FEMA’s First Lessons Learned From COVID-19

FEMA recently released the Pandemic Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Initial Assessment Report (January – September 2020). The report has many elements of a traditional after-action report. The authors reinforce that the report only evaluates FEMA’s response, not those of other agencies or entities. That said, emergency management, by nature is collaborative and FEMA’s interactions with other agencies and entities are cited as necessary. The report covers five primary areas of evaluation:

  1. Coordinating Structures and Policy
  2. Resources
  3. Supporting State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (SLTT) Partners
  4. Preparedness and Information Analysis
  5. Organizational Resilience

Also, with similarity to a traditional after-action report, this report provides a table of key findings and recommendations as Appendix A.

Here are some of my primary observations:

Following the executive summary is a the COVID-19 Pandemic Overview, which is a well-constructed piece providing a combined narrative timeline and topical highlights, providing information and context to the pandemic and the response, as well as some of the complexities encountered. While the report does well to acknowledge the myriad disasters that SLTT partners and federal agencies responded to over 2020, I find it shameful that they very obviously ignore the societal impacts of the US political climate (related to the pandemic and otherwise) as well as events surrounding the BLM movement. I firmly believe this report should fully acknowledge these factors and could have done so without itself making a political statement. These were important, impactful, and far-reaching, certainly influencing the operating environment, public information, and other very real facets of the response. I feel that the exclusion of these factors leaves this report incomplete.

Relative to the Coordinating Structures and Policy section, FEMA reinforces many, many times that they were put into a leadership position for this disaster that was unexpected and perhaps led to some coordination problems. I feel FEMA should always be a lead or co-lead agency for the federal response for large disasters regardless of the hazard. While a pandemic is certainly a public health hazard, FEMA has practiced experience in federal coordination to major disasters, mobilization of resources and logistical support, SLTT coordination, and overall incident management. The Unified Coordination Group is a sound application in situations where other federal agencies share significant authority. The kinks should be worked out of this, with the National Response Framework updated to reflect such.

Also mentioned within this section is the creation of a White House Task Force which was intended to make executive decisions of the highest level. This is not unprecedented and should certainly be expected for other large-scale disasters in the future. I feel, however, that removing the FEMA Administrator from having a direct line of communication with the White House during ‘peace time’ has significant impact on FEMA leadership’s ability to integrate. Positioning FEMA subordinate to the Secretary of Homeland Security is akin to putting a police officer in charge of a pool and keeping the lifeguard in the breakroom. Sure, the police officer can do a lot, but there are specific skills needed which necessitate that the lifeguard has a constant presence at the pool rather than only being called in when something gets bad enough. 

FEMA makes a point about inheriting eight task forces created by HHS which then needed to be integrated into the NRCC organization. These task forces had some overlap with the existing NRCC and ESF structure, resulting in duplications of effort and coordination problems. While FEMA says they were able to overcome this over time, it is obviously something that, given the National Response Framework, should have not happened in the first place. FEMA’s recommendations associated with this matter do not once cite the National Response Framework and instead point the finger at NIMS/ICS use, fully ignoring that the foundation of preparedness is planning. Either HHS made these task forces up on the fly or had a plan in place that accounted for their creation. Either way, it’s the National Response Framework that was ignored. NIMS/ICS helps support plan implementation.

The next section on resource management demonstrates that FEMA learned a lot about some intricacies of resource management they may have not previously encountered. With the full mobilization of resources across the nation for the pandemic, along with targeted mobilizations for other disasters, the system was considerably stressed. FEMA adapted their systems and processes, and in some cases developed new methodologies to address resource management needs. One key finding identified was a need to better integrate private sector partners, which isn’t surprising. I think we often take for granted the resources and systems needed to properly coordinate with the private sector on a large scale during a disaster. One of the largest disasters within this disaster was that of failed supply chains. Granted, the need was unprecedented, but we certainly need to bolster our preparedness in this area.

To help address supply chain issues, novel solutions such as Project Airbridge and specific applications of the Defense Production Act were used. The best practices from these strategies must be memorialized in the form of a national plan for massive resource mobilizations.

SLTT support for the time period of the report was largely successful, which isn’t a surprise since it’s fundamentally what FEMA does as the main coordination point between SLTT partners and federal agencies. Significant mobilizations of direct federal support to SLTT partners took place. The pandemic has provided the best proof of concept of the FEMA Integration Teams (FIT) since their development in 2017. With established relationships with SLTT partners and knowledge of needs of the federal system, they provided support, liaised, and were key to shared situational awareness. I appreciate that one of the recommendations in this section was development of a better concept of operations to address the roles and responsibilities of FIT and IMATs.

One item not directly addressed in this section was that in emergency management we have a great culture of sharing resources and people. Sharing was pretty limited in the pandemic since everyone was impacted and everyone needed resources. This caused an even greater demand on FEMA’s resources since SLTT partners largely weren’t able to support each other as they often do during disasters.

The section on preparedness and information analysis was interesting, especially on the information analysis side. The preparedness findings weren’t really much of a surprise, including not anticipating supply chain issues or SLTT needs. What this boils down to is a lack of effective plans for nation-wide disasters. On the information side, the key findings really boil down to not only improved defining of data sets and essential elements of information relative to specific needs, audiences, functions, capabilities, and lines of effort. It appears a lot was learned about not only the information needed, but also how to best utilize that information. Analytics makes data meaningful and supports better situational awareness and common operating picture.

The last section on FEMA’s organizational resilience is a good look at some of the inner workings and needs of FEMA as an agency and how they endured the pandemic and the varied demands on the agency. FEMA has always had a great culture of most employees having a disaster job which they are prepared to move into upon notice. They learned about some of the implications associated with this disaster, such as issues with engaging such a large portion of their employees in long-term deployments, public health protection, and mental health matters.

Ultimately, despite my disagreement with a couple of recommendations and leaving out some very important factors, the report is honest and, if the corrective actions are implemented, will support a stronger FEMA in the future. I’m hopeful we see a lot of these AAR types of documents across federal agencies, state agencies, local governments, the private sector, etc. EVERYONE learned from this pandemic, and continues to learn. That said, while the efforts of individual entities hold a lot of value, there also needs to be a broader, more collective examination of ‘our’ response to this disaster. This would be a monumental first task for a National Disaster Safety Board, would it not? 

© 2021 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

The Contrarian Emergency Manager™

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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