Both the House and the Senate have eliminated funding for the next logical and critical step in the reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security. The longer that step remains untaken, the longer the lessons of Hurricane Katrina will go unanswered. This heaps one tragedy upon another, since the solution to better preparedness against natural disasters, as well as terrorist attacks, already exists.
Sitting on departmental shelves is a comprehensive analysis in which multi-state regions have been identified consistent with both traditional and new security requirements. Primary and backup locations already have been targeted for specific regional offices. Roles and responsibilities already have been clarified. Even the precise number of employees at each office has been calculated. Every detail of the next step has been painstakingly provided. What remains lacking is congressional approval for creating this new level of capability across the country.
No other cabinet agency is so dependent upon the national integration of people, capabilities and information to achieve its mission. The Homeland Security Department created a national response plan (NRP) for the federal government and a national incident management system (NIMS) with state and local governments to further this integration. These plans align and assign roles, responsibilities and resources at each level of government. Add to these plans regional directors and offices working daily with governors, mayors, first responders, companies and citizens, and we gain a much-needed holistic approach to the way in which we protect ourselves.
Such a framework would empower those closest to an incident — natural or manmade, those who already understand the geography, rules, laws and available resources — to be in the best and first position to drive initial and immediate decision-making, response and communication to state and federal authorities. In other words, a direct-response team could be stood up at the exact time and location it is needed most.
As part of the regional plan, New Orleans is earmarked as a regional hub. Had that hub been in place, trusted relationships among federal, state and local partners would have spirited life-saving actions sooner rather than later. We would have had knowledge of state and local contingency plans and associated gaps. We would have exercised as a team, established operation centers or necessary unified command structures. We would have known what federal assets to request and where they should have been pre-positioned. Everyone would have known how, when and by what method to provide comprehensive situational awareness back to a central point of command.
In developing the regions proposal, our main focus was always on building a federal, state, local and private-sector team within a defined geographic area that would plan, train and “fight” together. Our aim was to get more bang for the buck during threat situations and incidents by establishing integrated capabilities and personal relationships across a truly national team well in advance of any disaster.
Mutual trust and partnerships at the local level, where all incident rubber meets the road, cannot be built from inside the Beltway. They must be forged where plans are implemented and capabilities are applied in situations where time does not permit “getting to know one another.” Additionally, for DHS really to make a difference across the country, it needs a mechanism through which it can harness the collective strength of its component units. Without regions, there is no way to integrate fully the awesome power of the department, which remains dissipated across its component units out in the field. At times of threat and incidents, this would leave us critically disadvantaged.
Homeland security is more than just a cabinet agency. It is a national mission that requires a national response, not just a federal one. Congress must position the department closer to the people who are the first line of defense in this country. Regional offices would do just that by strengthening further the critical web of connections.
There are a multitude of critical connections required during emergencies, whether generated by disaster or by design. Intelligence generated at the federal level must be shared with state and local law enforcement and all points of entry. Federal dollars for equipment, training and exercises must be linked to the strategic needs of first responders and their communities. Federal government resources must be integrated with the state and local response plans and incident management operations, which themselves must be tied together and rehearsed.
The good news is that the plan to create these capabilities is already outlined in a bold framework for a new regional infrastructure. This logical way forward will strengthen the vital connections with the public and private sector and, most importantly, tighten the national web protecting our country.
Mature and practiced regions were designed to avoid many of the pre- and post-Katrina problems identified by Congress. The next best step is clear, if Congress chooses to take it.
Tom Ridge served as the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and is a former governor of Pennsylvania.