GAO-20-360, FEMA Diaster Workforce: Actions Needed To .

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United States Government Accountability OfficeReport to Congressional RequestersFEMA DISASTERWORKFORCEActions Needed toAddress Deploymentand StaffDevelopmentChallengesAccessible VersionMay 2020GAO-20-360

May 2020FEMA DISASTER WORKFORCEActions Needed to Address Deployment and StaffDevelopment ChallengesHighlights of GAO-20-360, a report tocongressional requestersWhy GAO Did This StudyWhat GAO FoundDuring the 2017 and 2018 disasterseasons, several large-scale disasterscreated an unprecedented demand forFEMA’s workforce. FEMA deployed14,684 and 10,328 personnel at thepeak of each of these seasons andreported staffing shortages during thedisasters. GAO was asked to reviewissues related to the federal responseto the 2017 disaster season.The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has establishedmechanisms to qualify and deploy staff to disasters. For example, the FEMAQualification System tracks training and task performance requirements fordisaster workforce positions and has a process to designate staff as qualified intheir positions once they have completed these requirements. FEMA’sdeployment process uses an automated system to deploy staff members todisasters that match field requests for positions and proficiency levels. Theprocess depends on the agency’s qualification and deployment systems toidentify staff qualification status and skillsets to meet field needs.This report addresses (1) how FEMA’sdisaster workforce is qualified anddeployed, (2) how effective FEMA’squalification and deploymentprocesses were during the 2017 and2018 disaster seasons in ensuringworkforce needs were met in the field,and (3) the extent to which FEMA’sdisaster workforce receives staffdevelopment to enhance skills andcompetencies. GAO analyzeddocumentation and data on incidentworkforce qualification anddeployment; conducted 17 focusgroups with 129 staff members; andinterviewed FEMA officials inheadquarters, field, and regionaloffices.However, FEMA’s qualification and deployment processes did not providereliable and complete staffing information to field officials to ensure its workforcewas effectively deployed and used during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons.Specifically, GAO’s focus groups with over 100 incident staff members andinterviews with field and regional officials indicate that disaster personnelexperienced significant limitations with qualification status matching performancein the field, due in part to challenges with how staff are evaluated through thequalification process. In all focus groups with applicable incident personnel,participants cited issues with staff members who were qualified in the FEMAQualification System not having the skills or experience to effectively performtheir positions. For example, one participant described supervising staff memberswho were qualified in the system but did not know the eligibility requirements forapplicants to receive housing assistance, or what information needed to beincluded in the applicant’s file. In addition, participants in the majority of the focusgroups reported challenges with using FEMA’s deployment processes to fullyidentify staff responsibilities, specialized skillsets, and experience. FEMAheadquarters officials acknowledged the identified information challenges butsaid they have not developed a plan to address them in part because ofcompeting priorities. Developing a plan to address identified challenges withproviding reliable staffing information to field officials would enhance FEMA’sability to use staff as flexibly and effectively as possible to meet disaster needs.What GAO RecommendsGAO is making threerecommendations, including thatFEMA develop (1) a plan to addressidentified challenges that havehindered its ability to provide reliableinformation to field officials about staffskills and abilities and (2) a staffdevelopment program for its disasterworkforce that addresses trainingaccess, delivery of on-the-job training,and other development methods. TheDepartment of Homeland Securityconcurred with GAO’srecommendations.View GAO-20-360. For more information,contact Christopher Currie at (404) 679-1875or curriec@gao.gov.Further, FEMA’s disaster workforce experienced challenges with receiving staffdevelopment through the agency’s existing methods to enhance the skills andcompetencies needed during disaster deployments—challenges FEMAheadquarters officials acknowledged. Specifically, GAO’s focus groups andinterviews indicate that disaster personnel encountered challenges related to theavailability of courses, providing and receiving on-the-job training and mentoring,and consistently receiving performance evaluations. For example, in 10 of 17focus groups, participants cited barriers to taking courses that in their view wouldhelp them better perform their jobs. In addition, participants in seven focusgroups 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 and2018 disaster seasons, 36 percent of staff did not have an official assigned tocoach and evaluate task performance—the primary mechanism the agencydepends on for coaching. Creating a staff development program would helpbetter ensure FEMA’s disaster workforce develops the skills and competenciesneeded to meet mission needs in the field.United States Government Accountability Office

ContentsLetter1BackgroundFEMA Has Mechanisms in Place to Qualify and Deploy Staff toDisasters and Faced Staffing Shortages during the 2017 and2018 Disaster SeasonsFEMA Did Not Provide Reliable and Complete Staffing Informationto Field Officials during Disasters and Lacks Mechanisms toAssess How Effectively It Deployed StaffFEMA Staff and Managers Experienced Challenges with StaffDevelopment Efforts Intended to Enhance the Skills andCompetencies Needed During DeploymentsConclusionsRecommendations for Executive ActionAgency Comments and Our EvaluationAppendix I: Objectives, Scope, and Methodology613223542434348Analysis of FEMA Workforce Documents and DataFocus Groups with Incident Management Staff MembersInterviews with FEMA Officials in Field and Regional Offices andHeadquarters495052Appendix II: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Cadre List and Descriptions54Appendix III: Comments from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security57Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments62GAO ContactStaff AcknowledgmentsAppendix V: Accessible Data626263Data TablesAgency Comment LetterPage i6365GAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

TablesTable 1: Percentage of Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) Staff That Declined Deployment Requests for KeyMajor Disasters during the 2017 and 2018 DisasterSeasonsTable 2: Perspectives from Focus Groups and Field and RegionalInterviews on the Reliability of Federal EmergencyManagement Agency (FEMA) Qualification SystemDesignationsTable 3: Examples of Challenges Experienced by FederalEmergency Management Agency (FEMA) Field Officialsduring Disasters Due to the Unreliability of FEMAQualification System DesignationsTable 4: Number of GAO Focus Groups with Federal EmergencyManagement Agency (FEMA) Participants in IncidentManagement Positions at Selected LocationsTable 5: Cadre List and Descriptions2024255054FiguresFigure 1: Time Line of Key Major Disasters during the 2017 and2018 Disaster SeasonsFigure 2: Summary of Employee Types in the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency (FEMA) Disaster WorkforceFigure 3: Federal Disaster Workforce Deployed by EmployeeType at Peak Deployment Dates during the 2017 and2018 Disaster SeasonsFigure 4: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)Disaster Workforce Cadres and Their Peak Deploymentsduring Hurricane FlorenceFigure 5: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)Position Tiers and TitlesFigure 6: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)Qualification System ProcessFigure 7: Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA)Workforce Cadres with 25 Percent or Less Staff Availableto Deploy at the Start of Key Major Disasters during the2017 and 2018 Disaster SeasonsAccessible Data for Figure 3: Federal Disaster WorkforceDeployed by Employee Type at Peak Deployment Datesduring the 2017 and 2018 Disaster SeasonsPage ii2891112151963GAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

Accessible Data for Figure 4: Federal Emergency ManagementAgency (FEMA) Disaster Workforce Cadres and TheirPeak Deployments during Hurricane FlorenceAccessible Data for Figure 7: Federal Emergency ManagementAgency’s (FEMA) Workforce Cadres with 25 Percent orLess Staff Available to Deploy at the Start of Key MajorDisasters during the 2017 and 2018 Disaster Seasons6364AbbreviationsFEMAFederal Emergency Management AgencyCORECadre of On-Call Response/Recovery EmployeesDHSDepartment of Homeland SecurityThis is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in theUnited States. The published product may be reproduced and distributed in its entiretywithout further permission from GAO. However, because this work may containcopyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may benecessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately.Page iiiGAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

441 G St. N.W.Washington, DC 20548LetterMay 4, 2020Congressional RequestersDuring the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, several sequential, largescale disasters created an unprecedented demand for federal resources.In 2017, weather and climate-related disasters, including hurricanesHarvey, Irma, and Maria, caused over 300 billion in damages in theUnited States. Along with the severe 2017 California wildfires, thesedisasters collectively affected 47 million people—nearly 15 percent of thenation’s population. In 2018, hurricanes Florence and Matthew andanother severe California wildfire season again necessitated a majorfederal response. We have previously reported that the rising number andcosts of disasters and the increasing reliance on the federal governmentfor disaster assistance will likely continue to rise as the climate changes.1Figure 1 shows the time line for key major disasters during the 2017 and2018 disaster seasons.21GAO,Climate Change: Information on Potential Economic Effects Could Help GuideFederal Efforts to Reduce Fiscal Exposure, GAO-17-720 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 28,2017). Managing fiscal exposure due to climate change has been on our high risk listsince 2013, in part, because of concerns about the increasing costs of disaster responseand recovery efforts. See GAO, High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to AchieveGreater Progress on High-Risk Areas, GAO-19-157SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 6, 2019);alsohttp://www.gao.gov/highrisk/limiting federal government fiscal exposure/why did study2Wedefined the 2017 disaster season as the period beginning on August 23, 2017 andending January 31, 2018 and the 2018 disaster season as the period beginningSeptember 7, 2018 and ending November 25, 2018. These dates represent the start ofthe FEMA incident period of major hurricanes in both years through the end of the incidentperiod for the California wildfire season for both years. The disasters included in figure 1are major hurricanes and wildfires that occurred during these time periods.Page 1GAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

LetterFigure 1: Time Line of Key Major Disasters during the 2017 and 2018 Disaster SeasonsaThe October 8, 2017 wildfires included the Tubbs, Nuns, Atlas, and Pocket fires, among others.bThe December 4, 2017 wildfires included the Thomas, Creek, and Rye fires, among others.cThe November 8, 2018 wildfires included the Camp, Woolsey, and Hill fires.Note: This figure includes major hurricanes and wildfires that occurred during the 2017 and 2018disaster seasons and does not include all major disaster declarations or all locations where thedisaster hit. Dates indicate when the disaster began or made landfall in the states and territorieslisted.The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinated thefederal response to these disasters and relied heavily on its workforce tomeet its mission. The agency deployed 14,684 personnel at the peak ofthe 2017 disaster season and 10,328 personnel at the peak of the 2018season. The numbers for each of these seasons are more than doublethe number deployed at the peak of the 2016 disaster season, which wasabout 5,000 personnel. The concurrent nature of the disasters in both the2017 and 2018 disaster seasons highlighted the complex challengesfacing FEMA’s workforce. The 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons requiredFEMA management to redeploy response personnel from one disaster tothe next, and the agency reported facing staffing shortfalls throughout theresponse to these disasters. Additionally, a large influx of new employeesadded to challenges with providing timely, program-specific training.FEMA’s disaster workforce is expected to be in high demand for theforeseeable future. According to FEMA, at the end of fiscal year 2019,there were 64 open presidentially declared disasters that required federalassistance.In recent years, we have reported on long-standing workforcemanagement challenges within FEMA. For example, in September 2018,we reported on the workforce capacity and training challenges FEMAPage 2GAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

Letterfaced in the wake of the 2017 disasters.3 In November and December2017, we reported on staffing challenges in FEMA’s Public Assistancegrant program, which provides funding to state and local governments,among others, to help them respond to and recover from disasters.4 Inour March 2019 report on the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, wealso reported Puerto Rico officials’ concerns about FEMA staff turnoverand lack of knowledge among FEMA staff about how disaster assistancegrant procedures are to be applied in Puerto Rico.5 While FEMA hastaken actions to address several of our workforce management-relatedrecommendations since 2016, a number of recommendations remainedopen at the start of the 2019 hurricane season.6You asked us to review a broad range of issues related to disasterresponse and recovery following the 2017 disaster season, including theresponse and recovery to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and theCalifornia wildfires. Because of the importance of addressing workforceissues to meet future disaster response and recovery needs, this reportaddresses1. how FEMA’s disaster workforce is qualified and deployed, andworkforce staffing levels during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons;2. how effective FEMA’s qualification and deployment processes wereduring the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons in helping ensureworkforce needs were met in the field; and3GAO,2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal Response andKey Recovery Challenges, GAO-18-472 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 4, 2018).4GAO,Disaster Recovery: Additional Actions Would Improve Data Quality and Timelinessof FEMA’s Public Assistance Appeals Processing, GAO-18-143 (Washington, D.C.: Dec.15, 2017), and GAO, Disaster Assistance: Opportunities to Enhance Implementation ofthe Redesigned Public Assistance Grant Program, GAO-18-30 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 8,2017).5GAO, Puerto Rico Hurricanes: Status of FEMA Funding, Oversight, and RecoveryChallenges, GAO-19-256 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 14, 2019).6Forexample, recommendations remain open in the following reports—GAO-18-30; GAO,Disaster Response: FEMA Has Made Progress Implementing Key Programs, butOpportunities for Improvement Exist, GAO-16-87 (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 5, 2016); andGAO, Federal Emergency Management Agency: Workforce Planning and Training CouldBe Enhanced by Incorporating Strategic Management Principles, GAO-12-487(Washington, D.C.: Apr. 26, 2012).Page 3GAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

Letter3. the extent to which FEMA’s disaster workforce receives staffdevelopment to enhance skills and competencies to support theagency’s disaster missions.To address all three objectives, we focused on FEMA staff members whodeploy to disaster sites. We analyzed documentation and data on disasterworkforce qualification, deployment, staffing levels, and development. Forexample, we reviewed FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, 2017 IncidentManagement Handbook, 2015 and 2019 FEMA Qualification Systemguides, 2019 Deployment Guide, and documentation on FEMA’s staffingtargets. We also analyzed data from FEMA’s Deployment TrackingSystem to determine staffing levels and to evaluate efforts FEMA hastaken to develop its staff, and human capital data to determine thenumber of new staff FEMA hired. To assess the reliability of the data, weinterviewed officials at FEMA headquarters about their data quality controlprocedures and reviewed documentation about these data systems. Forthe Deployment Tracking System, we also conducted electronic testingand reviewed the data for obvious errors and omissions. We found thesedata sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report.In addition, we conducted focus groups with members of FEMA’s disasterworkforce and interviewed FEMA officials in the agency’s field andregional offices to obtain perspectives on, and experiences with, the levelof staffing and skillsets of personnel deployed to disasters, FEMA’sprocesses to qualify and deploy staff, and how staff were trained anddeveloped. Specifically, we conducted 17 focus groups with a total of 129participants at FEMA joint field offices in Florida and Puerto Rico, FEMA’sregional office in Texas, and headquarters.7 We selected these locationsbased on where staff members who were deployed during the 2017disaster season were located at the time of our review and to obtainvariation in geographic location to the extent possible, among otherthings. Participants were selected using a stratified random sample fromthose who had been deployed to a disaster during the 2017 disasterseason. Participants in each focus group were of the same employeetype, and we conducted separate groups with participants in supervisory7Jointfield offices are temporary facilities established to manage federal disasterresponse and recovery programs after a presidential disaster declaration. Also, FEMAarranges states and territories into 10 regions that carry out guidance from headquarters.The Region VI office is located in Texas and covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico,Oklahoma, and Texas.Page 4GAO-20-360 FEMA Disaster Workforce

Letterand nonsupervisory positions so they could speak more freely.8 We alsoselected participants to obtain a mix of staff from different program areasand qualification designations.For our interviews with FEMA field and regional officials, we spoke withFEMA leadership and managers who worked in various programmaticareas in joint field offices in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, andPuerto Rico and regional offices in Colorado, Texas, and Washington.9We selected the joint field offices and regions as locations for interviewsbased on our focus group locations and to obtain variation in geographiclocation and disaster activity. We evaluated the interviews with field andregional officials and transcripts from audio-recordings of the focusgroups using systematic content analysis to identify key themesconcerning the topics our report addresses. The results from our analysesof the focus groups and interviews are not generalizable, but provideimportant perspectives on how effectively FEMA qualifies, deploys, anddevelops staff for disasters.Finally, we interviewed senior officials in FEMA headquarters to obtaintheir perspectives on the staffing levels of the disaster workforce and howthe workforce is qualified, deployed, and developed. In addition, weobtained information from these officials on the actions FEMA has takento address the challenges we identified through our focus groups,interviews with field and regional officials, and data analysis. Wecompared the results of our analysis and the information we gatheredwith Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, TheS

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

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