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Napolitano Orders Review of Homeland Security

Tuesday, 17 Feb 2009 08:47 PM

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Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano is ordering a review of national emergency preparedness programs to test the U.S. response to terrorist attacks.

The review will also include a look at the nation’s vulnerability to cyber-attack, ways of buttressing the U.S-Canadian border, and weaknesses at national power plants and other key facilities.

As Arizona's governor, Napolitano complained in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that programs like the $25 million national exercise in October 2007 was too expensive, too long in planning and "too removed from a real-world scenario."

Emergency planners told The New York Times they have acted on Napolitano's criticisms by improving coordination with state and local partners in planning a scheduled disaster drill this summer. They also are increasing the frequency of national exercises to occur annually instead of biennially.

"Most of them were already on the radar scope in one way, shape or form," Steve Saunders, a retired Army National Guard major general who is an assistant Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator overseeing the national exercise division, said to the Times, "but her letter helped crystallize, I think, some of the things we needed to do."

"With how big the department is and how many initiatives are already under way, [the secretary] doesn't want to focus on areas that have already efficiency built in," said one agency official who did not want to be named. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, [the steering committee] will take a step back and get a fresh look at everything already under way. This first [stage] is about people putting their heads together to come up with some great ideas."

Napolitano’s criticisms on the emergency preparedness exercise, which she repeated last month at her Senate confirmation hearing, offer a glimpse into how she may retool one the centerpieces of the Bush administration’s domestic security architecture.

“If we’re going to be doing these kinds of things, and they are valuable, the underlying philosophy is a good one, but they need to be in my view streamlined,” Ms. Napolitano told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last month.

The Times reported that the secretary is frustrated with the system in place for rehearsing responses to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Her critique has struck a chord among state and local emergency managers, many of whom have long complained that the Homeland Security Department and its crisis-response component, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have failed to consult fully with local communities in disaster planning.

“If we’re going to do these exercises, D.H.S. needs to collaborate to a greater extent with local governments so we’re not wasting resources, we’re not spinning our wheels and we’re making the country safe,” Russell Decker, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, which comprises 4,300 state and local agencies, told the Times.

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