The promulgation of the new National Response Framework (NRF) is another positive step forward toward a stronger national ability to manage emergencies and disasters. The Department of Homeland Security, and its component the Federal Emergency Management Agency, should be commended for listening to stakeholders and providing clarity. Conversely, the stakeholder community should be commended for underscoring the importance of local, state and private perspectives in a framework that must be national – and not simply federal – in scope.

But let’s be clear: simply publishing the NRF will not automatically fix the problems of coordination during emergencies and disasters. Real progress will be achieved when the principles of the NRF are universally understood and embraced by the range of leaders that must act decisively in the face of a crisis. The confusion in the midst of Katrina and the inaccurate rhetoric in its aftermath provides clear evidence that the long-standing principles that should guide how America manages emergencies and disasters were not universally understood. This is not a new problem. I have been in the business for a quarter century, and this level of universal understanding has been absent. Those who do understand the intricacies of these principles and are in positions of leadership often must simultaneously respond to the emergency and contend with the challenges created by the well-intentioned but under-informed efforts of others. Universal understanding and embracing of these principles will allow America to better manage emergencies and disasters.

So it’s time to get busy. Making sure that key officials at all levels of government and in the private sector understand the operational principles will be essential to facilitating coordination and preventing conflict. Equally important, those charged with oversight must know what to expect in order to know what hard questions to ask about levels of readiness. Finally, we must remember the number one principle: America is a Republic. Only under the most exigent conditions did the founders of the nation envision unilateral federal authority. This means that the debate should be less about who is in charge at the federal level and more about determing how the NRF promotes coordinated action without sacrificing the separations between levels of government that are the bedrock of America’s democracy. It seems to me that educating leaders about the principles of the NRF is a good place to start.