A screen shows information about the novel coronavirus at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters on April 20.

A screen shows information about the novel coronavirus at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters on April 20. Al Drago/The New York Times via AP

FEMA Is Deploying Employees Ill-Prepared for Disaster Response, Report Finds

The agency is also dealing with severe shortfalls in its on-call and reservist workforce.

The federal government’s disaster response workforce is often unprepared and underqualified when deployed to regions in need of immediate assistance, according to a new report, which found the employees were often designated as maintaining skills they lacked in reality. 

The qualification issues were exacerbated by severe staffing shortfalls at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Government Accountability Office found in a new report. While FEMA eventually deployed nearly 15,000 employees in response to disasters in 2017, the agency was almost 30% below its target workforce levels. More than one-half of the cadres FEMA deployed throughout the country in 2017 reported shortages, which remained in place in 2018. 

In addition to its permanent, full-time staff, FEMA maintains groups of on-call response/recovery employees (CORE) and reservists. Those in the reservist group serve for two-year terms and during those terms they must be ready to deploy with 24 hours notice. Still, a large contingent of CORE and reservists declined to deploy in recent years. About half of those FEMA had designated as available rejected deployments to assist in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, for example, and 40% declined to work on recovery efforts following California wildfires in 2018. FEMA supplemented its own workforce with locally employed staff and deployments of volunteers from elsewhere in the Homeland Security Department. 

In interviews with agency leadership and focus groups with incident management staff, GAO found FEMA’s qualification system for deploying staff was broken. The system is intended to keep a database of all employees’ skillsets so managers can easily identify workers to deploy for specific tasks. Employees must enroll in training and demonstrate performance of tasks to be marked as qualified for each skill, which is then confirmed by FEMA’s coaches and evaluators. In all 14 of GAO’s focus groups, however, employees said staffers designated as qualified in the system did not have the skill or experience necessary to perform their jobs effectively. 

“FEMA’s qualification and deployment processes and systems do not provide accurate and complete information about staff members’ abilities to ensure field leadership and managers get staff with the right skills at the right time or to most effectively employ and leverage the staff that are deployed to support FEMA’s missions,” GAO said. 

Only half of those designated as proficient in hazard mitigation could perform their jobs, FEMA employees told GAO. Staffers deployed to deliver individual assistance often did not know basic parts of the job such as eligibility requirements for the aid or what documents to include in an applicant’s file. Other deployed workers could not even access the individual assistance information system. 

The qualification system also failed to report skills employees did have. The system limited staffers to one primary position, GAO found, meaning it did not allow them to share the breadth of their skills. 

FEMA has made some enhancements to the system, such as improving task descriptions to more accurately portray the knowledge necessary to carry out related duties and boosting training for its coaches and evaluators. The changes fail to address key shortcomings, GAO said, as they will help make employees more qualified but will not give managers a better understanding of the skills that deployed workers hold. GAO urged FEMA to further improve its system to better deploy the limited staff it has. 

“In light of the staffing constraints that FEMA faces,” the auditors said, “it is important that the agency be able to assess how effectively it deploys available staff to disasters to meet field needs.”

In a virtual forum held by Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said some of the agency’s employees will be exhausted as they gear up for hurricane and wildfire season later this year. 

“My biggest concern is not getting them breaks,” Fugate said, referring to the agency’s role in the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Particularly the headquarters staff and some of the regional staff that have been going nonstop with this, [that] would be the same staff that coordinate on a large scale in a response to disasters.”

Fugate noted the biggest impact on FEMA’s work going forward will be older disasters, as the agency will likely have to pull staff from the “permanent” recovery work to deploy them to new situations that arise. He added the agency will likely suffer from a lack of confirmed leadership in many of its top slots, as it will not have a voice in the room when the Trump administration is making policy decisions. 

FEMA agreed to address GAO’s recommendations, including to create a detailed plan to provide field leaders and managers with a broader understanding of employees' knowledge and skills and a mechanism to better measure the effectiveness of the agency’s staff deployments.