Emergency communications center stalled, GAO says

The Homeland Security Department and its federal partners are still in the early stages in forming an emergency communications preparedness center, a report says.

Four years after Congress told the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies to form an interagency center for crisis communications, the project is “in the early stages of development,” has delays and a lack of clear direction, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The proposed interagency Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC) has problems with making group decisions, agreeing on a strategy, demonstrating value to its members, maturing as an organization and defining its relationships with other organizations, GAO said March 3. DHS officials declined to comment on the report.

Breakdowns in emergency communications following Hurricane Katrina led Congress to mandate more federal coordination. Post-Katrina legislation established the DHS Office of Emergency Communications. Congress also required federal agencies, including DHS, to form and operate a Emergency Communications Preparedness Center.

DHS officials began working on the interagency project in the fall of 2007. The 12 federal organizations in the interagency center drafted a charter that was approved in October 2009.

To date, four out of six milestones for the interagency project have been met either on schedule or close to it, including development of an online clearinghouse for project updates that should be available this month, GAO said.

However, overall, despite meeting those four milestones, the report described the project as “in the early stages of development” and said it was behind schedule on two out of six milestones.

The center was supposed to submit a strategic assessment to Congress in July 2009 outlining progress, existing barriers to interoperability and the status of federal cooperation. That assessment likely will not be completed until this December, GAO said.

“ECPC plans to validate methods for conducting the assessment and have the Office of Management and Budget, National Security Staff, and Office of Science and Technology Policy review the assessment,” GAO wrote.

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