DHS Plans to “Improve” National Emergency Exercises

The Obama Administration plans to increase the frequency, rigor and realism of emergency planning exercises involving senior government officials and emergency responders in an effort to improve the nation’s emergency preparedness.

“This administration understands and believes in the importance of exercising [for national emergencies] and requires that the most senior levels of government are involved in all aspects,” wrote Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in an internal memorandum (pdf) last week.

“Much has been accomplished through the implementation of the first generation of a national exercise program, however it is also critical that we continue to improve these programs,” she wrote.

The Secretary directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “develop a two-year progressive exercise program that increases the total number of exercises and culminates in a full-scale biennial intergovernmental National Level Exercise.”

“Drills should be primarily no notice, or limited notice, and be conducted periodically during the two-year cycle by partners across DHS and the interagency, focusing on testing a single specific operation or function.”

Functional level exercises are to be conducted “in settings such as they would experience during an actual event.”  The culminating National Level Exercise is to involve “actual ‘boots on the ground’ responders, with exercise elements driven by field actions rather than purely by scripted injects.”

The National Exercise Program currently includes a planned 2011 exercise on terrorism, and a 2012 exercise on cyber terrorism.  These previously planned exercises should adhere to the new standards “to the maximum degree practicable,” Secretary Napolitano indicated.

“[A]n effective exercise program is the cornerstone of our nation’s collective preparedness and resilience.  Only by testing… can we be sure of the effectiveness of our plans for preventing, responding to an recovering from disasters and acts of terrorism and the preparedness of those charged with supporting and protecting the American people,” she wrote.

A November 2008 report from the Congressional Research Service examined “Homeland Emergency Preparedness and the National Exercise Program: Background, Policy Implications, and Issues for Congress” (pdf).