FEMA's goal is to fill most vacancies

Veteran FEMA watchers are focused on tasks the agency must accomplish to ensure a flexible and trained cadre of employees.

Several recent reports are critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for failing to fill staff vacancies and provide consistent training before the start of the 2005 hurricane season. Veteran FEMA watchers are focused on tasks the agency must accomplish to have a flexible and trained cadre of employees, including information technology and telecommunications workers.

“I don’t think it’s a problem of FEMA not knowing [staffing] is a problem,” said James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Carafano said ample data point to employee and training shortfalls. He added, however, that under the leadership of David Paulison, the new FEMA director, the agency probably will be more prepared this hurricane season. But some problems could persist, he said, because FEMA can’t make all necessary fixes in one or two hurricane seasons.

The agency relies heavily on contractors or short-term workers, but the management burden is FEMA’s, Carafano said. “The problem is the government doesn’t have the capability for oversight and management.”

No one from FEMA was available to comment on workforce issues, but the Homeland Security Department reported June 1 that FEMA had filled 81.5 percent of its vacancies. DHS officials said they expect to have 95 percent of those filled by early July.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at Partnership for Public Service, said the agency deserved kudos for hiring a large number of employees in a relatively short period of time. The next step, he said, will be to ensure those employees are properly trained and to provide career development opportunities so they feel they are contributing to the agency’s long-term mission. “Training one-fourth of the workforce is going to be relatively new to FEMA,” he said.

The agency has brought back its Cadre on-Response Employees (CORE) and hired them under two-year contracts. CORE workers were an integral part of the workforce in the early 1990s, which was later reduced, said George Haddow, a former FEMA chief of staff.

FEMA is hiring droves of employees to fill its ranks, including CORE workers, but it’s hard to imagine that many have the proper experience, Haddow said. “There are not a lot of people that have experience working in disaster. A good group of them were at FEMA and have left. Now they are in a fix.”

Ultimately, the hiring and training processes address a tactical issue for FEMA, Haddow said, “but they haven’t dealt with the strategic issue, which is [that] emergency management is not a priority of this administration.”

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