FEMA to test continuity plans

The Federal Emergency Management Agency

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"In crisis mode"

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will oversee a large-scale, governmentwide exercise next month to see how well 45 federal departments and agencies fare with their continuity of operations plans — which will involve accessing electronic data and testing interoperable communications — at alternate sites.

"This is a full scale operation, which will fully test their interdependencies, [allow them] to continue to do their business [and] identify what their functions are," said Michael Brown, undersecretary of FEMA, which is also called the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate within the Homeland Security Department.

"They're going to test things like making sure they're able to actually get their personnel from point A to point B," he told reporters following a House Government Reform Committee hearing on the issue today. "Are things in their alternate location facilities ready to turn on? Does someone know where to turn the switch when they show up?" It's unclear how many people will be involved in Forward Challenge, which will run from May 11 to May 13, but the effort is designed to "push the envelope" in finding vulnerabilities in continuity of operations plans, Brown said. Participating agencies will act as if it's business as usual, but at another site. He added that federal offices across the country as far away as Fort Worth, Texas, and Seattle are also participating.

The exercise will show the ability of the federal government to get notification that it is moving, have employees be deployed to alternate facilities that departments and agencies have established, turn on all information technology and communications and be able to communicate among agencies. Brown said cybersecurity and the ability to access electronic databases from alternate sites will also be tested.

Last month, the General Accounting Office released a report pointing out that 20 of the 23 largest civilian departments and agencies developed continuity of operations (COOP) plans, but not a single agency has met all the requirements outlined in the FEMA-issued Federal Preparedness Circular (FPC) 65 — which identified elements of such viable plans, including the requirement that agencies identify their essential functions.

Linda Koontz, GAO's director of Information Management Issues, testified that in some cases they saw a "template approach to the development of plans." She said there needs to be significant rework for all of the COOP plans.

GAO also criticized the lack of FEMA guidance and oversight, saying the agency — designated by a 1999 presidential directive to be the lead agent in COOP planning for executive branch agencies — did not review the essential functions identified when it assessed COOP planning and did not conduct exercises or tests to confirm the essential functions were correctly identified.

But Brown said that FEMA officials are addressing GAO's concerns and has made significant strides in helping departments and agencies enhance or fine tune their COOP plans through working groups. They are also revising the preparedness circular for COOP, combining several previous circulars and including new and more definitive planning guidance.

FEMA itself conducted its own COOP exercise last December called Quiet Strength that involved 300 people, which will become a biennial event.

"I think [COOP] has to be the kind of thing that just becomes part of the everyday life of these agencies regardless of where we are [and we're] particularly keen on keeping that as a priority," Brown said.


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