FEMA Seeks More Staff as It Rests Beleaguered Employees Ahead of Busy Season
Federally run vaccination sites are closing and employees are returning from the border as hurricane and wildfire seasons loom.
The Biden administration is looking to staff up at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it projects increasing demands on the workforce and scales back ongoing deployments ahead of its busy natural disaster season.
FEMA has endured an unusually busy year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and other deployments, straining agency resources and employees. Now, FEMA has closed the last remaining federally run mass vaccination site. It has also only about a dozen employees left assisting border and health personnel at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The reductions are an intentional strategy, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told a panel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, “so our staff can reset and prepare for hurricane season.”
“As we enter the 2021 hurricane and wildfire seasons and continue to prepare for no-notice events, our workforce has never been more experienced or tested,” Criswell said. “However, I recognize that many of our staff have been activated in support of COVID-19 response operations and numerous other disaster declarations for over a year, and we will ensure that our deployed workforce gets the rest and training to be ready for what comes next.”
Earlier this year, FEMA had 10,000 employees deployed across the country. Even those left behind at their desk jobs recently told Government Executive they were exhausted by the pressures created by their deployed colleagues. FEMA in recent months has responded to declared emergencies in every state and territory in the country and virtually every federal response coordinator was deployed simultaneously.
To help address the situation, the Biden administration is seeking a surge in permanent employees at FEMA.
“Workforce readiness means that our people are ready to respond,” Criswell said. “This starts with having the right staffing levels.”
She noted President Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal called for a 14% increase in the number of FEMA employees serving in Stafford Act roles. Criswell also called on Congress to more clearly define the emergency management profession to enable career paths that lead to long-term jobs in government.
Building up FEMA’s workforce was one of three priorities Criswell outlined on Wednesday. She also stressed the Biden administration’s priority to “integrate equity into everything we do.” The administrator said that applied internally, to create safe work environments for a diverse workforce, and externally, to more proactively reach out to underserved communities that do not always seek out FEMA assistance. She noted 60% of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered at federally run sites went to communities of color.
FEMA will also focus on confronting climate change head on, including by shifting more resources toward being proactive rather than reactive. Criswell called for “generational-level investments” toward that goal, noting Biden has already sought to double funding for FEMA’s program to build resilient communities.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who chairs the transportation panel’s Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee, appeared eager to help FEMA fulfill that vision, saying she and her colleagues would “try to provide you the resources you need to get the job done.”