s/Tribal Chief Executive’s request and the needs identified during the joint PDA and subsequent PDAs.

FEMA disaster assistance programs are as follows:

1. Individual Assistance - Assistance to individuals and households, which may include:

  • Individuals and households program
  • Crisis counseling
  • Disaster case management
  • Disaster unemployment assistance
  • Disaster legal services
  • Disaster supplemental nutrition assistance

2. Public Assistance - Assistance to State/Tribal/local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities, which may include the following categories:

  • Debris removal
  • Emergency protective measures
  • Roads and bridges
  • Water control facilities
  • Buildings and equipment
  • Utilities
  • Parks, recreational and other facilities

Hazard Mitigation Assistance

This includes assistance to State, Tribal, and local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations to prevent or reduce long term risk to life and property from natural hazards.

When evaluating requests for major disasters and making recommendations to the President, FEMA considers the following factors:

Public Assistance Program

  • Estimated cost of the assistance - FEMA evaluates the estimated cost of Federal and non-Federal public assistance against the population to give some measure of the per capita impact. FEMA uses a per capita amount as an indicator that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that it might warrant Federal assistance, and adjusts this figure annually, based on the Consumer Price Index.
  • Localized impacts - FEMA evaluates the impact of the disaster at the county and local government levels, as well as at the American Indian and Alaskan Native Tribal Government levels, because, at times, there are extraordinary concentrations of damages that might warrant Federal assistance even if the statewide per capita is not met. This is particularly true where critical facilities (such as major roadways, bridges, public buildings, etc.) are affected or where localized per capita impacts are extremely high. For example, localized damages may be in the tens or even hundreds of dollars per capita, even though the overall per capita impact is low.
  • Insurance coverage in force - FEMA considers the amount of insurance coverage that is in force or should have been in force as required by law and regulation at the time of the disaster, and reduces the amount of anticipated assistance by that amount.
  • Hazard Mitigation - To recognize and encourage mitigation, FEMA considers the extent to which mitigation measures contributed to the reduction of disaster damages. This could be especially significant in those disasters where, because of mitigation, the estimated public assistance damages fell below the per capita indicator.
  • Recent multiple disasters - FEMA also considers the disaster history within the last twelve-month period to better evaluate the overall impact. FEMA considers declarations under the Stafford Act as well as declarations by the Governor/ Chief Tribal Executive and to the extent they have expanded their own funds
  • Other federal agency assistance programs - FEMA also considers programs of other Federal agencies because at times their assistance programs more appropriately meet the needs created by the disaster.

Individual Assistance Program

  • Concentration of damage - High concentrations of damages to individuals, such as destroyed or damaged housing, may indicate a greater need for Federal assistance than widespread and scattered damages.
  • Trauma - The degree of trauma to the community is considered, with special attention to large numbers of injuries and deaths, large scale disruptions to normal community functions and services, and emergency needs, such as extended or widespread losses of power or water.
  • Special populations - FEMA considers the impact of the disaster on special populations, such as the low-income, the elderly, and the unemployed.
  • Voluntary agency assistance - The capabilities of voluntary, faith, and community-based organizations are taken into consideration, as these entities play an important role in meeting both the emergency and recovery needs of individuals impacted by disasters.
  • Insurance - Stafford Act assistance is supplemental in nature, and therefore the level of insurance coverage is taken into account; primarily to qualify the scope of necessary assistance.
  • Damaged residences - severity and number - severity and number - When conducting joint Preliminary Damage Assessments, FEMA evaluates the total number of homes destroyed and damaged, as well as evaluates the accessibility and habitability of the dwellings and the community.

The essential evacuation plan.  Once your area has been declared an official disaster area, you'll want to establish an evacuation plan. First, conduct a risk assessment to determine potential emergency areas. Your subsequent plan should be designed to protect employees, visitors, contractors, and anyone else that comes into contact with your facility. This includes fire drills so everyone understands the proper evacuation routes and procedures.

Your first priority in any emergency situation is always safety. Your second priority is to stabilize the incident and minimize damage. Training employees for first aid and CPR can save lives, and being able to contain a hazardous spill or a small fire can prevent structural, personal, and environmental damage.

Several cold weather comes with warnings for the most part, leaving you time to prepare your employees and facilities for safety measures. These plans need to include the steps to take for personal safety, damage assessment, salvage, property protection, and post-damage cleanup.

Personal safety Severe weather conditions may require evacuation and relocation, so have shelter locations available as well as lockdown/tag-out procedures in place.

For proper evacuation procedures, make sure you have a warning system in place and that it is operational. This warning system or public address system needs to be heard by all employees in all areas. Use the warning sound in all fire drills so employees associate it with an emergency. Check all exits and make sure they are clear. Double check that fire codes are all in order.

Check emergency lighting and make sure your evacuation plan includes safely removing persons with disabilities from the building.

10 Steps for Developing the Emergency Response Plan

  • Review performance objectives
  • Review threats identified during your risk assessment
  • Assess resources for stabilization for people, systems and equipment
  • Contact public/local emergency services for their response times for your facility and any identified hazards
  • Find out if there are any regulations you need to put into place for your emergency and evacuation planning
  • Develop protective action for personal safety.
  • Develop emergency hazard and threat procedures
  • Coordinate with public and local emergency response teams
  • Train employees in their roles
  • Develop regular exercises to practice the evacuation and emergency response plans

You can check with local fire, police, and emergency management departments and websites for more information.

OSHA Means of Egress / NFPA 101: Life Safety Code / OSHA Evacuation Planning Matrix