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Post VA, DC Earthquake, After Action Report Required

One of the best descriptions of what it is like to work in Washington, DC, can be summed up with the old canard, “After all is said and done, there will be a lot more said than done.” I have every confidence that will be the situation following the earthquake we experienced early Tuesday afternoon.

Social media sites, as well as traditional press outlets, are filled with “where were you” and “what I was doing” type stories when the 5.8 earthquake rumbled through the East Coast. Each will be a data thread in a massive tapestry that social scientists and marketing professionals will study for years. Analysts will analyze and comics will be comedic and somewhere in between those two poles will be where most individuals will look at their individual behavior and conclude that when something similar occurs again, they will act a) differently b) the same c) not sure because of what they learned from the August quake.

Less than 24 hours from the event, it is presumptuous to draw final conclusions, but there are some things that need to be addressed immediately.

First, whenever OPM decides to let government employees leave early, they should ensure that the DC government traffic operations folks have time to deploy to critical intersections to keep traffic flow manageable.

When the Office of Personnel Management opened its doors, DC traffic came to a halt and a serious problem erupted as vehicles of all types, including Metro buses, blocked key intersections. Car horns blared, adding to frustration and confusion. There was no reason the self-inflicted gridlock should have occurred given the beautiful weather we were experiencing, and any reasonably competent security analyst will view this reaction with concern for its potential to create a “second event” opportunity.

Second, the human reaction to flood communications pipelines with queries provided an unexpected but excellent opportunity to stress-test the ability to disseminate and receive information in a Web 2.0 world. A serious examination of what worked and what didn’t could lead to better communications systems and better information for users so that the systems can handle traffic surges but doesn’t break down. Then this examination needs to be made public in a highly visible manner. Most people will follow advice when that advice is clear and logical. Proper preparedness will lead to a rapid recovery to the “new normal” post-event behavior.

Third, it would be good to know whether any of the “lessons learned” during the recent National Level exercise, which simulated a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid fault, had any effect on the actions of DHS officials (in particular) as well as other government and private sector participants. It will help in planning the next disaster exercise, and it will provide public confidence in the value of hands-on preparedness training. On the other hand, if the lessons were not applied, tough questions need to be asked.

Finally, Congress needs to resist the urge to micro-meddle. This is a case where professional, objective “after action” evaluators should be given an opportunity to do their work before the partisan political machinery undermines their effectiveness.

This morning is a perfect time for the “after action” activity to begin. Hurricane Irene is headed our way.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More