The end of NLEs?

this link for the official overview of the exercise, dated November 2008.

According to Above Top Secret, FEMA asked Public Intelligence in April 2010 to take this down , though it is still as I write (June 2010). The reason for FEMAs request may have been a Christain Science Monitor article about local politics. According to this a local senator claimed that the exercise would damage the local economy. But acording to the CSM, “the presidents supporters, including those deep inside the nations emergency preparedness ranks, say the Obama White House may be shifting away from large-scale “open book” tests, practiced during President Bushs tenure, and toward “no-notice,” or secretly planned, tests that thrust emergency managers into unexpected, sink-or-swim scenarios….”.the administration is reasonably asking questions about how the NLE program is constructed, what are the outcomes, how are the lessons learned used, which is all fair game,” says Craig Vanderwagen, who served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response in the Department of Health and Human Services until his retirement last fall. “There is a school of thought that says, Lets do some no-notice testing and see what weve got. And if you judge by the intensity by which the president and the White House have directed reviews on a lot of these activities, [no-notice> tests are within the realm of possibility.”…..That would represent a major shift for a national emergency preparedness plan that spans local, county, state, regional, and federal agencies. Cooperation under that plan is often marred by inadequate funding at various levels of government, as well as issues that limit the ability of Washington to fully control response scenarios…..Changing the NLE would test Obamas ability to maneuver a maze of congressional oversight that has often failed to close basic gaps in national preparedness, including first responders ability to use a common radio system to communicate with one another.”

The US blogosphere is highly politicised. Above Top Secret sees it as a mysterious plot and talks of uncanny coincidence. Vacation Lane says “The most critical is that this Administration, like all before it, fails to understand that the sinews of preparedness are built with exercises, from table tops to full scale exercises, and with the personnel including appointees that will actually be called on to run the civil domestic crisis management system or be in the chain of command for civil crisis events.” Homeland Security Watch is more balanced, arguing that “training and exercises will make for a more effective response when something real happens….” but pointing out that incidnet response is usualy managed at sate or lower levels and the Federal role is to support them, and asking “Since 2005, the federal government has spent more than 200 million dollars on national level exercises. Have those expenditures come anywhere close to providing commensurate benefits? If those data are not available, could the 200 million have been spent on some other homeland security-related activities, including local exercises, that might have increased the nations preparedness?…I suspect those are largely rhetorical questions, lost somewhere inside the conventional wisdom that worships any homeland security training exrcise as an unquestioningly good thing.”

Breakglass argues for NLEs becasue they “force those top officials to make sure the plans drawn up by their folks actually integrate with other top officials departments plans. Better yet, they force those top officials to actually read the plans written for them…. Take, for example, whats happening in the Gulf right now. Wouldnt it be helpful to have practiced that worst case scenario from a government perspective?”. (Breakglass is a blog dedicated to exploring public health preparedness efforts in the US – in case of emergency, break glass, geddit?)

HSW adds: “The National Exercise Program is a process technology, intended to prepare mostly federal leaders for catastrophic events. I wonder if there is any science undergirding that exercise program technology. The national exercise program has been described recently as unrealistic, costly, and overscripted productions an elaborate game rather than opportunities for officials to work through problems. I have personal anecdotes from TOPOFF 1, 2 and 3 that support the accuracy of those views , at least for the early days of the exercise program. Ive also heard that – like many things in homeland security – they have become better over time. …I am not arguing against a national exercise program. I do think, however, it makes sense to ask about the science (in whatever sense one wishes to use that term) that supports the benefit of national level exercises.”

The actual document FEMA wanted removed is a surprsingly tedious list of headings about planning and preparation, so I suspect tthe CSM is right. I also like their argument that it is important to look at the science (and have indeed tried to do this myself in several published works, eg here and here.)

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