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Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Improve Agencies' Use of Contracts for Wildfire Response and Recovery

GAO-23-105292 Published: Apr 13, 2023. Publicly Released: Apr 13, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Wildfire season is getting longer, and the number of large fires is increasing—leaving more people and structures at risk.

Several federal agencies share responsibility for leading wildfire response and recovery. These agencies often work with private sector contractors to obtain life-saving goods and services quickly.

We looked at how three agencies contracted for goods and services for wildfire response. The agencies prioritized speed when ordering, but one agency had officials—who weren’t contracting officers—approve individual orders that exceeded their ordering limit.

We recommended that two of the agencies improve their ordering policies.

image of firefighters at a wildfire

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Highlights

What GAO Found

While federal agencies may provide direct support for disaster response and recovery, including for wildfires, they may also enter into contracts to obtain life-saving goods and services from the private sector. GAO's analysis of agencies' contracting data found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) collectively obligated at least a total of $2 billion for wildfire response and recovery from fiscal years 2018 through 2021.

Aircraft Dropping Fire Retardant on a Wildfire

Aircraft Dropping Fire Retardant on a Wildfire

To mobilize goods and services quickly, the three selected agencies GAO studied used multiple approaches. For example, they used indefinite delivery contracts and assigned ordering officials, who can be authorized to place certain orders on behalf of the government. However, GAO found, for the orders reviewed, that BLM and Forest Service's use of ordering officials did not always align with their respective agency policies. For example, four of six BLM orders GAO reviewed exceeded the $25,000 ordering limit specified in policy. The cumulative values of these orders ranged from $900,000 to $2.1 million. BLM has since taken steps that will address the issues GAO identified for these orders, but has not yet updated all of its related policies.

Each of the selected agencies had processes in place for collecting lessons learned. For example, all three agencies have panels or forums that allow for discussion of contracting issues and conduct wildfire reviews resulting in reports that may cover contracting challenges. However, GAO found that the Forest Service has not yet established mechanisms to archive and track implementation of all lessons learned identified during these reviews. Without doing so, the Forest Service may miss opportunities to leverage and apply knowledge gained from lessons learned to future response efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government obligates hundreds of millions of dollars annually to respond to wildfires. Use of contracts can play a key role in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and in community recovery.

The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019, included provisions for GAO to review issues related to major disasters, including wildfires. For wildfire-related contracts at selected agencies, this report examines (1) contract obligations from fiscal years 2018 through 2021 (the most recent available); (2) contracting approaches; and (3) the extent to which selected agencies collected, shared, and applied contracting lessons learned.

GAO analyzed contracting data from FEMA, BLM, and the Forest Service—agencies with key wildfire response and recovery responsibilities. From thousands of contract actions, GAO selected a non-generalizable sample of 14 contracts and 18 associated orders for review from these agencies based on factors such as total obligations. GAO also reviewed agency documentation and interviewed agency officials.

Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that BLM and Forest Service take steps to improve ordering official policies and their implementation; and that Forest Service develop mechanisms to archive and track lessons learned. All agencies concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should takes steps to resolve the discrepancy between its practice of requiring two agencies that have exercised, or intend to exercise, their emergency acquisition flexibilities to request a National Interest Action code and its criterion as written in the associated memorandum of agreement, which does not specify that two agencies need to request a code. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation and estimates that an updated memorandum of agreement will be completed by October 2023.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, should revise the National Interest Action code memorandum of agreement to clarify the process and criteria for requesting a National Interest Action code. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation and estimates that an updated memorandum of agreement will be completed by October 2023.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security, should revise the National Interest Action code memorandum of agreement to clarify the process and criteria for requesting a National Interest Action code. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Department of Defense concurred with this recommendation and plans to issue a revised memorandum of agreement in the first quarter of fiscal year 2024.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should ensure the Director of the Bureau of Land Management revises the bureau's acquisition manual in a timely manner to reflect 2018 and 2022 changes to its policies regarding use of ordering officials. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The department concurred with our recommendation and established a goal of completing necessary coordination and policy revisions by June 2024.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Forest Service conducts technical supervision and annual reviews of orders placed by ordering officials as outlined in policy. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The department generally agreed with our recommendation. In January 2023, the Forest Service revised its policies to clarify supervision and review requirements related to orders placed by ordering officials. However, the Forest Service has not yet provided information that shows how it is ensuring the new requirements are being followed. We will continue to follow up on the status of this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure the Forest Service develops a mechanism to implement, track, and archive the lessons learned developed through its large fire reviews. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The department concurred with our recommendation but, as of summer 2023, has not yet reported actions to implement it.

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Topics

Contracting officersDisastersEmergency managementFederal procurementFire retardantsHomeland securityLand managementLessons learnedService contractsWildfiresWildland fires