Monday, August 16, 2010

David Gergen's Call for National Solutions to Emergency Response

David Gergen is my favorite pundit. I always sit up and take notice when I see him on CNN. I think it is because he admirably served both Democratic and Republican presidents plus the fact that his views are usually wise, insightful and somehow above the din of noise just below him.

Now the Harvard professor and CNN political pundit is calling for an overhaul of the nation's laws regarding emergency response. But his solutions, I hate to say this, are based on a very inadequate understanding of the emergency response procedures already in place--most specifically the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

Gergen says:

- the American people believe the Gulf response was inadequate--agree, but not because we don't have good methods for dealing with this

- he says responders are frustrated -- agree, very frustrated, but primarily because overseers who did not know NIMS/ICS/JIC prevented them from using it

- he says we need a command structure modeled after the military -- exactly right, except we have one called Incident Command System that became NIMS in 2004

- he says: Laws and regulations patched together over the years have given large, often vague and confusing responsibilities to too many players, starting with the feds but also state and local officials and, in some cases, corporations like BP. The result is a chain of command clogged with uncertainty and delays. -- here is where he is very wrong. We have a clear, effective system (NIMS/ICS). The Unified Command structure has been effectively implemented in numerous responses. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 specifically includes the Responsible Party (such as BP) in Unified Command because 1) they have expertise and technology that the feds don't have and 2) they are paying for everything so they should have a say--yet the lead Fed agency always has the most say.

- he says: But if a crisis mushrooms—as the oil spill did—the federal government must take decisive command. Never again should the country’s fate rest with a corporation. He's right--it never should and never did. That was the point of OPA 90--created from lessons learned from ExxonValdez which was a company response. From the first moments of the spill Unified Command was formed, Coast Guard was the Federal On-Scene Coordinator and then a National Incident Commander was named all in accordance with OPA 90. Gergen has bought into the media and political mis-info that said BP was in charge. BP was under Unified Command directives from the very beginning. It's just the administration, attempting initially to avoid the media blame game, convinced everyone that this was BP's spill and the fed's job was to put "their boot on BP's neck", until May 27 when the president said, "actually, we were in charge all along." Right, they were.

- Gergen says: Once we have good plans in place, we must invest far more in leadership training for first-responders. Good news-- the government has spent hundreds of millions, if not billions in training on NIMS (Mr Gergen, please Google NIMS and find out about FEMA's extensive on-line training and the NIMS Five Year Training plan.) The sad thing is, DHS never informed the media, the public, CNN pundits, nor apparently the Secretary and her boss about this.

I join the esteemed Mr. Gergen in calling for a national solution to the problems exhibited by the gulf spill. But the problem is not that we don't have an effective plan in place and training to support it. The problem is that the system and plan we have is not adequately protected against political meddling, and it is not well known by the public, the media and elected officials. It is a problem I deal with in every major urban area in preparing plans for coordinating emergency communications. The biggest issue by far is the very real concern that the mayor, or county judge, or governor will circumvent the Unified Command process and the Joint Information Center which operates under authority of the Unified Command. My answer has always been--sure your mayor can pre-empt Unified Command and its authority under the law, but you run the risk of not getting federal reimbursement under a presidential declaration. That certainly helps to secure compliance with NIMS. But what happens when the highest office of the land, that has no equivalent downside, circumvents NIMS, takes control from Unified Command of the communication function or any function they choose, and turns the response into a politically-driven operation? There is apparently no law that prevents this. This, Mr. Gergen, is where the focus needs to be. We have a great system, a great tool. We need to make certain that it will not again fall victim to political agendas.

2 comments:

  1. David Gergen is on twitter @gergensvoice.You can follow him on Twitter, facebook or his blog www.gergensvoice.blogspot.com. Enjoy!

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