Emergency Preparedness:

Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps [Reissued on December 9, 2015]

GAO-15-20: Published: Dec 4, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The departments that coordinate federal emergency support functions (ESF), in preparation for national disaster response, carry out their responsibilities in various ways, but the Secretary of Homeland Security's ability to assess ESF preparedness could be enhanced. ESF coordinators conduct a range of coordination, planning, and capability assessment activities. All 10 ESF coordinators across the five departments in GAO's review reported coordinating with stakeholders and developing at least one ESF planning document. However, the ESF Leadership Group and the group's chair, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—have not worked with other federal departments to issue supplemental guidance detailing expectations for the minimum standards for activities and product deliverables necessary to demonstrate ESF preparedness. In the absence of such guidance, GAO found that ESF coordinators are inconsistently carrying out their emergency response preparedness activities. DHS and FEMA have responsibility for assessing federal emergency preparedness. Issuing supplemental guidance detailing expectations for ESF coordinators would better enable DHS and FEMA to assess the status of ESF response preparedness.

Federal departments have identified emergency response capability gaps through national-level exercises, real-world incidents, and other assessments, but opportunities exist to help close the gaps by enhancing management oversight in two areas:

First, federal departments are responsible for implementing their own recommended corrective actions from national-level exercises and real-world disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, but the status of federal interagency implementation of these actions is not comprehensively collected by or reported to DHS or FEMA. As a result, DHS's and FEMA's ability to assess and report on the nation's overall preparedness is hampered.

Second, FEMA leads interagency efforts to identify and propose actions to address capability gaps in the nation's preparedness to respond to improvised nuclear device (IND) attacks, but its implementation plan lacks key program management details. Specifically, FEMA's March 2012 IND Implementation Plan proposed over 300 recommended actions to help close gaps identified in the April 2010 DHS IND Strategy. The September 2013 annual revision to the plan contained summary information on the status of some of the recommended actions, but did not contain detailed program management information—such as specific timeframes, milestones, and estimated resources required to close any given capability gap—which is needed to better enable ongoing management oversight of gap closure efforts.

Regular reporting on the status of corrective actions identified in national-level exercises and real-world major disasters, as well as detailed program management information for management oversight of the status of recommended actions in the IND Implementation Plan, would enhance interagency accountability for closing identified capability gaps and better enable DHS and FEMA to assess the status of federal interagency preparedness efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

No-notice catastrophic disasters pose one of the greatest challenges to national emergency preparedness. ESFs are federal interagency coordinating structures that group capabilities into functional areas most frequently needed in a national response. GAO was asked to review federal preparedness to respond to no-notice catastrophic disasters, such as IND attacks and major earthquakes. This report assesses the extent to which opportunities exist to enhance (1) assessment of ESF preparedness and (2) management oversight of the closure of federal capability gaps identified in selected exercises, real-world incidents, and other assessments. GAO reviewed relevant laws, directives, strategies, and plans; analyzed recommended corrective actions from national-level exercises and other interagency assessments; reviewed documents and interviewed officials from five federal departments key to disaster response (Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice); and compared current processes against internal control standards and leading program management practices.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FEMA—in collaboration with other federal agencies—(1) issue supplemental guidance to ESF coordinators detailing minimum standards for activities and product deliverables necessary to demonstrate ESF preparedness, (2) regularly report on the status of corrective actions identified through prior national-level exercises and real-world disasters, and (3) develop and issue detailed program management information to better enable management oversight of the DHS IND Strategy' s recommended actions . DHS concurred with the recommendations and identified related actions the department is taking to address them.

For more information, contact Chris P. Currie at (404) 679-1875 or curriec@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA issued guidance for Emergency Support Function (ESF) coordinators in June 2015 that details minimum standards for activities and product deliverables necessary to demonstrate ESF preparedness. The ESF Leadership Group (ESFLG) established a set of preparedness performance metrics to guide ESF coordination, planning, and capabilities assessment. According to the FEMA officials, the established metrics set standardized performance targets and preparedness actions across the ESFs. Further, the metrics and reporting on these metrics provides an opportunity to better measure preparedness efforts by assessing if ESF coordination and planning is sufficient and whether required ESF capabilities are available for disaster response. The following are the metrics that were developed and approved by the ESFLG. Coordination Metrics: (1) Each ESF coordinator organizes one routine national meeting with participation of all ESF primary and support agencies. ESF participation may be in-person or virtual, and ESF coordinators are responsible for follow-up outreach to all ESF stakeholders who are unable to provide representatives to the annual meeting. (2) ESF coordinators maintain and update an ESF contact list for all primary and support agencies. Updates should be made on an ongoing basis or as required when contact information for primary and support agencies changes. (3) ESF primary and support agencies engage in monthly coordination activities organized around specific roles and responsibilities, as required and prioritized by the ESF coordinator. Such activities include but are not limited to teleconferences, meetings, exercises, working groups, etc. Planning Metrics: (1) Each ESF coordinator routinely updates ESF-level planning products (e.g., Concept of Operations, Operational Plans, Standard Operating Procedures, Manuals, Guides) with relevant lessons learned and corrective actions. Planning products should be reviewed biennially and updated as required, but no less often than every five years upon revision of the Federal Interagency Operational Plan for Response (FIOP-Response). (2) Each ESF maintains an inventory of all planning products, including a description and date of most recent changes. The inventory should be validated on a biennial basis. Capabilities Assessment Metrics: (1) Each ESF coordinator maintains a resource list and capabilities inventory for the ESF. Both products will be updated as necessary, such as after ESF activation for a disaster. Inventories retained by ESF coordinators will inform, as appropriate, FEMA's Federal Resource Capability Inventory (FRCI). The FRCI will provide a general overview of the capabilities for each resource that is searchable by ESF, core capability, or Department/Agency. (2) ESFs, or individual ESF agencies, will maintain a list of corrective actions from exercises, real world incidents, and other assessments for tracking and implementation. In the absence of an interagency corrective action system, these lists will be submitted to the ESFLG Secretariat for consolidation and submission to FEMA's National Preparedness Assessment Division for inclusion in their corrective action tracking and monitoring system. With regards to reporting, the ESFLG Secretariat will combine reporting on the ESF performance metrics with annual data calls coordinated by FEMA for the National Preparedness Report (NPR). By responding to and completing the data call, ESF coordinators will report on their annual progress towards meeting the performance metrics while simultaneously providing input for the annual NPR. Issuance of these ESF performance metrics and related data calls addresses the spirit of our recommendation and we therefore consider the recommendation to be implemented by these actions.

    Recommendation: To enhance DHS's and FEMA's ability to assess ESF preparedness, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA--in coordination and collaboration with other federal departments and agencies through the ESF Leadership Group--to issue supplemental guidance to ESF coordinators that details minimum standards for activities and product deliverables necessary to demonstrate ESF preparedness. This guidance should include minimum expectations on how ESF coordinators are to demonstrate (1) that coordination with ESF primary and support agencies is sufficient, (2) that planning and preparedness activities are appropriate, and (3) whether required capabilities are available to effectively and efficiently respond to a disaster.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In November 2016, FEMA officials reported that the agency had developed an approach for collecting and reporting on the status of federal interagency corrective actions from Level I disasters to add to the current practice of reporting on national level exercises. According to officials, the proposed approach was under review and the agency plans to coordinate with the other federal departments and agencies before submitting their proposal to DHS for final approval. Pending completion of this effort, this recommendation remains open.

    Recommendation: To enhance the Secretary of Homeland Security's ability to assess national preparedness and provide management oversight of federal interagency efforts to close previously identified capability gaps, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA--in coordination and collaboration with the National Security Council Staff and other federal departments and agencies--to collect information on and regularly report to the Secretary the status of federal interagency implementation of corrective actions identified (1) through prior national-level exercises and (2) following real-world incidents, specifically major disasters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2015, FEMA reported that FEMA's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) Office implemented our recommendation to develop a detailed program management plan for its improvised nuclear device (IND) attack response and recovery efforts. Specifically, FEMA revised and updated its existing Improvised Nuclear Device Implementation Plan to development its replacement, the Improvised Nuclear Device Response and Recovery (INDRR) Program Plan for FY 2015-2018 (IND Program Plan). The FEMA CBRNE Office reviewed and analyzed existing capability gaps identified in the DHS Strategy for Improving the National Response and Recovery from an IND Attack, ongoing INDRR working group initiatives, and separate program projects. This culminated in the production of the detailed program plan, which included a quantitative analysis of current efforts and addressed existing capability gaps. To monitor, track and report on this effort's progress, milestones, funding, and resource requirements, the FEMA CBRNE office created a project management tracking system that will be directly linked to the IND Program Plan. This tracking system assigns each INDRR working group initiative and program project with a specific tracking number as a tracking mechanism. The INDRR working group initiatives and program projects are linked to FEMA's INDRR program objectives, capability requirements, and capability gaps, among other things. Within the IND Program Plan there is a summary of each INDRR working group initiative and program project. Each project and sub-project that is addressed includes the following information: (1) Overall project tracking number, (2) current sub-project(s), (3) federal lead(s) for overall and sub-projects, (4) capability gap(s) addressed by overall and sub-projects, (4) sub-project tracking number(s), (5) sub-project name(s), (6) sub-project objective(s), (7) sub-project duration(s), (8) sub-project required resources & funding, (9) related federal policy and guidelines, and (10) timeframes and key milestones. According to FEMA officials, to keep the IND Program Plan current, relevant projects will be reviewed, revised, and updated on an annual basis to address the progress and strategic intent of the INDRR program and FEMA's CBRNE Office. In addition, in FY2016, the FEMA CBRNE Office intends to conduct a quantitative and qualitative analysis to address achievements made to date in the INDRR program, to validate capability gaps for prioritization, and to provide an updated assessment of priority areas for future improvement. Issuance by the FEMA CBRNE Office of the revised IND Program Plan and its planned future analyses address the spirit of our recommendation and we therefore consider the recommendation to be implemented by these actions.

    Recommendation: To better enable the Secretary of Homeland Security to ensure that capability gaps identified in the DHS Strategy for Improving the National Response and Recovery from an IND Attack (DHS IND Strategy) are addressed in an effective and efficient manner, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA--in coordination and collaboration with other federal departments and agencies--to develop detailed program management information, consistent with leading practices discussed in this report, for federal interagency closure of the capability gaps identified in the DHS IND Strategy. This information should include, among other things, detailed estimates of completion dates for initiated activities, interim timeframes and milestones for monitoring and tracking progress, and necessary funding and resource requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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