Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 30, 2010

Concept of a preparedness capability gap

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on October 30, 2010

Above is a fuzzy capture of an illustration from page 7 of a GAO PowerPoint entitled,  “FEMA has made limited progress in efforts to develop a system to assess national preparedness efforts.”  The original can be found at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d1151r.pdf.  The briefing was part of a GAO presentation to Congress on October 29.

Loyal readers and regular commentators have asked for this graphic to be published here for discussion.

I have had no prior engagement with the GAO report or this particular graphic.  The GAO report provides no commentary on the graphic.   To start the discussion, I will offer my interpretation of the graphic.

The more intense an incident in time and space, the more quickly and broadly a capabilities gap emerges in responding to the incident.  In a major disaster or catastrophe local response capabilities are quickly overwhelmed.  An especially intense incident will significantly diminish local response capabilities before state and federal capabilities can be applied.  Time is required for non-local capabilities to be operationalized.   The capability requirements of an intense incident — interacting with the temporal delay in surging state and federal resources — creates a capability gap.  Over time this gap can be closed by increased application of federal, state, and local resources.

I have intended to engage the graphic affirmatively. Two readers with profound experience in this domain have already signaled considerable concern with the graphic.  I do not expect my interpretation to alleviate those concerns.

Even given my affirmative interpretation, I will offer three critiques:

1.  There is no attention to private sector capability and resources. The more intense the incident the more important will be private sector capability.

2.  The graphic implies that given sufficient time public sector resources can be surged to fill the gap.  In most cases this is probably true.  But it is important to acknowledge that in some incidents the gap will persist.

3.  Especially for consideration of preparedness, the graphic reinforces a tendency to view preparedness as being prepared to respond.   Preparedness gaps will continue to grow if we continue to frame the issue primarily in being ready-to-respond.

Now I will stand aside for more fundamental critiques and/or further explanation.

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

October 30, 2010 @ 7:18 am

First, the chart has no time line, so determining when over time the shift to state and local government will occur is not known.

I cannot help but wonder how this shift will occur: what means of transfer (incentives, mandates etc) will be used and where will the funding, education, and training come from?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 30, 2010 @ 7:54 am

Claire, From your comment I perceive you are viewing this as a proposed policy/strategy concept. I am certainly not certain, but I perceive the illustration as attempting to describe our de facto incident-response capabilities as they currently exist. So — if my free interpretation is anywhere on target — the concept suggests that the more intense an incident, the more likely there will be a gap between the near-collapse of local response capabilities and the insertion of state and federal response capabilities. The time line will differ per place and incident. I am not defending or confidently explaining. My wife tells me I am one of those people who see a pile of manure and look for the pony that must be near-by.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 30, 2010 @ 8:21 am

Perhaps I am slow on the uptake but over time PKEMA 2006 looms larger and larger as a creative effort by Congress to address endemic problems in the world of Emergency Management. Not least of its contributions is the appearance of many definitions in statute language for the first time. To my view those definitions were a definite contribution and have largely withstood the passage of time. PKEMA 2006 of course is in fact an authorization statute buried in an appropriation act. At one time this would have been subject to a point of order on the floor of either house when any floor debate occurred but of course now it just represents that legislative time is so precious that having both authorizing and appropriations committees is reflect of the degeneration of Congress into a mish mash of activity where members of the Appropriations Committee often exceed entire Authorizing Committees in their actual power. In my time in government, Senator Ted Stevens and Congressman Jerry Lewis represented this kind of power when guiding the appropriations bills under their control. That stated, and wondering why Authorization Committees don’t really provide the oversight needed let’s get back to the post.

Extract from Section 602 of PKEMA 2006:

“(15) the term ‘‘surge capacity’’ means the ability to rapidly and substantially increase the provision of search and rescue capabilities, food, water, medicine, shelter and housing, medical care, evacuation capacity, staffing (including disaster assistance employees), and other resources necessary to save lives and protect property during a catastrophic incident . . .”

In a previous comment on an earlier post I posted the definition of “capability” also from PKEMA 2006.

GAO usually shows caution normally in its reports but this fascinating new graphic bears some attention. Its implications are that surge and mobilization over time will restore any capability gap existing prior to any incident/event. Of course what everyone knows, even the small boy who sees the king has no clothes, is that surge and mobilization have been the absolutely weak links in the sinews of preparedness as I have referred to it.

In a brilliant but now forgotten National Security Decision Directive in 1982–NSDD-47 [available full text on the FAS website] President Ronald Reagan signed off on the first truly all-hazards document. It replaced NSC-57 a more limited Carter document dealing with mobilization in a much narrower sense. That document also available on the FAS website. The point of NSDD-47 was that all-hazards mobilization was a necessity for the civil sector of government becaues NO ORGANIZATION but government was able to conduct such a mobilization and take the time and effort to worry and implement processes and procedures to do that task. The NSDD was in fact generated in part over the fact that Reagan came from California and realized that his luck as a Governor held in that the “big one” did not occur on his watch.
So where does this leave US? Another Presidential Document from late in the second Reagan Administration, E.O. 12656 now under active review by the Obama Administration created a new construct “National Security Emergency” a term that exists no where in the US CODE. No such emergency has ever occurred and I have argued that the preparedness assignments to a number of departments and agencies in that order could usefully be continued with some modification, but more important it could be turned into an all-hazard document identifying the need to establish surge and mobilization capability in the civil sector of the Executive Branch, with DOD support, and become the first truly all-hazards Executive Order by the addition of the concepts from NSDD-47.

What the GAO graphic does not really indicate is that in most cases only the Federal government can surge and mobilize capability beyone what initially existed at the time of the event. It is not completely impossible that STATES and their local governments could surge and/or mobilize some additional capability but in today’s environment with diminished fiscal capability that is highly unlikely. With the nearing of the 2010 election day I doubt that many Governors to be are worrying much about what Homeland Security or Emergency Management system their might be inheriting, and even of lesser concern is the mobilization or surging of capabilities beyond what they inherit as they are sworn into office. Personally I believe they should worry about this role of their administration but that is probably hoping too much.

My bottom line is that I would like the GAO graphic worked on and refined, utilizing PKEMA definitions, and as Claire Rubin has pointed out timelines included, perhaps based on real world events and examples, and perhaps some new consensus could be formed on preparedness and capability.

And while I am discussing this I no longer take for granted that DHS/FEMA spend much time on surging and mobilization issues. My understanding and belief is that as DOD once spoke of no need for mobilization planning and thinking because wars were “come as you are” [a concept largely driven by fiscal concerns and now proved fatally flawed by events in Iraq and Afghanistan] the civil sector also is relying on a “come as you are” approach no matter what the scale of the event. If this does not scare the public into individual and family preparedness I don’t what will. Because even using the PKEMA definitions, despite the usage of the terms “Progress” and “Substantial Progress” by GAO, the DHS/OIG, Congress, and the last few administrations, the cupboard is largely bare and when the doors of the new FEMA are open you will find that many untrained, unequipped, and unable personnel who have not been given the right tools cannot surge or mobilize for large scale events. And mutual aid and even EMAC are largely premised on paper capabilities that are never verified or available for immediate funding in the current climate.

The closest the federal government comes to verification of capability is in the Radiological Preparedness Program (REP) for off-site safety at nuclear power plants where NRC regs at Appendix E of Part 50 call for verification of capability, but also only on a six year cycle, not 24 by 7 by 365, and adeqate FEMA or NRC staff to conduct such verification has never been made available.

Well thinking the unthinkable probably is necessary. But even better is having systems and processess in place to surge and mobilize for large scale events.

Good luck GAO in explaining your new graphic. It is important that you do so as I have tried to suggest above.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

October 30, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

I have a tough time “SEEING” the message of the graphic. Perhaps its a rorschach for preparedness practitioners…

Candidly, there are some erroneous assumptions within the context of the graphic as I see it. I am immedately concerned with the volume and intensity gap.

The illustration demonstrates virtually no capability for an apparent period of time. Thats tough to reconcile, considering the investment over the last decade in preparedness.

It also conveys little expectation for State response and even smaller expectation of local responders. I know FDNY/NYPD and Arlington County are not what one would consider normal in terms of a local resource, but to dismiss them, either in terms of equipment, surge capability, intellect/acumen, or ability is “dumb” on so many levels.

There also seems to be a tinge of paternalism that permeates the graphic and document. Having read Federal guidlines and documents for years, they tend not to say much. Read the FCD1 for example.

Its stated purpose is to provide direction to the Federal executive branch for developing continuity plans and programs. Continuity planning facilitates the performance of executive branch essential functions during all-hazards emergencies or other situations that may disrupt normal operations. The ultimate goal of continuity in the executive branch is the continuation of National Essential Functions (NEFs).

I don’t find the clarity necessary to execute the intent of the directive.

On many levels, the graphic in question provides little clarity and creates a host of questions. I do not believe the GAO thought anyone would look at it with a discriminating eye.

Bottom line; poor graphic and poor conveyance of the intended information, from my POV.

If you are going to be a come as you are outfit, to use Bill’s phrase, you’d better better be training a whole lot and have some intense capability and adaptive, dual use equipment, technology, and personnel.

Comment by Art Botterell

October 30, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

Phillip, I wonder if you could expand a bit on your comment that “the graphic reinforces a tendency to view preparedness as being prepared to respond.” What alternate view of preparedness do you prefer?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 30, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

I can’t speak for Philip but I would suggest that a preparedness to recover should be considered. For more on that concept, see Howitt and Leonard at HKS.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 30, 2010 @ 6:39 pm


A few quotes from the recent Perspectives on Preparedness report and then a more personal and direct response to your question.

The Task Force sees the fundamental, underlying principles of preparedness as being the bridge across all disciplines, contributors, and goals of homeland security and emergency management. (Page 5)

Those fundamental activities were subsequently reflected in the “preparedness cycle” of planning, organizing, equipping, training, exercising, evaluation, and improvement activities necessary to enable response. Current national policies and plans, such as the National Response Framework, still reflect that response-centric view, but this perception is evolving. (Page 6)

… the QHSR now states that achieving resiliency—one of the currently identified homeland security goals—“will require a significant change in U.S. emergency management from a primary focus on response and recovery to one that takes a
wider view, balancing response and recovery with mitigation and preparedness.” While we agree that there ought to be a balance, we see preparedness as being essential to all missions. (Page 6)

The real question then is “prepared for what?” This question is of fundamental relevance to the Task Force and all Americans. (Page 6)

I absolutely perceive we should continue to prepare to respond. As Arnold Bogis has suggested, I also think we should prepare to recover. You won’t be surprised that I think we should prepare to be resilient (and you might reasonably ask is that different than being resilient?).

Mostly I work to encourage preparedness for a range of risks that includes attention to preventing threats, reducing or mitigating vulnerabilities and responding and recovering to consequences. While I do not want to ignore response, my audiences are usually so focused on response they do not prepare for much of anything else.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2010 @ 12:27 am

DHS has just issued a new RISK LEXICON that has different definitions than PKEMA 2006. Some may be better for analysis of HS/EM than PKEMA 2006 but I forwarded to Phil/Chris/Jess/Arnold for possible review.

The fact that the document was out in revision and known to me is thanks to Claire Rubin.

Strangely, it shows a date of issuance in September which means the Preparedness Task Force report to Congress discussed in a previous post did not use its terms or those of PKEMA 2006 consistently. Perhaps as Oliver Wendell Holmes stated “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” but given Holloween perhaps appropriate for DHS/FEMA.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2010 @ 10:10 am

Post Script! “Resilience” word should have been used in the Preparedness Task Force report. Odd that given that term has been standard usage throughout DHS for over a year not really mentioned or emphasized in the Task Force Report.

Hoping someone can explain to me why “Preparedness” which has always meant “capability” to me is the all-encompassing paradigm as opposed to “resilience”?

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2010 @ 10:14 am

Note for the record NO definition of “Preparedness” in new DHS risk lexicon doc but there is a definition of “resilience” tracking QHSR!
Do we have a “failure to communicate”?

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