GAO, FEMA clash over agency preparedness

Federal officials today could not agree on how prepared agencies are to continue operations if disaster strikes.

Linda Koontz, the General Accounting Office's director of information management issues, told lawmakers that she could not guarantee that agencies would continue to operate at full capacity if a catastrophe hit the Washington region.

Koontz said no agency has fully implemented the 1999 Federal Preparedness Circular 65, which sets basic guidelines for continuity of operations plans, commonly referred to as COOP.

'There are a couple of different things going on,' Koontz said at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee. 'The guidance from FEMA is not clear, which made for inconsistent plans, and FEMA has not provided regular oversight on agency plans.'

But Michael Brown, undersecretary for the Homeland Security Department's Emergency Preparedness and Response directorate (FEMA), said GAO's assessment is incorrect.

'We are getting there,' Brown said. 'All major departments have continuity of operations plans in place and we have looked at them. They need to be fine tuned and improved, but all of the agencies have them.'

Brown said agencies will test their COOP plans May 11 during a three-day exercise called Exercise Forward Challenge.

'This full-scale COOP exercise will require departments in the National Capital Region to relocate and operate from their alternate facilities,' Brown said. 'Some 45 agencies plan to participate in Forward Challenge. There will be approximately 45 separate but linked COOP exercises conducted concurrently with the main Forward Challenge event.'

A small number of employees will perform their usual work at the alternate facilities, which will require them to access e-mail and online files and to communicate with headquarters, said Reynold Hoover, director of FEMA's Office of National Security Coordination.

No matter the results of this exercise, lawmakers said private-sector experience should be considered.

'We could sometimes use a little of the private-sector culture in government to stay ahead of the curve on some of these things,' committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) said. 'Because we're not in a competitive mode, we tend to be more reactive than proactive.'

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