Collins, Lieberman Express Concern on DHS Situational Awareness Deficiencies

In a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Senators Susan Collins, R-Me., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., expressed concern that, one year after Hurricane Katrina, the Department seems to have made insufficient progress in improving situational awareness during disaster response. The Senators are looking into whether the solutions that have been implemented were ineffectively introduced, under-utilized, and or may lack the necessary protocols to develop accurate situational awareness reports.

One of the Department’s major initiatives to improve situational awareness is the Common Operating Picture (COP) database, an information-sharing tool for first responders intended to provide DHS leadership with a coherent picture on the ground during disasters. Situational awareness was a key weakness during Hurricane Katrina, when key federal officials were unaware that the levees had been breached until long after New Orleans had started flooding.

Briefings from DHS staff and reports from the DHS Inspector General indicate that the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), of which COP is a part, is hugely under-utilized. While 18,000 first responders have registered for the network, less than 6 percent regularly use it, and DHS has done little to inform first responders about the COP or to train them how to use it. In order to ensure that COP is an effective tool, DHS must work out a protocol for how information submitted to the COP will actually be compiled, analyzed and prioritized to provide key officials with complete and meaningful situational awareness.

Senator Collins and Lieberman’s letter asking for Secretary Chertoff’s response to these concerns is below

November 17, 2006

The Honorable Michael Chertoff

Secretary of Homeland Security

Washington, DC 20528

Dear Secretary Chertoff:

We are writing to express our concern that the Department of Homeland Security may have failed to take sufficient steps to be capable of maintaining and sharing situational awareness during a disaster response. Despite steps intended to improve this capability, such as a restructured National Operations Center (NOC) framework and the initial implementation of a Common Operating Picture (COP) database, the Department still has significant issues to address before it is able to provide adequate situational awareness during a disaster.

Solid situational awareness is the foundation of any disaster response. Information gathered from a variety of sources – including first responders’ situation reports, media, satellite imagery, and more – must be collected, analyzed, and provided in a timely manner to response managers and decision makers during or in preparation for an incident. In coordinating a national response to an incident, the NOC must be able to provide a coherent and prioritized set of information across the federal agencies and to the appropriate state and local governments, and it must ensure that critical information reaches the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the President, and other key officials to ensure timely and effective decision-making.

One of the major goals of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was having the ability to “connect the dots.” The Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) was a major component in implementing this goal and was designed to be our nation’s nerve center for information sharing and domestic incident management. Yet, as recognized in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Katrina investigation, “Hurricane Katrina was the HSOC’s first major, public test, and it failed. At the federal level, there was a startling lack of situational awareness as Katrina came ashore. On the day of landfall, DHS ignored, disregarded, or simply failed to obtain readily available reports that would have – and should have – led to an understanding of the increasingly dire situation in New Orleans and the remainder of the Gulf Coast.” Indeed, as the report found, on the day of landfall, senior DHS officials received numerous reports that should have led to an understanding of the dire situation in New Orleans, yet they were not aware of the crisis until Tuesday morning. The HSOC – charged with providing reliable information to decision makers including the Secretary and the President – failed to create a system to identify and acquire, and disseminate all available, relevant information. Decision makers were initially unaware of the failure of New Orleans’ levee system, the extent of flooding in the city, and the presence of thousands of people in need of life-sustaining assistance on highway overpasses, at the Superdome, and at the Murial Convention Center in New Orleans. The failure of senior DHS officials to realize the severe consequences of the storm prolonged human suffering and further damaged property. It is imperative that DHS develop capabilities to obtain better situational awareness and make better use of existing situational awareness to ensure a more comprehensive and effective response to future disasters, which will save lives and reduce human suffering.

DHS’ efforts to improve situational awareness have resulted in a revised operations center framework based on May 2006 changes to the National Response Plan. Under this new framework, the National Operations Center will replace the HSOC, and will liaise with the National Infrastructure Coordination Center (NICC), the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC), other agency operations centers, and Sector-Specific Agencies. A Disaster Response Group will replace the Interagency Incident Management Group and will function as a planning element in the NOC.

According to briefings provided by your staff, the locus of DHS’ improved situational awareness ability will be its Common Operating Picture database, which rides on the Department’s real-time information sharing tool, the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN). Once fully implemented, the COP is intended to improve situational awareness by facilitating collaboration between first responders and decision makers. It is also designed to provide geospatial mapping, situation and spot reports, and requests for information or action to all users, and to overlay threats against critical infrastructure and key resources. Incoming information is intended to be vetted by subject matter experts across all levels of federal, state, and local government.

Despite these changes, however, we remain concerned that not enough has been done to ensure improved federal management of the next catastrophic disaster, which, by definition, will overwhelm state and local resources. Significant situational awareness gaps remain. For example, very few emergency management officials use HSIN on a regular basis; this must change if the COP is to become an effective situational awareness tool. According to a July 2006 report by the Department’s Office of the Inspector General, titled “Homeland Security Information Network Could Support Information Sharing More Effectively,” DHS has not adequately communicated its vision for the HSIN network, especially how the network relates to and integrates with other federal, state, and local information sharing systems. In the absence of specific standard operating procedures – and training for those procedures – no more than 6 percent of the approximately 18,000 registered users contribute daily to the network’s three major portals (law enforcement, emergency management, and counter terrorism. If disaster response officials are unable or unwilling to access the COP or share situational awareness on a daily basis, no amount of NOC upgrades may be able to prevent a federal response similar to that which transpired during Katrina. Similarly, if mechanisms for COP-redundancy are not implemented, if clear training programs for appropriate officials are not developed, or if other federal, state, and local entities are not effectively integrated into the NOC framework, situational awareness will not improve for the next federal response.

Given the critical importance of situational awareness to the government’s ability to respond to disasters, whether natural or man made, we would appreciate your responses to the following questions regarding the Department’s current plans and progress in addressing this issue:

Common Operating Picture

DHS’ implementation of the Common Operating Picture is intended to improve information sharing among the many entities involved in disaster response. Although the database has not been fully implemented, even after full implementation the COP may not ease all situational awareness deficiencies. It is important to clearly define the intended audience and scope of the COP, and to establish benchmarks for its implementation.

1) What is the intended audience and scope of the COP?
2) Please provide a timeline for full and final implementation of the COP, including implementation at the Unclassified, Law Enforcement Sensitive, and Classified levels.
3) According to briefings by your staff, the COP’s initial operating capacity will focus primarily on hurricanes. Beyond the initial hurricane focus, please provide a timeline for implementation of an all source information/all hazards/all threats situational awareness database.
4) When will the parallel effort addressing H5N1 avian influenza requirements be fully implemented?

The new COP database should provide significant amounts of information to watch officers at the NOC, NRCC, NICC, and other entities of the National Operations Center framework. Each participating agency will be responsible for sorting through the myriad amounts of incoming information so that it may be analyzed and prioritized by subject matter experts. It is not clear, however, that there is a system for collating the massive amounts of information into a true “common operating picture” that is coherent and meaningful to decision makers.

5) How is incoming information used and processed? What plans does the NOC have in place for effective information management?

6) Have national reporting requirements been developed? Has a national information reporting chain been developed?

7) Are training programs in place for those charged with assimilating incoming information into a shared and prioritized structure?

8) What is the decision process for determining which information is provided to key officials?

9) What procedures and protocols will ensure that information provided to key officials is an accurate and meaningful representation of incoming situational awareness?

With an early-entry situational awareness capability, and under the tasking authority of DHS Office of Operations Coordination, DHS Situational Awareness Teams (DSATs) are intended to be deployed soon after an incident occurs, with the goal of quickly providing information directly to the NOC. Although DSATs are administratively controlled by the Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it is important that other DHS entities are represented on the teams as well, in order to leverage as much as possible the Department’s assets and expertise.

10) What is the current composition of DSAT teams?

11) Are DHS agencies other than ICE represented on DSAT teams? Are FEMA representatives included?

DHS officials have described two mechanisms for COP redundancy in the event that a cyber attack cripples the HSIN network. In such an event, the COP would be accessible either through the Department’s secure, internal DHSOnline server or at the Department’s Continuity of Operations (COOP) facility. Neither option, however, allows for non-DHS personnel to access the database or contribute situational awareness. Since the effectiveness of the COP is based upon the ability of response managers at all levels to contribute to and glean information from the database, it is important that any redundancy capability provide access to all users.

12) Please describe any efforts to provide COP redundancy that will be available to all registered users of the database in the event that HSIN is not accessible.

The August 22-24, 2006, “Hurricane Ennis” Exercise was the first exercise to test the COP. The COP was also in use during Hurricane Ernesto.

13) Please provide After Action Reports for the exercise and for Hurricane Ernesto.

14) What significant obstacles to COP implementation occurred, and what other lessons learned did both the exercise and real-time use provide?

15) What corrective actions are being taken to mitigate obstacles derived from the lessons learned?

Integration and Training

Effective situational awareness is most achievable when clear policies are implemented, and all relevant officials have a solid understanding of their roles. The new NOC framework has the opportunity to be a valuable situational awareness tool, but its success will depend on straightforward supporting policies and comprehensive training for those policies, as well as the thorough integration of all relevant entities into the overarching operations center structure.

16) An October 2006 GAO report titled “Opportunities Exist to Enhance Collaboration at 24/7 Operations Centers Staffed by Multiple DHS Agencies” states that the NOC has not defined a position description for watch staff assigned from other DHS components or outside agencies, but rather the NOC relies on those components/agencies to determine their assigned watch staff’s roles and responsibilities. Does the NOC plan to develop a position description for watch staff assigned from other DHS components or outside agencies?

17) Are future exercises scheduled that will test the Department’s situational awareness ability?

COP protocols state that agencies own and control information related to their areas of expertise. Indeed, the COP relies on agency-specific subject matter experts to evaluate, prioritize, and forward critical information to watch staff at the NOC. Thus DHS’ role as manager of the federal response during a major incident makes it incumbent on the Department to ensure that other federal, state, and local entities can also maintain situational awareness.

18) What actions is DHS taking to ensure that the situational awareness plans of relevant entities, including other federal agencies, are being effectively integrated into the NOC framework? In particular, how does DHS intend to overcome cultural reluctance in other agencies that may already have their own information management tools?

19) What steps has DHS taken to ensure that other federal Departments and Agencies, as well as the appropriate state and local officials, have the ability to access and share classified information at their COOP sites?

The July 2006 report by the Department’s Office of the Inspector General, titled “Homeland Security Information Network Could Support Information Sharing More Effectively,” calls on DHS to clarify HSIN’s mission, provide clear guidance and standard operating procedures regarding integration with other federal, state, and local information sharing systems, and implement measurable performance metrics to gauge the network’s effectiveness. In the absence of such measures, very few of the approximately 18,000 registered HSIN users contribute regularly to the network’s three major portals. According to the report, just 6 percent of registered law enforcement users post information on a monthly basis, just 1 percent of registered emergency management users post on a monthly basis, and just 1 percent of counter terrorism users post on a monthly basis. Since the COP will rely on frequent contributions of information by HSIN users during a disaster response, such levels are clearly problematic.

20) Given the concerns of this report, what steps is the Department taking to:
a. Establish guidelines for COP access and contributions?
b. Train HSIN users on COP guidelines, and encourage regular use of the database?
c. Gauge the effectiveness of information sharing across HSIN?
d. Gauge the effectiveness of COP performance?

In a September 2006 report titled “Catastrophic Disasters: Enhanced Leadership, Capabilities, and Accountability Controls Will Improve the Effectiveness of the Nation’s Preparedness, Response, and Recovery System,” the GAO recommended that the Department of Defense (DOD) play a significant role in providing situational awareness due to DOD’s unique reconnaissance and satellite imagery capabilities, echoing similar recommendations of this Committee’s Katrina investigation. DOD has invested considerable resources into shoring up its communications capabilities in anticipation of a future incident. It is important that these capabilities be identified well in advance of an incident, so that DHS and DOD officials do not scramble to integrate their capabilities after an incident has occurred.

21) Are pre-existing contracts, MOUs, or other agreements in place to take advantage of DOD’s incident management capabilities with respect to situational awareness?

22) What measures are being considered to resolve issues of classification during a crisis, wherein time-sensitive information that may be essential to disaster response may not ordinarily be placed in the COP due to its classified nature?

I look forward to your responses in this important matter. Please feel free to contact Asha Mathew in Senator Collins’ office at (202) 224-4751 or Michael Alexander in Senator Lieberman’s office at (202) 224-2627 with any questions.


Susan M. Collins Joseph I. Lieberman
Chairman Ranking Member