FEMA, Racing to Provide Virus Relief, Is Running Short on Front-Line Staff
WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the office leading the federal government’s coronavirus response nationwide, is running short of employees who are trained in some of its most important front-line jobs, according to interviews with current and former officials.
At the same time, the agency has been forced to halt a major hiring initiative, and has closed training facilities to avoid spreading the infection.
The number of available personnel who are qualified to lead field operations has fallen to 19 from 44 in less than six weeks, and staff members have been pulled from responding to other disasters, but training centers in Maryland and Alabama have been shuttered until mid-May. In addition, an effort to recruit new employees called “Harness” is on hold, according to a senior administration official with direct knowledge of FEMA’s operations.
With wildfire season looming and hurricane season starting in less than two months, the shortfalls could complicate federal response to disasters nationwide.
“No doubt that this presents a challenge to FEMA,” said Daniel Kaniewski, who until January was the agency’s deputy administrator for resilience. “Normally, this is when FEMA would be focused on hurricane readiness.”
“FEMA has never faced a 50-state disaster before,” Mr. Kaniewski added.
Lizzie Litzow, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said the agency had enough people to do its job, and would use a mix of online training, hiring new staff and redeploying its current employees. “FEMA is currently able to meet staffing needs for Covid-19 operations,” as well as other disasters, she said in a statement.
“While we are responding to this crisis, FEMA is also taking aggressive and extraordinary steps to protect its workforce,” Ms. Litzow said. “FEMA works to ensure it maintains the response capabilities for the unknown.”
Even before the virus struck, the agency was stretched thin. Starting in 2017, a series of major hurricanes, wildfires and floods had left it straining to manage response and recovery efforts around the country.
Then, in mid-March, FEMA took the lead on the government’s response to the coronavirus, increasing the demands on its employees even further. As of Friday, the agency had sent teams to 26 states and more requests are likely. And the number of available staff is already being reduced by the virus, with at least seven employees infected as of last weekend.
But even as the virus puts new stress on the agency, it must also remain prepared to handle more typical natural disasters.
Federal scientists last month predicted that 23 states would see moderate to major flooding by the end of May. This week, researchers at Colorado State University warned that this year’s hurricane season, which starts June 1, is likely to produce 16 major storms, of which four were likely to become major hurricanes.
The toll of FEMA’s dual mission — responding to the Covid-19 crisis, while also handling its normal job of dealing with natural disasters — is beginning to show up in its staffing figures. As of Friday, just 31 percent of the agency’s staff of 13,701 remained available to be deployed, down from 35 percent two weeks ago, according to FEMA documents.
That shortage is particularly acute among some of the agency’s most highly trained specialists.
Six weeks ago, the agency reported having 44 members of its field leadership contingent — staff who are trained and certified to manage disasters around the country — available to be deployed. By this week, that figure had fallen to 19.
Asked about its plan to replenish those staff, Ms. Litzow declined to say how long it would take to train new field leaders. She said the agency could reassign staff to the most pressing disasters, as well as “internally surge additional personnel to serve in leadership roles throughout the agency if needed.”
The agency is also running short on other specialized staff. As of Friday, just 19 percent of its operations staff, 18 percent of its safety staff and 25 percent of its planning staff were available to deploy, according to agency documents.
“At this time FEMA has been able to fill staffing needs for Covid-19 operational mission requirements” as well as other disasters, Ms. Litzow said.
The agency has already pulled people back from other disaster-recovery operations, said Mr. Kaniewski, who is now a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies, an insurance and risk management group. He said those other disasters could act as “a reservoir” for FEMA to draw staff from, provided they had the right training.
Craig Fugate, who ran the agency during the Obama administration, said FEMA’s ability to deploy enough people was a significant challenge. “Can it be done? Yeah,” Mr. Fugate said. “Will it be pretty? No.”
He said the agency should suspend reconstruction work in other parts of the country that are still recovering from previous disasters, so it has people ready for this year’s storm season.
Meanwhile, the agency’s ability to train new hires, or retrain existing staff for new roles, has been hindered by the coronavirus, officials said.
FEMA’s two main training facilities, the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Alabama and the Emergency Management Institute in Maryland, have been closed since March 14 and aren’t scheduled to reopen until at least May 10. The centers were used to train both state and local first responders as well as new FEMA officials who would work on response and recovery.
“We will work to reschedule courses for later in the year to the maximum extent possible,” read a message on the Maryland institute’s website.
FEMA has been trying to fill the void by bringing on new employees in a hotel ballroom adjacent to its headquarters. The agency is currently setting up another planning center a couple blocks away from its headquarters, called the National Response Coordination Center 2.0, where planning for responses for earthquakes, hurricanes and other flooding will take place, according to the administration official with knowledge of FEMA’s operations.
Staffing that new center will be a struggle, the official said.
The official also said FEMA had halted the development of a major recruiting initiative this year, called “Harness,” after a series of earthquakes in Puerto Rico and then the coronavirus outbreak. The program involved reaching out to colleges and communities to fill staffing shortages to prepare for hurricane season.
Now senior officials at FEMA are concerned about their available resources in the coming months. Typically, a percentage of the work force drops away as the year progresses, given that the jobs are stressful and high-intensity, the official said, and that is expected to happen again this year.
And this year, with the added risk of viral infection to agency workers, the intensity of the work has heightened.
Some staff members have been pulled away from the preparedness wing of FEMA to work on the various task forces designed by the White House. “It’s all hands on deck,” the administration official said, adding that even people who work in such unrelated areas as flood insurance are being pulled into the Covid-19 response.
To supplement staffing shortages, FEMA was also planning on requesting assistance from the Coast Guard, according to the senior official. But the coronavirus outbreak also presented unique challenges: the prospect of potential staffers needing to quarantine in their homes.
“It’s national scope. We’ve had serious regional impact but not a single national impact like this,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President Geoge W. Bush. “But secondly because of the contagion issue it creates and issues for caregivers themselves and helpers themselves.”