When the Federal Emergency Management Agency assessed its response to the 2017 hurricane season, which featured a trio of major storms in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, it immediately noticed a glaring failure: It lacked both the numbers of personnel and the level of training to handle three destructive storms.
The assessment painted picture a far different from the optimistic tweets of President Donald Trump and others: As a result of “staffing shortages” during the 2017 hurricane season, the agency declared in its after-action report, released last July, field promotions “placed staff in positions beyond their experiences and, in some instance, beyond their capabilities.” FEMA “nearly exhausted staff for two units of specialized response teams.”
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But 15 months after Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico, killing 2,975 people, and almost six months after FEMA released its after-action assessment, the agency is lagging significantly behind its targets in training and recruiting, according to a POLITICO review.
The agency’s force strength — the number of personnel it employs to respond to events — has risen to 12,592, up from 10,683 in August 2017. But that is below 13,004, its target for the 2018 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. It’s even further from the staffing levels that FEMA thinks it ultimately needs: 16,305.
The portion of the agency’s staff deemed “qualified” for their jobs — based on FEMA’s review of their employment experience, training and performance — is just 62 percent, up from 56 percent before the 2017 hurricane season but far below its fiscal 2018 target of 88 percent.
And the goals themselves may be outdated: They are based off a 2015 internal force structure review that preceded the major disaster year of 2017.
“We’ve been pointing out workforce challenges with FEMA for years,” said Chris Currie, director of emergency management issues for the Government Accountability Office. The GAO has released a series of reports over the past six years documenting problems with FEMA’s lack of qualified staff. “Before the 2017 disasters, we had not seen a lot of improvement in their workforce management. Frankly, in 2017, Harvey, Irma and Maria got their attention.”
But until FEMA reaches its goals in staffing and training, he added, the agency will struggle to handle another 2017: “If we were to experience another set of catastrophic disasters in a sequential nature, it will still be a big challenge.”
Kyle Olson, president of the Olson Group, an emergency management consultancy, said the agency has made real progress since the 2017 hurricane season but that “anybody who sits there and says we can have a Harvey and Maria again and can handle it without breathing hard, they aren’t paying attention.”
In a statement, a FEMA spokesperson attributed the failure to meet its targets to the fact that ongoing disaster operations “continue to impact the pace of training completions and of hiring.”
The statement declared that “FEMA has continued to make great strides in achieving staffing and training goals despite increased disaster activity,” pointing out that FEMA approved the qualification “for over 2,000 personnel as a result of their demonstrated performance during these disaster seasons.”
Pat Hernandez, FEMA’s deputy assistant administrator for field operations who oversees the agency’s disaster workforce, pointed out that FEMA had enough personnel to handle the 2018 disaster season, which included storms in Florida and North Carolina, and historically bad wildfires in California. He noted that, unlike 2017, the agency did not call up its surge capacity force, employees in other federal agencies that can be deployed as something of a last resort option when FEMA depletes its own personnel.
Hernandez said FEMA has also adopted new procedures to maximize its resources, mainly by quickly closing out unnecessary field offices and increasing the capacity of state and local responders. By more efficiently using its own employees and augmenting its staff during disasters, he said, “We have a pretty good supply of workforce personnel.”
Still, he added, “Staffing is always challenging. Getting the right people in the right place at the right time can be challenging no matter what you are doing.”
FEMA’s staffing challenges were on particular display in Puerto Rico, where the third-most intense hurricane ever on record made a direct hit, causing $90 billion in damage, killing many thousands of people, and prompting a national discussion on disaster policy.
A POLITICO investigation found that FEMA was slow to move personnel and resources to the island after Maria, particularly compared with the speed with which it responded to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida just a few weeks prior.
The agency’s after-action report didn’t directly acknowledge that its response to Maria was slow compared to Harvey and Irma, but its numbers demonstrate it. FEMA’s force strength peaked in Texas at 3,145 on Sept. 6, just 12 days after Harvey hit. But as of Nov. 30 — 71 days after Maria hit the island — FEMA’s force strength in Puerto Rico was still rising, reaching only as high 1,200. FEMA officials blamed the slow response time to a series of unprecedented factors, including the geographic distance of Puerto Rico from the mainland, the lack of hotels on the island and closed airports.
But POLITICO’s investigation found that FEMA underestimated the extent of the storm’s damage and failed to send enough staff and resources, like food and water, to the island before the storm.
As the series of GAO reports indicate, staffing has been a long-term challenge for FEMA. The agency implemented reforms during the Obama administration to attempt to address some of these workforce issues. In 2012, for instance, the agency partnered with AmeriCorps to create a new program — FEMA Corps — to train and equip people ages 18 to 24 to respond to disasters. Still, despite these improvements, the agency has had trouble meeting its goals. And with a low unemployment rate and declining interest among Americans in public-sector jobs, FEMA needs to think of new ways to ensure that when a disaster hits, they have the right personnel to respond, experts said.
“They have to be more creative. I said this for years when I was at FEMA,” said Ed Johnson, former chief financial officer at FEMA who praised the agency’s current leadership and its efforts to find new ways to augment its traditional workforce. “They have to look at federal retirees. Do you want to come back in and work part-time? Are they focused on teachers on summer breaks?”
Given these problems, disaster recovery experts and former FEMA officials were pleased to see the agency spotlight staffing challenges in the after-action report. And many said FEMA Administrator Brock Long has implemented important reforms over the past year, taking steps towards addressing the problems in the report, even though the numbers still lag far behind the agency’s own targets.
“The bottom line is they are looking to grow the right level of organizational competency that will have them in a position where they can address most of the activity they need to address,” said Mark Misczak, a former FEMA official who spent more than 12 years at the agency.
One such effort is the initiative aimed at closing field offices that are near the end of their disaster life cycle so that FEMA can repurpose the employees.
In its after-action report, the agency noted that nearly 30 percent of its employees were deployed on smaller disasters across the country when the hurricanes hit, “which then required extraordinary and disruptive measures to reallocate and redistribute employees.”
Long has emphasized that FEMA needs to spend less of its resources on such smaller disasters that could be capably managed by local first responders. Over the past year, the agency has sped up closures of existing field offices. Before the 2017 hurricane season, the agency had roughly 20 field offices open around the country. Today, after the historic 2017 hurricane season and a difficult 2018 season, along with major wildfires in California, the agency has 18 field offices open.
Long has also stressed that FEMA needs to move more quickly to establish coordination with state and local leaders who should head the response efforts. Last April, knowing that the Outer Banks of North Carolina are a frequent landing spot for hurricanes, FEMA sent a team of managers to work alongside North Carolina emergency management personnel before any disaster was on the horizon. The FEMA Integration Teams, or FITs, as they are known, are designed to bolster capabilities at the state level, sparing federal resources afterwards. When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in October, the FIT initiative was held up as a major reason behind the successful response effort.
Congress has also given FEMA new tools to meet its staffing goals. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a major update to federal disaster recovery programs with dozens of technical changes that could have significant implications on disaster response. FEMA now has the flexibility to convert certain part-time employees into full-time positions without going through the time-intensive federal hiring process, which FEMA hopes will help it retain experienced emergency managers. The law also gives FEMA more authority to allow states to run their own post-disaster housing programs.
“That changes the role of FEMA,” said Johnson. “They don’t need housing experts. They just need people to oversee the program.”
Of course, pushing more responsibility to the state and local government raises additional questions about whether those personnel are properly prepared for a disaster.
“If the environment continues to change where more and more authorities and responsibilities will be delegated to the states, this becomes not a FEMA question but a state and local question,” said Johnson. “FEMA is only as successful as its partners.”
Changes such as these make it harder to gauge whether more staffers will be needed in the future; nonetheless, the increasing numbers of national disasters have tended to leave FEMA perpetually understaffed.
FEMA’s current target figures are based on a 2015 analysis, before the historic 2017 hurricane season. It is designed to allow the agency to respond to two so-called Level 1 Katrina-like incidents, four Level 2 incidents and three Level 3 incidents. Three years ago, the agency was confident that those assumptions would enable it to handle almost any series of disasters, especially since it responded to only 10 Level 1 incidents from 1997 to 2014. But in 2017 alone, the agency faced five Level 1 incidents.
In other words, FEMA’s disaster workforce targets are based on a world in which Level 1 incidents are relatively infrequent.
But that’s not the world that exists today.
Prior to the 2017 hurricane season, the agency was preparing to update its 2015 analysis. That update, however, was delayed as a result of the storms; the initial recommendations were delivered to FEMA leaders at the end of November. The agency intends to set hiring targets for the next three years in early 2019.
Asked if the personnel requirements could increase upon completion of the new force structure review, Hernandez said, “Somebody could make the argument.” But he said it was too early to say what the results would look like.
A dramatic increase in staffing needs would be significant, because FEMA’s staffing levels remain far short of its current goals.
The agency’s disaster workforce is divided into 23 different cadres, which each focus on different aspects of FEMA’s response and recovery efforts. Within the 23 cadres, the number of personnel and certification rates vary widely. The Environmental and Historic Preservation cadre, for instance, has nearly double its fiscal 2018 target force (436 personnel compared with a target of 237) while the operations cadre is at just 65 percent of its target (265 personnel out of 405). The individual assistance cadre exceeded its target by more than 500 people, but of its 2,877 personnel, just 68 percent are considered qualified. For the public assistance cadre, just 31 percent of its 1,909 personnel are considered qualified.
The qualification system itself was implemented just a few years ago, and the agency is still working to ensure that it accurately estimates its workforce’s qualification level. Hernandez argued that just because someone is considered a “trainee” or “candidate” and not “qualified” in FEMA’s system, they may still have the requisite skills to accomplish a given task.
He added, “There’s often times that people get misconstrued and they think FEMA is sending out an unqualified workforce to a disaster. Every FEMA employee is qualified through emergency management orientation.” It’s only when employees seek to become certified in a specific task that they will be listed as either a trainee, candidate or qualified.
Still, in FEMA’s after-action report, the agency wrote, “FEMA staff have reported that relatively low certification rates may negatively impact program delivery,” leaving supervisors overstretched and delaying the response effort.
“No matter what reasons you come up with for it, it means that those people aren’t at the level of experience that you want them to be,” said GAO’s Currie.
The agency may also face a new challenge in the years ahead: burnout among first responders, many of whom have been in the field for months at a time, if not longer. Hernandez denied that the agency faces any difficulties with attrition, saying, “I saw more attrition in 2014 than I am ever seeing now because 2014 was an extremely low disaster cycle.” But FEMA declined to provide attrition figures, noting instead that hiring has “greatly outpaced” attrition.
Others who are familiar with the agency remain concerned. Said the GAO’s Currie: “Because of the needs over the last few years, you’ve had a lot of their workforce deployed for long periods. Some people, that’s not what they signed up for.”
If attrition does rise, that will make it even harder for the agency to meet its staffing targets in the upcoming years. The agency has not yet set targets for this fiscal year, which began in October; it is awaiting approval of its workforce review. In the meantime, there’s always another disaster not far off.
“You get past hurricane season and you have California burning up. It never stops. You don’t get a break in this business,” said Olson, the emergency management consultant. “Their numbers are not what they want, but there’s the old saying, you go to war with the army you got, not the army you want. You respond to disasters with the FEMA you have, not the FEMA you’d like to have.”