Crisis proves a need for disaster planning

Crisis proves a need for disaster planning

'Everybody just took off.'

David Reiss, an information specialist in the Treasury Department's Office of Financial Systems Integration, said he could only grab his briefcase before fleeing headquarters on the morning of Sept. 11.

Elsewhere in downtown Washington, a high-ranking Energy Department official said she left with only her handbag and a stack of important papers.

Both acknowledged discomfort at just leaving everything behind. They said they hoped their departments' loosely constructed continuity of operations, or coop, plans would handle the rest. But both said that if the attacks had been more widespread, they and their colleagues would not have known where to go the next day, from whom to expect instructions, which communications medium to check or how to get to a new work site, wherever it might be.

In the aftermath of the attacks, some agencies are realizing that their emergency plans are inadequate. They're ready for relatively minor disruptions, such as bomb threats or power outages. But many have only sketchy plans for how to continue operations during severe or long-term disruptions.

'I was leaving with senior political people, and we didn't receive any word from anywhere,' the Energy official said.

Contingency plans are short-term arrangements an agency makes to carry out its mission. A coop plan is a long-term strategy for operations during national crises.

'We don't have a very good feel even for how to account for people,' said one high-ranking Defense Department official. In the wake of the Pentagon disaster, 'telephone numbers had to be posted on the public media'not a good way.'

Energy does have an emergency management center. Employees are supposed to be kept up-to-date via e-mail during emergencies, the worker said, but that's not feasible when they are away from their computers.

'One thing that irritates me is that you can't get good information when you need it,' the DOD manager said. Reiss said Treasury workers were wondering how they were going to contact colleagues the day after the attacks.

Each Treasury bureau is responsible for creating its own coop plan and submitting it to the Office of Emergency Preparedness, which has oversight of the departmental plan.

That office declined to comment for this story. The Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration would not comment on government coop plans.

The Treasury's continuity plan lists several essential offices to contact during crises. The Office of Financial Systems Integration, which reports to Treasury's deputy CIO and holds the keys to budget and accounting databases, is not one of them.

'We maintain a lot of information,' Reiss said, but no one in the office is on the 'essential' list. 'Who else is going to know how much money is available to start rebuilding? We've had to argue our way into the continuity of operations plan.'

The Treasury's coop plan identifies shadow offices scattered outside metropolitan Washington as well as sites for critical information systems.

Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, in a statement two days after the attack, said, 'Steps are being taken to secure federal buildings. Employee safety has always been a priority.'

DOD also has shadow offices as part of its coop plan, but many are simply collecting dust. Tucked in the hills of Pennsylvania is a well-known DOD site that has been unused for years. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went there after the attack, reportedly found the site was ill-equipped and too far away, and returned to Washington.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command's site at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., is one operational DOD coop site that could be used as a model, the official said.

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