As a formal responsibility of government in the United States, what we now call emergency management began with efforts to address growing threats of fire and disease in large cities and towns in the 19th century. Government Services were limited to minimal social services, churches, and other non-governmental services. In 1803, American responses to a disaster took a significant turn, beginning a pattern of federal involvement that continues to this day. When a extensive fire swept through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, community and state resources were overwhelmed by the response and recovery effort. Congress responded with the first legislative action making federal resources available to assist state and local governments. This congressional act of 1803 is commonly regarded as the first piece of national disaster legislation.
Federal involvement was required by the threat of nuclear war in the days following World War II. For the next 50 years, these efforts resulted in a system of civil defense.
Emergency management is a discipline shaped from these earlier times by response to natural disasters and civil defense programs.
Today the emphasis is on the protection of the civilian population and property from the destructive forces of natural and man-made disasters through a comprehensive program of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.