The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not properly coordinate preparedness grant management between its headquarters and dependent regions, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
GAO was asked to review FEMA’s coordination efforts for regional preparedness. Its report covered the extent to which FEMA and its regional offices identified and addressed coordination challenges, established a system to gauge the National Incident Management System (NIMS) implementation, and cooperated with Regional Advisory Council (RAC) stakeholders.
Implemented by two executive orders in 1979, FEMA was created to help coordinate a state’s response to any disaster that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities. In order to solicit aid from FEMA, a governor is required to formally declare a State of Emergency.
There currently exist several preparedness grant programs where FEMA headquarters and its regions share management and monitoring responsibilities. Previous recommendations have been made to restrict these responsibilities solely to the regions in order to avoid confusion and duplication of information, as well as to strengthen local grantees.
GAO’s recent investigation found that FEMA headquarters and regions were inconsistent with the guidance provided to grantees and did not always coordinate monitoring visits as expected. And while FEMA is aware of these challenges and weak procedures, they have yet to formulate any concrete plan to address them.
In order to increase the quality in communications between headquarters and regions, GAO recommended the following:
Recommendation 1: FEMA Administrators should develop a clear plan with time frames, goals, metrics and milestones that detail how the Grant Programs Directorate hopes to fix the longstanding challenges that come with the current process of dividing responsibilities between regional and headquarters staff.
Recommendation 2: To better their understanding of NIMS implementation, policies and procedures should be developed for regional staff when reviewing after-action reports from preparedness exercises from their region.
Recommendation 3: To enhance the value of Regional Advisory Councils (RAC), the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrators to ensure that regional offices routinely gather input from their RAC members on ways to enhance overall emergency preparedness in their regions.
Recommendation 4: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrators to develop a mechanism to update RAC members on the status of recommendations made by RACs to FEMA.
Recommendation 5: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to establish processes forenhanced coordination and communication between the RACs and the National Advisory Council.
FEMA currently uses states’ self-assessments to measure a state’s efficacy in implementing NIMS. States generally report high levels of NIMS implementation, yet as of now there is no way to accurately measure how well NIMS are actually being implemented.
DHS’s response to the report was mixed, maintaining that FEMA “already empowers its ten regions to coordinate and communicate with federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments so they can work more efficiently and effectively to prepare for and respond to disasters…”
In regards to GAO’s first recommendation, FEMA denied the existence of any “longstanding challenges” in their system.