Sweeping changes urged for U.S. response to emergencies

The Homeland Security Department should set up a national operations center to integrate federal agency response and give a unified view of disasters, according to recommendations made by the White House and released in a report today.

The 217-page report, titled The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, identifies more than a dozen major problems in federal emergency preparedness and response, and makes 125 recommendations to the president. The report comes a week after a House Select Committee issued a highly critical report about federal response to the catastrophe.

One of the recommendations is to create a new national operations center, from which federal officials from multiple agencies can provide national coordination during a crisis. It also must have the capability to create and export a unified view of the events.

"The mission of the National Operations Center must be to coordinate and integrate the national response, and provide a common operating picture for the entire federal government,' the White House report said. The common view must be 'capable of being exported in real time to other federal operations centers.'

Furthermore, the operations center must combine the situational awareness mission of the Homeland Security Operations Center, the operational mission of the National Response Coordination Center and the strategic role of the Interagency Incident Management Group. It also must be capable of receiving reports from all departmental and agency command centers, as well as the Joint Field Office operating at the disaster site.

The staff of the operating center must include logistical experts who can 'track moving resources anywhere across the nation,' and operations experts who know how to deliver needed items and services to affected areas.

The report also recommends building up the department's regional capabilities so that each region has the ability to establish a 'self-sufficient initial Joint Field Office on short notice anywhere in its region.'

The goal of creating a new operations center that integrates existing operations centers is likely to utilize additional IT networks and software.

Additional recommendations

The White House report recommends that DHS review existing laws, policies and strategies regarding communications. After the review, DHS should work with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a National Emergency Communications Strategy to promote communications interoperability.

The report also recommends that DHS and the Environmental Protection Agency improve the federal government's capability to gather environmental health and safety data in disaster zones. Such data would help the public and emergency responders evaluate the safety of working in a disaster zone.

An additional technology recommendation in the report is that DHS establish a chief logistics officer who would, among other tasks, 'be responsible for logistics technology and software solutions that allow emergency managers to have visibility into the supply chain.'

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, issued a statement welcoming the report. 'On first glance, many of the findings and recommendations contained in the report sound consistent with the findings of our report,' Davis said.

Davis' report emphasized failure of leadership at all levels of government as the root cause of the Katrina disaster. The White House report, by contrast, repeatedly quoted Bush and appeared to emphasize his wise preparations for the disaster and his speedy and effective response to it.

Democrats unimpressed

The White House report faced immediate brickbats from Democratic members of Congress, who have been calling for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the disaster preparation and response.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-La.), ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, noted that the next hurricane season will begin in fewer than 100 days. He said in a statement that the administration had not suggested methods to pay for the report's recommendations, and called for the White House to establish a direct line between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the president.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, criticized the administration's cuts in grants to first responders for purchases of interoperable communications equipment.

'The Department of Homeland Security needs to be providing more of this type of assistance, not less,' Lieberman said in a statement. '[Committee] chairman Susan Collins [R-Maine] and I have passed such legislation out of our ' committee and we urge the administration to support it.'

About the Authors

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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