10/12/07: WATCHDOG GROUP QUESTIONS NATIONAL EMERGENCY EXERCISE TIMING, POLITICS

October 12, 2007
Contact: Ben Smilowitz – (314) 761-7631
Ben@DisasterAccountability.org

EMBARGOED UNTIL 10PM EST, SATURDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2007:

WATCHDOG GROUP QUESTIONS NATIONAL EMERGENCY EXERCISE TIMING, POLITICS

Disaster Accountability Project Warns Exercise Effectiveness Compromised Without New Plan And Before Complete Framework

The timing of the upcoming TOPOFF4 Exercise is drawing criticism from the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) because an updated National Response Plan is not yet in place. Originally, the Exercise was planned to follow the close of the comment period for the newly proposed and highly controversial National Response Framework (NRF). In a large-scale emergency, it would be critical for plans at all levels of government to be aligned with the national coordinating plan. But, state and local officials have not had time to align their plans with the NRF because it has not been finalized.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the TOPOFF4 Exercise scheduled for October 15-19, 2007 “will feature thousands of federal, state, territorial, and local officials. These officials will engage in various activities as part of a robust, full-scale simulated response to a multi-faceted threat.” In addition, “The full-scale exercise offers agencies and jurisdictions a way to test their plans and skills in a real-time, realistic environment and to gain the in-depth knowledge that only experience can provide.” See: http://www.dhs.gov/xprepresp/training/gc_1179350946764.shtm

“The purpose of a national exercise should be to test the adequacy of emergency plans and procedures,” says Linda Lewis, who spent 16 years advising federal, state and local agencies on ways to improve preparedness. “But, the TOPOFF4 exercise, testing national preparedness for a dirty bomb attack is being held before the draft National Response Framework has been finalized, and early comments on the plan indicate that major revisions are needed.” Lewis, a DAP policy analyst, points out that the Department of Homeland Security made a similar error in April 2005, when it held TOPOFF3 before the deadline by which state, local and other federal agencies were to have revised their own plans to reflect the National Response Plan (NRP) issued in December 2004 with little input from state officials. “Even if the exercise is declared an overall success, which is virtually a given in government exercises, the plan is unscripted and it is questionable whether successes could be repeated. Thus, the exercise may provide an opportunity for DHS officials to reject changes requested by state officials that DHS locked out of meetings to finish a draft NRF.”

“DHS was counting on a lot of negative publicity culminating next week, when all the comments were initially expected. A large-scale exercise deflects that scrutiny and lends the appearance that everything is under control. With the National Response Plan in transition and a Framework under intense scrutiny, exactly what plan will guide the thousands of Federal, state, territorial and local officials? What is the point of spending $25 million to train around a plan that will soon experience a massive overhaul? The photo-ops from TOPOFF4 will provide Americans with a false sense of security. This nation is not ready to deal with a large-scale disaster and Americans need to see through this PR stunt and demand substance over looks,” said Ben Smilowitz, Director, Disaster Accountability Project and former Red Cross Katrina relief site manager stationed in Gulfport, MS immediately following the storm.

Planned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by a frustrated, former Red Cross site-manager in consultation with other key stake-holders, The Disaster Accountability Project provides accountability and oversight to the nation’s disaster prevention, response, relief, and recovery systems through monitoring and policy research. A draft of the Disaster Accountability Project’s comments on the proposed, controversial National Response Framework are available upon request and will soon be posted to the group’s website.

The Disaster Accountability Project’s website is http://www.DisasterAccountability.org

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