National Disaster Response:

FEMA Should Take Action to Improve Capacity and Coordination between Government and Voluntary Sectors

GAO-08-369: Published: Feb 27, 2008. Publicly Released: Feb 27, 2008.

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Using lessons from the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, the federal government released the National Response Framework (NRF) in January 2008. This report examines (1) why the primary role for mass care in the NRF shifted from the Red Cross to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and potential issues with implementation, (2) whether National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD)--an umbrella organization of 49 voluntary agencies--is equipped to fulfill its NRF role, (3) the extent to which FEMA has addressed issues with mass care for the disabled since the hurricanes, (4) the extent to which major voluntary agencies have prepared to better serve the disabled since the hurricanes, and (5) the extent to which FEMA has addressed issues voluntary agencies faced in receiving Public Assistance reimbursement. To analyze these issues, GAO reviewed the NRF and other documents, and interviewed officials from FEMA, voluntary agencies, and state and local governments.

FEMA and the Red Cross agreed that FEMA should be the primary agency for mass care in the NRF because the primary agency should be able to direct federal agencies' resources to meet mass care needs, which the Red Cross cannot do. The shifting roles present several implementation issues. For example, while FEMA has enhanced responsibilities for coordinating the activities of voluntary organizations, it does not currently have a sufficient number of specialized staff to meet this responsibility. NVOAD has characteristics that help it carry out its broad role of facilitating voluntary organization and government coordination, but limited staff resources constrain its ability to effectively fulfill its role in disaster response situations. NVOAD held daily conference calls with its members after Hurricane Katrina, but these calls were not an effective means of sharing information, reflecting the fact that NVOAD had only one employee at the time of Katrina. FEMA has begun taking steps in several areas to improve mass care for the disabled based on lessons learned from the Gulf Coast hurricanes. For example, FEMA hired a Disability Coordinator to integrate disability issues into federal emergency planning and preparedness efforts. However, FEMA has generally not coordinated with a key federal disability agency, the National Council on Disability, in the implementation of various initiatives, as required by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. The Red Cross has taken steps to improve mass care services for the disabled, but still faces challenges. For example, the Red Cross developed a shelter intake form to assist staff in determining whether a particular shelter can meet an individual's needs. However, Red Cross officials said that some local chapters are still not fully prepared to serve individuals with disabilities. Other voluntary organizations had not identified a need to improve services for individuals with disabilities, and we did not identify concerns with their services. FEMA has partially addressed the issues faced by local voluntary organizations, such as churches, in seeking Public Assistance reimbursement for mass care-related expenses after the hurricanes. At the time of the hurricanes, a key FEMA reimbursement program was not designed for a disaster of Katrina's magnitude, but FEMA has changed its regulations to address this issue. Local voluntary organizations also had difficulty getting accurate information about reimbursement opportunities. Key FEMA staff had not received training on reimbursement policies and sometimes did not provide accurate information, and some of the information on FEMA's Web site was not presented in a user-friendly format. FEMA has not addressed these communication issues.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that voluntary organizations can readily obtain clear and accurate information about the reimbursement opportunities offered by the Public Assistance program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to take action to make the information on FEMA's Web site about reimbursement opportunities for voluntary organizations more user-friendly. This could include providing contact information for organizations to get more information about Public Assistance program opportunities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In FY08, FEMA indicated that it would continue efforts to improve the user-friendliness of web based information pertaining to reimbursement opportunities. However, the agency did not provide any specific actions taken since that time.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that voluntary organizations can readily obtain clear and accurate information about the reimbursement opportunities offered by the Public Assistance program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to take action to make the information on FEMA's Web site about reimbursement opportunities for voluntary organizations more user-friendly. This could include developing a user-friendly guide or fact sheet that provides an overview of opportunities for reimbursement for facilities damage.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FEMA indicated that it will continue efforts to improve the user-friendliness of web based information pertaining to reimbursement opportunities, but did not provide any specific actions taken in FY08 or FY09. FEMA did not provide an update in FY11 and took no additional action in FY12.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the needs of individuals with disabilities are fully integrated into FEMA's efforts to implement provisions of the Act that require FEMA to coordinate with National Council on Disability (NCD), the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to develop a detailed set of measurable action steps, in consultation with the NCD, for how FEMA will coordinate with NCD.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FEMA indicated that it has taken several steps, including assigning a FEMA staff member responsibility for coordinating with NCD, but did not indicate that it had developed a detailed set of measurable action steps for FEMA/NCD coordination for FY08. FEMA did not provide an update in FY11 and took no additional action in FY12.

    Recommendation: In light of FEMA's enhanced role under the NRF in helping coordinate the activities of voluntary organizations in disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to provide technical assistance to NVOAD, as needed, as NVOAD works to improve its communication strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FEMA indicated that it is committed to providing technical assistance to strengthen NVOAD's information-sharing capability and that it will participate on NVOAD's Communications Standing Committee, but has not demonstrated that it has yet provided technical assistance. In 2010, NVOAD reported that FEMA and NVOAD have begun discussions about how FEMA can help improve NVOAD's communications capabilities. FEMA did not provide an update on its actions in FY11 and took no additional action in FY12.

    Recommendation: To provide greater assurance that FEMA has adequate staff capabilities to support the agency's enhanced role under the NRF in helping coordinate with voluntary organizations, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to take action to enhance the capabilities of its Voluntary Agency Liason (VAL) workforce, such as providing role-specific training to VALs, including providing them with information about Public Assistance opportunities and policies for voluntary organizations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has completed the development of a Voluntary Agency Liaison Handbook, complete with current guidance on how to perform their role effectively in disaster response and recovery operations. The Handbook has been piloted as a teaching module with two groups of FEMA VALs, and training will continue until all VALs have been trained. In addition, FEMA has completed the revision of a Volunteer and Donations Management course and plans to begin training VALs in the summer of 2008.

    Recommendation: To provide greater assurance that FEMA has adequate staff capabilities to support the agency's enhanced role under the NRF in helping coordinate with voluntary organizations, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to take action to enhance the capabilities of its Voluntary Agency Liason (VAL) workforce, such as increasing the number of full-time VALs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA enhanced the capabilities of its Voluntary Agency Liaison workforce by converting some on-call voluntary agency liaisons to permanent positions.

    Recommendation: To provide greater assurance that FEMA has adequate staff capabilities to support the agency's enhanced role under the NRF in helping coordinate with voluntary organizations, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to take action to enhance the capabilities of its Voluntary Agency Liason (VAL) workforce, such as converting some Katrina VALs into full-time VALs able to work on the entire range of coordination issues with voluntary organizations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS recognized the essential coordination role of VALs and is converting 12 VAL positions into permanent, full-time positions.

    Recommendation: To improve NVOAD's effectiveness in meeting its NRF information-sharing responsibilities after disasters, NVOAD should assess members' information needs, and improve its communication strategies after disasters. As part of this effort, NVOAD should examine how best to fund improved communication strategies, which may include developing a proposal for FEMA funding. To facilitate the implementation of improved communication strategies, NVOAD may want to consider strategies for increasing staff support for NVOAD after disasters, such as having staff from NVOAD member organizations temporarily detailed to NVOAD.

    Agency Affected: National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NVOAD indicated in August 2010 that this recommendation had been addressed by NVOAD hiring a full-time member services manager. This was confirmed by the NVOAD website.

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