Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 1, 2006

The lessons of the Coast Guard’s Katrina performance

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on August 1, 2006

The GAO released a report today that examines the Coast Guard’s heroic performance in the response to Hurricane Katrina, with the goal of uncovering lessons that might be relevant to entities elsewhere in government:

Of the estimated 60,000 people left stranded by Hurricane Katrina, over 33,500 were saved by the Coast Guard. Precisely identifying why the Coast Guard was able to respond as it did may be difficult, but underpinning these efforts were factors such as the agency’s operational principles. These principles promote leadership, accountability, and enable personnel to take responsibility and action, based on relevant authorities and guidance. Another key factor was the agency’s reliance on standardized operations and maintenance practices that provided greater flexibility for using personnel and assets from any operational unit for the response. Up-to-date and regularly exercised hurricane plans were also key—preserving Coast Guard personnel and resources first, so they could then respond to search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and facilitation of commerce needs after the storm.

Later in the report, the authors list seven bedrock principles at the Coast Guard that facilitated mission performance:

  • The Principle of Clear Objective directs every operation toward a clearly defined and attainable objective.
  • The Principle of Effective Presence requires that the right assets and capabilities be at the right place at the right time.
  • The Principle of Unity of Effort describes the performance of cooperative operational objectives, by working in concert with different Coast Guard units and coordinating these efforts with a diverse set of governmental and nongovernmental entities.
  • The Principle of On-Scene Initiative involves Coast Guard personnel being given latitude to act quickly and decisively within the scope of their authority, without waiting for direction from higher levels in the chain of command.
  • The Principle of Flexibility describes how the Coast Guard pursues multiple missions with the same people and assets by adjusting to a wide variety of tasks and circumstances.
  • The Principle of Managed Risk involves two dimensions: First, the commander is obligated to ensure that units are properly trained, equipped, and maintained, and second, the commander is obligated to assess the crew and equipment capabilities against the operational situation to determine whether and how to execute a mission.
  • The Principle of Restraint reflects the obligation of Coast Guard personnel to act with good judgment and treat American citizens and foreign visitors with dignity.

The report also notes that the Coast Guard has done a good job of compiling its Katrina “lessons-learned”, incorporating a series of after-action reports into a Coast Guard preparedness database.

There are many lessons in this story for the rest of DHS, other federal agencies, state & local governments, and even the private sector – this story should be taught as a case study in business schools.

For example, the “Principle of On-Scene Initiative” is precisely what was needed (as I’ve argued previously) inso many other aspects of the initial response to Katrina, where people on the ground were unable to act due to a hierarchical chain-of-command. And this principle is in direct contradiction to the hierarchial “National Security Approach” recommended for emergency management in the Townsend Report on Katrina.

And the “Principle of Flexibility” should be inculcated into all parts of DHS. Too many parts of its constituent agencies still have a “this is my job and I’m sticking to it” attitude, rather than striving for a more unified DHS that harnesses natural complementarities among agencies’ activities.

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Comment by Brian J Duffy

August 2, 2006 @ 10:40 am

What was identified within the Coast Guard, as anyone who has spent anytime in the armed services will recognize, is years of military corporate procedures and knowledge. Unfortunately this is not valued by many of the upper staff in DHS. Too often one finds the white collared mindset of DOJ, FBI, and Capital Hill and White House staffers permeating throughout. Folks are more concerned with meeting and wearing suits.

Yet this is the complete antithesis of homeland security. Homeland security is BLUE COLLAR and hands on. You’ll find this to be the case in every state and locality. This is not to say that the folks through out the country are not educated, they are, in fact most I know have a masters. However from my limited time in DHS to often the people within the NAC think they are more knowledgeable and smarter than the folks in the field.

While I know we need a cadre of lawyers, DHS does not need the sheer volume it currently has in almost every higher position. We need more Coast Guard, National Guard, and state and local first responders that have been conducting consequence management long before 90 percent of DHS even considered such a body.

Comment by Paula D. Gordon

August 2, 2006 @ 11:22 am

Thanks for your coverage of the Coast Guard’s report on lessons learned from its performance in Katrina.

I was interested to see that the Coast Guard’s lessons learned include the phrases “principle of on-the-scene initiative” and “principle of flexibility”. The Typology of Emergencies that I have developed also includes an emphasis on such initiative and flexibility in categories involving emergencies that are catastrophic in scope. That Typology of Emergencies can be found in the two newer articles on Katrina that are on my website at http://gordonhomeland.com .

My article on “Transforming and Leading Organizations” (also at http://gordonhomeland.com) includes some examples of leadership in crisis situations in which the exercise of flexibility, common sense, ingenuity, creativity, outside the box thinking and initiative, and a sense of responsibility were key to success.

Paula Gordon

Pingback by CGinformation.org» Blog Archive » GAO Katrina Report: The Coast Guard did well

August 4, 2006 @ 11:38 am

[…] Not sure how or why I missed this one, but thank goodness Christian Beckner over at Homeland Security Watch was on watch. The Government Accounting Office or GAO has released a report on how the Coast Guard did what it did during the Katrina disaster, and how we did it so well. In a portion of the report/ statement that is on Mr. Beckners blog it states what I believe to be the most important factor of the USCG’s success in all of it missions: These principles promote leadership, accountability, and enable personnel to take responsibility and action, based on relevant authorities and guidance. […]

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