First responders see scarcity of experts

TopOff 2 After Action Report Summary

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Local and national homeland security exercises have shown that people will be one of the most critical and scarcest resources for first responders, particularly in the technical and command areas, during an actual incident, officials told Congress this week.

Almost a year after the TopOff 2 exercise in Washington state and Illinois, and less than a year before the next national-level exercise kicks off in New Jersey and Connecticut, state, local and federal officials are still working on implementing new systems and policies that were lacking in the multihazard exercise.

TopOff is short for Top Officials, and although nearly 400 smaller, more focused exercises have been conducted nationwide, the TopOff exercises are designed to address a far larger scale, said Corey Gruber, associate director of the Homeland Security Department's newly-renamed Office of State and Local Coordination and Preparedness, who oversees the TopOff exercises.

One of the most obvious problems that TopOff 2 highlighted was the stress on personnel resources at the first responder level, local officials told the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Seattle used money from an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant to equip and train personnel to a level where they could respond to an incident such as a radiological bomb, said Clark Kimerer, deputy chief of operations at the Seattle Police Department.

However, the grant money cannot be used for hiring the additional experts who are needed to help local officials, Kimerer said. They include people who can focus on planning, intelligence, computer and communications technology, "and, quite simply ... help us manage the equipment and systems we are receiving from the UASI process," he said.

Officials in Illinois, which was ground zero for a simulated biological attack that spread nation- and worldwide in the exercise, found that personnel were regularly taken away from their daily missions to help plan and train for TopOff 2, said Thomas Mefferd, director of the DuPage County, Ill., Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

As the exercise kickoff approached, planning for it became almost a full-time job, and if an exercise generates that kind of stress on the local system, officials would "need the availability of putting addition personnel into our command and control systems" in an actual emergency he said.

One system that will help with the command and management issues is the National Incident Management System (NIMS) that DHS developed following the second national exercise, some said.

A fundamental discovery during the exercise was the need to clarify and coordinate the priorities and needs of the many jurisdictions involved in an incident, and "NIMS is right on point to address the gaps and needs illuminated by TopOff 2," Kimerer said.

The system is critical because "we must be able to understand, we must be able to know how our counterparts across government are thinking," Mefferd said. But it will only help if officials actually use it in everyday incidents as well as large-scale, he said.

Experiences and lessons learned such as these are critical to preparation by officials across the country, said Suzanne Mencer, executive director of DHS' office, formerly the Office of Domestic Preparedness.

Washington and Illinois are already serving as mentors for New Jersey and Connecticut. Also, department officials are preparing to announce the host venues for TopOff 4. Those states will be invited to monitor and learn from the design and development of the third exercise, she said.

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