National Preparedness: Additional Actions Needed to Address Gaps in the Nation's Emergency Management Capabilities

GAO-20-297 Published: May 04, 2020. Publicly Released: May 04, 2020.
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Fast Facts

FEMA uses several scenarios—including a pandemic influenza similar to COVID-19—to allow states and territories to assess their own emergency response and recovery capabilities (e.g., how quickly they can restore electricity, or how much emergency housing they can provide).

States and territories have a good handle on their strengths and weaknesses, but FEMA hasn’t used the information to determine the full scope of national needs. FEMA also hasn’t determined what resources the federal government would need to close the gaps—many of which are longstanding.

We recommended taking these steps and more to strengthen national preparedness.

The National Guard’s high-wheel-clearance trucks deliver supplies and evacuate people in North Carolina during flooding caused by Hurricane Florence

Military personnel driving a truck through water

Military personnel driving a truck through water

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) National Preparedness System and associated grants have helped build some emergency management capabilities, but gaps remain. Capabilities fall in five mission areas: (1) prevention—preventing imminent acts of terrorism, (2) protection—protecting citizens and assets, (3) mitigation—mitigating the loss of life and property, (4) response—responding quickly to save lives, and (5) recovery—timely restoration of infrastructure and housing, among other things. From fiscal years 2013 through 2018, jurisdictions directed almost 90 percent of FEMA preparedness grants ($7.3 of $8.3 billion) to capabilities in the crosscutting (i.e., benefit all five mission areas), response, and prevention areas (figure below). Jurisdictions reported a higher level of preparedness in these areas compared to capabilities in the other mission areas—recovery, mitigation, and protection. Jurisdictions have consistently rated select capabilities in these three mission areas—such as disaster housing and cybersecurity—in the lowest category since 2013. FEMA does not limit jurisdictions' use of preparedness grants for select capabilities, but it has encouraged jurisdictions to address the known gaps.

FEMA Preparedness Grants by Mission Area, Fiscal Years 2013 through 2018 

FEMA is taking steps to strengthen the national preparedness system, but has yet to determine what steps are needed to address the nation's capability gaps across all levels of government. Specifically, FEMA is implementing a new methodology to collect more quantitative data on capabilities at the state, territory, and local levels—as GAO recommended in 2011—and also plans to begin assessing the federal government's capabilities. Including the federal government in such an assessment would enable FEMA and jurisdictions to assess national preparedness capabilities collectively. While these are positive steps that could meet the intent of the 2011 recommendation, FEMA has yet to determine what steps are needed to address the capability gaps once they are identified, including jurisdictions' capability gaps that have been known since 2012. By determining these steps and informing key stakeholders, such as Congress, about what resources will be needed across all levels of government, FEMA will be better positioned to address the nation's capability gaps.

FEMA after-action reports have identified areas for improvement and lessons learned following disasters, but has completed after-action reviews for only 29 percent of disasters from 2017 through 2019. FEMA lacks a formal mechanism to track corrective actions and does not have guidance on sharing after-action reports with key external stakeholders, as appropriate.

Why GAO Did This Study

FEMA uses the National Preparedness System to help assess the nation's emergency management capabilities in preparing for disasters and, in part, to help prioritize federal preparedness grants it provides to state and local jurisdictions. Since 2002, FEMA has provided over $52 billion in such grants intended to enhance preparedness capabilities.

GAO was asked to examine national preparedness. This report examines the extent to which: (1) FEMA's National Preparedness System and associated preparedness grants have assisted jurisdictions in preparing for disasters; (2) FEMA has strengthened the National Preparedness System and what steps remain; and (3) FEMA is using after-action reports to identify lessons learned and strengthen future preparedness. GAO evaluated agency guidance, analyzed 2013 to 2017 capability data—the most current available; conducted site visits to five states; and interviewed FEMA, state, and local emergency management officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations that FEMA (1) determine what steps are needed to address emergency management capability gaps, and communicate it to key stakeholders (2) prioritize completion of after-action reviews, 3) track corrective actions, and (4) develop guidance on sharing findings externally. The Department of Homeland Security concurred and FEMA is taking actions in response.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should, following the completion of the 2021 National Preparedness Report, determine what steps are needed to address the nation's emergency management capability gaps across all levels of government and inform key stakeholders, such as the Office of Management and Budget and Congress, about what level of resources will be necessary to address the known gaps. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
FEMA concurred with the recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. As of September 2022, according to the agency it is in the process of drafting an Investment Strategy for a National Preparedness annex to the 2023 National Preparedness Report. The Investment Strategy will contain the following information: 1) clarify roles and responsibilities for maintaining capabilities and closing gaps; 2) establish priorities that align resources to capability gaps; and 3) determine how investments translate to improved outcomes-expected completion date is December 31, 2022. Additionally, agency officials stated that, it would begin concurrence of the Target Gap Overviews (previously called the capability assessment sheets) for the National Stakeholder Preparedness Review with members of the Homeland Preparedness and Response Interagency Policy Committee (HPR IPC) by September 30, 2022. FEMA will conduct additional engagements with the interagency working group members to refine analysis and findings within the Target Gap Overviews prior to final review by the HPR IPC members. FEMA expects the review of the Target Gap Overviews to be complete by November 30, 2022. FEMA is planning to complete its annual National Preparedness Report by December 31, 2022 that will provide the national capability targets. The national capability targets will include those that were most stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic; and those which would be most stressed by a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should develop guidance to help determine which after-action reviews should be prioritized based on factors, such as the severity of disasters and availability of staff and resources to conduct the review, and implement time frames for following up on incomplete after-action reports. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
FEMA concurred with the recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. In January 2022, FEMA developed a guidance document for its Continuous Improvement Program (CIP) that addresses the prioritization of disaster after-action reports and establish timeframes for completing them. In January 2022, FEMA held two training sessions for its staff on the guidance. In addition, the program is coordinating internally to formally post the Instructions on their Policy web page. As a result of these actions, we consider this recommendation closed-implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should develop a mechanism to consistently track best practices, lessons learned, and corrective actions that have been elevated to headquarters for resolution. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
FEMA concurred with the recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. According to FEMA officials, in December 2019 the agency began development of an expanded issue tracking system with enhanced capabilities to fully track best practices, lessons learned, and corrective actions that can be elevated to FEMA headquarters for resolution. In June 2022, FEMA launched its Issue Resolution System. According to officials, the Issue Resolution System is FEMA's system of record for after-action review observations in Major Declared Disasters. Further, FEMA intends to populate the system with historical data from 2017 to the present. This system if fully utilized by FEMA personnel should enable users to document and manage areas for improvement, best practices, track Agency action to resolve issues, and evaluate improvement progress. As a result of these actions, we consider this recommendation closed-implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should develop guidance on sharing after-action reports and their relevant findings with external stakeholders, when appropriate. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
FEMA concurred with the recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. In January 2022, FEMA issued its guidance for its Continuous Improvement Program which addresses the sharing of after-action reports and their relevant findings with external stakeholders. In doing so, FEMA established criteria for after-action review products, as well as the criteria for public release of an after-action product. As a result of this action, we consider this recommendation closed-implemented.

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