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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken steps to improve its disaster services for people with disabilities and its support to other entities, such as state and local governments. FEMA established the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC) following enactment of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (Post-Katrina Act) to lead the agency's efforts to promote inclusiveness in disaster planning, response, and recovery. However, there is no established procedure for FEMA Regional Administrators, who oversee disability integration staff in the regions, to involve ODIC in the activities of these staff. As a result, regions vary in the extent to which they consult with ODIC, which has led to a lack of clarity in regional disability integration staff roles, a lack of awareness of potentially underperforming staff, and inconsistent communication between the regions and headquarters. Federal internal control standards state that organizational structures should allow the organization's components to communicate information necessary to fulfill their respective responsibilities. Communication gaps between ODIC and the regions may prevent regional disability integration staff from effectively supporting state and local governments in meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities affected by disasters. ODIC also has not established goals for how many state and local emergency managers should take its key training on integrating the needs of individuals with disabilities into disaster planning. Nor has ODIC evaluated alternative methods to deliver the training more broadly, such as virtually in addition to classroom training. As a result, state and local emergency managers may be ill-prepared to provide effective disaster services to those with disabilities.

FEMA and other entities assist individuals with limited English proficiency by translating information on disaster assistance programs. FEMA provides information about its assistance programs using print materials in other languages, bilingual staff, and a helpline with translators for more than 50 languages. State, local, and voluntary organizations also disseminate information on health and safety information, such as evacuations and sheltering: In five of the six disasters GAO reviewed where translation was needed, these entities reported using a range of services, from bilingual staff to multilingual helplines.

FEMA worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to establish a national call center designed to field calls with information about children separated from their families during disasters. NCMEC also maintains a registry that serves as a web-based repository created to collect this information. However, according to FEMA officials, no disasters since Hurricane Katrina have required national child reunification support. Nevertheless, FEMA continues to work with NCMEC on maintaining reunification resources, such as by funding the deployment of NCMEC personnel following disasters.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2005, individuals with disabilities, individuals with limited English proficiency, and families with children were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina. For example, some of those who had to abandon their wheelchairs could not evacuate because they were unable to wait in long lines for evacuation buses. The Post-Katrina Act required FEMA and other entities to take certain actions to assist these individuals, such as through the establishment of a Disability Coordinator within FEMA. GAO was asked to examine implementation of the Post-Katrina Act.

This report assesses the extent to which FEMA and other entities provide disaster services to individuals with disabilities, individuals with limited English proficiency, and children in need of family reunification. GAO examined federal, state, and local disaster assistance efforts for six major disasters that occurred from March 2014 through October 2015, where federal response and recovery efforts included assistance to the three target groups and that varied in location and type of disaster. GAO interviewed relevant officials, visited three of the six sites, and analyzed emergency operations plans and disaster summary reports.

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Recommendations

FEMA should establish written procedures for involving ODIC in regional activities; set goals for the number of state and local emergency managers who will take a key training on disability integration; and evaluate alternative delivery methods for the training. FEMA concurred with all of the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security To better ensure FEMA's regional activities effectively support individuals with disabilities, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to take steps to establish written procedures for how regions should involve the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination in clarifying disability integration staff's roles, evaluating staff performance, and setting expectations for how staff communicate with headquarters and the regions.
Closed - Implemented
FEMA agreed with this recommendation and took steps to implement it. In July 2021, FEMA reported that it holds weekly coordination calls between the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC) HQ and Regional Disability Integration Specialists (RDIS). FEMA stated that the calls provide a regular communication structure to share information, resources and tools, coordinate on deployment issues, stakeholder roundtables and other communications initiatives, training issues, and other concerns. FEMA also convened a workgroup to examine the role of RDIS, including their reporting chain, roles, and responsibilities, and that the workgroup developed standardized performance goals for the RDIS in each of FEMA's ten regions. FEMA stated that it included the goals in each RDIS performance plan for 2021. In September 2021, FEMA also reported that the performance goals would remain in effect beyond Calendar Year 2021, and that ODIC and the regions agreed that ODIC would have input in evaluating the standardized performance goals for all RDIS.
Department of Homeland Security To better position FEMA to expand access to key training on incorporating access and functional needs into emergency planning for state, local, and voluntary organization emergency management officials, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Administrator to evaluate alternative cost-effective methods for delivering its course on access and functional needs, such as via virtual classes.
Closed - Implemented
FEMA agreed with this recommendation and reported that it will explore options for updating one of its existing online courses--IS-368 "Including People with Disabilities and Other with Access and Functional Needs in Disaster Operations"--to tailor the content for a broader audience, including members of the public. The agency also reported that it will evaluate the need for alternative cost-effective methods for delivering other courses on inclusive emergency management it currently offers, such as its classroom course, "Integrating Access and Functional Need into Emergency Planning." As of January 2018, the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination reported plans to hire a permanent staff person to review, assess, and recommend how FEMA should incorporate disability into all internal and external training. In August 2018, FEMA reported hiring a new Program and Policy Branch Chief in July 2018, and noted that this individual will formulate a plan to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities into internal and external training over several weeks. In the meantime, FEMA reported providing just-in-time training in the field to support field staff in providing services to people with disabilities. In June 2019, officials said they had begun procuring external consulting services to redevelop "Integrating Access and Functional Need into Emergency Planning," which the agency had stopped offering in September 2017. According to the officials, ODIC had evaluated alternatives to the suspended course and determined that an in-person, exercise-based course with remote participation capabilities would be an appropriate replacement. Officials anticipate the course taking about one year to redevelop and will be ready to field by August 2020. These actions sufficiently address our recommendation, and we consider it implemented.
Department of Homeland Security To help ensure its key training on incorporating access and functional needs into emergency planning reaches a sufficiently wide audience, the Secretary should direct the FEMA Administrator to collect information about the potential pool of participants, set general goals for the number of state and local emergency managers that will take this course, and implement the delivery methods needed to meet these goals.
Open
FEMA agreed with this recommendation and in July 2021, FEMA reported that it coordinated with its Emergency Management Institute to conduct a training needs assessment for its training on integrating individuals with disabilities into emergency planning, including identifying the potential pool of training participants. FEMA also reported that a project plan for the training is being developed which will discuss the potential pool of participants and steps that will be taken to reach a sufficiently wide audience of emergency managers and planners, possible delivery methods, and performance metrics. In September 2021, FEMA reported that it is aiming to pilot the training by February 2022, and fully launch the training by May 2022. Additionally, FEMA reported that the initial roll-out of the training will be targeted to smaller cities and rural areas, which may not have sufficient resources to hire staff with expertise in integrating the needs of people with disabilities into their emergency plans. FEMA stated that its project plan for the training will also address how to deliver the training to meet the unique needs of participants from smaller cities and rural areas. We will consider closing this recommendation when the agency can provide the project plan for the training and other documentation as needed to show it has addressed the recommendation.

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