Disaster Response: FEMA Has Made Progress Implementing Key Programs, but Opportunities for Improvement Exist
What GAO Found
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken steps to implement, assess, and improve select disaster response programs, but GAO identified opportunities to strengthen program management. Specifically, GAO found that FEMA uses leading management practices in implementing its Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) program. For example, FEMA has aligned the mission of the US&R Program--to save lives and reduce suffering in communities impacted by a disaster-- with its goal setting efforts in its US&R Strategic Plan. It also communicates program risks to stakeholders and assesses performance so the program can be continuously strengthened. However, all nine US&R task forces GAO interviewed reported challenges funding the maintenance and replacement of their aging equipment to ensure that it is not outdated and adheres to manufacturer standards. FEMA has not developed a plan to prioritize and fund the replacement of this equipment and doing so would help ensure that these task forces are capable of meeting their important response mission.
FEMA applies some leading program management practices in implementing, assessing, and improving its Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT)—such as setting strategic goals and identifying program risks—but does not use other practices that would enhance program management. National and regional IMAT team members are comprised of FEMA employees hired on temporary 4-year contracts. GAO found that FEMA lacks a standardized plan to ensure that all national and regional IMAT members receive required training, and IMAT teams do not always develop after action reports after disaster deployments and document lessons learned. GAO also found that the IMAT program has experienced high attrition across national and regional IMAT teams—since its implementation in fiscal year 2013—and FEMA has not developed a strategy to address these challenges. Developing a plan to address training and retention challenges would help FEMA better meet IMAT program goals.
FEMA's efforts to implement, assess, and improve its evacuation tracking system nationwide have been inconsistent due to lack of state and local resources and interest in using the system. However, FEMA officials said they are taking steps to address concerns raised by users of the system, including technical issues with the software. For example, FEMA has developed a new implementation plan to provide guidance to its regional offices for better communicating and training state and local officials on the use of its tracking software and intends to finalize a system strategic plan in the next nine to 15 months. Since these efforts are ongoing, GAO cannot yet assess the extent that they will address the inconsistences or user concerns with the system.
Why GAO Did This Study
In a disaster requiring a federal response, the Department of Homeland Security's FEMA provides various response resources to state, local, and tribal governments. Such assistance can include deploying US&R teams to help locate survivors and human remains, IMAT teams to help coordinate and provide federal support, and evacuation assistance, when applicable.
GAO was asked to review aspects of FEMA's disaster response programs. Specifically, this report addresses FEMA's efforts to implement, assess, and improve selected disaster response programs for urban search and rescue, incident management, and evacuation tracking. GAO reviewed documentation such as policies, procedures, after action reports, and readiness assessments for these programs and deployments to select disasters for fiscal years 2010 through 2014—capturing pre and post Hurricane Sandy disasters. GAO also interviewed FEMA and state officials, and a nongeneralizable sample of nine US&R task forces to gain insights into FEMA's efforts.
GAO recommends that FEMA develop a plan to prioritize and fund the replacement of US&R task force equipment; a plan to ensure that IMAT teams receive required training, and a workforce strategy for retention of IMAT staff; and document, track, and analyze recommendations and lessons learned from disaster deployments. DHS concurred with the recommendations and described plans to implement them.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Homeland Security||To enable FEMA to and more effectively respond to disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to develop a comprehensive plan to prioritize and finance the replacement of equipment for the US&R task forces.||
In August 2016, FEMA provided a copy of their 5-year plan for prioritizing and financing the procurement of equipment for the Urban Search and Rescue task forces. This action addresses the intent of our recommendation. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
|Department of Homeland Security||To enable FEMA to and more effectively respond to disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to develop a comprehensive training plan that links the IMAT training and cadre-specific training requirements to available training opportunities to help ensure timely completion of the requirements.||
In December 2016, FEMA provided an update on the status of actions taken in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials provided a draft IMAT Training and Readiness Manual to help them plan to define the National and Regional IMAT team training and certification standards. They expect to issue the final version of the Training and Readiness Manual in January 2017. Once implemented, they said the Training and Readiness Manual will require IMAT teams to identify their training and exercise requirements for each year as a part of the overall annual training and exercise plan. In February 2017, FEMA provided a training schedule for fiscal year 2017 that links the actual number of IMAT members and their training needs to available training opportunities. Based on these actions, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
|Department of Homeland Security||To enable FEMA to and more effectively respond to disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to implement a process to document, track, and analyze recommendations and implement lessons learned from Regional and National IMAT teams after disaster deployments.||
In August 2016, FEMA provided an update on the status of actions taken in response to our report. In the update, FEMA officials said they had formalized the agency's Lessons Learned process that includes Lessons Learned Advisors (LLAs) at every region as well as LLAs who are to coordinate with each of the National IMATs. FEMA has incorporated the Department of Defense's Joint Lessons Learned Information System (JLLIS) as the system to capture and manage Lesson Learned data as well as developing Standard Operating Procedures for lessons learned and continuous improvement process (LL/CIP). This process includes the development of formal Collection Action Plans focused on established readiness standards and established training and disaster outcomes, a standardized method of observation and data collection, data analysis, as well as a standardized formal reporting and improvement integration strategies. They provided a draft of a new LL/CIP Disaster Activations Standard Operating Procedures. We reviewed the draft procedures and found that they document a comprehensive approach to document, track, and analyze recommendations and implement lessons learned after disaster deployments. In March 2017, FEMA provided their finalized IMAT training manual that specifies incorporating lessons learned and entities responsible for tracking the results. Based on these actions, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
|Department of Homeland Security||To enable FEMA to and more effectively respond to disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to develop a workforce strategy to manage and improve retention that includes a process for systematically gathering attrition data and a plan to retain IMAT Cadre-of On-Call Response Employees.||
In August 2019, FEMA provided an update on the status of actions taken in response to our report. FEMA stated that they are continuing to work on two actions. One, the development of a new organizational structure. FEMA is still refining and assessing the impact of the new IMAT structure. Two, FEMA delivered a new IMAT Program Orientation to 19 new IMAT members. FEMA told us that it plans to analyze the impact of these changes along with attrition information. In 2020, FEMA faced delays due to COVID-19. In June 2021, FEMA officials provided updates on their actions including their final report on FEMA's IMAT attrition assessment and the updated IMAT Directive with program changes informed by the assessment. For example, the policy includes program management requirements-such as an IMAT career progression structure and pay adjustment process, among others requirements-to address key findings from their attrition study. Based on these actions and the finalization of the new IMAT Directive, this recommendation is closed as implemented.