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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

GAO Questions Whether FEMA Could Cope with a Catastrophic Natural Disaster

The Government Accountability Office has testified about the challenges facing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) workforce, based on the watchdog’s previous work between July 2015 and August 2021.

GAO said that FEMA’s staffing shortages are exacerbated by the increasing frequency of disasters. Many responders have declined deployments to recent disasters because of burnout or severe conditions in the field. FEMA also has challenges ensuring staff are sufficiently trained and qualified.

The watchdog testified that it has made numerous recommendations in prior reports to help FEMA better ensure it is able to manage a catastrophic disaster or concurrent disasters, and added that FEMA is taking steps to address them.

In May 2020, for example, GAO reported on the following workforce challenges within FEMA:

Staffing shortages. The 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons created unprecedented demand for FEMA’s workforce. FEMA deployed over 10,000 personnel during the peak of each season but faced shortages in over half of its cadres—operational or programmatic groups—when disasters began. For example, 18 of 23 cadres operated with 25 percent or less of staff available to deploy when Hurricane Maria made landfall in 2017. In addition, many employees—up to 48 percent in some cases—declined deployments due, according to FEMA officials, to burnout and austere conditions in the field.

Workforce qualifications. GAO found that FEMA faced challenges deploying staff with the right qualifications and skills at the right times to meet disaster needs. Qualification status in FEMA’s systems was not a reliable indicator of staff’s ability to perform in the field. For example, in 14 of the focus groups GAO held with FEMA staff, participants said that staff who were designated as qualified in FEMA’s system did not always have the necessary skills for their position. GAO recommended that FEMA develop a plan to address challenges in providing quality information to field leaders about staff qualifications. FEMA told GAO in December 2021 that its Field Operations Directorate has created plans to inform field leadership about staff skills and abilities, among other things. GAO also recommended that FEMA develop mechanisms to assess deployment outcomes. FEMA said it is modifying its force structure targets, with input from field leadership, and has implemented continuous data collection efforts.

Staff development. GAO found shortcomings in FEMA’s ability to ensure staff training and development for the skills needed in the field. For example, Reservists—often comprising the greatest proportion of FEMA staff in the field during a disaster—faced barriers to staff development and inconsistently received performance evaluations. GAO recommended that FEMA create a staff development program that addresses access to training, development, and feedback. In response, FEMA has taken a number of steps, including process improvements for development opportunities and creating a plan to consistently conduct performance reviews.

GAO previously recommended that FEMA assess its workforce needs—including staffing levels, mission needs, and skill gaps—for contracting staff, to include regional offices and Disaster Acquisition Response Teams; and develop a plan, including timelines, to address any gaps. FEMA concurred with this recommendation and identified a number of actions it would take to address it including competency modeling for its contracting staff and a workforce analysis to identify skill gaps. GAO reported that as of May 2021, these actions were still in progress.

Concurrent with an increase in natural disasters, FEMA has been tasked with new responsibilities. In particular, FEMA has played a key role in the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an assessment report issued by FEMA in January 2021, the scale and duration of COVID-19 operations challenged FEMA’s capabilities. Among other things, FEMA established mass vaccination sites and provided funeral assistance to families, the scope of which is unprecedented for the agency. GAO found that between mid-April 2021 and late-June 2021, FEMA received and processed over 222,000 applications for funeral assistance. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA had processed approximately 6,000 cases of funeral assistance over the past decade.

GAO said it will continue to monitor FEMA’s actions and assess the extent to which these actions address GAO’s recommendations. The watchdog voiced its concern at the increase in the frequency and cost of disasters, coupled with FEMA supporting numerous efforts outside of its normal core responsibilities. Ultimately, GAO is concerned that FEMA personnel may not be prepared to manage a catastrophic natural disaster or concurrent disasters.

Read the study at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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