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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

In Interview, Terror Alert Task Force Co-Chair Townsend Says U.S. Will Still Need New Plan On What/How To Inform Public About Threats Even After Color Scheme Is Chosen; Expresses Disappointment Media Organizations Declined To Offer Input To Advisory Panel

October 19th, 2009 · No Comments

Homeland Security Advisory System Task Force Co-Chair Frances Townsend said in an interview last week that even when a final decision is made on the terror color levels there is still work to be done in determining both the content and the distribution methods for best alerting and informing the public on terrorism and other threats.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed the Task Force, co-chaired by Townsend, President Bush’s top terrorism adviser, and former FBI director William Webster, earlier this summer. Upon receiving the report last month, Napolitano said she would discuss the findings with the White House and other members of the Cabinet before making any policy changes.

Though its members split on whether to retain the color system, the Task Force unanimously recommended that the Obama Administration make the government’s terrorism warning communications more robust, specific, transparent and actionable. It said that if the color system was maintained, the levels should be reduced from five to three with yellow or “guarded” being the ‘normal’ state.

In the interview, Townsend said after the color decision is made there will be a need to develop plans both for what is being communicated to the the public and how best to do it. She said that members of the Task Force were struck by “the lack of infrastructure” that currently exists as well as the need for a “common lexicon” and “doctrine” when it comes to emergency alerts.

Making things more challenging — but also offering new opportunities — is the proliferation of new distribution technologies, including personal communications devices and social networking sites. She reiterated the Report’s findings that there is a need to better integrate social media as well as state and local alert initiatives into the federal efforts.

Townsend’s comments come on the heels of two recent General Accountability Office (GAO) reports that showed the need for significant improvements in the planning, coordination and implementation of the federal government’s emergency communications and preparedness for the public. The first, Emergency Preparedness: Improved Planning and Coordination Necessary for Development of Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, highlighted problems with the federal government’s updating of its alert and warning technologies for the public. The GAO concluded:

“Emergency communications are critical in crisis management and for protecting the public in situations of war, terrorist attack, or natural disaster; yet, FEMA has made limited progress in implementing a comprehensive, integrated alert system as is the policy of the federal government. Management turnover, inadequate planning, and a lack of stakeholder coordination have delayed implementation of IPAWS and left the nation dependent on an antiquated, unreliable national alert system.”

The other GAO report, Emergency Management Preliminary Observations on FEMA’s Community Preparedness Programs Related to the National Preparedness System, foundthat FEMA does not currently have an overall strategic plan for community preparedness or the ability to accurately measure the performance of its various citizen readiness initiatives.



As I wrote last month, I think the Task Force correctly focused much of its critique and recommendations in the Report on the public (one of the alert system’s “two primary audiences”). By contrast, the Report concluded that the current system has “functioned reasonably well” for the other audience, “institutions” (ie. the government/private sector), especially as alerts have become more targeted geographically and to specific industries. (I had submitted a ‘memo’ to the Task Force during the public comment period with some recommendations: “Put Your Citizen Hats On, Design With/For Public, Integrate Into Overall Citizen Preparedness Program.”)

Townsend’s comments about the lack of existing “infrastructure” and “common language” on emergency alerts are along the lines of something WMD Commission Chair Bob Graham told me earlier this year. His panel’s report urged the government to better inform and engage the public on the WMD threats. However, when the Commission looked for something to recommend, he recalled, it couldn’t find anything suitable currently out there.

The fact is, as been often mentioned on this blog, there is no existing emergency preparedness information model that can be pulled off the shelf and implemented immediately. It will take some time, attention and thought from the government working with other stakeholders to create a new integrated plan as part of an overall citizen preparedness approach.

Townsend, now a partner at the law firm Baker Botts, said she feels very strongly that the alert process needs a ‘forcing mechanism’ to encourage a return to the normal ‘guarded’ level when the threat passes in order to maintain public credibility. (And that recommendation to Secretary Napolitano was included in the Report.)

In the interview, Townsend expressed disappointment that one important stakeholder, major news organizations, citing potential of conflicts of interest, declined the Task Force’s request to offer recommendations on alerting and informing the public. “It’s too bad,” she said, “It would have been useful.”

Personally, I think there should be a way for media companies to provide the government advice without violating ethical boundaries, particularly as the press has such a crucial communications role during an emergency as well as the expertise. In fact, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), National Public Radio (NPR), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) just announced a new collaboration, Station Action for Emergency Readiness (SAFER) project, to help public broadcasters better serve their communities during disasters.

Townsend also told me an interesting tidbit about the Task Force’s report: while the members divided on whether to maintain the colors, she said the vote “did not break down the way things usually do in Washington” (ie. by political party, geography, state/federal). The members’ positions on the colors may have been based as much on their perspective as citizens as experts — which, by the way, I believe is a good thing. On these civilian preparedness policies, I have increasingly come to the opinion from my reporting that there is a great value in thinking like a civilian.

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