They're called the "national Swiss Army knife of emergency response," teams of highly trained first responders sent by FEMA across the US when disaster strikes. But when hurricanes pummeled Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico last summer, many of the thousands deployed via the agency's National Urban Search and Rescue program spent more time traveling and awaiting directives than doing actual rescuing, and FEMA coughed up $92 million to reimburse them, the Arizona Republic reports. Although some USR teams did carry out intense operations that helped thousands—the paper cites a Texas rescue that brought 900 people to safety and evacuated 12,000 more—many others ended up running from disaster to disaster and not receiving instructions in a timely manner, underscoring what some say are rampant inefficiencies in the 6,000-plus-member USR program.
"They still are shackled with bureaucracy and the rules," says Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Among the issues that hindered last year's rescues: excess gear that slowed processes down, constant reassignments, and local first responders (including volunteers in their own boats) getting to the scene before elite FEMA teams could arrive. Alternatives have been suggested, including sending out smaller FEMA teams or using local fire departments' gear instead of lugging their own, but there are logistical issues with those options as well. The Republic details how the agency grew from a "nimble" response group to getting bogged down by "mission creep" as it took on more responsibility, dealing with everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks. "At the end of the day … a lot of [the bureaucracy] needs to be cleaned up," Redlener says. (Read more FEMA stories.)