Voluntary Organizations:

FEMA Should More Fully Assess Organization's Mass Care Capabilities and Update the Red Cross Role in Catastrophic Events

GAO-08-823: Published: Sep 18, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 18, 2008.

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Voluntary organizations have traditionally played a major role in the nation's response to disasters, but the response to Hurricane Katrina raised concerns about their ability to handle large-scale disasters. This report examines (1) the roles of five voluntary organizations in providing mass care and other services, (2) the steps they have taken to improve service delivery, (3) their current capabilities for responding to mass care needs, and (4) the challenges they face in preparing for large-scale disasters. To address these questions, GAO reviewed the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Convention, Catholic Charities USA, and United Way of America; interviewed officials from these organizations and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); reviewed data and laws; and visited four high-risk metro areas--Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C.

The five voluntary organizations we reviewed are highly diverse in their focus and response structures. They also constitute a major source of the nation's mass care and related disaster services and are integrated into the 2008 National Response Framework. The Red Cross in particular--the only one whose core mission is disaster response--has a federally designated support role to government under the mass care provision of this Framework. While the Red Cross no longer serves as the primary agency for coordinating government mass care services--as under the earlier 2004 National Plan--it is expected to support FEMA by providing staff and expertise, among other things. FEMA and the Red Cross agree on the Red Cross's role in a catastrophic disaster, but it is not clearly documented. While FEMA recognized the need to update the 2006 Catastrophic Incident Supplement to conform with the Framework, it does not yet have a time frame for doing so. Since Katrina, the organizations we studied have taken steps to strengthen their service delivery by expanding coverage and upgrading their logistical and communications systems. The Red Cross, in particular, is realigning its regional chapters to better support its local chapters and improve efficiency and establishing new partnerships with local community-based organizations. Most recently, however, a budget shortfall has prompted the organization to reduce staff and alter its approach to supporting FEMA and state emergency management agencies. While Red Cross officials maintain that these changes will not affect improvements to its mass care service infrastructure, it has also recently requested federal funding for its governmental responsibilities. Capabilities assessments are preliminary, but current evidence suggests that in a worst-case large-scale disaster, the projected need for mass care services would far exceed the capabilities of these voluntary organizations without government and other assistance--despite voluntary organizations' substantial resources locally and nationally. Voluntary organizations also faced shortages in trained volunteers, as well as other limitations that affected their mass care capabilities. Meanwhile, FEMA's initial assessment does not necessarily include the sheltering capabilities of many voluntary organizations and does not yet address feeding capabilities outside of shelters. In addition, the ability to assess mass care capabilities and coordinate in disasters is currently hindered by a lack of standard terminology and measures for mass care resources, and efforts are under way to develop such standards. Finding and training more personnel, dedicating more resources to preparedness, and working more closely with local governments are ongoing challenges for voluntary organizations. A shortage of staff and volunteers was most commonly cited, but we also found they had difficulty seeking and dedicating funds for preparedness, in part because of competing priorities. However, the guidance for FEMA preparedness grants to states and localities was also not sufficiently explicit with regard to using such funds to support the efforts of voluntary organizations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA and the American Red Cross signed a new memorandum of agreement in 2010 that clarifies each organization's responsibilities during a disaster. Under the new agreement, FEMA and the Red Cross will jointly lead the planning and coordination of mass care services in a disaster.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Catastrophic Incident Supplement reflects the American Red Cross's current role under Emergency Support Function 6--Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing and Human Services Annex (ESF-6) as a support agency for mass care, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to establish a time frame for updating the mass care section of the Supplement so that it is consistent with the changes in the ESF-6 under the new Framework, and no longer requires the Red Cross to direct federal government resources. In the meantime, FEMA should develop an interim agreement with the Red Cross to document the understanding they have on the Red Cross's role and responsibilities in a catastrophic event.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FEMA does not concur with this recommendation, but indicated that FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaisons and Mass Care staff continue to coordinate with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD). However, there is no indication that FEMA has taken steps to better incorporate voluntary organizations' capabilities into assessments of mass care capabilities.

    Recommendation: To more fully capture the disaster capabilities of major voluntary organizations that provide mass care services, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to take steps to better incorporate these organizations' capabilities into assessments of mass care capabilities, such as FEMA's GAP Analysis, and to broaden its assessment to include feeding capabilities outside of shelters. Such steps might include (1) soliciting the input of voluntary organizations, such as through National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD); (2) integrating voluntary organization data on capabilities into FEMA's analyses; and (3) encouraging state governments to include voluntary mass care organization data in studies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA released updated guidance for the Homeland Security Grant Program in December 2009. This guidance clarifies that grant funds can be used to increase the capacity of non-governmental entities working to meet the human service response and recovery needs of victims. The guidance also specifies that grant funds can be used to engage private sector and non-governmental entities that are involved in disaster response.

    Recommendation: To help these voluntary organizations better prepare for providing mass care in major and catastrophic disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to clarify the Homeland Security Grant Program funding guidance for states so it is clear that voluntary organizations and local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) are among those eligible to be subgrantees under the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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