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National Preparedness Plan Faces Challenges

EVEN BEFORE KATRINA, the federal plan to standardize emergency response was raising concerns among state and local emergency responders who worry about the broadness of the mandates and coordination with federal groups.

The strategy, three years in the making, is called the National Preparedness System (NPS), and it is laid out in three documents: the National Response Plan (NRP), which defines what needs to be done to manage an incident; the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which describes how it needs to be done; and the National Preparedness Goal (NPG), which tells how well it needs to be done.

Four other documents set out capabilities-based priorities. They focus on the need to improve information sharing and collaboration; enhance interoperable communications; strengthen chemical, biological, radiation, nuclear, and explosives detection and decontamination procedures; and build up medical surge capabilities. The new strategy essentially shifts response planning from a threat-based to a capabilities-based approach.

“The capabilities approach is fine,” says Dewayne West, director of emergency management for Johnston County, North Carolina. “But we need to be told what capability we're expected to have based on size and threat,” he says.

Right now, West says, the NPS lays out many different capability-goals that jurisdictions should strive to meet. The problem is that they appear to be the same for jurisdictions of all sizes.

Another consideration is funding. Finding the resources to ensure compliance with all of these new rules that take effect on October 1 will be a major challenge for local jurisdictions, says Karen Paulsen, former assistant director of preparedness and training for the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.

Paulsen notes that one solution may be for localities to coordinate their emergency programs regionally to share resources, such as equipment, and cut costs. That's been talked about in the responder community in an effort to limit the amount of resource duplication, she says.

Arizona has already begun to do some of that coordination regionally, not only to avoid duplication but also to make sure that homeland security resources are deployed where needed most.

“We've regionalized into five regions, and it's our intent to make sure resources are being correctly applied so that we're not putting resources in low-hazard areas and making sure they're going where the threat is. That can be politically difficult too, because everyone wants the money,” she says.

Paulsen also worries about the emphasis on response. One point that may get lost in the strategy surrounding prevention and response is the need to develop recovery tactics for regions and local communities, she says.

“Most states and localities do response exercises,” she notes, “but they never really do the recovery aspect of the disaster that can be twice as difficult as a response because it can go on for years.”

West isn't as concerned about the issue, noting that state and local emergency responders usually incorporate recovery into the response for any event.

“The two go hand in hand. Often, recovery starts before the response is over,” he explains. He acknowledges, however, that recovery presents special challenges. “Most of us do response very well but recovery is a different process and a much more extended process.”

Another issue is the need for better cooperation at all levels of government, says James Gilmore, former governor of Virginia.

“There has to be a new culture of intercommunication between federal, states and locals that still remains ahead of us,” Gilmore says.

Suzanne Mencer, former director of DHS's domestic preparedness office, agrees that “what we need to have happen is more integration between the federal, state and local levels, particularly when you look at training and exercises.”

—By Eric Grasser, assistant editor