NEWS

Disaster Management Experts Brief Congress on Ways to Protect Mass Gatherings

By Matthew Harwood

Disaster management specialists from the private and public sectors briefed Congress yesterday on their efforts to protect mass gatherings from terrorists seeking mass casualty events.

"Mass gatherings," said Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, "could be particularly tempting targets for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with the goals of killing and injuring the most people, destroying the most infrastructure, and having the greatest impact possible with the least amount of effort."

Witnesses addressed the importance of information sharing and coordination and collaboration between the federal government and its state and local partners as well as the private sector. Like most critical infrastructure in the country, most mass gatherings occur on private property such as malls, sports stadiums, and state fairgrounds.

Commercial facilities, where most mass gatherings occur, were identified as one of the 18 critical infrastructure and key resource sectors by the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP), an outgrowth of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7 (HSPD-7).

According to Roger Rufe, director of the Office of Operations Coordination and Planning at the Department of Homeland Security, the federal government provides significant resources to state and local authorities and the private sector to protect mass gatherings or what they deem "special events."

In 2004, the Special Event Working Group (SEWG) was formed to validate a methodology for identifying and categorizing special events and then coordinating federal support for specific events. The group, according to Rufe, plugs up any gaps state and local partners have identified but couldn't address because they had exhausted their resources. An interagency threat committee within the SEWG also produces Joint Special Event Threat Assessments (JSETA) that are then distributed to state and local fusion centers for situational awareness.

The Homeland Infrastructure Threat and Risk Analysis Center within DHS also helps commercial facilities owners and operators by providing intelligence-based research and analysis and lesson learned materials. "The goal is to provide strategically relevant and actionable information on threats they face, primarily from terrorists," testified Robert B. Stephan, assistant secretary of infrastructure protection at DHS. These bulletins are distributed through the secure and encrypted Homeland Security Information Network to vetted private sector members.

Douglas Reynolds, director of security of Mall of America in Minnesota, expressed how important it is for him to have access to the latest intelligence of threats to his facility. Last year, he was granted a seat on the Joint Terrorism Task Force Executive Board by the FBI. "This has proven to be an invaluable asset to Mall of America and our security program," he says.

Nevertheless, Reynolds criticized the federal government, telling lawmakers it took him seven years to forge partnerships with the task force and the Department of Homeland Security.

Thompson, in his opening statement, also criticized the Department of Homeland Security, noting a report his committee released in May recommended it do more to help localities hosting mass gatherings strenghten public health and other critical infrastructures, establish comprehensive biological surveillance systems, and ensure intelligence about biological threats is made actionable for decision-makers on the scene.

"It is remarkable how State, local, and private sector partners have worked together to develop solutions on their own, given the absence of dedicated Federal resources," he said.

Another problem identified is when emergency management personnel respond across state lines to help another state when disaster strikes. In 1996, Congress ratified the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), an interstate mutual aid agreement that allows states to share personnel, equipment, and resources during an emergency. Responding state personnel under the agreement are immune from the receiving state's laws.

Dr. Thomas Blackwell, director of the Mecklenburg Emergency Medical Services Agency, which serves Charlotte, North Carolina, advocated that states should amend their EMAC legislation to provide immunity to all employees that work with the responding state to provide relief.

"An amendment ... would save valuable time that is now being spent drafting and executing contracts between the hospitals and the responding State so that the hospital employees will be covered by the immunity given to the State," he said.

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