First responders criticize fed priorities

New report says counterterrorism focus is costly

Homeland Security: DHS’ Efforts to Enhance First Responders’ All-Hazards Capabilities Continue to Ev

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The Homeland Security Department's response to the hurricane disaster along the Gulf Coast might have been predicted, based on information that congressional auditors gathered from dozens of first responders in the past year.

During the yearlong audit, Government Accountability Office officials heard from many local fire, police and public health workers who said DHS' policies and programs for assisting first responders focused too heavily on counterterrorism and not enough on preparation for natural disasters, such as flooding, the most frequently occurring natural disaster.

In a report published in July, GAO concluded that DHS officials had not yet applied the principles of risk-based management to homeland security. People will debate for years the extent that DHS' policies helped or hindered first responders when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. But GAO's report highlights the challenges facing DHS as it tries to enhance first responders' capabilities.

In 2003 President Bush issued two directives that instructed DHS to develop an all-hazards approach to assisting first responders. That meant helping local fire, police and public health workers acquire equipment and training they could use in responding to all hazards, whether natural and accidental disasters or terrorism.

But not until this year, and in response to complaints from first responders, did DHS officials agree to shift their focus from helping local authorities prevent terrorist attacks to helping them prepare for all hazards, the report states. GAO auditors interviewed state and local officials who said they needed help in acquiring dual-use equipment and training. Dual use refers to equipment and training they could use to respond to terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Local officials cited several reasons why DHS should help localities acquire dual-use equipment and training. According to the report, those reasons included problems with infrequently used equipment "rotting on the shelf" and a need "to maintain a level of comfort and proficiency with equipment on hand for counterterrorism by using it for everyday responses."

The report states that federal involvement in assisting first responders with emergency preparedness is a relatively recent trend. Homeland Security Presidential Directives 5 and 8 require DHS to help local authorities develop the capabilities of first responders to protect people and property.

In the past four years, DHS agencies have awarded $11.3 billion to state and local authorities for emergency preparedness primarily related to terrorism threats. Yet GAO said the department could not adequately assess the effectiveness of those expenditures.

The auditors concluded that DHS faces numerous challenges in assessing the capabilities of first responders, prioritizing grant awards, and establishing national training and exercise programs. All three are critical elements of a national preparedness plan, which DHS officials said they expect to finalize next month.

The report mentions but does not analyze DHS' National Response Plan or command and control procedures for dealing with national incidents or disasters.

Did DHS have it all wrong?

Some state and local officials and experts in emergency preparedness have criticized the Homeland Security Department's decision to include only two natural disasters on its list of 15 scenarios for which DHS says state and local officials must be prepared.

The 15 scenarios are:

  • Attack with an improvised nuclear device.
  • Aerosol anthrax attack.
  • Influenza pandemic.
  • Biological attack with plague.
  • Chemical attack with blister agent.
  • Chemical attack with toxic chemical agent.
  • Chemical attack with nerve agent.
  • Chemical attack resulting in chlorine tank explosion.
  • Major earthquake.
  • Major hurricane.
  • Radiological attack with dispersal device.
  • Attack with an improvised explosive device.
  • Biological attack with food contamination.
  • Biological attack with foreign animal disease.
  • Cyberattack.

Source: Government Accountability Office

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