Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Thursday asked the Government Accountability Office to evaluate Department of Homeland Security disaster response and disaster response exercises to make sure response plans are “complete, sufficient, and understood by participants.”
In a letter to GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker, the Senators stressed “the need for improved planning for disasters and the need to exercise plans to ensure preparedness” in light of the serious failures of all levels of government to plan for and respond to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Sens. Lieberman and Collins called on GAO to examine selected DHS responses to actual disasters and exercises.
“It is important that the roles and responsibilities [of disaster participants] are clear, effectively communicated, and completely understood for responses to any disasters that occur,” they wrote. “Exercises are essential to test the plans and the understanding and performance” of key participants – including federal, state, and local officials, as well as non-governmental entities and the private sector.
The full text of the letter is below:
David M. Walker
Comptroller General of the United States
U.S. Government Accountability Office
441 G Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20548
Dear Mr. Walker:
Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared, a report of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, as well as other reports on Hurricane Katrina, found serious and widespread failures in the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina. The Committee report included several recommendations to address these failures; many of those recommendations involved ensuring that roles and responsibilities of participants are clearly defined, effectively communicated, and completely understood. The recommendations, among other things, also stressed the need for improved planning for disasters and the need to exercise plans to ensure preparedness. Exercises are essential to test the plans and the understanding and performance of roles and responsibilities laid out in the plans. In order to be effective, exercises must be realistic, honestly and promptly evaluated, with corrective follow-up action taken and plans re-tested as appropriate.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently revising the National Response Plan (NRP) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Exercises will be a critical component in ensuring that all key participants—federal, state, and local governments, nongovernmental entities, and the private sector—fully and clearly understand their roles and responsibilities and have the capacity to fulfill them. Examples of some key participants and entities involved in a response with potentially redefined roles include the Principal Federal Officer and Federal Coordinating Officer, as well as the Regional Response Coordination Center, National Response Coordination Center, and the National Operations Center. Other examples include the potentially revised roles of FEMA, the Red Cross, and nongovernmental entities such as the Salvation Army in providing mass care and shelter. Additionally, since the revisions of the NRP and the NIMS are not yet complete, it is important that the roles and responsibilities are clear, effectively communicated, and completely understood for responses to any disasters that occur before the new NRP and NIMS are implemented.
In light of the essential importance of making sure our plans for responding to disasters are complete, sufficient, and understood by participants, we ask that the Government Accountability Office observe and evaluate DHS exercises and evaluate responses to disasters. In doing this review, we are particularly interested in the Government Accountability Office providing information on and assessing the following:
1. What are the assigned roles and responsibilities for key participants – federal, state, and local governments, nongovernmental entities and the private sector — for response to major disasters identified in the NRP and the NIMS (including the revised NRP and revised NIMS that are to be issued in the near future)? Are the roles and responsibilities appropriately delineated, effective, proper, and clear? Are “tiers” of responsibilities identified for states and localities?
2. To what extent has DHS defined the capabilities needed to carry out these roles and responsibilities? To what extent do these defined capabilities appear adequate to fulfill the assigned roles and responsibilities? To what extent and how are the National Preparedness Goal (and Guidance), the Target Capabilities List (TCL), and the (15) National Planning Scenarios used in identifying roles and responsibilities for major disasters?
3. What exercises have been designed since January 2006 for use at the state, regional, and national level to test the response capabilities for major disasters? What exercises have actually been conducted? What assumptions and guidance, such as the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program, have been and are used to develop and execute the exercises?
4. What is the extent of DHS oversight in evaluating the execution of the exercises, including their outcomes, and ensuring that action is taken to resolve problems identified in the exercises? What systems does DHS have in place to ensure the quality of exercises, including comprehensive assessments and the implementation of post-exercise action plans?
5. What roles and responsibilities did governmental and nongovernmental organizations take during the exercise or major disaster? Were the roles and responsibilities clear and understood by the participants? Were the roles and responsibilities appropriate, effective, proper, and follow the relevant plans?
6. What major issues and problems surfaced during the exercise or major disaster? What unanticipated issues were identified during the exercise or major disaster?
7. Are the exercises sufficient to ensure our disaster response plans are adequate and understood so an effective response can be executed to any disaster, including catastrophic disasters that may occur?
In assessing these issues, we ask that the Government Accountability staff observe and evaluate selected exercises and evaluate responses to disasters using after-action reports and other data, including documents and interviews.
We expect the Department of Homeland Security or other agencies sponsoring exercises or participating in responses to disasters to fully cooperate with GAO’s review. This includes allowing GAO staff to observe exercises that include any federal participants or observers, as well as interviewing knowledgeable individuals and having access to any relevant documents, including but not limited to after-action reports for exercises and disasters that occurred in 2006 or 2007 prior to or after GAO’s initiation of this review. We ask that you provide us with information regarding any issues GAO has in obtaining information for this review, both by timely informing our staff and by discussing any such issues in any report produced.
Thank you in advance for your assistance. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact Mary Beth Schultz with the majority at (202) 224-2627 or Asha Mathew with the minority at (202) 224-4751 to discuss plans for completing this study.
Joseph I. Lieberman Susan M. Collins
Chairman Ranking Member