Federal Emergency Management Agency:

Strengthening Regional Coordination Could Enhance Preparedness Efforts

GAO-16-38: Published: Feb 4, 2016. Publicly Released: Feb 4, 2016.

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What GAO Found

GAO found that the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken some steps, but has not fully addressed, preparedness grant management coordination challenges between headquarters and its regions. For several preparedness grant programs, FEMA headquarters and regions share management and monitoring responsibilities. Assessments by FEMA and others since 2009 have recommended that FEMA regions manage and monitor preparedness grants to avoid confusion and duplication and strengthen coordination with state and local grantees. However, in 2012 FEMA changed course and decided to continue sharing grant management between headquarters and regions. Since then, FEMA officials said they are taking steps to address coordination challenges that exist in this structure. However, GAO found that challenges continue to exist. For example, states and FEMA regional officials told GAO that FEMA headquarters and regions did not always coordinate monitoring visits and provided inconsistent guidance to grantees. Further, while FEMA officials identified some steps to address the challenges, FEMA lacks a plan with time frames and goals for addressing them. Doing so will better enable FEMA to effectively address the long-standing challenges in managing preparedness grants.

FEMA uses states' self-assessments to determine if states have implemented the National Incident Management System (NIMS), as required, but does not assess NIMS implementation using the results of preparedness exercises. NIMS is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management and provides a framework to enable all levels of government and the private sector to work together to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from incidents. Although states generally report high levels of NIMS implementation, officials from all four FEMA regional offices and 9 of 10 states GAO spoke with said that the NIMS self-assessments are perfunctory and do not measure whether, or how well, NIMS is being implemented. FEMA officials said they do not verify states' self-reported NIMS implementation information because of the scope and breadth of the information. All of the FEMA regions and 8 states said the best way to assess NIMS implementation is to review states' performance in after-action reports following exercises and real-world events. However FEMA officials do not review these reports to assess NIMS implementation. Doing so could allow FEMA to better assess NIMS implementation and identify areas for improvement.

All 10 FEMA regions established Regional Advisory Councils (RAC) to provide advice on emergency management issues specific to the region, and about 90 percent of RAC members reported in a GAO survey that meetings are useful for collaborating with their FEMA regional office. However, some regions do not routinely meet with their RACs, and some do not consistently report back to RAC members on the status of their recommendations to FEMA. By more routinely obtaining input from RAC members and by providing timely feedback on recommendations, FEMA regional offices could better ensure they are coordinating with key stakeholders and identifying areas for strengthening preparedness.

Why GAO Did This Study

DHS's FEMA is responsible for coordinating with state, local, and tribal governments to prepare for disasters. Specifically, FEMA provides preparedness grants to states and localities, and works to implement the National Incident Management System nationwide, among other things.

GAO was asked to review FEMA's efforts to enhance coordination for regional preparedness. This report addresses the extent to which FEMA and regional offices have (1) addressed preparedness grant management coordination challenges, (2) established a system to assess NIMS implementation, and (3) collaborated with RAC stakeholders. GAO analyzed FEMA documentation on grant management, NIMS evaluation, and RACs. GAO surveyed RAC members, visited 4 regional offices selected for their geographic representation, spoke with state emergency management officials from 10 states, and interviewed FEMA officials. The site visits cannot be generalized but provided insights.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommended, among other things, that FEMA develop a plan for addressing long-standing coordination challenges with grant management, review after action reports to assess NIMS implementation, and improve coordination with RACs. Although DHS did not concur with the grants management recommendation, GAO continues to believe challenges documented in the report support the recommendation. DHS concurred with the other 4 recommendations and described the actions they planned to take in response.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of October 2016, FEMA does not believe a plan is warranted to address longstanding coordination issues associated with its existing hybrid grants management model, as recommended in GAO's February 2016 report. According to the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA believes strongly in the importance of close and collaborative relationships between headquarters and regional grants staff. Further, FEMA stated the Grant Programs Directorate at headquarters already has in place numerous steps to ensure coordination and collaboration with regional grants staff. However, these steps by FEMA were already in place when GAO conducted its review in 2015 and early 2016, yet GAO identified continuing challenges related to coordination between headquarters and regions in conducting monitoring visits and providing consistent guidance to state grantees. As a result, GAO continues to believe that without a plan with time frames, goals, metrics, and milestones detailing how officials intend to resolve longstanding challenges associated with FEMA's existing hybrid grants management model, these challenges will continue to hamper the effectiveness of interactions between FEMA and state and local stakeholders in implementing the grant programs.

    Recommendation: To promote more effective grant management coordination, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to develop a plan with time frames, goals, metrics and milestones detailing how Grant Programs Directorate intends to resolve longstanding challenges associated with its existing hybrid grants management model, which divides responsibilities between regional and headquarters staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2016, DHS provided an update on the status of actions taken by FEMA in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials said they were revising National Incident Management System (NIMS) doctrine and implementation objectives and intend to work with regional offices to examine the use of after action reports for understanding NIMS implementation. They expect to complete this effort by December 31, 2016. Pending completion of this effort, the recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: To enable more sophisticated and comprehensive awareness of states' NIMS implementation, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to develop policies and procedures for regional staff to review after-action reports from preparedness exercises within their region, and headquarters staff to review these evaluations in order to have a better understanding of NIMS implementation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2016, DHS provided an update on the status of actions taken by FEMA in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials said that each of FEMA's 10 Regional Administrators signed a RAC charter that mandates that each region will conduct two meetings each year with their RAC members. Further, each region has designated a RAC coordinator who is responsible for overseeing these meetings and ensuring they happen on a semi-annual basis. According to the update, five of the Regions had conducted one RAC meeting as of April 2016 and the RAC meetings have been in-person or webinar events, with VTC or phone-in options for those unable to travel to the in-person events. All regions are on target to complete at least two RAC meetings by the end of 2016. The requirement established in the RAC charters for each region should help ensure that all regional offices obtain input from their members to enhance overall emergency preparedness in their regions. Pending documentation of the revised RAC charters that include this requirement, this recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: To enhance the value of Regional Advisory Councils (RAC), the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to ensure that all regional offices routinely obtain input--whether in person, by teleconference or by other remote connection--from their RAC members on ways to enhance overall emergency preparedness in their regions. In cases where RAC member participation is low, regional offices should assess and identify targeted solutions for increasing member participation, such as offering remote participation or alternative forums.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2016, DHS provided an update on the status of actions taken by FEMA in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials said they planned to include a requirement for a briefing by regional personnel on the status of recommendations, if any, made during the previous meeting into RAC standard operating procedures. Pending documentation of the revised RAC operating procedures that include this requirement, this recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: To enhance the value of RACs, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to develop a mechanism to update RAC members on the status of recommendations made by RACs to FEMA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2016, DHS provided an update on the status of actions taken by FEMA in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials said the FEMA NAC director shared NAC topics of interest and recommendations with the RAC in Oklahoma City, OK and planned to attend the April RAC meeting in Chicago to share NAC information. According to the update, regional RAC coordinators have used FEMA's internal SharePoint website to share information on the NAC. Pending documentation of policies or procedures establishing processes to ensure these types of enhanced coordination and communication continue, this recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: To enhance the value of RACs, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to establish processes for enhanced coordination and communication between the RACs and the National Advisory Council.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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