The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses several scenarios—including a pandemic influenza similar to COVID-19—to allow states and territories to assess their own emergency response and recovery capabilities.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a review and found that states and territories have a good handle on their strengths and weaknesses, but FEMA hasn’t used the information to determine the full scope of national needs. The watchdog adds that FEMA also hasn’t determined what resources the federal government would need to close the gaps—many of which are longstanding.
GAO found failings in five mission areas:
- Prevention—preventing imminent acts of terrorism
- Protection—protecting citizens and assets
- Mitigation—mitigating the loss of life and property
- Response—responding quickly to save lives
- Recovery—timely restoration of infrastructure and housing, among other things.
From fiscal years 2013 through 2018, jurisdictions directed almost 90 percent of FEMA preparedness grants ($7.3 of $8.3 billion) to capabilities in the crosscutting (i.e., benefit all five mission areas), response, and prevention areas. Jurisdictions reported a higher level of preparedness in these areas compared to capabilities in the other mission areas—recovery, mitigation, and protection. GAO’s review found that jurisdictions have consistently rated select capabilities in these three mission areas—such as disaster housing and cybersecurity—in the lowest category since 2013. FEMA does not limit jurisdictions’ use of preparedness grants for select capabilities, but it has encouraged jurisdictions to address the known gaps.
While FEMA is taking steps to strengthen the national preparedness system, GAO found it has yet to determine what steps are needed to address the nation’s capability gaps across all levels of government. Specifically, FEMA is implementing a new methodology to collect more quantitative data on capabilities at the state, territory, and local levels—as GAO recommended in 2011—and also plans to begin assessing the federal government’s capabilities. Including the federal government in such an assessment would enable FEMA and jurisdictions to assess national preparedness capabilities collectively.
These are positive steps that could meet the intent of the 2011 recommendation, but GAO points out that FEMA has yet to determine what steps are needed to address the capability gaps once they are identified, including jurisdictions’ capability gaps that have been known since 2012.
GAO’s May 4 report also highlights that while FEMA after-action reports have identified areas for improvement and lessons learned following disasters, it has completed after-action reviews for only 29 percent of disasters from 2017 through 2019. There is currently no formal mechanism within FEMA to track corrective actions, nor does it have guidance on sharing after-action reports with key external stakeholders, as appropriate.
GAO recommends that FEMA determines what steps are needed to address emergency management capability gaps, and communicate it to key stakeholders; prioritize completion of after-action reviews; track corrective actions; and develop guidance on sharing findings externally. The Department of Homeland Security concurred and FEMA is taking action to address the recommendations by March 31, 2022.