GAO Recommends Better Regional Collaboration for Emergencies
Wednesday, May 30, 2018 | Comments

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while regional working groups established by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 have enhanced emergency communications capabilities, better collaboration between those groups could further enhance capabilities.

GAO was asked to review the implementation of provisions of the Post-Katrina Act related to disaster preparedness including challenges to emergency communications that stakeholders have experienced, stakeholder views on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) emergency communications assistance, and the regional working groups established by the act and their effect on emergency communications capabilities.

GAO reviewed DHS reports for the 2011-2016 fiscal years and conducted case studies of three — Houston, Los Angeles and Boston — that were selected based on the number of declared disasters, DHS grant funding and geographic diversity.

GAO also interviewed DHS officials, leaders of all 10 regional working groups and other stakeholders including public-safety officials in the cities where the case studies took place.

To meet the requirements of the Post-Katrina Act, DHS has provided technical assistance such as training programs and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants. It also established regional emergency communications coordination working groups, which bring together stakeholders from different levels of government and the private sector within FEMA’s 10 regions.

While communications challenges persist, stakeholders told GAO that the DHS technical assistance generally meets their needs and that FEMA grants have helped them enhance emergency communications capabilities. Specifically, stakeholders found training for specific communications positions was useful. Houston area officials said the training was critical in preparing first responders for Hurricane Harvey.

Some stakeholders said that FEMA grants help them address needs that would otherwise go unfunded, including interoperable communications networks and equipment.

GAO found that the regional working groups have enhanced emergency communications capabilities through building relationships and sharing information. Within the respective regions, group members have:
• Assisted each other during disasters and emergencies;
• Developed technical solutions to enhance interoperability; and
• Addressed policy concerns, such as the use of interoperable radio channels during emergencies.

However, most regional group leaders said that more collaboration across the regional groups was needed. GAO’s prior work has also found that including all relevant participants can enhance collaborative efforts.

Further, the DHS strategic plan for emergency communications established a vision of collaboration among stakeholders across the nation. While FEMA has encouraged collaboration among regional working group leaders, cross-regional efforts have been limited and do not involve all group members.

Developing and implementing an appropriate ongoing mechanism for collaboration could enhance emergency communications capabilities, such as by helping members of the groups address common challenges.

Without ways for all members of these groups to collaborate across regions, members may be missing opportunities to share information and leverage the knowledge and experiences of their counterparts throughout the nation.

GAO recommended that FEMA work with regional working group members to reach consensus and implement an ongoing mechanism, such as a national level working group, to encourage nationwide collaboration across regions. DHS agreed with that recommendation.

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