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 November 2005 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

Preparation Is Key to Disaster Response

November 2005

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

It’s often been said in management circles that plans are only good intentions unless they immediately translate into effective action.

This observation has come into sharp relief as administration and military officials pondered the lessons of these two mega storms. Military professionals know first-hand how difficult it is to respond to any contingency without a detailed, well-rehearsed plan, with a cadre ready to implement it and rehearsed provisions to call upon outside support. In short, the military’s forte is good planning, backed up by hard training and rehearsal against anticipated events. And even though the military rarely executes exactly against the postulated contingency, teamwork, leadership and command-and-control are honed through these exercises.

Without necessarily pointing fingers, the problems we saw in the aftermath of Katrina clearly resulted from an inability to execute timely emergency-response plans at all levels—local, state and federal.

It was clear local and state resources had been overwhelmed by the unprecedented flooding, but why weren’t federal resources and support coordinated sooner?

By the Department of Homeland Security’s own account, its computer simulations had predicted that local first responders could not cope with a crisis of that magnitude. Only when National Guard and active-duty military units began arriving on the scene was there some semblance of order and organization along the devastated areas of the Gulf Coast.

Amidst the outrage and finger-pointing that followed the storm, several lawmakers and homeland security experts called for the federal government to make the Defense Department the lead agency for disaster response.

The reasons driving these recommendations are obvious: What distinguishes military units from every other organization is not just their meticulous planning, but also their ability to train hard against their plans and the ability to adjust when responding. The military’s secret to success lies in its commitment to rehearsal and training. So when it comes time to go into action, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have confidence in their team, their leadership and their ability to deal with the unexpected.

That spirit of preparation, readiness and professionalism needs to spread throughout the other agencies that also bear responsibility for disaster response and relief.

The now infamous “Hurricane Pam” simulation led DHS to conclude a year ago that a hurricane scenario in New Orleans would require massive federal intervention, but there was no “next step” taken. In retrospect, command post exercises would have helped to identify responsible actors for critical elements of the plan, as well as deficiencies in planning and resources. And the “hotwash” that follows every military exercise would have identified areas to tighten up.

A major lesson from Katrina is that putting the military in charge is not the answer. There must be procedures in place for the local authorities to call upon federal resources, and those command-and-control procedures have to be practiced and trained with all levels of government participating.

Nor does throwing money at the problem solve things. Resources already exist in the U.S. government, the states and cities. What they all must do is agree on how to go about coordinating the response, so that when an emergency arrives, a “war room” can be set up at the site of the disaster, and leaders at all levels know what is expected of them. That’s planning and coordinating with the existing resources: it does not necessarily require additional resources.

The rising clamor of decision-makers calling for the military to take a primary role in disaster response may be missing the mark, as was noted recently by Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of U.S. Northern Command. It is not just a Posse Comitatus issue, Keating said, referring to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act intended to keep the Army from conducting domestic law enforcement.

The key question that must be answered is what capabilities are needed to respond to a disaster—command-and-control, communications, search-and-rescue, humanitarian assistance, medical care—and set up explicit mechanisms for the local authorities to call upon the military to deliver those capabilities. “We are more interested in what the country would need … and against that need, we provide a capability,” Keating said.

The lessons from Katrina, to be sure, will continue to shape homeland security policies and programs. On a promising note, the Department of Homeland Security just awarded $30 million in “competitive training grants” to 15 organizations—including several universities and non-profit agencies—for training initiatives that are focused on preparing the nation to prevent, deter, respond to, and recover from incidents of terrorism and natural disasters.

The training programs developed from the grants will strengthen preparedness training for first responders, public officials and citizens, according to DHS. “These training programs will raise substantially the ability of our first responders, public officials and citizens to meet the challenges we face as a nation,” said Matt A. Mayer, acting executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness.

This is certainly an important first step toward ensuring that the government can respond to disasters, and assuring an anxious public that the agencies with the power and the resources not only have a plan of action, but also know how to expeditiously execute that plan the next time we face a catastrophe.

Please email me your comments to Lfarrell@ndia.org.

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