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A New Plan for National Response

AFTER FOUR YEARS of wrestling with the federal government’s unwieldy post-9-11 plan for response to disasters, state and local officials have a new document in hand they say will help prevent debacles like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The new National Response Framework (NRF) replaces 2004’s National Response Plan (NRP), an obtuse, acronym-laden document drafted in 2004 and revised two years later after the Katrina response, in which the NRP was faulted in part for government failures.

Both documents are intended to complement the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which provides state and local emergency managers a general “to do” list for preparedness, and more importantly sets a common, military-inspired template for command of disaster management, generally referred to as unified command.

The old, top-down NRP focused almost exclusively on the federal government and its roles and responsibilities. Not so of the new NRF. Reflecting the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) stated position that all disaster response is local, the NRF begins by emphasizing the need for close involvement of local, county, state, and tribal officials in disaster response, especially in preparedness.

The NRF does not include a failed concept first introduced in the NRP: the declaration of an Incident of National Significance. The designation issued by federal officials during or after a major incident, such as Katrina.

Nothing in the old NRP forbade federal agencies from stepping forward to act before the DHS secretary declared an Incident of National Significance, notes Tim Manning, director of the New Mexico Office of Homeland Security. Yet many federal officials assumed that they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, give help to state or local agencies until the declaration was issued, says Manning, who also serves as chairman of the National Emergency Management Association’s Homeland Security Committee.

The new NRF does not replace the designation; instead, it presumes that federal agencies will “lean forward” to provide whatever assistance is needed, as it’s needed, with or without orders from above.

In releasing the new document, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said that the NRF emphasizes local roles in emergency management and seeks to ensure that scalable federal resources stand ready for use as soon as they are needed.

Chertoff has also emphasized that the new NRF is a “living document” that will be open to regular revision as deemed necessary by its steward, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and state and local stakeholders.

DHS offers a Web site where those interested can read documents related to the NIMS, the NRF, and other related agencies. The site also provides the opportunity to submit comments. Further, FEMA’s new National Advisory Council (See “New Council to Help FEMA,” Homeland Security, October 2007), composed of selected state and local emergency management officials, will provide regular and direct advice to senior agency officials including FEMA’s director.