Measuring Disaster Preparedness:

FEMA Has Made Limited Progress in Assessing National Capabilities

GAO-11-260T: Published: Mar 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 17, 2011.

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This testimony discusses the efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)--a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--to measure and assess national capabilities to respond to a major disaster. According to the Congressional Research Service, from fiscal years 2002 through 2010, Congress appropriated over $34 billion for homeland security preparedness grant programs to enhance the capabilities of state, territory, local, and tribal governments to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks and other disasters. Congress enacted the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (Post-Katrina Act) to address shortcomings in the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina that, among other things, gave FEMA responsibility for leading the nation in developing a national preparedness system. The Post-Katrina Act requires that FEMA develop a national preparedness system and assess preparedness capabilities--capabilities needed to respond effectively to disasters--to determine the nation's preparedness capability levels and the resources needed to achieve desired levels of capability. Federal, state, and local resources provide capabilities for different levels of "incident effect" (i.e., the extent of damage caused by a natural or manmade disaster). FEMA's National Preparedness Directorate within its Protection and National Preparedness organization is responsible for developing and implementing a system for measuring and assessing national preparedness capabilities. The need to define measurable national preparedness capabilities is a well-established and recognized issue. For example, in December 2003, the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities noted that preparedness (for combating terrorism) requires measurable demonstrated capacity by communities, states, and private sector entities throughout the United States to respond to threats with well-planned, well-coordinated, and effective efforts. This is consistent with our April 2002 testimony on national preparedness, in which we identified the need for goals and performance indicators to guide the nation's preparedness efforts and help to objectively assess the results of federal investments. We reported that FEMA had not yet defined the outcomes of where the nation should be in terms of domestic preparedness. Thus, identifying measurable performance indicators could help FEMA (1) track progress toward established goals, (2) provide policy makers with the information they need to make rational resource allocations, and (3) provide program managers with the data needed to effect continual improvements, measure progress, and to enforce accountability. In September 2007, DHS issued the National Preparedness Guidelines that describe a national framework for capabilities-based preparedness as a systematic effort that includes sequential steps to first determine capability requirements and then assess current capability levels. According to the Guidelines, the results of this analysis provide a basis to identify, analyze, and choose options to address capability gaps and deficiencies, allocate funds, and assess and report the results. This proposed framework reflects critical practices we have identified for government performance and results. This statement is based on our prior work issued from July 2005 through October 2010 on DHS's and FEMA's efforts to develop and implement a national framework for assessing preparedness capabilities at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as DHS's and FEMA's efforts to develop and use metrics to define capability levels, identify capability gaps, and prioritize national preparedness investments to fill the most critical capability gaps. As requested, this testimony focuses on the extent to which DHS and FEMA have made progress in measuring national preparedness by assessing capabilities and addressing related challenges.

In summary, DHS and FEMA have implemented a number of efforts with the goal of measuring preparedness by assessing capabilities and addressing related challenges, but success has been limited. DHS first developed plans to measure preparedness by assessing capabilities, but did not fully implement those plans. FEMA then issued the target capabilities list in September 2007 but has made limited progress in developing preparedness measures and addressing long-standing challenges in assessing capabilities, such as determining how to aggregate data from federal, state, local, and tribal governments. At the time of our review of FEMA's efforts in 2008 and in 2009, FEMA was in the process of refining the target capabilities to make them more measurable and to provide state and local jurisdictions with additional guidance on the levels of capability they need. We recommended in our April 2009 report that FEMA enhance its project management plan with, among other things, milestones to help it implement its capability assessment efforts; FEMA agreed with our recommendation. We reported in October 2010 that FEMA had enhanced its plan with milestones in response to our prior recommendation and that officials said they had an ongoing effort to develop measures for target capabilities--as planning guidance to assist in state and local assessments--rather than as requirements for measuring preparedness by assessing capabilities; FEMA officials had not yet determined how they plan to revise the list.

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