Thursday, May 16, 2013

FEMA Corps Is Going To Be Okay.


Today, my team and several others, from both Vicksburg and Vinton, got to go to the headquarters of our lord and master, the Corporation for National & Community Service. I had never been there before, knew nothing about it, except that that was where our leaders (Brendan, Gary Turner) periodically vanished off to and that someone there took exception to my posts once upon a time. (And based on a reaction when I introduced myself, I'm just about certain that I now know who that was.) We were there for an all-day Service Learning Whatchamadoo, with the goal of learning more about the history and future of our program and getting a real honest-to-goodness talk from the people who ran it. 

And based on all that, for the first time in a long time, I feel legitimately optimistic about the future of FEMA Corps. There are good people in charge and they are listening to us

Let me expand on that last for a minute. We have been making suggestions all year, passing them up the various chains of command at the bottom of which we sit, and hearing nothing in response. There was rarely any feedback that filtered back down or any visible result that manifested itself in our daily lives. And saying the same things over and over again without a change, or really an acknowledgement, wore us down. 

Today, we were treated to an extended lecture from Kate Raftery, head of Americorps NCCC. And like a magic trick, like some kind of wonderful dream, she knew what we had been talking about. She spoke our language. She was speaking to us, not past us. I swear to God we connected, her and the dozens of Corps Members sitting around the room. She told us all kinds of stories about the program's founding, about the inter-agency agreement that made it happen, about the problems they were were working to address. Here, from my notes, are a few of the things she told us: 

-FEMA originally asked for 3,000 FEMA Corps members. 
-FEMA people across the agency who've worked with us praised our efficiency, our drive, our problem-solving abilities, our skill with technology. In effect, we are what happens when you introduce a young, dedicated, motivated population into a fairly old workforce. 
-Apparently that's not just FEMA, by the way. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has an unbelievable fifty-six percent of its entire workforce at or near retirement age.
-FEMA asked about sending us out one at a time, but NCCC rebuffed them on that. They ended up with a core list of things they didn't want to give up: the residential nature of the program (us being housed as a part of the program, that is), the team aspect, the age range, the pool of people from which they wished to recruit.
-Apparently, the project sponsor usually provides the housing, not NCCC. This may be a contributing factor to why we're all at Extended Stay Motels. (KR cracked that she was going to buy stock in the company.)
-NCCC has been approached about doing a kind of Park-corps and Housing-corps, but is holding off for now. 

-The FEMA Corps approval process went something like this: the Inter-Agency Agreement (the general idea), the Implementation Plan (how to do it, how much it would cost, what positions we'd be in, etc) and a budget agreement. Apparently it went ridiculously quickly for a government program, going from idea to actual thing in less than a year. Said Raftery: "It kept making me nervous. I was thinking, we must be missing a major piece here, like Oh my God, we forgot X". (See why I like this person?)

-FEMA personnel have told me that it's a small organization, and maybe it is by federal standards (7,474 people in 2011; the State Department, for comparison's sake, has nearly 50,000 all told. Defense has kajillions). But it is "monstrous" compared to Americorps NCCC, whose entire office fits on one rather cramped floor of the CNCS building. It just took a long time for information to percolate across that huge expanse of people; Raftery described how she and four aides were going to every meeting with FEMA, and every time it'd be "fifty new people" on their end.

-This is not according to KR, but to a passing dignitary who happened to be the lady who runs the budgets for EVERYONE. I asked her how much a FEMA Corps team typically cost, and she told me that each individual Corps Member cost $34,000 throughout the entire ten-month program--for training, clothing, food, everything. Now, I have worked 1879.70 hours this term as of today, according to If I die tomorrow and never work another minute for the Corps, that's $18.08 per hour. Are we worth it? Signs point to yes.

-We also represent a significant cost savings over normal FEMA operations when we're deployed in disasters, according to KR, although they didn't plan for us to be in hotels all the time and that makes the savings rather smaller than projected. They're working on that. In fact, I'll jump ahead here: one of the solutions they're proposing, which I think is brilliant because it addresses the problem of expensive housing and the problem of stultifying work, is this: we go to a regular-NCCC project sponsor, such as Habitat for Humanity, and work for them part-time (earning our keep) and work with FEMA the rest of the time. Swoosh. No more Extended Stay, we get to do direct service, and the total cost goes down. 

-Oh, fun fact: in the original plan, there were to be no Independent Service Projects, the extra community service things that I've written about extensively and that kept a lot of people sane during this year. None allowed. The campuses revolted, the requirement got changed, the program began, FEMA began to see that it was a phenomenal way to connect with the communities we were working in, and now it's actually a requirement to wear FEMA uniforms when you're out doing this work. (For some other campus maybe; that's the first I'd heard of it.)

-When they were putting the program together, FEMA had a communication problem: field staff had worked with regular NCCC teams on various disasters, but FEMA HQ had no idea what we were about. In fact, a lot of the bad experiences we've had with FEMA happened because FEMA Rumsfelded before we got there. They didn't know what they didn't know: they had yet to experience the "quality, flexibility, creativity and innovation" that Corps Members are capable of. And the more they've worked with us, the more they've liked us, and the more they've been willing to push the limits of what we are allowed to do. For once, they're being flexible about us. They've even created the FEMA Corps office solely for purposes of helping make it work. And again, this was the first time I felt like it actually meant something--we'd heard about this thing before, but to hear it mentioned by someone I liked and trusted, and to hear it commended as actually doing something for the program--that is a new thing, and something we could use more of.

After maybe ninety minutes of this tremendously revealing thing, the floor was opened for questions. The floor had been opened several times already, but this was the first time for suggestions about how to improve the program, if somewhat obliquely stated. And the suggestions were good. Revamping Team Leader Training to teach TLs how to work on project sites with multiple teams, something they were never trained for? How to manage people in an office setting, another novelty? These were good suggestions. There were many like them. And they were said to somebody who appeared to be genuinely listening, and who has an unmistakably genuine interest, professional and personal, in improving the program. That kind of person is in short supply in any organization, and I'm glad my program has one of them at the top. She was asked about better member development, about recruitment, and answered well and with solutions that made sense. She was asked about non-disaster work, and answered that her staff was developing a "stockpile" of non-disaster projects for us to work on. She left the room, after a very long, very noteless, thoroughly informative couple of hours, to what was (at least from me) tumultuous applause.

The rest of the presentations were anticlimactic. There was an extended one from city-planner-turned-pollster Colleen, whose job it is to measure what we're doing and what kind of impact we have through stats. (Seriously, I don't know what her official job title is, but she's a pollster.) Gary Turner, former Vicksburg campus director, randomly appeared on an upper floor and threw half the Vicksburg crowd into hysterics. Jackie and Shane and two Vintoners told their stories to senior staff. The chief of External Affairs (my guy, I think), Ted Miller, spoke to us and heard some of our stories. They all seemed nice enough and capable enough, although obviously we couldn't watch them work. But attitude reflects leadership, as Summit 4 says, and it is beyond good to hear and see that NCCC's leadership is committed and listening and working on fixing the program's problems. That is more of a luxury than we probably think it is.


Allison said...

I, too, loved CNCS, although I did not get to participate in the personal in-depth discussion with KR. My TL and I and pair from another team presented at a board meeting. After our presentations about our respective teams' accomplishments, the board did ask some questions about our time. Did we receive enough mental health training for our time in disasters? How was our housing situation? Is a 15p the best way to travel?

They did not ask about ISPs, but I found your tidbit interesting. My campus started about 6 months after yours and during our CTI they first said we were required to complete 80 ISP hours, but then quickly reversed themselves and removed the requirement completely. Eventually they decided that the we had to do a minimum of 10 Stafford Act (disaster related) hours. I sincerely hope the ISP requirement is reinstated. To date my team has collectively completed over 600 ISP hours over round 1 and round 2. (I, alone, have over 100 hours). ISPs, like you've mentioned, are an integral part of keeping teams mentally refreshed and bonded. Now, ISPs are nearly impossible to complete on a an active disaster deployment (we did not get days off for ISPs like I've heard other campuses did in Sandy) at this point, but as we often ride out steady state deployments an 80 hour requirement is easily attainable. I hope NCCC and FEMA take your advice, and ours as we graduate, to heart when it comes to making a place for ISPs in this program.

Andy said...

I believe the elimination of the ISP requirement had a lot to do with my campus's experience in Sandy, in the month or two right after the disaster. Basically, we barely had time for PT and other team meetings with the hours we were keeping (usually leaving at 6 or 7 and getting back in at 6 or 7), and this was a seven-day week. There simply wasn't any time to do ISP hours, so on my campus they downgraded and eventually scrapped the requirement. (A few of my temp teammates actually graduated with zero ISP hours.) I can see their point on not requiring it, but it's such an important part of NCCC that I hope they at least keep the strong incentives for people to do it. At every other time during the year, we generally had plenty of downtime and needed the boost.

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