Emergency Communications:

Vulnerabilities Remain and Limited Collaboration and Monitoring Hamper Federal Efforts

GAO-09-604: Published: Jun 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2009.

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Emergency communications breakdowns undermined response efforts during terrorist attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In response, federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have increased efforts to enhance emergency communications. This requested report identifies (1) vulnerabilities, if any, to emergency communications systems; (2) federal assistance available or planned to first responders for addressing vulnerabilities or enhancing emergency communications; and (3) challenges, if any, with federal emergency communications efforts. GAO developed six catastrophic disaster case studies, reviewed agency documents, and interviewed public and private sector officials at the national, state, and local levels.

Continuity of communications, capacity, and interoperability are primary areas of vulnerability in first responder emergency communications in communities across the country. The destructive nature of catastrophic disasters can disrupt continuity of communications--the ability to maintain communications during and following a disaster. A volcanic mudflow at Mount Rainier, Washington, could destroy infrastructure supporting communications systems. Capacity--a communication system's ability to handle demand, provide coverage, and send different types of information--is also vulnerable in a catastrophic disaster. For example, blind spots, areas outside the range of communications systems, could inhibit response. Lastly, vulnerabilities involving interoperability--the ability to communicate across different organizations and jurisdictions as needed and authorized--remain due to technological and human factors. Federal agencies provide a wide range of assistance intended to help first responders mitigate emergency communications vulnerabilities. GAO grouped available federal assistance into three categories: (1) new guidance and other significant federal efforts; (2) grants and funding; and (3) technical support and federal assets. DHS and other federal agencies have taken strategic steps to enhance emergency communications by issuing key documents like the National Emergency Communications Plan--the first strategic document for improving emergency communications nationwide. Numerous grants are available and are increasingly aligned with recently developed national and state plans. Federal agencies like DHS also offer technical support intended to help mitigate vulnerabilities through planning and on-the-scene assistance. Limited collaboration and monitoring jeopardize federal emergency communications efforts, even as the federal government has taken strategic steps to assist first responders. Federal agencies have demonstrated limited use of some best practices that GAO previously reported as helpful for addressing issues like emergency communications. Delays in establishing the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center, which would help define common goals and mutually reinforcing strategies--two collaboration best practices--undermine the National Emergency Communications Plan's implementation. DHS and FCC have also not applied these practices in FCC's effort to promote a public safety network for emergency communications. Agency officials reported it was either too early or not the agency's responsibility to use these best practices in developing this network. DHS did not submit formal comments to FCC and FCC officials described its proposed network as separate from DHS emergency communications efforts. However, GAO found potential opportunities to align these agencies' efforts. Another collaboration best practice is leveraging resources, which DHS has done in providing emergency communications technical assistance and planning guidance. But efforts have focused on state and local jurisdictions and less on federal agencies, some of which lack formal emergency communications plans. Monitoring is also crucial in helping agencies meet goals.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our June 2009 report, we recommended that DHS work to complete a memorandum of understanding among federal agencies to establish the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center. The memorandum would include a clear purpose, expected outputs, and realistic performance measures from participating agencies. In response, DHS finished work to establish the Center. Specifically, DHS worked with other federal agencies to complete the memorandum of understanding, and the Center's participating agencies met in October 2009. Additionally, DHS completed a charter that included a clear purpose for the Center, which is to serve as the focal point for interagency efforts and as a clearinghouse for all relevant intergovernmental information to support emergency communications. Expected outputs included preparing an annual strategic assessment regarding the coordination efforts of federal departments and agencies for Congress, as well as establishing committees to administer the Center. Performance measures included agency participation and meeting requirements.

    Recommendation: To improve federal agencies' collaboration and monitoring in efforts related to emergency communications and to help foster implementation of the National Emergency Communications Plan, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in DHS's role as chair of the agency working group to establish the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center, should work to complete the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish the center. The MOU should include a clear purpose, expected outputs, and realistic performance measures from participating agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our June 2009 report, we recommended that DHS and FCC establish a forum, or other mechanism, to better collaborate on each agency's emergency communications efforts, such as implementing the National Emergency Communications Plan. In response, DHS included several collaboration elements in its establishment of the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center. For example, representatives from DHS and FCC are on the rosters of both the executive and steering committee groups for the Center. The Center's charter states that it will complement ongoing efforts of federal agencies focused on the advancement of emergency communications. The Center's charter also outlines several activities that will be made consistent with information in the National Emergency Communications Plan, or be incorporated into future plan updates. Furthermore, Center action items have recognized that updating national emergency communications and broadband planning requires collective federal input.

    Recommendation: To improve federal agencies' collaboration and monitoring in efforts related to emergency communications and to help ensure that DHS and FCC's significant emergency communications efforts, such as the National Emergency Communications Plan and the 700 MHz Public/Private Partnership, have a common vision and mutually reinforcing strategies, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission should establish a forum, or other mechanism, to better collaborate on each agency's emergency communications efforts. Such collaboration could identify opportunities for aligning agency activities to ensure that they are mutually reinforcing, as well as developing an action plan or other working document to develop a common vision for implementation of the National Emergency Communications Plan and its relationship to the future 700 MHz Public/Private Partnership.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that DHS had only limited processes in place to monitor and evaluate recommendations from stakeholder groups in regards to improving emergency communications, based on lessons learned from previous disasters. DHS had various ways of examining some stakeholder group recommendations, but no mechanisms to systematically monitor and evaluate all recommendations from stakeholder groups. Without such monitoring mechanisms, it was unclear how and to what extent federal agencies have considered, or incorporated, the information provided by these groups. We had previously reported that monitoring and evaluating efforts are crucial elements to achieving agency goals, in this case for emergency communications. We recommended that DHS systematically track, assess, and respond to stakeholder groups' recommendations. In response, in 2012, DHS provided information showing that its Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) now tracks recommendations from stakeholder groups through meeting reports and monthly status updates. OEC has also shared this information with other federal agencies through the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC). Going forward, DHS reported its plans to continue to use the ECPC as an interagency focal point for tracking, assessing, and responding to stakeholder group recommendations. As a result, DHS's actions will help to boost the value of these stakeholder groups through improved monitoring and accountability of agency responses to stakeholder recommendations, avoiding duplication of efforts, and identifying opportunities to work with other agencies.

    Recommendation: To improve federal agencies' collaboration and monitoring in efforts related to emergency communications and to help DHS and FCC enhance the value of stakeholder groups' recommendations, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission should systematically track, assess, and respond to stakeholder groups' recommendations, including identifying actions taken by the agencies in response to recommendations, whether recommendations are duplicative with past recommendations, and opportunities to work with other agencies, as appropriate, to advance recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that while DHS has leveraged its expertise in emergency communications planning to provide technical assistance and guidance, these efforts have focused on state and local jurisdictions, and less so on other federal agencies, some of which do not have formal emergency communications plans. Without such planning and understanding, federal agencies' fundamental readiness and response declines, including their ability to support state and local first responders in disaster. DHS's past experience and expertise in leveraging resources to assist states with emergency communications planning also made it well suited to offer such assistance to federal agencies as they craft plans. We recommended that DHS provide guidance and technical assistance to help federal agencies develop formal emergency communications plans. In response, in 2012, DHS reported creating an internal committee that devised strategies to help federal agencies prepare for emergencies. DHS also reported using the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC) to work with other agencies to establish strategies to meet current and future challenges in emergency communications. One of those strategies includes improving the alignment of strategic and operational emergency communications planning efforts across all levels of government. As a result, these actions will assist federal agencies with planning for an emergency situation and will include evaluating how their communications assets and capabilities could best assist state and local first responders in disaster.

    Recommendation: To improve federal agencies' collaboration and monitoring in efforts related to emergency communications and to help ensure that federal agencies and their communications assets are well-positioned to support state and local first responders in catastrophic disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should provide guidance and technical assistance to federal agencies in developing formal emergency communications plans. These plans could include identifying how federal agencies' communications resources and assets will support state and local first responders in a disaster.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that DHS and FCC had not established a common vision or mutually reinforcing strategies for agency emergency communications efforts. Both of these are collaboration best practices, which can help federal agencies deal with issues that are national in scope and cross agency jurisdictions. Strong collaboration is especially important since DHS has limited authority to compel other federal agencies to participate or align their emergency communications activities. We recommended that DHS and FCC establish a forum, or other mechanism, to better collaborate on each agency's emergency communications efforts, such as implementing the National Emergency Communications Plan. In 2013, we confirmed that DHS had included several collaboration elements in its establishment of the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center that respond to this recommendation. For example, representatives from DHS and FCC are on the rosters of both the executive and steering committee groups for the Center. The Center's charter states that it will complement ongoing efforts of federal agencies focused on the advancement of emergency communications. The Center's charter also outlines several activities that will be made consistent with information in the National Emergency Communications Plan, or be incorporated into future plan updates. As a result, DHS's actions will help federal agencies speak with one voice as they work with state, local, tribal, and private stakeholders on emergency communications efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve federal agencies' collaboration and monitoring in efforts related to emergency communications and to help ensure that DHS and FCC's significant emergency communications efforts, such as the National Emergency Communications Plan and the 700 MHz Public/Private Partnership, have a common vision and mutually reinforcing strategies, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission should establish a forum, or other mechanism, to better collaborate on each agency's emergency communications efforts. Such collaboration could identify opportunities for aligning agency activities to ensure that they are mutually reinforcing, as well as developing an action plan or other working document to develop a common vision for implementation of the National Emergency Communications Plan and its relationship to the future 700 MHz Public/Private Partnership.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we reported that FCC had only limited processes in place to monitor and evaluate recommendations from stakeholder groups in regards to improving emergency communications and based on lessons learned from previous disasters. FCC had various ways of examining some stakeholder group recommendations, but no mechanisms to systematically monitor and evaluate all recommendations from stakeholder groups. Without such monitoring mechanisms, it was unclear how and to what extent federal agencies have considered, or incorporated, the information provided by these groups. We had previously reported that monitoring and evaluating efforts are crucial elements to achieving agency goals, in this case for emergency communications. We recommended that FCC systematically track, assess, and respond to stakeholder groups' recommendations. In 2013, we confirmed that FCC had begun participating in the Emergency Communications Preparedness Center (ECPC), which was established by DHS in 2009. FCC's ongoing participation and involvement will help federal agencies, including FCC itself, to use the ECPC as an interagency focal point for tracking, assessing, and responding to stakeholder group recommendations. As a result, these actions will help to boost the value of stakeholder groups through improved monitoring and accountability of agency responses to stakeholder recommendations, avoiding duplication of efforts, and identifying opportunities to work with other agencies.

    Recommendation: To improve federal agencies' collaboration and monitoring in efforts related to emergency communications and to help DHS and FCC enhance the value of stakeholder groups' recommendations, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission should systematically track, assess, and respond to stakeholder groups' recommendations, including identifying actions taken by the agencies in response to recommendations, whether recommendations are duplicative with past recommendations, and opportunities to work with other agencies, as appropriate, to advance recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

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