There’s no shortage of security threats at the 307 U.S. embassies around the world. During the four-year period of fiscal 2013—2016, the U.S. State Department evacuated staff and their families from 23 overseas embassies due to episodes of civil unrest, terrorism, and natural disasters, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Two of these 23 overseas posts were evacuated three times during this period—Adana, Turkey, and Bamako, Mali. Four were evacuated twice—Bujumbura, Burundi; Juba, South Sudan; Sana’a, Yemen; and Tripoli, Libya. The rest were evacuated once.
To prepare for these crises, the embassies are required to update an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) and conduct nine types of drills each fiscal year, including duck-and-cover, bomb threat, and chemical/biological response.
But these requirements are not always met, according to the report, Embassy Evacuations: State Department Should Take Steps to Improve Emergency Preparedness. “We found significant gaps in emergency preparedness,” the report says.
On average, overseas posts only completed about 52 percent of the required drills, the GAO found. And a GAO review of EAPs at 20 posts found that only two had updated the key sections of the plan.
“GAO also found that EAPs are viewed as lengthy and cumbersome documents that are not readily usable in emergency situations,” the report goes on to say. “Taken together, the gaps in State’s crisis and evacuation preparedness increase the risk that post staff are not sufficiently prepared to handle crisis and emergency situations.”
Given these findings, GAO recommended that the U.S. secretary of state:
- Take additional steps to ensure that posts complete annual updates of their EAPs within required time frames, such as identifying posts that are late and following up until they comply.
- Establish a monitoring and tracking process to ensure that State reviews and documents the review of key sections of EAPs.
- Take steps to make the EAP more readily usable during emergency situations. For example, a more streamlined version of the EAP could be developed that could be used by overseas posts.
- Take steps to ensure that overseas posts complete and report completion of required drills within mandated time frames.
- Take steps to ensure that overseas posts complete and submit lessons learned reports, following evacuations, to State Department headquarters for analysis.