Emergency response capability gaps may hinder federal efforts to prepare for no-notice catastrophic attacks such as major earthquakes and improvised nuclear device (IND) explosions, according to a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Both man-made and naturally occurring no-notice catastrophic attacks pose an enormous risk to the security and economic viability of the nation. For example, federal estimates project that a catastrophic earthquake along known fault lines in the central United States could result in 75,000 casualties, more than 380,000 displaced from their homes and communities, at least 330,000 buildings moderately or severely damaged and direct economic losses surpassing $200 billion.
The National Response Framework (NRF) states federal preparedness efforts for responding to such hazards falls under the responsibility of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who is charged with ensuring the effective coordination of emergency support functions (ESFs)—federal interagency coordinating structures that group capabilities into functional areas most frequently needed in a national response.
To assess preparedness to respond to no-notice catastrophic disasters, the National Preparedness System calls for federal departments and agencies to identify potential capability gaps, such as through exercises and real-world incidents, and to develop corrective actions in the wake of real-world incidents, sucha Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
Congressional requesters asked GAO to review the extent to which opportunities exist to enhance assessment of ESF preparedness and management oversight of the closure of federal capability gaps identified in selected exercises, real-world incidents, and other assessments.
For purposes of the review, GAO examined two no-notice catastrophic scenarios—major earthquakes and IND attacks—and five federal departments in their review of federal preparedness efforts for responding to such incidents. Based on this review, GAO found opportunities exist to enhance interagency assessment and accountability efforts to close identified capability gaps.
In particular, management oversight could be strengthened by having federal departments which are responsible for implementing their own corrective actions report the status of these actions to DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
In addition, FEMA, which leads interagency efforts to identify and propose actions to address capability gaps in the nation’s preparedness to respond to IND attacks, lacks key program management details in its implementation plan. For example, while FEMA’s March 2012 IND Implementation Plan proposed over 300 recommended actions to help close gaps identified in the April 2010 DHS IND Strategy, the September 2013 annual revision to the plan lacked detailed program management information, including specific timeframes, milestones, and estimated resources required to close any given capability gap.
GAO said this information is needed to better enable ongoing management oversight of gap closure efforts.
GAO concluded that, “Regular reporting on the status of corrective actions identified in national-level exercises and real-world major disasters, as well as detailed program management information for management oversight of the status of recommended actions in the IND Implementation Plan, would enhance interagency accountability for closing identified capability gaps and better enable DHS and FEMA to assess the status of federal interagency preparedness efforts.”
DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations and is in the process of implementing corrective actions to improve national capabilities to respond to disasters. In collaboration with other federal agencies, FEMA has issued the recommended supplemental guidance to ESF coordinators to enhance interagency coordination.
In addition, FEMA has begun developing a detailed program management information system for tracking the closure of capability gaps identified in the DHS IND Strategy, and plans to continue to regularly report to the Secretary the status of federal interagency implementation of corrective actions. DHS notes, however, that FEMA does not have the authority to compel other federal agencies to provide information related to their own corrective actions.
“FEMA recognizes the need to continue to improve our nation’s capabilities to respond to disasters, including addressing the recommendations raised in this report,” DHS said in response to GAO’s recommendations. “FEMA is committed to supporting our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a Nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, and respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.”