A federal watchdog found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not effectively deploy its workforce during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons due to unreliable information in an IT system.

According to a May 4 report from the Government Accountability Office, FEMA’s program to qualify and deploy staff to disasters, known as the FEMA Qualification System, "did not provide reliable and complete staffing information to field officials to ensure its workforce was effectively deployed and used during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons.”

The 2017 disaster season included three major hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — as well as devastating fires in California. The 2018 disaster season brought an even worse California fire season, along with hurricanes Florence and Michael. FEMA is the lead agency for the federal government’s response to the new coronavirus.

The FEMA Qualification System uses an automated process to identify and deploy staff members with the proper skill sets to meet the agency’s needs in the fields. In focus groups with the GAO, FEMA employees said that staff members were marked as “qualified” for certain roles despite not having the skills or proper experience for the jobs.

“In addition, participants in the majority of the focus groups reported challenges with using FEMA’s deployment processes to fully identify staff responsibilities, specialized skillsets, and experience,” the GAO wrote. “FEMA headquarters officials acknowledged the identified information challenges but said they have not developed a plan to address them in part because of competing priorities.”

The GAO’s final report is based on 17 focus groups with 129 staff members, interviews with FEMA officials across the country, and an analysis of documents and data on incident workforce qualification and deployment.

The watchdog also identified problems with FEMA’s staff development programs. In 10 of 17 focus group interviews, employees told the GAO that they encountered “barriers” in trying to taking courses that would improve their job skills.

Participants in seven focus groups also said they didn’t receive coaching or feedback at work.

“Relatedly, FEMA data show that at the start of deployments during the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, 36 percent of staff did not have an official assigned to coach and evaluate task performance — the primary mechanism the agency depends on for coaching,” the GAO wrote.

The watchdog made three recommendations to the FEMA administrator:

  • Develop a plan to address challenges that have kept reliable staffing information to field leaders.
  • Create mechanisms to assess how effectively FEMA’s disaster workforce was deployed.
  • Create a staff development program that increases access to training.

The agency concurred with all three recommendations.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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