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I’m seething….  For my regular Security Debrief readers that may be nothing new, but after reading today’s front page Washington Post story, “National disaster exercises, called too costly and scripted, may be scaled back,” I’m really torqued.

For all of the Administration’s talking points we have heard about the need for enhanced national preparedness and exercises, the prospect of scaling them back because of unrealistic scenarios – they are too big, costly and so forth – gives echo to the word, hypocrisy.

Citing the political pressures that scrubbed a nuclear explosive exercise in Las Vegas, Spencer Hsu’s article cites the problems that have plagued previous national-level exercises and questioned their overall effectiveness. His article goes on to say that the Obama Administration is considering scaling them back entirely.

In an week where two suicide bombers boarded subway trains in one of the world’s largest cities and killed more than three dozen people; historic flooding has dramatically impacted the lives and infrastructure of hundreds of thousands of people in New England; and the emergency communications infrastructure for the nation’s capital went kaput rendering DC’s first responders having to use their own cell phones to relay information, this is not the news we need to be hearing.

I fully recognize the tremendous costs and time associated with these types of efforts, but if the Administration decides to truly scale back from undertaking exercises like a New Madrid Earthquake, (which is particularly salient after watching the colossal destruction that has wracked Haiti, Turkey and other portions of the globe these past few months) it is not being honest with the public it serves about the risks that exist today. (A New Madrid earthquake would impact eight U.S. states, millions of citizens and billions of dollars of infrastructure.)

If you talk to any emergency manager in the country, particularly those in the eight-state area where the New Madrid fault lies, they will all tell you this threat is real, it is of concern and we need to take our preparedness for something associated with it very seriously.

It is a fair criticism that a number of exercises simply go through the motions.  It’s also a fair criticism that many of them are far too scripted and devolve into “photo ops” to show off in front of political officials and TV cameras. But for all the criticisms about what an exercise does or does not do, they have value. Minnesota proved that in amazing ways following the 2007 bridge collapse of I-35.

Based on my own personal experiences in the public and private sector with exercises, I have witnessed firsthand how they have often (and purposely) avoided tackling truly hard scenarios, such as the collapse of communications networks and civil unrest. People understandably do not want to be seen in an embarrassing light (unless you’re a reality TV contestant who enjoys that kind of notoriety).

We have also seen any number of situations where those who fail in an exercise or even during an actual event are pilloried by political figures, the media, late night comedians and the public – all for their own purposes. Failure in an exercise is a metric of success because it defines what you need to improve. If we chose to avoid scenarios where we might embarrass ourselves, we will never be prepared or resilient when real scenario occurs.

Craig Fugate of FEMA speaks forcefully and eloquently on this very subject and is an ardent practitioner of what he preaches. With no notice or inkling, he tests himself and FEMA’s senior leadership and personnel in any number of scenarios because he knows they are only a moment away from actually being involved in something bigger than they can imagine. What a healthy way to look at this challenge.

If you choose to look at exercises entirely as a cost (as the Administration is being described), there is no wonder you want to get rid of them. They do require money for the people, planning, operations, assessing performance and so forth. God knows in a federal budget that bleeds more red every day they are a significant cost, but there are some things in our national way of life that are worth paying for and this is it.

Exercises are an investment in our communities, our first responders, our public and private sectors, our infrastructures and our way of life.

Should they be tailored to address cost concerns and effectiveness? Absolutely, but to walk away from the eight planning scenarios that FEMA developed for all our states and territories to consider in their own planning and preparedness efforts (as the Post article alludes to), undermines the credibility of the Administration’s words on wanting us to become a more prepared and resilient citizenry.

While the explosion of a10-kiloton nuclear devise may seem completely unrealistic (and unpalatable to Las Vegas and other jurisdictions), the reality of today’s world is that it is becoming more dangerous because of man-made and natural hazards.

The people of DC’s Metro system have recognized that and have adopted a pro-active behavior and investment strategy to address those realities. The exercises they have engaged in during these past weeks, months and years show that, and if there is one facet of that beleaguered transportation system that is going right it is this one. With any luck, the Administration will recognize the example in their own neighborhood and see and prepare in similar ways.

We’d be all the better for it.

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
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