Disaster drill derailed by disasters

The federal government’s annual nationwide disaster drill was a victim of Mother Nature this year, as real-world recovery efforts for areas affected by tornadoes and floods took priority over the exercise, according to a new audit.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency led the National Level Exercise from May 16 to 19 with a simulation of an earthquake in the Midwestern states. The annual drill is mandated by Congress and directed by the White House, with numerous state and local agencies participating as well.

However, the weeks leading up to the exercise were “a period of high-disaster activity,” with tornadoes and floods affecting the states and the FEMA region involved in the exercise, according to the audit from the Homeland Security Department’s Acting Inspector General Charles Edwards.

As a result, participation dropped, with four states and one FEMA region canceling their involvement, and the exercise was scaled back as a number of government employees were called to official recovery duties.

As those employees left, they were replaced by staffers who came less prepared, the audit states.

“The greater impact on exercise play involved using employees who were not originally scheduled to participate in exercise activities, since their counterparts had to address real-world events,” the audit states. “These employees were less trained and experienced, and some were not trained on exercise software. On occasion, they had to consult their counterparts who were working real-world events for advice and assistance. Furthermore, some employees were attempting to work both real-world events and the exercise.”

In addition, two other federal agencies did not participate in the drill or simulate their activities, despite a requirement to do so. It was unclear whether this was due to real-world events or not, the report states. The agencies were not named. FEMA officials said there would be stronger accountability measures for future drills.

Overall, the impact of real-world disasters hampered the play exercise, the auditors concluded. When asked about the effect of real-world events on NLE 2011, a FEMA official said it was “immeasurable.”

The audit, which was dated Oct. 19 but published online at an unspecified recent date, recommended several ways that other federal agency inspector generals can review their agencies’ participation in future large-scale disaster drills.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Fri, Dec 2, 2011 Interested Party

GOD FORBID, we let REAL disasters take priority over FAKE disasters! The reason we schedule drills is because we can't predict real ones and we want to be ready. What better training than REAL disasters? It's just that real ones don't follow scripts.

Fri, Dec 2, 2011

As the real disasters wound down, they should have been collecting data from the people that responded, to gain lessons learned. As the 'outside' people filling in on tests, that would have been a good time to look at how well they understood the doomsday books they were handed. A disaster plan isn't much use if only the people who wrote it, understand it.

Thu, Dec 1, 2011 SoutheastUS

I have learned over the years that if strict adherence to the rules and regulations would lead to undesirable results when the unpredictable happens, then the rules need to be changed. This is because the auditors are there to see that you follow the rules. They are not there to determine if the rules make sense.

Thu, Dec 1, 2011

FEMA just can't catch a break. First responders responding but getting bashed for not being responsive.

Thu, Dec 1, 2011

You would think that responding to an actual disaster would be a lot better training/testing method (and a far better use of taxes) than having a drill. If the auditors do not understand that then they should be fired for incompetence.

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