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This week, DHS, various federal departments, a range of state, local and tribal governments as well as members of the private sector, and international participants are taking part in the National Level Exercise 2009 (NLE09). The successor to the Top Officials Exercises (TOPOFF), NLE09 is testing how well all of these players interact with one another in sharing information and intelligence in terrorism prevention and protection, as opposed to incident response and recovery which have been the focus of previous national level exercises.

Exercises such as these are essential and rewarding on many levels.  They allow all of the ”players” to not only work their respective roles and plans, but more importantly enable understanding of how they can and should work with their colleagues from other parts of the public and private sectors around the nation and the world.  The lessons that they take away from these efforts are often cause for each of the players to reshape and rethink what they will do the next time something “for real” occurs.

As valuable as NLE09 may be, I find myself incredibly frustrated by our lack of exercise to the one muscle in which everything depends upon during any emergency – communications.

Regardless of the incident, communications is the essential muscle on which every event is dependent.  From the President to the first responder on the scene, how they all communicate and connect with one another, what means they use and how they are utilized is essential for immediate and accurate situational awareness and directing response and associated resources.

As critical as this muscle is and for as much as we have talked about it (and spent on it), we have not taken the time to truly exercise the communications muscle the way it needs to be done.

God knows we have literally spent billions of dollars on the interoperability issue and have probably purchased every conceivable radio system available, but do we know how they will all work together?  Furthermore, do we have back-up systems in place, that are ready to go and people who know how to use them should they be needed?

September 11th, Katrina, California wild fires, Mid-West floods, Kentucky ice storms and more have all seen communications architectures disrupted, destroyed, or overcome by events leaving phone lines, first-responder radios, 9-1-1 systems, Blackberries/PDAs, cell phones and more completely useless.  As a result, emergency response and situational awareness of the conditions in disaster affected areas are severely impeded putting even more lives and property at risk.

It is mind-numbing to me, as someone who believes heart and soul in the homeland mission and as an American taxpayer, that we can be so short-sighted in this type of behavior.  Lives literally depend upon voices and information being able to connect with one another during an emergency yet we seem to consciously avoid exercising on a national level the conditions, tools, protocols and back-up systems in which all of our lives are ultimately dependent.

In offering this criticism I am fully conscious that there are state and local governments, public safety/first responders and private sector members that do exercise communications and are versed in the use of back-up systems when architectures fail.

•    The State of Alabama conducted a week-long exercise in May of this year solely focused on the durability of its communications networks to see what they could and could not handle.
•    Two weeks ago, AT&T led a network disaster recovery exercise at RFK Stadium — the largest in the company’s history to simulate how it could handle a 9/11 or Katrina like event.
•    The State of Minnesota had been drilling its communications networks in the months prior to the I-35W Bridge collapse in August 2007.
•    In February 2009, when ice-storms destroyed huge swaths of the physical communications infrastructure, the Kentucky Department of Public Health utilized a satellite radio back-up system to keep its State’s hospitals and health care facilities connected for weeks until repairs could be made. The same system is contributing to the State’s Swine-Flu/H1N1 Flu communications efforts.

These examples and others are signs of intelligent life on this issue but there still seems to be complete lack of national courage to exercise the fundamental muscle we need to have in top-shape when large scale emergencies arrive.

Why?

If you ask the organizers or planners of the previous TOPOFF exercises or this year’s NLE09 why, you will get answers like:

“It’s not a priority for this simulation.”

“We are choosing to focus on other areas that are more important.”

My favorite “off- the record” excuses have been:

“It’s too hard,” or “We know we would fail and don’t want to look bad.”

I agree that there are lots of priorities that need focus in exercises and failure makes everyone look bad but if we don’t exercise our communications muscle, the other responses and actions can not effectively take place.

As any winning team will tell you, if you practice as hard as you play, your performance will show and if you read the June 2009 GAO Report on Emergency Communications, we need a lot of practice in these areas!

It’s time our national level exercises worked out, practiced and flexed their communications muscles accordingly and quit finding reasons to skip the heavy lifting and painful lessons learned.

I’d rather have that workout pain and failure in practice than be unable to perform when it’s game time and points on the scoreboard really matter.

All of our lives depend on it and its time we started really working out.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More