Among the factors that compounded the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was the disintegration of situational awareness between levels and branches of government and their own agencies. The lone FEMA official in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, phoned his Washington headquarters that day to report that the city’s levees had given way, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff did not learn of the disaster until the next day.
To avoid repeating that failure, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has formed Disaster Situational Awareness Teams (DSATs). The teams consist of rank-and-file regional federal employees who, in the event of disasters, would serve to apprise commanders of conditions on the ground.
DHS is also developing the capability to collect and disseminate information both day to day and during disaster response via its Homeland Security Information Network, specifically a new feature called the Common Operating Picture (COP) database.
The system, accessible to first responders and officials in critical industries, typically serves as a message board through which users share news of planned exercises, lessons learned, and best practices. During man-made and natural disasters, users can submit reports that will be reviewed and posted to the site by officials at DHS’s National Operations Center (NOC).
The initiative has been welcomed, but concerns exist that the agency is not doing enough to inform the country’s first responders about COP and encourage its use. A July 2006 report by the DHS Inspector General’s Office stated that roughly 18,000 users had registered to access and contribute to the COP, but only 6 percent of them did so regularly.
The report spurred U.S. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees DHS, to write Chertoff seeking an explanation. In addition to concern over usage, they asked about the agency’s methodology for information sorting and presentation. They also sought assurances that the Department of Defense, which assists in large-scale disasters, was tapped in.
With regard to usage, the picture has already improved, says Wayne Parent, DHS’s deputy director of operations coordination. He says COP’s visibility has risen through its use in large-scale drills. That has led to more use during real disasters. During Tropical Storm Ernesto in August and September 2006, the COP database drew 8,000 visitors, Parent says.
“It’s kind of like the baseball field out in a cornfield in Iowa. If you build it and it’s worthwhile, people will come,” Parent says.
Eventually, the COP interface could feature geospatial mapping with optional overlays to indicate the location of sites including critical infrastructure and pre-positioned emergency supplies, Parent says.
Access to the COP database is provided after a vetting process Parent describes as “not enormously exhaustive.” Sworn state and local first responders and public officials can gain access by contacting their state’s emergency management agency, while industry and private security officials must contact the NOC directly to apply.