VA task force preps for disaster

Standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center towers, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi knew his agency had a job to do. He convened a task force to evaluate how the VA responded to the terrorist attacks and how to strengthen weaknesses that were uncovered on that tragic day.

"I want to make sure we're ready to go in event of another disaster, be it natural or man-made," Principi said in an interview at his office Nov. 26.

To carry out that mandate, the task force is looking at what worked and what didn't. It is evaluating the agency's continuity of operations and what would have happened if the disaster had played out differently.

On Sept. 11, the VA responded in an "awesome manner," said Leon Kappelman, director of the Information Systems Research Center at the University of North Texas and leader of the VA's enterprise architecture planning group.

However, agency officials realized there were shortfalls because they "couldn't talk to different parts of the system," Kappelman said.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Principi said the VA is:

* Discussing whether to add wireless and satellite capacity to its communications networks.

* Looking into improving its continuity of operations to ensure that data processing centers are secure and operational.

* Making sure transportation links can quickly move patients around.

Principi said the group also is reviewing whether the VA would have had the capacity to decontaminate a site or if it had toxicology and burn capacities at its 172 hospitals.

"Can we do more? Should we do more? I think we can do more," Principi said. "We're the largest health care facility under complete federal control.... We were prepared, but we learned a lot of hard lessons."

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