Hill renews calls for emergency preparedness

House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) has asked the Government Accountability Office once again to investigate if federal employees are prepared to relocate or telework in the event of another terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Davis requested a third report on continuity of operations (COOP) plans after GAO officials delivered worrisome findings. "We remain concerned that many agencies are not adequately prepared to continue providing vital services during emergencies," Davis wrote to U.S. Comptroller General David Walker two weeks ago.

Davis held a hearing April 28 to review agencies' COOP progress. In a critical report last year, GAO officials found that agencies' guidelines for designating essential personnel were inadequate.

Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at GAO, testified at the hearing that, as of May 2004, many of the 23 agencies under review reported using sound practices for identifying essential functions, but few provided enough documentation to corroborate the claim.

Koontz said 10 agencies reported plans to use telework in emergencies, but did not provide any information that they were prepared to do so. Such efforts would require preparing and training staff members, ensuring that necessary technology is available and providing technical support and testing. Many agencies had not identified their mission-critical systems and data.

Inadequate oversight by the Federal Emergency Management Agency contributed to weaknesses in agencies' continuity plans, Koontz added.

A GAO report prepared for the hearing recommends that the assistant to the president for homeland security refine COOP plans. It suggests that the undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response develop a strategy for short-term oversight while new guidance for COOP plans is considered.

GAO also recommends that the Homeland Security Department develop mechanisms to verify the information that agency officials report. And it asks DHS officials to work with Office of Personnel Management officials on guidance for telework preparedness.

DHS officials responded to the latest GAO recommendations by saying that FEMA has been conducting COOP site assessments. DHS officials informed GAO last month that they have finished an online readiness reporting system that will be operational by October.

Observers say lack of money and foresight is to blame for the government's current COOP conundrum. "The government was late to the game," said Chris Alvord, chief executive officer at COOP Consulting.

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