A decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, construction on the World Trade Center site in New York City is well under way — and the federal government is still focused on a coordinated response to future disasters. The National Preparedness System is the latest development in the long and bureaucratic process. Photo: Joe Nasvik

When radio and television stations across the country broadcast the first nationwide test of the federal emergency alert system Nov. 2, results were mixed — some people heard the familiar warning tones while others heard Lady Gaga.

The public alert system is just part of the Department of Homeland Security's ongoing effort to develop a more coordinated national framework for emergency response.

As required by President Obama's March 2011 Presidential Policy Directive, PPD-8: National Preparedness, which replaces former President George W. Bush's Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-8), the department is also developing a National Preparedness System. The system is “aimed at facilitating an integrated, all-of-nation, capabilities-based approach.” In other words, getting federal agencies on the same page while providing more user-friendly emergency response guidelines.

Instead of the one-size-fits-all emergency-response template that cities, counties, and states have been required to follow, they can now focus on the disasters most likely to happen. A rural community in the Midwest probably will never experience a hurricane, so rather than waste precious resources devising a detailed response to that possibility, leaders can plan what to do should a freight train jump the local tracks and spill a deadly chemical. Communities will rank potential calamities using FEMA's Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments, a set of standardized tools for identifying, assessing, and prioritizing natural and man-made risks at any level of government.

“The most important difference between the Bush and Obama directives is the emphasis on risk,” says National Emergency Management Association (NEMA)Executive Director Trina Sheets. “The National Preparedness System is intended to be scalable, flexible, adaptable, and include a ‘whole of community' approach — meaning all stakeholders are engaged and represented in the planning process.”


An alleged attack on the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system of the Curran-Gardner Public Water District in Springfield, Ill., that burned out a pump last month turned out to be a false alarm. But as this issue went to press the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation were still looking into a similar incident in South Houston, Texas.

Last year, security experts identified the first known virus designed to take over industrial control systems like those used by water and wastewater utilities. Although U.S. infrastructure systems haven't been affected, the American Public Works Association considers cyberterrorism “the newest — and perhaps one of the most destructive — forms of terrorism in the 21st Century.”

To access 21 Steps to Improve Cyber Security of SCADA Networks, click here.

The directive takes an all-hazards approach that includes cyberattacks (see sidebar on next page) as well as natural disasters. It is structured around five basic tenets: prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery.

A series of interrelated national planning “frameworks” will be issued, addressing each of these areas. The first, a National Disaster Recovery Framework, was released in September. It serves as a guide to how governments and nongovernmental organizations at all levels should work together to restore and redevelop communities. The remaining frameworks are due in June 2012.

As of press time, the full National Preparedness System descriptionis scheduled to be available late November, to include:

  • Operational plans for federal agencies and corresponding guidelines for state, local, tribal, and territorial governments
  • Resource guidance, including arrangements for sharing personnel
  • Equipment guidance, aimed at nationwide interoperability
  • National training and exercise program guidance
  • Recommendations and guidance for businesses, communities, families, and individuals.

It's not yet clear whether or not the National Preparedness System will affect the application process for federal disaster relief or require additional training. Although National Incident Management System (NIMS) training isn't tied to PPD-8 guidelines, they may be a consideration when NIMS undergoes its next review in 2012.

One thing is clear, says Dave Bergner, emergency services planner for Maricopa County in Phoenix, who was hired to involve public works agencies more in regional planning efforts. “This is a chance for public works to get involved and take a place at the table as a major player in emergency management.” Bergner sees this as a growing trend at the state and local level.

In fact, programs such as “CONNECT Colorado” are setting a new standard for emergency preparedness. The public-private partnership seeks to identify resources and capabilities of public entities and businesses across the state that can be made available to emergency responders.

As a member of the PPD-8 working group, the American Public Works Association supports these collective efforts at the national level. The association's Emergency Management Committee has encouraged national policy-makers to consider local level responders because “national preparedness is a bottom-up rather than top-down policy-making process that's only effective when states and localities impart their experiences and expertise.”

FEMA seems to be catching on. The agency's online think tank allows public works professionals to contribute to emergency management decisions by sending ideas and opinions, and joining the ongoing discussion.


For links to PPD-8 and National Preparedness documents, click here.