Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Catastrophe Preparation and Response: Be the Strategy

A few interesting points came out in Tuesday's testimony from William Jenkins, the Director of Homeland Security and Justice issues for GAO, in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Jenkins was discussing the national system for dealing with catastrophic events. Appropriately in my mind, he argues that a more strategic approach is needed - because in spite of all the shuffling that's happened over the past 6 years, it's still clear that we don't truly have an integrated national system for dealing with the risk of catastrophe:

The Comptroller General has suggested one area for fundamental reform and oversight is ensuring a strategic and integrated approach to prepare for, respond to, recover, and rebuild after catastrophic events.

It is important to view preparedness for and response to major disasters as a national system with linked responsibilities and capabilities. This is because effective preparedness for and response to major disasters requires the coordinated planning and actions of multiple actors from multiple first responder disciplines, jurisdictions, and levels of government as well as nongovernmental entities.

In preparing for, responding to, and recovering from any catastrophic disaster, the legal authorities, roles and responsibilities, and lines of authority at all levels of government must be clearly defined, effectively communicated, and well understood to facilitate rapid and effective decision making.
In spite of new plans such as the National Response Plan (NRP), the National Incident Management System (NIMS), and the National Preparedness Goal (NPG) - all of which are currently in the process of being revised - there is, as yet, no clarity, especially between levels of government. Some advanced work (e.g., naming Federal Coordinating Officers and Primary Federal Officials in advance) will help - but it's still incumbent on response agencies at all levels of government to make the personal connections:
There is still some question among state and local first responders about the need for both [the Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) and Primary Federal Official (PFO)] positions and how they will work together in disaster response. One potential benefit of naming the FCOs and PFOs in advance is that they have an opportunity to meet and discuss expectations, roles and responsibilities with state, local, and nongovernmental officials before an actual disaster, possibly setting the groundwork for improved coordination and communication in an actual disaster.

While the Secretary of Homeland Security may avoid conflicts by appointing a single individual to serve in both [FCO and PFO] positions in non-terrorist incidents, confusion may persist if the Secretary of Homeland Security does not exercise this discretion to do so. Furthermore, this discretion does not exist for terrorist incidents, and the revised NRP does not specifically provide a rationale for this limitation.
And here's something else came out that I need to examine more closely: The lack of full integration with the National Guard:
[T]he types and quantities of equipment the National Guard needs to respond to large-scale disasters have not been fully identified because the multiple federal and state agencies that would have roles in responding to such events have not completed and integrated their plans.

As a liaison between the Army, the Air Force, and the states, the National Guard Bureau is well positioned to facilitate state planning for National Guard forces. However, until the bureau’s charter and its civil support regulation are revised to define its role in facilitating state planning for multistate events, such planning may remain incomplete, and the National Guard may not be prepared to respond as effectively and efficiently as possible. In addition, questions have arisen about the level of resources the National Guard has available for domestic emergency response. DOD does not routinely measure the equipment readiness of nondeployed National Guard forces for domestic civil support missions or report this information to Congress.
Some of the key questions remain only partially answered:
Essentially, all levels of government are still struggling to define and act on the answers to basic, but hardly simple, questions about emergency preparedness and response:
  • What is important (that is, what are our priorities)?
  • How do we know what is important (e.g., risk assessments, performance standards)?
  • How do we measure, attain, and sustain success?
  • On what basis do we make necessary trade-offs, given finite resources?
There are no simple, easy answers to these questions. The data available for answering them are incomplete and imperfect. We have better information and a better sense of what needs to be done for some types of major emergency events than for others. For some natural disasters, such as regional wildfires and flooding, there is more experience and therefore a better basis on which to assess preparation and response efforts and identify gaps that need to be addressed.
For its part, DHS has the right idea in promoting regional and multistate planning, but it's still unclear how well it works on the ground:
Through its grant guidance, DHS has encouraged regional and multistate planning and preparation. Planning and assistance have largely been focused on single jurisdictions and their immediately adjacent neighbors. However, well-documented problems with the abilities of first responders from multiple jurisdictions to communicate at the site of an incident and the potential for large-scale natural and terrorist disasters have generated a debate on the extent to which first responders should be focusing their planning and preparation on a regional and multi-governmental basis.

As I mentioned earlier, an overarching national priority for the NPG is embracing regional approaches to building, sustaining, and sharing capabilities at all levels of government. All HSGP applications are to reflect regional coordination and show an investment strategy that institutionalizes regional security strategy integration. However, it is not known to what extent regional and multistate planning has progressed and is effective.
Short answer: We're still muddling through.

A final note on the National Preparedness Goal (NPG), which has enjoyed "interim" status since March 2005, by my count:
FEMA officials have told us that the final version of the NPG and its corresponding documents are currently receiving final reviews by the White House and will be out shortly.
I wonder what "shortly" means.

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