Planners describe disaster strategies

A misconfigured firewall that malfunctioned during a federal disaster preparedness exercise in April showed how tenuous disaster preparation can be.

Mike Nicholson, director of the requirements office of the information technology division at the Homeland Security Department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, said the firewall problem prevented an Army unit from connecting with the Defense Information Systems Agency, almost scuttling the demonstration.

“It took a month to get that resolved,” a delay that would not have been acceptable during a real emergency, Nicholson said.
That lesson highlights the reality that emergency preparedness requires training for almost every possible situation.
But many DHS officials say that even thorough training might not be sufficient. The most well-prepared plans can be derailed by the unpredictable nature of disasters.

“Without training and preparing doesn’t help us a lot.”
David Howell, Homeland Security Department

“Our initial response that we take to any event may change, and it may change several times,” said David Howell, chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Coordination Office at DHS’ Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

Howell was one of several federal officials who spoke about the challenges of preparing for man-made and natural emergencies during a panel discussion this month sponsored by the Bethesda, Md., chapter of AFCEA International.

To prepare for unpredictability, agencies must ensure that employees are trained to handle glitches and unexpected problems, Howell said. DHS is developing processes for training workers to respond to rapidly changing events, he said.

Other officials said a major component of disaster preparedness is coordinating with state and local governments. Although disasters typically are localized events, the federal response can be stymied by lack of local knowledge and obsolete information technology systems.

For example, making quick emergency acquisitions can be difficult because of regulations that require the government to spend some disaster relief money with local businesses to help rebuild economies in affected areas.

“The problem is trying to get these local communities acclimated to federal contracting,” said Tina Burnette, director of acquisitions management at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The laws that govern federal contracting are complicated.”

Burnette said FEMA and the General Services Administration are teaching local businesses how federal procurement works and getting them into GSA’s Central Contract Registry.

Interoperable communications for first responders are also essential for good disaster response. Col. Kenneth McNeill, the National Guard’s chief information officer, said the primary concern of his organization is setting up and distributing communications networks that work with any local or state equipment.

“We know that everybody that comes through the incident [is] going to have what they have,” said McNeill, who also is deputy director of the National Guard’s Command, Control, Communications and Computers Directorate.

“Until we get the whole country, including [the Defense Department] to use the same system, which I don’t think is going to happen anytime soon, you have to put the bridging capabilities in there” to create interoperable communications, he said.

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