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
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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)
Open
DHS concurred with our recommendation. In its February 2021 update, FEMA stated that it has taken steps to enhance the FEMA Qualification System's coach-and-evaluator program to provide more oversight of the program and help ensure greater reliability for personnel who receive qualification status. For example, FEMA stated that it has implemented assessments that cadres can use to help ensure that coach-and-evaluators are effectively coaching disaster staff. FEMA also stated that it plans to facilitate virtual coach-and-evaluator deployments to maximize pairing opportunities and increase Position Task Book completion rates among staff who do not have available coach-and-evaluators to pair with in the Deployment Tracking System. In addition, FEMA plans to update its policies to better match the skill sets of newly hired staff to the qualification status at which they are initially designated. While these are positive actions, in order to address the complex and interrelated challenges we identified in our report, it will be important for FEMA to take a comprehensive approach and consider solutions that may cut across multiple systems and processes.
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
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)
Open
DHS concurred with our recommendation. In its February 2021 update, FEMA officials stated that the agency is making progress toward meeting the force structure targets it established in 2019 and has a process in place to modify the targets for certain cadres on an annual basis if needed. According to these officials, such modifications will be based in part on feedback they receive via continuous coordination with the field on how deployments are meeting mission needs. FEMA officials noted that this will help cadres improve staffing models to better reflect how many personnel are needed to meet field requirements, including how quickly those staff are needed to phase into disasters and for how long they are likely required to meet disasters of different scales and complexities. FEMA anticipates completing these efforts by October 31, 2021. While implementing our recommendation could include similar inputs as this planning process, our recommendation is focused on FEMA systematically collecting feedback from field leadership and relevant data on the extent to which its deployment processes and decisions (e.g., number and timing of deployments) met field needs during disasters. We will continue to monitor FEMA's actions to determine the extent to which the agency has established a systematic mechanism to assess its deployment strategies during disasters.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 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)
Open
DHS concurred with our recommendation. FEMA has taken a number of steps to improve staff development. For example, to facilitate staff's ability to take training outside of the requirements in their Position Task Books (e.g., refresher training, training related to their deployed responsibilities), FEMA stated that, in October 2020, it built a new mechanism into the Deployment Tracking System that allows cadre management to assign such training to employees so that they can register for these classes. FEMA officials noted that this will make training more accessible and allow staff to continuously improve their performance. Further, in its February 2021 update, FEMA stated that it has implemented assessments that cadres can use to help ensure that coach-and-evaluators are effectively coaching disaster staff. FEMA also stated that it plans to facilitate virtual coach-and-evaluator deployments to maximize pairing opportunities for staff who do not have available coach-and-evaluators to pair with in the Deployment Tracking System. In addition, FEMA stated that it is implementing its Deployment Performance Evaluation Directive, which provides guidance to Temporary Duty Supervisors for conducting deployment performance reviews of disaster staff and addressing performance deficiencies. The deployment performance evaluations are recorded in the Deployment Tracking System and use the same core competencies as those for full-time staff. FEMA stated that these evaluations will be a key part of the 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. We will continue to monitor FEMA's actions to assess the extent to which these actions constitute an integrated and cohesive program to develop its disaster workforce.

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