Hurricane Harvey survivor Pablo Garcia receives disaster assistance at his front door from Liana Bates-Hall, FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) Crew Lead, and Lauren Cutler, right, FEMA Corps DSA Specialist, on Sept. 8, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. (Christopher Mardorf/FEMA)

GAO Raps FEMA Over Staff Deployment and Development

A review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not provide reliable staffing information to the field during disasters. For example, staff cited issues with personnel who were deemed “qualified” but didn’t have the skills to effectively perform their jobs, which affected disaster assistance.

During the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, several large-scale disasters created an unprecedented demand for FEMA’s workforce. FEMA deployed 14,684 and 10,328 personnel at the peak of each of these seasons and reported staffing shortages during the disasters. GAO was asked to review issues related to the federal response to the 2017 disaster season.

FEMA has established mechanisms to qualify and deploy staff to disasters. For example, the FEMA Qualification System tracks training and task performance requirements for disaster workforce positions and has a process to designate staff as qualified in their positions once they have completed these requirements. FEMA’s deployment process uses an automated system to deploy staff members to disasters that match field requests for positions and proficiency levels. The process depends on the agency’s qualification and deployment systems to identify staff qualification status and skillsets to meet field needs.

However, GAO found that FEMA’s qualification and deployment processes did not provide reliable and complete staffing information to field officials to ensure its workforce was effectively deployed and used during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons. 

GAO’s focus groups with over 100 incident staff members and interviews with field and regional officials indicated that disaster personnel experienced significant limitations with qualification status matching performance in the field, due in part to challenges with how staff are evaluated through the qualification process. In all focus groups with applicable incident personnel, participants cited issues with staff members who were qualified in the FEMA Qualification System not having the skills or experience to effectively perform their positions. One participant described supervising staff members who were qualified in the system but did not know the eligibility requirements for applicants to receive housing assistance, or what information needed to be included in the applicant’s file. 

In addition, participants in the majority of the focus groups reported challenges with using FEMA’s deployment processes to fully identify staff responsibilities, specialized skillsets, and experience. 

FEMA headquarters officials acknowledged the identified information challenges but said they have not developed a plan to address them in part because of competing priorities. 

The review also found that FEMA’s disaster workforce experienced challenges with receiving staff development through the agency’s existing methods to enhance the skills and competencies needed during disaster deployments—challenges FEMA headquarters officials acknowledged. 

GAO’s focus groups and interviews indicate that disaster personnel encountered challenges related to the availability of courses, providing and receiving on-the-job training and mentoring, and consistently receiving performance evaluations. For example, in 10 of 17 focus groups, participants cited barriers to taking courses that in their view would help them better perform their jobs. In addition, participants in seven focus groups stated that they did not receive coaching or feedback on the job. FEMA data show that at the start of deployments during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, 36 percent of staff did not have an official assigned to coach and evaluate task performance—the primary mechanism the agency depends on for coaching. 

GAO recommends that FEMA develop a plan to address identified challenges that have hindered its ability to provide reliable information to field officials about staff skills and abilities, and a staff development program for its disaster workforce that addresses training access, delivery of on-the-job training, and other development methods. 

The Department of Homeland Security concurred with GAO’s recommendations and stated that FEMA plans to increase training offerings and align its curriculum so that FEMA Qualification System status matches workforce capability. FEMA also plans to convene subject matter experts to develop mechanisms that demonstrate how effectively the disaster workforce deploys to meet mission needs in the field. The department anticipates these efforts will be completed by March 31, 2021.

Read the full report at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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