WASHINGTON, DC – Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL), Ranking Member of the Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Subcommittee, and Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), Ranking Member of the Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee, delivered the following opening statements in a joint subcommittee hearing entitled, “FEMA: Building a Workforce Prepared and Ready to Respond.”
Ranking Member Cammack’s Opening Statement (as prepared for delivery)
Thank you, Chairwoman Demings and Chairman Correa for holding this important hearing today.
There’s a saying in the business world, “a company is only as good as its employees.” This can apply most places and certainly applies to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose vital mission is to help people before, during and after disasters.
When people think of FEMA, images are conjured of flooding, hurricanes, or the devastation of an entire town, like we sadly recently witnessed in southwest Kentucky. However, in recent years, FEMA’s mission sets have grown.
In March of 2020, when President Trump declared a nation-wide emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA took a lead role in our nation’s response. In March of 2021, FEMA was tasked with providing operational support to the Department of Health and Human Services with unaccompanied children crossing the border. And most recently, in August/September of last year, FEMA assisted in the Afghan refugee resettlement efforts.
While FEMA employees are incredibly capable and resilient, I am concerned that these multiple mission sets are exhausting the workforce. This sentiment was echoed during FEMA Administrator Criswell’s first all-hands meeting where she identified employee burnout as a major issue.
According to FEMA’s 2021 Preparedness Report, “When multiple large-scale incidents require simultaneous support…state and federal capability may be strained, reducing capacity to ongoing recovery efforts and to respond to additional incidents.” The report states that “there were more disaster declarations open at the end of 2020 than at any other point since 1953, when data collection began.” Currently, the Agency is responding to 77 Presidentially declared disasters.
While employee fatigue poses extraordinary challenges at FEMA, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted that “disaster personnel experienced significant limitations with qualification status matching performance in the field.” Meaning that staff members who were qualified in the FEMA Qualification System, the system that tracks training and performance requirements for disaster workforce positions, did not have the skills or experience to effectively perform their positions in the field. The GAO additionally found that FEMA’s disaster workforce “encountered challenges related to the availability of courses, providing and receiving on-the-job training and mentoring, and consistently receiving performance evaluations.” These major shortcomings hindered staff development necessary to increasing the skills and competencies needed during deployments.
The GAO made three recommendations to FEMA including: develop a plan to address the challenges that have hindered FEMA’s ability to provide reliable and complete information to field leaders and managers about staff knowledge, skills, and abilities; develop mechanisms to assess how effectively FEMA’s disaster workforce was deployed to meet mission needs in the field; and create a staff development program for FEMA’s disaster workforce.
Further, due to allegations of misconduct at the agency, in 2019, FEMA requested a study be conducted on harassment and discrimination in the FEMA workplace. The RAND Corporation managed a survey “designed to estimate the annual prevalence of workplace harassment and discrimination at FEMA and to assess employee perceptions of leadership and workplace climate.”
Of the personnel that completed the survey, about 29% of employees experienced sex, race or ethnicity-based discrimination. As a result of the study, FEMA published their “Culture Improvement Action Plan” designed to increase employee awareness of RAND survey results; Provide transparent communication of workforce culture objectives, programs, and improvements and associated implementation timelines; and, Demonstrate continued leadership commitment to FEMA core values.
It is my understanding that Rand has conducted a second survey. I look forward to learning of those results and hope that culture at the agency has improved.
With all these aforementioned challenges – employee fatigue, barriers to training, lacking necessary skills in the field, and the prevalence of harassment and discrimination in the workplace – is the FEMA workforce prepared and well positioned to respond to disasters when needed?
I certainly hope so, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on their perspectives on these challenges, and what steps should the agency take to move forward positively.
Before I yield back, I do want to take a moment to thank all the incredible, hardworking, and dedicated men and women at FEMA. We are so grateful for the extraordinary work that you do, and I don’t believe you all are thanked enough.
With that, thank you Chairwoman Demings, and I yield back.
Ranking Member Meijer’s Opening Statement (as prepared for delivery)
Chairwoman Demings, Ranking Member Cammack, Chairman Correa, thank you for holding this joint hearing today, the first for both subcommittees in 2022.
And thank you to our witnesses for giving us their time and insights into this critical and timely topic – I certainly appreciate the work that GAO and RAND have done to improve FEMA’s functions.
The focus of today’s hearing is on how FEMA can build a workforce that is ready to respond and help FEMA fulfill its mission of Helping People Before, During and After Disasters.
We will hear about the issues FEMA’s workforce has faced in the past, and how FEMA has worked to resolve those problems. Most importantly, I hope we will hear how FEMA can set itself up for success in the future.
However, before we begin, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the men and women working tirelessly at FEMA, who have barely had a break since the historic hurricane season of 2017.
Just last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association stated that the US has experienced $750 billion in damages from weather-related disasters in the last 5 years alone. Moreover, both in 2020 and 2021, the US suffered from at least 20 individual disasters that cost more than $1 billion each.
The magnitude of those numbers is overwhelming and certainly speaks to the pressure that FEMA has been under. What is truly concerning is that weather disasters are only a portion of what FEMA has been dealing with over the last several years.
FEMA has also been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two years. For the first time in history, FEMA is managing a disaster declaration in every state and territory in the nation, as well as the District of Columbia. FEMA has also been tasked with assisting in the coordination of the Afghan resettlement through Operation Allies Welcome, as well as assisting in the border crisis.
The mission at FEMA seems to expand every few months, and I am sure that this stress and strain has taken its toll on the workforce.
So, again, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the staff at FEMA for all the good work they do day-in and day-out.
FEMA is called into action when an event is so catastrophic, that local and state resources are overwhelmed. They are the last line of defense and recovery. America deserves a strong FEMA – one that can fulfill its mission every time it is called upon. Americans expect this, and as Members of Congress, we should also expect a well-managed organization that can fulfill its mission.
Several studies have made recommendations over the years about how FEMA should recruit, train, and manage its workforce. We will hear about some of those today, as well as from Mr. Fugate, a former FEMA Administrator, who has firsthand knowledge about managing the FEMA workforce.
Some recent GAO recommendations have been made to address workforce challenges, including that the FEMA Administrator should:
Develop a plan to address identified challenges that have hindered FEMA’s ability to provide reliable information to field officials about staff skills and abilities;
Develop mechanisms, including collecting relevant data, to assess how effectively FEMA’s disaster workforce was deployed to meet mission needs in the field; and
Create a staff development program for FEMA’s disaster workforce that addresses training access, delivery of on-the-job training, and other development methods.
FEMA has agreed with these recommendations and is working to implement them.
I hope that at a future date we will be able to hear directly from FEMA on this matter.
We will also hear from RAND about a survey they did on behalf of FEMA designed to estimate the prevalence of workplace harassment and discrimination at the Agency. This survey certainly had some eye-opening results, and I appreciate the opportunity to get more details on those findings here today.
In response to this survey, FEMA developed a Culture Action Improvement Plan, and in the past several years, established an Office of Professional Responsibility and made anti-sexual harassment training mandatory across the Agency.
I am encouraged by FEMA’s willingness to be open minded and listen to outside groups about ways to reduce harassment and discrimination while also strengthening its workforce – both in terms of its mission and its internal culture.
FEMA plays a critical role in helping our citizens and communities prepare for and respond to disasters of all kinds, and a strong workforce is essential to be able to do just that. I pledge to do everything I can from this seat to ensure that FEMA’s workforce is strong, equipped with the tools it needs, and ready to help people before, during, and after disasters.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses, and I yield back.