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FEMA Reservists: Training Could Benefit from Examination of Practices at Other Agencies

GAO-13-250R Published: Mar 22, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 22, 2013.
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What GAO Found

We compared FEMA's training of reservists with the training provided to reservists at the SBA, the Forest Service, and the Coast Guard--agencies with a disaster mission--and found similarities and differences; and, moreover, FEMA had not examined other agencies' training programs to identify useful practices. All four training programs shared some similar attributes with regard to training requirements, funding sources, training delivery, and training evaluation. For example, FEMA and two of the comparison agencies have a credentialing program used to document reservist qualifications. Differences included the timing of when training is delivered and the use of job aids to reinforce reservists' understanding of material covered in training courses. Regarding timing, SBA, the Forest Service, and the Coast Guard each train their reservists in advance of deploying these individuals to a disaster. However, factors such as the way in which FEMA funds its disaster program have limited the agency's ability to train its reservists in advance of deployments to disasters. FEMA plans to begin allowing up to 2 weeks of reservist training outside of deployments under the new reservist program during fiscal year 2013. Differences we identified in training practices indicate that an examination of other agencies' reserve training programs could be beneficial. For example, FEMA may benefit from examining the Coast Guard's use of job aids, which reinforce reservist training course material after course work is completed. As part of our work identifying key attributes of successful training programs, we have previously identified developing partnerships and learning from others as a core characteristic of a strategic training process. FEMA officials stated that while they had not looked to other agencies' training programs, training practices at other agencies that we highlighted in this report provide useful information for FEMA as it works to improve its reservist training efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, in New Jersey, leaving extensive flooding, loss of life, and property damage across the eastern United States in its wake. Within 3 days of the hurricane's landfall, more than 2,300 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel were working to support response operations, including search and rescue, power restoration, communications, and logistical support in states affected by the storm. Hurricane Sandy was one of 46 federal major disaster declarations in fiscal year 2012. From fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2012, there have been 422 federal major disaster declarations in which FEMA has obligated $39 billion in major disaster assistance payments.

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), FEMA is tasked with leading the nation in mitigating, responding to, and recovering from major disasters, both natural and man-made. To carry out its mission, FEMA relies heavily upon its Reservist Program, an on-call reserve workforce that is deployed when needed to assist disaster survivors. As of February 2013, there were 6,795 reservists, who constituted 36 percent of FEMA's disaster workforce. In April 2012, FEMA announced that it was transforming its reservist workforce, formerly known as Disaster Assistance Employees. Among other things, the transformation to the Reservist Program transitioned reservist assignments from a regionally based structure to a nationally managed program.

We have identified several challenges related to FEMA's reservist training practices. Specifically, in May 2012, we reported that FEMA's reservist training was not consistent with key attributes of effective training and development programs that could help to ensure that its training and development investments were targeted strategically. We recommended that FEMA establish a plan to ensure all reservists have opportunities to participate in training and are qualified and that FEMA develop a systematic process to track training costs. FEMA officials agreed with the recommendations. In October 2012 the agency launched the FEMA Qualification System (FQS) and the Incident Qualification Certification System (IQCS) to track reservist training and qualifications. According to the officials, they anticipate that IQCS will enable FEMA to better track training costs. In April 2012, we also reported that FEMA's training information system did not provide a comprehensive or accurate account of all training activities of FEMA employees, including reservists, and we recommended that FEMA develop systematic processes to collect and analyze training data. FEMA agreed with the recommendation and is increasing its capacity for analyzing training data through the development of a human capital data warehouse.

Congress asked GAO to assess FEMA's reservist workforce training. Our objective was to examine how FEMA's reservist workforce training compares with training of other similar agencies, and to what extent FEMA has examined these agencies' training programs to identify useful practices.


To enhance its training of reservists, we are recommending that FEMA examine the training practices of other agencies with disaster reservist workforces to identify potentially useful practices. DHS concurred with our recommendation and described plans to address it. DHS, SBA, and the Forest Service provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, please contact Stephen Caldwell at (202) 512-8777 or

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency To enhance its training of reservists and meet its goal of having qualified reservists, the FEMA Administrator should examine the training practices of other agencies with disaster reservist workforces to identify potentially useful practices.
Closed – Implemented
In April 2015, FEMA officials provide a memorandum that described the agency's establishment of an Executive Level Task Force that met with representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. According to the memo, the task force selected these organizations because they maintain similar reservists or deployable forces. Based on discussions about the tools and systems they used to manage their respective work forces, the task force identified best practices and FEMA used these practices to inform their development of an incident workforce cadre management directive (FEMA Directive FD 010-9, issued June 9, 2014) and a cadre management guide. These documents describe formal roles and responsibilities for the reservist workforce, including oversight and management, staffing, equipping, training and education, qualifying, and performance management. These actions should enhance FEMA's training of reservists and help the agency better meet its goal of having qualified reservists.

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DisastersLabor forceNatural disastersHomeland securityHuman capital managementEmployee developmentEmergency managementDisaster planningDisaster assistanceEmployee trainingTraining utilizationProgram evaluationLogisticsPerformance measuresProperty damagesFederal agencies