It has been 10 years since the U.S. government started the first of what are now a large number of domestic-preparedness programs.  In the interim, significant investments have been made in the preparedness capabilities of all levels of government – state and local as well as federal – in a major effort to help communities throughout the country prevent, protect, respond, and recover from catastrophic events of all types, whether natural or manmade.  

However, determining precisely how much and how well the nation is prepared today – and for what – is still a daunting challenge. The appropriations language in the fiscal year 2007 DHS (Department of Homeland Security) budget bill requires that each state receiving federal preparedness assistance funds develop and submit a preparedness report to the department. This report must include an assessment of current capability levels as well as a description of the state’s target capability levels. The appropriations language further requires that the states initiate what amounts to a “gap analysis” – i.e., a report that not only includes measurements of current capability but also identifies the additional capabilities needed to meet national preparedness priorities.    

However, such an analysis can be conducted only by first determining the nature of the risk the specific The types and magnitude of potential incidents that the nation confronts have changed in the past, and can change again in the future. state is facing and what is needed to reduce that risk. A comprehensive and quantifiable risk assessment, therefore, should be the underpinning of any capability-gap analysis and the basis on which all preparedness investments are made. It is only after a true risk assessment has been completed, in fact, that a state can: (a) determine the capabilities needed to reduce its risks; and (b) make the investments needed to acquire and/or sustain the specific capabilities that would have the greatest impact on “buying down” the state’s risk.     

Catastrophes and Capabilities: Some Critical Questions The lessons learned from major disasters, natural and manmade, in the recent past – tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes, to take the most obvious examples – have demonstrated that risks are inherently dynamic, which means that the types and magnitude of potential incidents that the nation confronts have changed in the past, and can change again in the future. What is necessary, therefore – for states to truly quantify any existing gaps in their prevention, protection, response, and recovery capabilities – is to review both their current all-hazards risk profiles and the impact of their past and ongoing preparedness investments.  

That review must take into account public expectations and not only current state and local capabilities, but federal capabilities as well. In short, the assessment must be risk-based, measurable, and replicable, and should help a state answer three critical preparedness questions: What capability is needed? How much capability is needed? And where is it needed? Establishing and following a rigorous process to answer these questions not only will enable states to continuously evaluate their risks and capabilities, but also ensure that they are making the right investments to reduce the greatest amount of risk – a very high priority in an environment of limited resources. This would be the most important first step in an overall process of identifying capability gaps, investing the resources needed to close those gaps, and then testing – through frequent exercises, preferably – to ensure that the results achieved meet the expectations that have been set. 

Once conducted, this process should be repeated regularly, and should include both performance-based evaluations, through exercises, and the development of “score cards” that provide the transparency needed for citizens to form their own opinions of the state’s preparedness capabilities. Accomplishing all this requires that states do the following: (a) produce a credible risk picture by using relevant data (usually available from state, region, and federal governments); (b) measure current capability gaps, and the extent to which risk might be mitigated by improving and/or expanding current capabilities; and (c) develop a standardized method to measure progress and improvements. Not until each state has gone through this process will the American people be able to determine, with any reasonable degree of confidence, how well prepared their own communities, and the nation, really are.

Timothy Beres

Timothy Beres is Vice President and Director of the Safety and Security Division of CNA, a not-for-profit research organization. Prior to joining CNA, he held senior leadership positions in the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Tech, is a public speaker, and has authored numerous articles in the field of homeland security. In 2005, he received the National Grants Management Association's Distinguished Service Award.

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