GAO: Agencies need to improve COOP recordkeeping

Agencies need to do a better job of recordkeeping in continuity-of-operations (COOP) exercises, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new report.

GAO based its findings on the results of a COOP exercise conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in June 2006, called Forward Challenge ’06. The purpose of the exercise was to assess how well agencies activate COOP plans, deploy essential personnel to alternative facilities and perform critical functions.

GAO evaluated the exercise at the request of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He asked GAO to describe the extent to which agencies tested COOP plans, procedures, personnel and resources during the exercise. In its study, the agency selected eight civilian agencies that have significant responsibilities during national disasters, analyzed documentation from Forward Challenge and interviewed officials who participated in the exercise.

The agencies under study were the Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and Transportation departments; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the General Services Administration.

In its report, released Dec. 19, GAO auditors said agencies reported that they had performed various test and exercise activities but didn’t provide specific documentation about them.

“Without adequate records of what has been tested during a major governmentwide exercise, agencies lack assurance that they have adequately tested their continuity capabilities at the frequency outlined in the FEMA guidance, which may limit their ability to fully evaluate their readiness in response to a disruption,” GAO said.

In addition, better recordkeeping can reduce the potential negative impact of turnover in key personnel because of attrition or change in administration and can improve internal control capabilities, according to GAO.

GAO recommended that FEMA require agencies participating in COOP exercises to document the specific test and exercise activities conducted.

In commenting on a draft of the report, DHS officials agreed with GAO’s conclusions and said they would refine their assessment program and improve the level of evaluation documentation.

FEMA is planning a three-day, governmentwide COOP exercise for late April 2008 and will include objectives similar to those of Forward Challenge ’06, GAO officials said.

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