U.S. Releases New Disaster Response and Recovery Plan

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released a comprehensive plan for what the country must do to have a more effective and unified response and recovery in disaster situations.

DHS said that the new plan, called the National Response Framework (NRF), is a result of repeated federal, state, local and private sector requests for a streamlined document that is less bureaucratic and more user-friendly than previous plans.

Officials said the new framework promises a response more like what occurred after California’s recent wildfires than what happened after Hurricane Katrina.

The NRF focuses on preparedness and encourages a higher level of communication and readiness across all jurisdictions.

The final documents reflect the nearly 5,700 comments received from participants in the process.

“The National Response Framework is an essential tool for emergency managers at all levels,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “It helps define the roles, responsibilities, and relationships critical to effective emergency planning, preparedness and response to any emergency or disaster.”

Chertoff said the new plan goes beyond the original National Response Plan that was promulgated right at the end of 2004. “After Katrina, we took those lessons and immediately put them into a revision… But we also took the opportunity to take a step back and look more comprehensively and exhaustively at what our doctrine is with respect to response, and then to put together a framework that would work for everybody who’s involved in the process at all levels of government,” he said.

He said the NRF outlines circumstances where the federal government exercises a larger role in emergency management, “including incidents where federal interests are directly involved and catastrophic events, where a state may require significant federal support.”

The NRF is intended for senior elected and appointed leaders, such as federal department and agency heads, state governors, mayors, tribal leaders, city managers and the private sector. It explains the structures and tools used by first responders and emergency managers at all levels of government.

In addition to releasing the NRF base document, DHS is posting 23 supporting documents to the NRF Resource Center (www.fema.gov/nrf).

“This is a living document. This is not the final word on national response; it is meant simply to take us to the next level. But we fully anticipate and frankly expect that we will be getting comments of real-life lessons learned which will be embedded in future versions of this as we move forward in the years to come,” Chertoff said.

The NRF will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

He said that over the next several months, DHS is going to conduct outreach training, education and exercises across the country “because the NRF does not come to be born in one fell swoop. It’s a birthing process that requires real integration across our emergency response, from sea to shining sea, and in Alaska and Hawaii as well.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator R. David Paulison said training courses would start on February 5. By April 11, all 24 individual courses should be on the FEMA website. By June 1, Paulison said he wants “all the federal family trained, all the federal responders, and as many first responders and emergency managers out there, ready to go to understand how we’re going to operate in this country before hurricane season.”

Chertoff cited the recent California wildfire response as an example of what the country might expect under the new framework

“I think the framework makes it very clear, the responses. First of all, it’s going to be initially local and state, but we are going to be able to lean forward much more readily in terms of assistance – pre-positioning assets. We have – now had the opportunity over the last couple of years to work with a lot of the jurisdictions on their individual plans, so we have a better sense of what their game plan is when there is a hurricane or a similar disaster. And I think we’ll – because we’ve had people deployed in the regions, there are pre-existing relationships which we’ll be able to capitalize upon.

“The best example of how it’s going to work in practice is if you look at what happened with the wildfires in California last year, where we were able to position ourselves forward much more readily. Our planning and work with the Department of Defense enabled us to bring all of the federal assets to bear, including Interior Department and Agriculture Department, DOD, and DHS. And our relationships with the state of California allowed us to fit in basically seamlessly with their admittedly very highly skilled emergency response system so that we could leverage their capabilities as much as possible,” Chertoff said.

Paulison said that now when there is a disaster, FEMA puts people at the local emergency management center, where they can know exactly what’s going on and what the needs are.

“Even with the tornadoes we just recently had in the South, which did not end up with a federal declaration, we had people at the state emergency management center in several states around the southeast United States to make sure we understood what the needs were and understood what the communications piece were; we could share that information. And we’re back here at headquarters where we could have our supplies ready if we had to roll them.
So it’s a whole new era, a whole new culture, in how FEMA, how Department of Homeland Security is going to respond to disasters. It is going to be a partnership,” Paulison said.

Paulison said effective disaster response depends upon involving the private sector as well as the public sector.

“They’re part of the system of how we’re going to respond,” he said of private firms. “All of the supplies that we have do come from the private sector, so we need to involve them early.”

The administration official said the new framework improves communication among federal, state and local officials.

“The first thing about the framework, which I do think is an improvement, is it’s much clearer and it’s much shorter,” Chertoff said. “And so for people who are, particularly like governors and mayors, political leaders, not full-time professionals, there’s a clear statement and understanding of the appropriate roles and the way people relate to one another. It does build on incident management, the incident management system, which is a system for bringing people together at the table to making sure that you can coordinate across a host of disciplines while recognizing that, of course, each particular discipline has its own chain of command and therefore has its own authorities and responsibilities.

“So I think the simplification, the clarity, the firm foundation in the incident management system are all elements which will improve communication. And the key is really to bring people together in a particular location, ideally in person; if not, at least virtually, so that real-time communication can be undertaken,” said Chertoff.

The NRF is written around what Chertoff labeled five core principles: engaged partnerships at all levels of government and across society, public and private sector; tiered response whereby local communities, tribes and states have the primary responsibility for the safety and security of their citizens; no two disasters are alike, meaning all capabilities have to be flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of every unique type of event; unity of effort, meaning a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities among all those involved; and the principle that the plan be an always active, forward-leaning posture that emphasizes readiness to act.