Justice, DOD better prepared to share information for '06 hurricane season

With approximately 60 days before the start of the next hurricane season, Congress is questioning whether agencies are in better shape to share information this year.

Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the Government Reform Committee, asked agency officials whether the government has sufficiently learned the lessons from Katrina and Rita.

'How can we avoid the inadequate information sharing and murky situational awareness that characterized the governmental response to Katrina?' the Virginia Republican asked. 'The committee is interested in learning about whether there is a need for additional legislation, guidance, procedures or resources to facilitate the information sharing priorities''

And while the Homeland Security Department declined to testify about its preparations and improvements, other key agencies, including the Defense and Justice departments, said things are getting better and they are better prepared.

'We have weekly cross-government meetings to develop concept of operations and we have technology to share information more effectively,' Justice CIO Vance Hitch testified yesterday during a hearing on information sharing during disaster response. 'In the case of emergency response, we did operate effectively for Katrina in the law enforcement community.'

Linton Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration, added that DOD also demonstrated efficient communications in Iraq and Afghanistan, and during events such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

But Wells said the federal government needs to have 'command and control capabilities, supporting facilities and infrastructure to ensure uninterrupted connectivity and coordination in accordance with constitutional authorities.'

He outlined 12 goals for the government, including having a dependable and trusted network, having enough bandwidth, frequency and computing capabilities within the spectrum management process, having the capability to consistently refresh the situational information content, and being able to apply federal data tagging standards and information assurance policies.

Wells also called for the development of a better social network that ensures that first responders and others understand each other's operating practices.

'What was lacking was familiarity with the National Response Plan, a shared understanding of how [Northern Command] was to support that plan and [use the] experience gained through exercises between U.S. military and federal, state and local responders,' he said. 'Ideally, there would be full interoperability among systems for command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In addition, there needs to be broader, more fully articulated planning for multiple kinds of disaster events.'

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) asked whether the federal government should be setting standards to ensure communication.

Hitch said Justice is addressing the standards issue through the Integrated Wireless Network project, which should be awarded 'soon.' IWN would be a nationwide communications network for law enforcement officials.

But Hitch said it would take about five years for Justice to fully implement IWN across the country, a timetable that seemed to bother Cummings.

Wells added that IP phones also offer a way for disparate systems to talk more easily. Another solution to the problem is for the federal government to keep a set of vendors on retainer for leased communication equipment and services in case of disaster with the plan to roll out in 12 hours or less.

'People are looking at the retainer model,' Wells said. 'It would be similar to the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet.'

Under an agreement for CRAF, airlines provide aircraft for the government in times of emergencies.

Davis promised more hearings it the future to include officials from DHS and the Director of National Intelligence.

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