GAO: Feds unprepared for calamity

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"In crisis mode"

Federal agencies are not prepared to continue operating in the event of serious natural disaster or terrorist attack, according to a General Accounting Office report released today, and a House committee plans to look into it.

The House Committee on Government Reform will hold an oversight hearing after the April recess to address findings that not a single major federal agency or department has a complete continuity of operations plan (COOP).

GAO auditors criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for issuing guidance and reviewing the agencies' continuity plans. The report placed blamed FEMA's limited efforts in helping agencies develop those plans for many of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in COOP capabilities.

"I am very concerned that in the year 2004 the federal government still has major shortcomings in identifying agencies' essential functions and developing plans to carry those functions out in the event of a natural or manmade disaster," said Rep. Tom Davis, (R-Va.), who chairs the reform committee.

GAO made three recommendations, including one that called for the secretary for Homeland Security to set a May 1 deadline for agencies lacking a COOP plan to create one. The other recommendations urged the undersecretary to improve oversight of COOP plans by making sure agencies corrected any individual problems and to assess both independent and interagency functions.

"In the last few years in [Washington, D.C.,] we have seen enough events, both big and small, interrupt government operations to know the importance of continuity of operations plans," Davis said:

The GAO found that 20 of the 23 largest civilian departments and agencies had developed and documented elements of a COOP plan. But none of the agencies could prove that they were following all the guidance of Federal Preparedness Circular 65, which provides the elements of a viable COOP capability.

At the very least, COOP plans are expected to identify the agency's essential function, plans of operations, order of succession in an emergency, alternate sites to carry on operations, backup emergency communications and vital records.

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