U.S. Has Strategy for Homeland Security, But Are We Ready?

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.

farrelDuring this season of presidential politics and opinion polls, more Americans than ever say they worry about terrorism. They also fret about natural disasters as many communities around the country continue to experience devastation from recent hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

One big question in many people’s mind is whether, despite repeated assurances from public officials, the U.S. government is really prepared to cope with these threats.

In October, the White House issued an updated “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” which is intended to guide, organize and unify the nation’s homeland security efforts. The strategy was meant to reflect our post-9/11 increased understanding of the threats confronting the United States and incorporates lessons learned from real-world catastrophes. The strategy recognizes formally that similar skills, organization, resources, planning and response are the same for both natural disasters and security-related events. It notes the need to unify and coordinate resources at federal, state and local levels. The strategy recognizes the burden falling on those who will be first on the scene, local first responders.

The notion of a nationally unified effort toward homeland defense indeed is a tall order that deserves full attention.

But many unanswered questions remain as to how this new strategy will actually help in the event of a catastrophe. One major concern is whether all levels of government — federal, state and local first responders — are fully resourced to accomplish the goals set forth in the strategy.

The issue of resources is not just money but training, preparedness, coordinated planning, and the actual joint exercising of plans by all who have a responsibility to respond. Peter Verga, deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and America’s security affairs, noted during a speech to an NDIA executive breakfast that most federal agencies other than the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security are unprepared to do their part in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

If a dirty bomb went off in a U.S. city, the Department of Health and Human Services or Environmental Protection Agency, for example, should be expected to perform certain functions, Vergas said. “Typically what happens is people just say, ‘well, we’ll do what we do and the Defense Department will do everything else,’ and we find that not particularly helpful.”

Vergas’ boss, Assistant Secretary Paul McHale, highlighted serious weaknesses in the federal response to California’s wildfires last fall.

Speaking to NDIA’s Coast Guard symposium in New Orleans, McHale said the government should be able to respond to multiple simultaneous disasters, such as a hurricane striking the East Coast while an earthquake hits the West Coast.

McHale said he was disappointed that other federal agencies outside the Defense Department and DHS are not doing their part to help prepare for these disasters.

Again, it comes down to resources. DHS and the Defense Department have five-year budget plans, but that isn’t the case with most other agencies, and particularly first responders. Their funding is approved from year to year, and therefore, it is more difficult for them to ensure that they have the personnel, plans and equipment in place.

State-level governments also confront significant resource challenges. Although they are working more closely with federal agencies than ever before to share information that could prevent terrorist attacks, their relationship with the federal government in a number of key security areas remains a work in progress, according to a National Governors Association survey.

The survey revealed that more than half of states have significantly involved local governments in developing strategic plans, including grant funding allocation plans, but states expressed concerns with regard to federal relations and National Guard staffing. States continue to report uneven progress in their relationship with the federal government, specifically with DHS. States need federal funding to support personnel to implement and sustain national initiatives that are carried out locally, the survey said. Only about one-third of states have at least 75 percent of their National Guard forces available to respond to disasters.

These are challenges unlikely to be addressed by the current White House, where the homeland security senior advisor position has been vacant for months and probably will remain so until next year.

Local and regional exercises must involve all resources from the local, state and federal levels. That would require higher level agencies to support local first responders as they would in real world events. It would also drive the type of decision considerations that will be encountered in the real event. Many drills now are command-post type exercises in which participation and decisions are downward-directed, the opposite of how the event will unfold in the real world. The secret to military efficiency has always been solid planning, training and exercising. It has great merit for adoption by others.

So as we gear up for a new administration, it is not too early to begin to think about how our future leaders will organize and train to deal with our ever-more-difficult homeland security challenges, before the next catastrophe arrives.

Please email your comments to LFarrell@ndia.org

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, Homeland Security, Disaster Response

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