Feds Issue Disaster Plan Blueprint


Ben Bain | | Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Bush administration has revised its blueprint for dealing with natural and man-made disasters, with a focus on gaps identified by state and local emergency managers and other stakeholders outside the federal government.

The National Response Framework, designed to replace the 2004 National Response Plan, became official March 22.

The framework includes instructions for federal, state and local authorities; the private sector; and nongovernmental organizations.

Homeland Security Department officials say they are confident that the framework is an improvement over the 2004 plan, which critics say was too complicated and did not focus enough on the role of nonfederal organizations in disaster response.

The new document is broader in scope, partly because of lessons learned from using the earlier plan and the response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, DHS officials said. It was released in draft form two months ago, and lawmakers, nongovernmental organizations and state-level emergency managers have welcomed it as a step forward.

"I was at the state level when the original 2004 document was released, and it was very bulky, hard to read," said Dennis Schrader, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Preparedness Directorate. "It really didn't explain my role or what the state and locals were supposed to do. It was very federal-centric."

Schrader said the new 80-page document is the first plan for which FEMA has codified the role of state and local agencies as first responders.

"We wanted something that was very easy to read, particularly at the executive level, and we wanted something that was much easier to work with," Schrader said. "What this really talks about is who needs to be talking to who [and] when and how do you get out in front of it by having pre-plans."

DHS officials said the new document better incorporates procedures of the National Incident Management System, the government's unified approach to handling disasters. Definitions in the new framework are more consistent with NIMS.

Ken Murphy, president of the National Emergency Management Association, which represents state emergency management directors, said he views the framework as an evolution of the 2004 plan.

Murphy said Hurricane Katrina "validated the simple fact that when you write a plan at any level of government -- from the lowest level to the highest level -- there is a guideline, and it's there for us to train and learn from it and use it and then adjust it and make it better."

Training for the new response plan is already under way, and FEMA officials said they will conduct national exercises to evaluate the plan's effectiveness and agencies' preparedness.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he was pleased that FEMA officials had listened to lawmakers and emergency management associations when they drafted the new document.

"FEMA needs to move forward quickly with operational planning, and all levels of government need to exercise this new plan," Thompson said. "Unfortunately, the day will come when the [National Response Framework] will need to be put into action. It is crucial that we kick the tires and work out all the kinks before that day arrives."

Murphy, who also serves as Oregon's director of emergency management, said it is important for states and local jurisdictions to begin training to use the framework and become involved in federal planning for disaster response.

"We always have asked Homeland Security and FEMA to engage us at the earliest point that you possibly can," Murphy said. "We are going to have to use [the plans], we are going to have to live with them, and so we want to be part of the process of putting it together."

In addition to working with professional associations such as NEMA, FEMA officials said they also incorporated many of the 5,700 comments they received on the original plan during the feedback period last fall.

The American Red Cross was one group that commented. The organization's 750 chapters nationwide respond to 70,000 disasters a year, which is about 200 per day. The framework does a better job of including nonfederal actors in the planning process, said Peter Losi, vice president of government operations in disaster services at the American Red Cross.

"I think certainly the response would be much better than on the old [plan] and the other supporting systems," Losi said. "But I don't think that we've solved everything yet."

One issue that remains unresolved is getting communication and computer systems at all levels of the government to communicate with one another. Losi said some states that are used to dealing with natural disasters have robust data management systems, while others lag behind.

"I could use a whole bunch more information technology people to help me address these issues of how to communicate via computer systems, how to better use what we have and connect things so that on the computer side we have interoperability," Murphy said.

Schrader agreed that interoperability is the next milestone. "As you go through the document and read the doctrine, the intention here is that we need to be working collaboratively ahead of time with folks, resolving some of those kinds of data-interoperability issues," he said.

Ben Bain writes for Federal Computer Week, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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