With a pandemic and hurricane season crushing FEMA, the agency could use some bots

FEMA could use some help from bots as it tries to respond to many crisis, both internal and external.
COVID-19 briefing at FEMA
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf meets with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor, and other officials at FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center to discuss the ongoing fight against the coronavirus. (DHS / Tara A. Molle)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency‘s various grant programs have made more awards more this year than the past 30 years combined, a top official says, and now the agency is considering how robotic process automation (RPA) bots could help improve the payment process.

“From a business and management stand point, automation would be a game-changer,” Chief Financial Officer Mary Comans said Wednesday during the IBM Think Gov digital event, produced by FedScoop.

FEMA awards many types of grants, including emergency preparedness funds to state, local, tribal and territorial governments. Automating detail-oriented and medial tasks away from manual labor would help the government respond to crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and major storms. The summer only gets busier for the agency after hurricane season begins June 1.

RPA bots could help free up time for FEMA workers to concentrate on more critical decisions, Comans said.


The pandemic presents unique challenges to FEMA, both internally and externally. With emergency declarations covering the country and FEMA coordinating with 40 other federal agencies, moving to maximum telework only added to the agency’s challenges, she said. With employees out of the office, automating some of their work would alleviate strained resources.

Comans said her primary responsibility was the “health and safety of the workforce.” While RPA bots won’t solve everything, she said being able to automate more tasks would be extremely helpful in the agency’s modernization journey.

“The field of emergency management needs to evolve,” she said.

Among the ideas for bots are validating upfront eligibility for grant recipients or streamlining the process for assigning funding. Automation also would catch any accidental overpayments or payments to the wrong organization, Comans said.

“We need to ensure that at the end of the day every dollar goes to the survivor that needs it,” she said.


Other agencies, like the General Services Administration, have also turned to bots as a coronavirus-response tool. One of GSA’s RPAs compiled infection data from countries where federal buildings are located. The data helped inform the government’s situational awareness and the potential risk of infection for federal workers.

Groups like the Defense Innovation Unit have also prioritized automation technology more broadly, seeking machine learning solutions to advance the complexity of the tasks bots can do.

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