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An Insider’s Critique of FEMA

For three months I have worked 60 hours a week for FEMA, witnessing first-hand the inner-workings and organizational mentality from a wide range of inside perspectives. My initial placement was on a mobile, language-needs strike team that was based out of the Joint Field Office (JFO) in Forest Hills, Queens. I was later reassigned to a base in the field, visiting damaged homes and assisting with recovery efforts on the Rockaway Peninsula. Throughout it all I was shocked at what seemed to be an intentional inefficiency that aggressively discouraged questioning aimed at improving the speed and effectiveness of the relief effort.

FEMA has three categories of workers: a small permanent staff; several thousand ‘reservists’ who are deployed only during disasters; and ‘local hires,’ which are sourced from disaster areas and stay on after many of the reservists have gone home. I never interacted with any permanent staff, and as far as I could tell, the recovery from Superstorm Sandy was run and managed by reservists.

While generally weary of government, I naïvely assumed that FEMA would attract a staff motivated by a desire to help others. My first interactions with local hires showed more pragmatic motivations, often just unemployed workers happy to have found a job, but it was also nearly universally mixed with empathy and altruism. The quality of the local hires varied, many seemed well suited for a professional workforce while others seemed incompetent. It’s hard to believe that there were not better applicants willing to assist with disaster relief, so the first problem is poor hiring but that is relatively minor, the real issue is the work environment. Despite my initial misgivings about this group, I later realized that almost all the quality workers were in fact local hires.

My first day on the job I went out with a reservist who was also my direct supervisor and visited faith-based organizations. Our task was to collect data, assess needs and ultimately help the larger recovery effort. About half the numbers we turned in for the day were completely made up. We drove by churches and guessed the size of the congregation, its language needs and overall damage. Even with the gross exaggeration of the work that we did, even if those numbers were all real, it would still be less accomplished than I would have expected during our ten-hour shift. Almost all the reservists I encountered had mastered the art of wasting time. When I was at the JFO we sat around for an hour or two before we left on any assignment. In the Rockaways, we did not linger quite as long at the command post but like clockwork, every day we ate a leisurely breakfast at two separate places. We got coffee at one restaurant then breakfast sandwiches in another, it was all just a way to waste time.

A significant part of any day was spent sitting in a car. When I worked out of the JFO, my team would sometimes have assignments that required a lot of driving, necessitating visiting both Nassau and Manhattan in the same day for example. In hindsight, I believe that upper management (also reservists) did this intentionally, as part of the overall strategy to waste time and extend their own deployment. When we did arrive at our destination we often sat in the car for half an hour or more before exiting. Sometimes the supervisor would be on a personal phone call, sometimes sorting papers, sometimes not doing anything at all but wasting time.

The reservists had a good salary and impressive perks, such as a $70 a day food stipend that is added to their pay, and tried very hard to not work themselves out a job. There was an acute awareness that the more efficient we were—in this case the faster we helped affected communities recover—the shorter our job would be. So we worked slowly, and we intentionally worked inefficiently.  This was not isolated to the level just above me but widespread throughout the organization. It went beyond wasting time though. Many of the decisions and direction given from above were illogical. We spent a week visiting businesses to ask if we could leave fliers there, though we did not have any actual fliers to leave, nor did we ever return with any. Another day was spent writing consent forms out by hand that we would never use.

Many of the local hires were surprised and frustrated. There were also some that were happy with a lazy system and everyone at least embraced parts of it. For example, I gladly went home early nearly every day—as did everyone else.

There were some small attempts at improvement, but they never lead anywhere. When my team did street canvasing I stepped out of the vehicle immediately and stood outside, thinking it would encourage others. One reservist on my team would often step outside with me, but our supervisor never followed and no one else from the two or three car loads of workers ever stepped outside until she did.  It changed nothing but made my accomplice and me frustrated and cold—this was in early February—so we soon stopped trying and waited in the car with everyone else. The reservist who tried to encourage a better work ethic choose to leave the FEMA mission early, she was the first person to leave my team in Rockaway. When we were handwriting consent forms another team member questioned the logic of it and was shouted down with comments such as “Where can you get a job that pays you for doing so little and then lets you go home early? Don’t ruin this for the rest of us.” That team member was let go the following week. He was the second person to leave our Rockaway team.

The worst aspect of FEMA is not the general incompetence of the decision makers, nor the intentional waste, it is the workplace culture. Any suggestion for efficiency, any questioning of the modus operandi is greeted with hostility. I’ve never encountered a job that guarded its own misgivings so fiercely. As the job progressed, almost all local hires, myself included, acquiesced to the situation and eventually grew close with it. The ones who embraced the inefficiency most, the ones who were the happiest to collect a pay check for sitting idle, were rewarded. Most reservists begin as local hires and the local hires that embraced the waste and sloth are the most likely to apply and eventually advance within the organization. In essence, negative behavior is rewarded.

Workers will always take as much as they can, the difference with FEMA is that encouraging inefficiency is not hurting the bottom-line of a still profiting faceless millionaire, its hurting working families who were devastated by a natural disaster. Volunteers (occupy sandy, etc) worked much harder than FEMA and other paid workers I interacted with. The paid workers seemed to be working for a paycheck while the volunteers had no other motivation but to help people and tried to maximize their efforts and effectiveness.

Yes, there were exceptions and good workers but that’s all they were, exceptions. My critique is limited to my own narrow experiences with the organization, beginning in December and ending in late March but it seems clear that everything I witnessed was part of an organizational pattern. At the end of the day, FEMA has a very worthy mission and actually does significantly contribute to disaster recovery, but it can be so much better.

Assuming that government should provide a safety net and help overwhelmed communities recover from natural disasters, FEMA needs to exist. The way that it has evolved—the willful inefficiency and extreme hostility toward constructive criticism—is appalling and needs to be torn down and replaced. I worked as a Field Operations Supervisor during the 2010 census and was happily surprised with the quality of the other managers and the general work environment, and there are volunteer relief organizations that work well so it is possible. There are successful templates that exist. Disaster survivors deserve so much more from us.

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7 comments on “An Insider’s Critique of FEMA

  • Fugate is systematically driving off seasoned, experienced reservists with cheap, inexperienced labor. He does not care about quality of personnel, he only wants to see ‘numbers’ in the field, which is proven by the mass exodus of legit reservists within the last 7 months, and the fast tracked training and placement of Americorps kids who won’t be around a year from now. What you can do, which is effective, is to find out who your Senators and Congress Reps are in your state, find their online websites and submit your report to them. Also, find out their emails online (and/or their Chief of Staff & other staffers) and email your report to them as well. Do both. FEMA does not care, and has never cared about it’s personnel, so although you could contact Fugate, he ultimately won’t give a damn about your report. Yes, they are listening/reading, but your report will not make a significant dent or instigate reform/change from within. If you email or send your report via elected leaders website comments, date & track all attempts to contact them, including saving all electronic correspondence. FEMA responds to elected leaders, -not their own personnel. When you did your 5 month stint, you unfortunately stumbled upon the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to unethical, lazy, corrupt behavior in the Agency. There are countless cases of so called leaders and team leads (like you encountered) who have been reported for a wide variety of federal employee infractions, and every new disaster, the same individuals show up and cause major problems. I bet that your lazy team lead has a long track record, but FEMA never boots them out, but instead promotes them, sends them to expensive training courses, and boosts their pay grade. Workers like you are negatively blacklisted, targeted as a troublemaker, and ultimately driven out. The incompetant do NOT want competant workers around them. FEMA works harder to cover up the tracks of these losers than kicking them out of the Agency. I don’t know about watch lists, you are a common, average local hire, -not a high profile individual. What does stand out, is that while the mass majority of FEMA personnel are terrified to say anything, you stepped up and did so on a public website. The FEMA echelon will read your site with keen interest, but it’s similar to reading the gossip tabloids versus a serious consideration of internal reform. They all know who you are talking about, they all know the insidious corruption within the Agency, but most everyone acts like one big flock of sheep. Furthermore, they know that Fugate could care less about them, and HQ certainly wishes they’d all leave and not have to manage hundreds of reservists (nice span of control btw…6 staff to 7,000). Be happy you’ll never have to deal with the Agency again, glad I bailed months ago.

  • What’s really ‘telling’ about your account, is that you are brand new to the Emergency Management culture from what I understand? FEMA cannot come after you vis a vis witch hunt because they can’t threaten you or associated agency friends with vicious retaliation.
    Another sad reason why current reservists and permanent employees do not say ANYTHING and take the abusive cruelty, is that they want to continue pulling down a paycheck. They don’t want to get the blacklisting target on them. And, FEMA would go after their friends in the Agency by denying them cushy training junkets, pay raises, sweetheart jobs, cutting funding to their projects/budgets etc. Been there, seen that.
    Your link (according to my agency contacts) was emailed and sent throughout the entire country, even HQ in D.C. was reading it. Plus, you have all the associated non-agency orgs/offices looking at it. In total, that should be well into the thousands. For reservists, realize that they have no bargaining power, no union, no spokesperson, no leadership in HQ, nada. Some reservists signed an online petition, some have contacted their elected state reps, etc.
    This is the way the reservist structure operates: Up to a year ago, reservists were sorted into their respective divisions (logistics, operations, planning, etc) through Regional (ten FEMA regions) Cadres, and then there were a few Cadres routed through HQ. A massive, dirty, ugly, battle was waged by HQ against the Regions to literally steal ALL reservist numbers from Regions, leaving Regions to have no administrative control over their numbers.
    HQ created a STUPID ‘conditions of hire’ contract which including extremely punitive, restrictive, and unvetted rules in which caused 3,500 reservists to not ‘re-up.’ Those who didn’t re-up were slated to expire their employment December 31, 2012. Because of the crushing loss of force numbers, HQ routinely kept changing their deadline in an attempt to thwart the blood-letting losses in the field at that time, which was Hurricane Sandy.
    During all of this chaos, HQ, by sanction of Fugate, quietly stood up 4 training campuses to mass train 800 Americorps, and then ship them to HQ and 10 FEMA Regions.
    Why this is a fiscally stupid idea: Americorps contracts are 10 months out of a year. They typically do not return the next year or at all. They are paid extremely low wages (immigrant workers make more than them), live in spartan conditions, have to financially fend for themselves, and generally have no clue what they are doing. Reservists I know told me that not ONE Americorps they met was pursuing a degree in emergency management.
    All in all, it’s another pathetic attempt by HQ and Fugate to exterminate the seasoned reservists. Fugate looks at the Agency through fiscal eyes, not by any means of retention, morale, or leadership.
    I know more people who have left than those who stayed on. Even top permanents have gotten out of HQ.
    HQ has never listened to, or cared about the opinions of reservists. The IMWO’s top clown is the husband of the previous national cadre manager, who also inserted her kids, aunts and other relatives into the agency. Not one of them is from EM, all are high drama prima donnas, and it’s the worst case of nepotism and favoritism I’ve ever seen in government. It’s a lockstep monopoly sanctioned and approved by HQ/FEMA. The entire ‘rat pack’ is just as lazy and shiftless as the team lead you work with. They are a massive embarassment within the Agency and wreak havoc on disasters every single time. So, how would any reservist manage to out-manoeuvre that ‘race card’ HQ blockade which controls all of the reservist force numbers?

  • John,
    I want to say a major ‘thank you’ for stepping forward and posting your experiences during Hurricane Sandy. It’s going a LOT farther and wider than you realize, the key point is that you publicly posted your observations whereas no FEMA personnel would ever dare.
    There are a vast number of excellent, seasoned, educated, professional, dedicated reservists in FEMA. Many have donated years of selfless service and have extensively helped disaster victims recover. Sadly, the forced dictatorship of Coleman & Co. has driven off many fantastic reservists, and the grass roots struggle to fight the FEMA ‘mafia’ at HQ is a wicked struggle.
    Ultimately, its the taxpayers and disaster victims who lose. On Hurricane Sandy, there was a HUGE shortage of reservists, which greatly impacted geographicial coverage. This exceptional lack of FEMA prescence in hard-hit areas is 100% due to the morale-busting takeover which HQ did to the Regions which caused thousands of reservists to finally quit en masse.
    Further abuse of federal surge forces to Hurricane Sandy resulted in addtional monies being wasted because of little to no qualified reservists on hand to lead/manage incoming force numbers.
    All the ‘force numbers’ being proferred by Fugate to Congress are a total farce. It’s a scam perpetuated by the IMWO in the bloated fiction called FQS.
    Thank you for all the hospitality of allowing me to post a LOT of information to this page. I wanted to show you extensive hard ‘proof’ which exists online so that you can draw firm conclusions.
    Keep up the great investigative work, and keep your fists up, the Agency is circling their wagons already!
    PS: I wrote an error about LEAP in a previous post…can’t recall the right acronym, but its Limited English Proficiency.

  • John I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. I too was on Sandy, in New Jersey. We had heard that the team in NY was having a tough time. You describe all reservists as lazy and ineffective, and I would have to disagree. Most are caring individuals who want to do the best job they can for the survivors.

    However, we are quite often not given the tools, authority, or other means to do that job well. I personally worked 90 hours a week the first couple of weeks in Oct/Nov. I did not get paid for all of them, and I busted my ass. I have to live with myself, and I feel good about the work I did in NJ.

    The rules this agency has imposed on us all are forcing people out in droves. Most everyone is unhappy. A happy workforce is a productive one, maybe they’ll figure that out one day. In the meantime they continue to lose valuable (yes valuable!) and talented people, as well as a ton of institutional knowledge. God help the next hurricane survivors if this trend continues.

  • Your experience, unfortunately, was neither unique nor unusual. Many of us hated the program and the entire experience. Would love for you to visit femacorpse.blogspot.com, follow @femacorpse or email me at femacorpse@gmail.com.
    It seems the case against FEMA, and particularly FEMA Corps are building fairly quickly. I personally don’t believe in letting injustice and waste continue, so I’m willing to do what it takes to stand up for what I believe in.

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