Breaking the Cycle of Preparing for the Last Disaster

William Jenkins, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, addresses the office’s role in looking at emergency management.

by Eric Holdeman / October 10, 2011
William Jenkins, director of Homeland Security and Justice, U.S. Government Accountability Office GAO

William Jenkins, director of Homeland Security and Justice for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, provided insight into the office’s role with emergency management and recommendations for emergency managers seeking to establish measurements for their agencies during a question-and-answer session with Emergency Management magazine.

Question: What’s the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) role in looking at emergency management and homeland security?

Answer: Our role in assessing emergency management and homeland security is the same as in other program areas. Our principal role is to provide balanced, objective, fact-based
reports to Congress that provide analyses and recommendations with regard to the effective,
efficient and lawful use of federal funds and the extent to which federal programs (basically any program, whether implemented by the federal government or others, that is funded in whole or in part by federal monies) are achieving their intended objectives.

Our work has covered every component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). My portfolio includes disaster preparedness and response, such as federal preparedness grants, metrics and biosurveillance. It also includes mitigation issues such as FEMA’s flood mapping program. Examples of recent GAO reports (www.gao.gov) in the area of emergency management [include] prevention, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation.

Our national standard seems to be that we are preparing for the last disaster. Is there a way to break that cycle?


One reason is that the last disaster provides visible, tangible evidence of the destruction and loss of life that can result from a particular disaster — an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, flood or civilian airplanes used as weapons of destruction. The response to the disaster reveals some areas that could be improved, such as strengthening levees to provide greater protection from a future flooding disaster. We tend to focus on efforts to make sure those things don’t happen again, or at least happen to a lesser extent.

The DHS’ and FEMA’s all-hazards capability-based planning, taken in conjunction with the more recent “maximum of maximums” and whole of community concepts promoted by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, is a reasonable approach to break the cycle.

But as always, the devil is in the details. The basic concept is embodied in Presidential Policy Directive 8: National Preparedness (issued March 30, 2011), which supports an all-hazards approach. This planning approach was proposed as a structure to develop the suite of local, state and federal preparedness capabilities needed to respond to the broad range of disasters we face as a nation.

However, developing and operationalizing this approach as part of the national preparedness system envisioned in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act has been challenging for FEMA, which has made multiple efforts to address the issue with limited success.

FEMA has been under the GAO microscope since Hurricane Katrina. What progress have you seen in the agency and what areas still need improvement?

As part of Fugate’s whole of community and maximum of maximums initiatives, FEMA identified new core capabilities that are defined as the “highest priority essential functions for response” in the first 72 hours after a disaster has struck. These core capabilities seem to largely refocus the existing suite of target capabilities that the DHS established years ago. The bottom line is that FEMA hasn’t yet developed national preparedness capability requirements based on established metrics to provide a framework for capability assessments.

It is highly likely that the amount of federal grants funds flowing to state and local governments will decline in the future. Both [the GAO] and Congress have expressed concern about the inability to measure and demonstrate the enhanced capabilities that have been obtained with about $34 billion in federal grants since the DHS was created. The recent reduction in grant funds available for fiscal 2011, which may be decreased further in fiscal 2012, only highlights the need for a reasonable and reasonably reliable means of assessing our capabilities and targeting
limited resources to areas of greatest need.

It’s difficult to devise performance measurements for emergency management and homeland security. Do you have any recommendations for emergency managers seeking to establish measurements for their agencies?

One place to start would be established emergency management standards, such as those of the Emergency Management Accreditation Program and the National Incident Management System. FEMA Administrator Fugate has suggested some specific measures for tasks to be accomplished within the first 72 hours of a major disaster.

It’s also important for emergency managers to contribute to the national debate on this issue. FEMA’s preparedness task force recommended that FEMA work with stakeholders in its ongoing efforts to update the existing Target Capabilities List with tiered, capability-specific performance objectives and typed resource requirements.

Resource typing is one means of providing consistent packages of capability across jurisdictions.

The most widely known example is the nation’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue teams. FEMA is increasingly looking toward its regional offices to better connect its preparedness development and grant management efforts with state and local emergency managers. Emergency managers should leverage these resources, recognizing that in an era of deficit reduction, the inability to demonstrate what capability enhancements have been achieved with the grants — except anecdotally — makes it more difficult to demonstrate the value and need for the grants.

You have watched the establishment of the DHS from the beginning. Do you have any general observations of the agency since you have been there since its birth?

Since 2003, when DHS was created, GAO has designated implementing and transforming the department as high risk — i.e., in need for transformation in order to address economy,
efficiency or effectiveness. DHS is the third-largest federal department with some 220,000 employees and a $40 billion budget. Its creation merged into a single cabinet department 22 separate departments and agencies with often disparate missions and responsibilities, and some with their own significant management challenges, which they brought with them to the new department.

At the time, GAO said that it would take five to seven years to meld the department into a single entity whose component activities were coordinated and mutually supportive. DHS still faces departmentwide challenges in such areas as acquisition and financial management; work force analysis, recruitment and retention, and developing useful disaster preparedness measures that can be used to identify key capability gaps and target grants and other resources to the areas of greatest need. DHS has certainly made progress since its inception. However, based on the GAO’s prior reports on DHS transformation and management issues and updated information
on these issues, in September 2010 we reported that DHS’ transformation is a significant effort that will still take years to achieve.

It appears that the issue of breaking FEMA out of the DHS has gone away for the moment. Do you think this issue is settled once and for all? What, if anything, will finally resolve it?

FEMA appears to be in DHS to stay, barring another Katrina-like response to a major disaster. Having reviewed this issue extensively over the years, we have concluded that a number of factors may be ultimately more important to FEMA’s success in responding to and recovering from future disasters than its organizational placement, including:

  • clarity of FEMA’s mission and its related responsibilities and authorities;
  • experience of and training provided to FEMA leadership;
  • adequacy of its human, financial and technological resources; and
  • effectiveness of planning, exercises and related partnerships.
     
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