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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that FEMA develop a plan with time frames, goals, metrics, and milestones to resolve longstanding challenges associate with its existing hybrid grants management model, FEMA took action to develop the plan. Specifically, in October 2017, FEMA developed the Milestone Action Plan to track efforts aimed at improving coordination issues associated with its hybrid grants management model, which divides responsibilities for the management of preparedness grants between regional and headquarters staff. The Milestone Action Plan describes completed, ongoing, and planned efforts taken by FEMA to improve grants management coordination, and includes steps taken, goals, and timeframes, among other things. For example, the plan shows that FEMA developed and finalized the Monitoring Actions Tracker (MAT) in August 2016, a tool shared by the Grants Program Directorate (GPD) in FEMA headquarters and staff in regional offices. Through the MAT, GPD and regional staff are able to view planned and completed monitoring activities related to grants management, as well as the status of any open corrective actions. In addition to developing the Milestone Action Plan, FEMA officials described other efforts taken to improve coordination issues. For example, FEMA increased the use of an online collaboration tool, which allows for instant information sharing between GPD and the regions. We believe this plan developed by FEMA addresses the intent our recommendation and we are therefore closing this recommendation as implemented.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2017, FEMA officials provided an update on the status of actions taken in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials said the National Integration Center (NIC) is holding consultative sessions with state and local emergency managers to ensure the revised National Incident Management System (NIMS) doctrine and implementation objectives are operationally sound from the perspective of FEMA's stakeholders. They had expected to complete this effort by September 30, 2017. In March 2019, FEMA provided GAO with additional actions taken to address the recommendation. In January 2020, FEMA provided GAO with an update, stating that the NIC has developed a new process for NIMS coordinators to go to different states to assess their level of NIMS implementation. In July 2020, FEMA developed a policy and procedures for regional staff to review after-action reports, and for headquarters staff to review these evaluations, in order to assess the effectiveness of NIMS implementation in the United States. The policy describes the process on how this will be accomplished, and calls for the use of a data collection instrument in order to standardize the evaluation across regions. Establishing this policy and procedures is responsive to our recommendation and should enhance FEMA's ability to evaluate the level of NIMS implementation nationwide, as a result we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2017, FEMA provided an update on the status of actions taken in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials provided copies of the current 10 Regional NAC Charters signed by the permanent or Acting Regional Administrators and a listing by date of the completed and planned RAC meetings for calendar years 2016 and 2017 demonstrating that the regional offices now more consistently hold RAC meetings on a regular twice calendar year or twice fiscal year basis. In addition, FEMA reported that the Office of Regional Operations (ORO) coordinates closely with the ten Regions to maintain a master list of the RAC meetings. Specifically, ORO ensures this information is updated on a quarterly basis via email reminders to the Regional RAC Chairs. Taken together, these efforts should help ensure that all regional offices routinely obtain input from their RAC members and, thereby, strengthen regional preparedness.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2016, DHS provided an update on the status of actions taken by FEMA in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials provided a copy of revised operating guidelines for RACs that included a requirement to establish an appropriate feedback loop regarding the disposition of RAC advice (recommendations), including a report out at every RAC meeting on the status of the outcomes from the previous meeting. Effectively implementing this requirement should enhance the value of the regional advisory councils for both their members and for FEMA's regional offices.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2017, FEMA provided a copy of FEMA's Office of the National Advisory Council (ONAC) Standard Operating Procedures, dated October 2016. In the document, FEMA officials describe how ONAC works with its Office of Regional Operations to support information sharing between the NAC and Regional Advisory Councils RACs). For example, the ONAC is to provide FEMA RAC coordinators in each region with contact information for NAC members in their regions and use the RAC SharePoint site to update them on upcoming NAC meetings and provide meeting minutes. RAC coordinators are to share this information with RAC members. Establishing these processes for enhanced coordination and communication between the NAC and the RACs is responsive to our recommendation and should enhance the value of RACs.

    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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