Report: FEMA urban rescue teams understaffed, unprepared

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's urban search and rescue teams are under-funded, understaffed and in need of better oversight, according to a report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general.

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, lawmakers pointed to the report as a reminder that agencies responsible for overseeing disaster response are in need of reform.

Urban search and rescue "is a great program, staffed with the cream of the crop of the first responder community," said House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "However, as we have seen with FEMA as a larger agency, the program lacks consistent funding, financial oversight and adequate administrative staffing to handle routine maintenance of the program."

The IG report criticized FEMA for evenly distributing funds among 28 task forces instead of evaluating the needs of each individual team. The IG also said FEMA failed to evaluate the teams' work and set clear goals for them. To be better prepared for the next emergency they face, the urban search and rescue units must be completely staffed, fully funded and better analyzed, the report said.

Funding for the search and rescue teams peaked in fiscal 2004, when they received $65 million -- more than 500 percent higher than they got in fiscal 2001, the report said. But in fiscal 2005, the teams' funding slid to $30 million.

Capitol Hill sources could not immediately say what, if any, action would be taken to add funding to FEMA's budget for search and rescue teams.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Monday in a meeting with Connecticut first responders that he opposed a $610 million Bush administration cut to DHS first responder programs in the fiscal year 2007 budget.

"Our local communities rely on these federal teams in times of catastrophe," Lieberman said, "yet this report shows that these teams are still not prepared to perform their duty to assist our state and local responders."

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