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Whatever Administration Decides On Its Disaster Drilling Policy Review, Include The Public In The Drills

April 7th, 2010 · 3 Comments

The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu reported Friday that the Obama Administration is reevaluating the nation’s policy on large-scale national disaster exercises. In the article, “National Disaster Exercises, Called Too Costly And Scripted, May Be Scaled Back,” Hsu writes that the Administration is:

considering whether to scale back next year’s National Level Exercise, the annual drill [previously called "TOPOFF"] that for the past decade has been a cornerstone of the nation’s efforts to prepare for a catastrophic terrorist attack or natural disaster…

White House officials and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano say they are trying to improve the national exercises, not undercut them. The drills have grown into unrealistic, costly and over-scripted productions, Napolitano has said, an “elaborate game” rather than opportunities for officials to work through problems.

The Administration’s reevaluation on training exercises comes after officials cancelled a planned major drill involving a mock ‘dirty bomb’ explosion in Las Vegas next month after Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) complained that it would scare tourists from visiting the city. As I wrote in a post last November, “What Happens In Vegas (Might Be Less Serious If Major FEMA Nuke Attack Exercise) Stays In Vegas”, I thought cancelling the Sin City exercise was misguided and an

example of how the public is too often infantilized when it comes to information on serious terrorist threats, including weapons of mass destruction — And, as a result, why we as citizens are not as prepared or as informed as we should be…the contention that somehow having a practice drill with a nuclear weapon would scare Americans from traveling to Vegas.

It just plays into the narrative (I would say canard) that the public cannot handle any discussion of serious potential terror threats (particularly involving weapons of mass destruction) without becoming scared out of their wits. And as a result, it prevents our leaders from having an open dialogue which might actually improve our ability to respond to a scenario.

In fact, I believe these large scale disaster drills should actually be used as an opportunity to better engage and inform the public, something that to date they have not been. Whatever model of emergency exercises are chosen after the current Administration debate, I feel strongly that the public should somehow be involved when they are carried out.

Most every top national and local government preparedness official I’ve spoken to believes that preparedness drills for the public would increase citizen readiness and engagement. The difficulty of course is organizing these events. So, if the government is going to undertake major exercises, the opportunity should not be lost to involve the citizenry. Short of an actual incident, a drill is the best way to get people to think through what they would do if something actually happened.

According to the Post article, the Obama Administration is considering making more of the drills surprises rather than being planned in advance, which some believe is a better way to test preparedness. That seems to make sense, but I think there is some value to having at least one scheduled exercise that might include the public and be a galvanizing day for U.S. preparedness. These national level drills are first and foremost to train government officials and responders, but why not also include citizens in some way. I believe that doing so would not only help the public get ready but would also be a useful addition to the exercises.


Next Month’s Scheduled National Level Exercise Was Not Welcome In Las Vegas

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Stebbins // Apr 8, 2010 at 3:09 am

    I highly agree. Including the public, to a degree, would allow for a better understanding in the public eye of what First Responders and emergency personnel actually do in the event of an actual disaster. All they see and for the most part think goes on is what they see in the movies. One of first class papers for my Homeland Security Masters course was how to prepare the public in the event of a terrorist attack. It takes patience and a knowledge of the community as a whole. It also takes a great deal of legwork on the part of community officials. You cannot just post items on the Internet and think that everyone is going to read them and follow directions. Go door to door in the neighborhoods. Invite them to community exercises. Show them how police and fire personnel are trained and continue to train on a daily basis. Keep them informed of what the actual threats are to the communities. Most people read in the news of things that happen in other states or countries and they think, never here, so they do not prepare. The public should always be informed and given the tools to prepare.

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