Securing the Homeland - Training -

Securing the Homeland

An overview of the national response plan



Raymond E. Foster | From the January/February 2006 Issue Tuesday, January 31, 2006

At the federal level, the incident command system has been adopted as the national incident management system (NIMS), and agencies seeking federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security must adopt NIMS. But while NIMS' road map outlines how to handle disasters, the National Response Plan (NRP) and the Stafford Act define the federal government's role in responding to domestic emergencies.

The NRP is built on the assumption that incidents are typically managed best at the lowest possible geographic, organizational or jurisdictional level. This means that even during large disasters, such as major terrorist incidents, first responders like you, the cop on the beat, play a key role in managing the incident. However, since large natural and human-caused disasters can overwhelm state and local governments, the federal government must play a large role in disaster response.

Growing Recognition of the Federal Role

Federal recognition that state and local government are occasionally overwhelmed by disasters began in 1802 when a large fire raged uncontrolled through Portsmouth, N.H. The next year the federal government began to define the federal role with The Congressional Act of 1803.

As our nation grew larger and more complicated, so did the complexities of the federal government's role in disaster response. In fact, by 1970, more than 100 federal agencies played some role in providing assistance to state and local governments during a disaster.

In 1979, in an effort to improve and streamline federal response, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order creating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many of the federal government's disaster-response requirements became FEMA's responsibility.

In 1988, Congress passed the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which essentially made the 1979 presidential executive order law. The Stafford Act established a system whereby a Presidential disaster declaration of an emergency triggered the release of federal financial and material assistance to state and local governments.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the federal government rethought FEMA. President Bill Clinton appointed James Lee Witt, a professional emergency manager, head of FEMA. Witt changed the thinking at FEMA from a cold-war model to an all-hazards model.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in direct response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Under the massive federal reorganization, FEMA was absorbed into the DHS. As an immediate effect of the reorganization, the director of FEMA was no longer a cabinet member, and his access to the president was gained through the new head of the DHS.

Emergency-management practitioners debate the degree to which the change in access to the president has inhibited FEMA's ability to respond rapidly to the needs of state and local government. While this debate continues, the NRP does have provisions that allow for timely and adequate response by federal authorities.

The restrictions placed on the military by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 relegate the U.S. military, perhaps the organization best equipped and trained to respond massively to disasters, to a supporting role, which has also generated debate recently. The law has an interesting and lengthy history, and we'll likely see changes to the law or perhaps the interpretation and implementation of the act, but I won't address that in this article.

The All-Hazards Approach

The NRP establishes a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident management. Essentially, the concept of an all-hazard approach means emergency planners identify the similarity of effects that can occur across a range of potential disasters. A good emergency planner looks at how to plan and train for both an earthquake and a suicide bomber, for example.

For instance, an efficient and effective means of planning for terrorist incidents would be to recognize the similarities and differences between the emergency response plans for Hurricane Katrina and the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). One of the striking differences between Katrina and the WTC response efforts was strong local leadership. Within hours after the attack on the WTC, we knew who was in charge. Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, established a strong local presence, providing state and federal officials a conduit through which to aid New York City.

In contrast, it remains difficult to identify the one person in charge at Katrina's Ground Zero even now, three months after the disaster. Clearly, strong, competent leadership at the local level remains critical to the all-hazards approach and critical to the implementation of the NRP.

Plans & More Plans

At the federal level, there are different plans and responses to incidents involving natural disasters, bombings and even the use of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Depending on what happens, federal agencies provide a variety of resources and play different roles.

Example: The threat or use of a radiological WMD would trigger a response from the Department of Energy (DOE)'s Nuclear Incident Response Team. While this team does not directly report to FEMA through the DHS, its response, under the NRP, would be coordinated through the DHS.

As the NRP states, planning for disasters is best done at the smallest organizational, jurisdictional or governmental level. First responders should familiarize themselves with a number of features and terms of the NRP to increase coordination between federal and local authorities (see "Pieces of the Puzzle," p. 61).


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