Audit finds most Tennessee counties ignoring requirements to provide updates on local emergency operations plan

NASHVILLE - Eight years after calling attention to the problem, a new Tennessee comptroller audit reveals most counties continue ignoring requirements that they provide updated emergency management plans to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

And because of that, state officials often remain in the dark about whether local plans are up to the task of dealing with natural disasters such as floods or fires as well as other emergencies, let alone how they propose to recover from them.

After auditors found problems back in 2011 regarding counties' lackluster compliance, TEMA officials changed the requirement for updated plans from once every four years to every five years.

But in the new audit, the Comptroller's Division of State Audit, headed by director Deborah Loveless, checked eight counties that were required in 2018 to submit their Basic Emergency Operations Plans to TEMA.

Just one of the eight counties did. That's an 88% non-compliance rate, auditors said.

"Without the ability to obtain all counties' [plans], TEMA management and staff cannot review and approve the plans to ensure the counties are prepared in the event of a disaster," auditors wrote.

The watchdogs also noted "it is important for counties to revise and adapt their plan to address new hazards, and failure to update these plans and to coordinate with TEMA could affect the state's ability to effectively respond to and recover from disasters."

The issue, according to comptroller auditors, is that while counties are required by law to submit their plans for state review, there are no teeth in the statute to make local bureaucrats actually do it.

Auditors say TEMA's director "should strongly encourage counties to comply with statute and TEMA guidance regarding submission of their Basic Emergency Operations Plan."

Moreover, auditors recommend TEMA management spread the word when a county agency fails to act by alerting all concerned parties, including top county officials, the governor and local members of the state General Assembly.

The audit is scheduled to come up Wednesday for discussion when TEMA officials go before the Legislature's Government Operations Joint Subcommittee on Judiciary and Government for its sunset review. In a sunset review, lawmakers evaluate the need for the continued existence of a program or an agency. It's a way to gauge the effectiveness and performance of a program or agency and provides a big hammer that lawmakers can wield when they see something they don't like and want fixed.

In their response to the comptroller audit, TEMA officials noted the local plans are intended to document key elements of a county's preparedness, including its emergency partnership network, emergency coordination structure and assignment of emergency support roles and responsibilities.

State officials also said to get better compliance, TEMA management will highlight the issue in a new, special training course for local officials and a new plan template aimed at improving counties' ability to maintain their plans.

TEMA also will continue the series of county-by-county meetings begun in 2018 and conducted in local offices with county mayors, other local elected officials, local emergency management directors and senior appointed officials to discuss the status of and needs in their emergency management program, mitigation plan status, National Flood Insurance Program adoption and status of local Basic Emergency Operations Plans.

The agency also told auditors that TEMA managers will further review the 2018 BEOPs review guidance to identify ways for streamlining the agency's Basic Emergency Operations Plan submittal procedures with an eye toward removing "any unnecessary roadblocks that may be preventing counties from submitting their BEOPs in a timely manner."

As part of the review process, TEMA said it will strengthen planning policies and procedures to include a time-based checklist that adds steps for officially alerting select individuals when a county emergency operations plan is not submitted within the established time frame.

Contact Andy Sher or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.