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The Gazette September 10, 2005

NorthCom chief faults training for problems

By Pam Zubeck

U.S. Northern Command and other federal agencies have not trained to immediately intervene if a city and its emergency services are wiped out, which was part of the problem in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

“In exercises we had never been able to simulate with sufficient fidelity how dramatic the challenge is when the first responders aren’t able to respond,” NorthCom chief Adm. Timothy Keating said Friday during a news briefing at NorthCom’s headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base.

Calling the gap a “critical lesson learned,” Keating asserted the Defense Department got help to those in need as quickly as possible.

Keating also said the military is talking about how and when to pull out of the relief effort that has engaged 20,000 active-duty service members and 46,000 National Guard members, at least 15 ships and more than 300 helicopters.

The training weakness drew sharp criticism from homeland security experts.

“I find that ridiculous, frankly,” said Daniel Goure, a homeland security expert with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., public-policy research group. “This means they haven’t thought of the basics. They haven’t worked out the most obvious scenarios.”

Since NorthCom geared up in October 2002 to defend against terrorist attacks and help in natural disasters, it has conducted about 45 drills a year. Up to four a year integrate local, state and federal agencies and contemplate multiple simultaneous events to test capabilities and expose weaknesses.

After the news briefing, NorthCom officials sought to amplify Keating’s remarks. They said the command has met its training objectives under the National Response Plan, a 400-page document written by the Department of Homeland Security and released this year. The plan doesn’t assume annihilation of first responders and local infrastructure.

Gene Pino, a retired Marine colonel who as a civilian oversees NorthCom’s training and exercises, said NorthCom trains for three objectives. Besides rehearsing individual and unit tasks, it incorporates training objectives of local, state and federal agencies who partner in the drills.

“One of the things we tried to accomplish was create an exercise program that would bring those agencies together,” Pino said, “so we aren’t trading business cards in a crisis.”

Michael Perini, NorthCom’s public affairs director, said relationship-building is crucial and noted NorthCom has pioneered interagency exercise development that didn’t exist a few years ago.

Third, NorthCom trains to meet the national plan’s criteria. “The key is, is the National Response Plan adequate for the event that took place?” Pino said, declining to offer an opinion. “It’s a brand-new document. If it needs revision, then let’s take a look at revising it.”

Michael Kucharek, another NorthCom spokesman, said the command’s charge is to support federal agencies. “It is up to the state and local folks to exercise for catastrophic events when the first responders are wiped out,” he said.

Pino said NorthCom trained for a Category 4 hurricane in Texas and the drill didn’t imagine first responders and local infrastructure being incapacitated.

It boils down to one thing for Goure: “It hit before we were ready. The thinking being done to support homeland security activities is not very good.”

Goure found it “particularly amazing” that NorthCom didn’t train for the absence of first responders and infrastructure, because those factors would substantially change its involvement.

John Pike, executive director of the defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., called the training void “bewildering.”

“You have to wonder when they’re looking at plans for things we’ve never experienced how useful that planning process is,” he said.

But Pike said NorthCom shouldn’t be singled out. “There’s more than enough blame to go around here. There was plenty of irresponsibility,” he said, starting with New Orleans not recognizing the evacuation problem.

Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for domestic security, said Katrina “has exposed, perhaps ultimately to our benefit, a deficiency in terms of replacing first responders who tragically may be the first casualties,” The New York Times reported Friday.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, according to The Times, suggested active-duty service members intervene if front-line civilian personnel are stricken. But the Pentagon wants reinforcements to be drawn from civilian police, firefighters, medical personnel and hazardouswaste experts in other states not affected by a disaster.

During his news briefing, Keating said 50 people are compiling an “exhaustive” appraisal of responses that will lead to reforms; some changes are being made on the fly as flaws are uncovered.

Unsolicited domestic help and that from 90 nations have posed “a bit of a challenge,” he said, but provide “an opportunity” to figure out how to integrate them into agencies’ relief efforts.

Keating said despite the Defense Department’s commitment in the Gulf region, it is prepared to handle another event, and the Pentagon is thinking about removing resources from the Gulf as the need subsides.

“It will be measured in weeks rather than short-term days, but we are actively involved in that planning process right now,” he said.


Copyright 2005, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information