Fast Facts

FEMA deployed thousands of staff to respond to multiple large-scale disasters in 2017 and 2018.

FEMA’s processes are intended to identify staff qualifications and skills, and use this information to deploy personnel. However, we found that FEMA didn’t provide reliable staffing information to the field during disasters. For example, staff in all 14 of our focus groups cited issues with personnel who were deemed “qualified” but didn’t have the skills to effectively perform their jobs, which affected disaster assistance.

We recommended that FEMA develop a plan to provide reliable information to field officials about staff skills and abilities.

FEMA staff

FEMA staff

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has established mechanisms to qualify and deploy staff to disasters. For example, the FEMA Qualification System tracks training and task performance requirements for disaster workforce positions and has a process to designate staff as qualified in their positions once they have completed these requirements. FEMA's deployment process uses an automated system to deploy staff members to disasters that match field requests for positions and proficiency levels. The process depends on the agency's qualification and deployment systems to identify staff qualification status and skillsets to meet field needs.

However, FEMA's qualification and deployment processes did not provide reliable and complete staffing information to field officials to ensure its workforce was effectively deployed and used during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons. Specifically, GAO's focus groups with over 100 incident staff members and interviews with field and regional officials indicate that disaster personnel experienced significant limitations with qualification status matching performance in the field, due in part to challenges with how staff are evaluated through the qualification process. In all focus groups with applicable incident personnel, participants cited issues with staff members who were qualified in the FEMA Qualification System not having the skills or experience to effectively perform their positions. For example, one participant described supervising staff members who were qualified in the system but did not know the eligibility requirements for applicants to receive housing assistance, or what information needed to be included in the applicant's file. In addition, participants in the majority of the focus groups reported challenges with using FEMA's deployment processes to fully identify staff responsibilities, specialized skillsets, and experience. FEMA headquarters officials acknowledged the identified information challenges but said they have not developed a plan to address them in part because of competing priorities. Developing a plan to address identified challenges with providing reliable staffing information to field officials would enhance FEMA's ability to use staff as flexibly and effectively as possible to meet disaster needs.

Further, FEMA's disaster workforce experienced challenges with receiving staff development through the agency's existing methods to enhance the skills and competencies needed during disaster deployments—challenges FEMA headquarters officials acknowledged. Specifically, GAO's focus groups and interviews indicate that disaster personnel encountered challenges related to the availability of courses, providing and receiving on-the-job training and mentoring, and consistently receiving performance evaluations. For example, in 10 of 17 focus groups, participants cited barriers to taking courses that in their view would help them better perform their jobs. In addition, participants in seven focus groups stated that they did not receive coaching or feedback on the job. Relatedly, FEMA data show that at the start of deployments during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, 36 percent of staff did not have an official assigned to coach and evaluate task performance—the primary mechanism the agency depends on for coaching. Creating a staff development program would help better ensure FEMA's disaster workforce develops the skills and competencies needed to meet mission needs in the field.

Why GAO Did This Study

During the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, several large-scale disasters created an unprecedented demand for FEMA's workforce. FEMA deployed 14,684 and 10,328 personnel at the peak of each of these seasons and reported staffing shortages during the disasters. GAO was asked to review issues related to the federal response to the 2017 disaster season.

This report addresses (1) how FEMA's disaster workforce is qualified and deployed, (2) how effective FEMA's qualification and deployment processes were during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons in ensuring workforce needs were met in the field, and (3) the extent to which FEMA's disaster workforce receives staff development to enhance skills and competencies. GAO analyzed documentation and data on incident workforce qualification and deployment; conducted 17 focus groups with 129 staff members; and interviewed FEMA officials in headquarters, field, and regional offices.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that FEMA develop (1) a plan to address identified challenges that have hindered its ability to provide reliable information to field officials about staff skills and abilities and (2) a staff development program for its disaster workforce that addresses training access, delivery of on-the-job training, and other development methods. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency 1. The FEMA Administrator should develop a plan—with time frames and milestones and input from field leadership—to address identified challenges that have hindered FEMA's ability to provide reliable and complete information to field leaders and managers about staff knowledge, skills, and abilities. (Recommendation 1)
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DHS concurred with our recommendation. In its agency comment letter, the department noted that FEMA plans to engage field leaders on enhancements to its coach-and-evaluator program to develop a plan to address identified challenges. DHS also reported that FEMA plans to increase training offerings and align its curriculum so that FEMA Qualification System (FQS) status matches workforce capability. Also, in its October 20, 2020 update, DHS stated that FEMA is developing a pilot for external evaluations of the coach-and-evaluator program. The department stated that this will give cadres a better understanding of the capabilities of their coach-and-evaluators and will ensure greater reliability for personnel who receive FQS qualification. DHS also noted that FEMA is reviewing and revising FQS policies within the FQS Guide for initial qualification of new personnel hired into the agency in non-specialist level positions. DHS anticipates completion of FEMA's efforts to implement our recommendation by March 31, 2021.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 2. The FEMA Administrator should develop mechanisms, including collecting relevant data, to assess how effectively FEMA's disaster workforce was deployed to meet mission needs in the field. (Recommendation 2)
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DHS concurred with our recommendation. In its agency comment letter, the department reported that FEMA plans to convene subject matter experts to develop mechanisms that demonstrate how effectively FEMA's disaster workforce deploys to meet mission needs in the field. Also, in its October 20, 2020 update, DHS described actions taken to assess and update FEMA's force structure requirements and stated that as part of the process for updating these requirements, FEMA will account for feedback it receives via continuous coordination with the field on how deployments are meeting mission needs. DHS anticipates completion of FEMA's efforts to implement our recommendation by October 31, 2021.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 3. The FEMA Administrator should create a staff development program for FEMA's disaster workforce that, at a minimum, addresses access to training, delivery of on-the-job training and mentoring, use of performance evaluations, and consistent developmental opportunities regardless of deployment status. (Recommendation 3)
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DHS concurred with our recommendation. In its October 20, 2020 update, the department stated that FEMA is implementing its Deployment Performance Evaluation Directive, which is intended to provide clear guidance to Temporary Duty Supervisors for deployment performance reviews in a consistent, fair, and equitable manner to all FEMA employees deployed to disasters. DHS stated that these performance evaluations will be key part of the FEMA Reservist Performance Management Program, which establishes a process for providing annual performance appraisals for reservists and assisting them in maintaining and improving performance. The program is expected to be launched in January 2022. According to DHS, the deployment performance evaluations for deployed staff will be recorded in both the Deployment Tracking System and the same human resource system as full-time staff performance evaluations. The department anticipates this being completed by April 31, 2021.

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