Magazine article National Defense

Disaster Response: Pentagon Can Do Better

Magazine article National Defense

Disaster Response: Pentagon Can Do Better

Article excerpt

Pentagon Can Do Better, McHale Says

Lessons learned from the military's response to Hurricane Katrina showed too many ad hoc solutions and not enough pre-disaster planning, said Paul McHale, the Defense Department's assistant secretary of homeland defense.

"We performed well, but we intend to get better," McHale told a gathering of military writers. An after-action review will point out flaws and areas in need of improvement, he said.

He noted that the department's response was historically the largest and fastest deployment in support of a civil crisis. The department received 93 mission requests from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, McHale said.

One example of an on-the-fly solution was the disbursement of 1,500 Motorola radios to emergency responders in New Orleans after the city's communications system was destroyed. The radios were in storage at the Washington Navy Yard and are normally provided to military personnel detailed to security duties at sporting events such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl.

In the future, the Pentagon must do more to prepare for catastrophic events, McHale said. The Pentagon certainly will assist civil authorities in similar crises, but proposals calling for the military to take the lead role in disaster management are unreasonable, McHale said. Comments by President Bush to that effect have been misinterpreted, he noted. The Defense Department would be called on only during "catastrophic events," similar to Hurricane Katrina, or a terrorist attack where weapons of mass destruction are employed. Such catastrophes are "once or twice in a generation" occurrences, he said, unlike the dozens of natural disasters that take place regularly over the course of a year.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a position paper at its annual conference endorsing the idea of the military stepping in when state or local authorities request help. "The current legal paradigm is that the military is viewed as the 'resource of last resort' deployed to restore order," the position paper said. "However, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have given us reason to re-evaluate this paradigm."

Definitions of such catastrophes are not set in stone, McHale said, but Katrina or a terrorist attack where local authorities are overwhelmed, or perhaps wiped out, would be an example.

GAO Slams Rail Security

A Government Accountability Office report on U.S. rail security portrayed a passenger system seriously lagging behind its foreign counterparts when it comes to preparing for terrorist attacks.

As of July 2005, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration had not completed a risk assessment for the passenger rail sector. Security directives hastily issued in May 2004 after the March terrorist attacks on the Madrid rail system did not allow for public comment from stakeholders, resulting in confusion, and sometimes conflicts with safety measures. For example, a directive that rail engineers' compartments remain locked contradicted Federal Railroad Administration regulations requiring they remain open in case a quick escape is needed.

The report's authors, who traveled to 13 foreign rail systems to investigate their security measures, had several recommendations. Among the practices that could be transferred to federal authority were:

Covert testing to keep employees alert about their security responsibilities. This includes such tactics as placing suspicious items throughout the system to test reaction time. Some foreign operators carried out such drills on a daily basis.

Random screening of baggage. Such systems have been used during events such as the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and during security alerts after the July 2005 London bombings. Staffing would be an issue, and such systems would have to be designed to ensure civil liberties are not violated, the report warned. …

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