logo for print

Homeland Security: An overview of the national response plan

In a previous article we looked at the history and functions of the Incident Command System (ICS). Recall that ICS was adopted as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) at the federal level as the preferred method of disaster command and control. Moreover, as we found in the previous article, adoption of NIMS is mandatory for those agencies seeking federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security.

While NIMS is a road map on how to handle disasters, the National Response Plan (NRP) and the Stafford Act define the federal government's role in responding to domestic emergencies.

Download the National Response Plan

One important foundation of the NRP is the assumption that incidents are typically managed best at the lowest possible geographic, organizational or jurisdictional level. This means that even during large disasters, like major terrorist incidents, first responders like you, the cop on the beat, play a key role in managing the incident.

However, since large natural and human-caused disasters can overwhelm state and local governments, the federal government must play a large role in disaster response.

Growing Recognition of the Federal Role

Federal recognition that state and local government are occasionally overwhelmed by disasters began in 1802 when a large fire raged uncontrolled through Portsmouth, New Hampsire, The next year the federal government began to define the federal role with The Congressional Act of 1803.

As our nation grew larger and more complex, so did the complexities of the federal government's role in disaster response. In fact, by 1970, more than 100 federal agencies had some role in providing assistance to state and local governments during a disaster.

In 1979, in an effort to improve and streamline federal response, President Jimmy Carter signed an Executive Order creating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Many of the federal government's disaster response requirements became FEMA's responsibility.

In 1988, Congress passed the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which essentially made the 1979 Presidential Executive Order law. The Stafford Act established a system whereby a Presidential disaster declaration of an emergency triggered the release of federal financial and material assistance to state and local governments.

In 1988, this act was known as the Federal Response Plan, and it was the responsibility of FEMA to coordinate the efforts of more than 25 government agencies and non-governmental organizations.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the Federal government rethought FEMA. James Lee Witt, a professional emergency manager was appointed as the head of FEMA by President Bill Clinton. Witt changed the thinking at FEMA from a "cold war" model to an "all-hazards" model.

Perhaps more importantly, the directorship of FEMA was elevated within the federal bureaucracy to a cabinet-level position, thereby giving the director direct access to the President.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in direct response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Under the massive Federal reorganization, FEMA was absorbed into the DHS. As an immediate effect of the reorganization, the director of FEMA was no longer a cabinet member and access to the President was gained through the new head of the DHS.

Emergency management practitioners debate the degree to which the change in access to the President has inhibited FEMA's ability to respond rapidly to the needs of state and local government. While this debate continues, the National Response Plan does have provisions that allow for timely and adequate response by federal authoritiesi.


    First responders should be familiar with a number of features of the National Response Plan that are designed to increase coordination between federal and local authorities:

    Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC): The HSOC serves as the primary multi-agency, national-level hub for domestic situational awareness and operational coordination. The HSOC also includes DHS components, such as the National Infrastructure Coordinating Center (NICC), which has the primary responsibility for coordinating communications with the nation's critical infrastructure during a disaster.

    National Response Coordination Center (NRCC): The NRCC, a functional component of the HSOC, is a multi-agency center that provides overall federal response coordination.

    Regional Response Coordination Center (RRCC): At the regional level, the RRCC coordinates regional response efforts and implements local federal program support until a Joint Field Office is established.

    Interagency Incident Management Group (IIMG): A tailored group of senior federal interagency experts who provide strategic advice to the Secretary of Homeland Security during an actual or potential Incident of National Significance.

    Joint Field Office (JFO): A temporary federal facility established locally to provide a central point to coordinate resources in support of state, local and tribal authorities.

    Principal Federal Official (PFO): A PFO may be designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security during a potential or actual Incident of National Significance. While individual federal officials retain their authority pertaining to specific aspects of incident management, the PFO works in conjunction with these officials to coordinate overall federal incident management efforts.


Incidents of National Significance

At the federal level, the National Response Plan (NRP) provides for a single response model for both Stafford Act and Non-Stafford Act incidents.

A Stafford Act incident is one in which state and local authorities declare a state of emergency and request federal assistance. The newest term for these types of emergencies is an Incident of National Significance.

A non-Stafford Act incident is essentially all of the other emergencies that occur each year and do not necessarily overwhelm state and local authorities.

However, the NRP recognizes that state and local governments experiencing a non-Stafford Act event would benefit from federal assistance and coordination. For instance, while Hurricane Katrina was an Incident of National Significance, an accidental airline crash may not be an Incident of National Significance. However, due to the circumstances created by an airline crash, state and local authorities may benefit from the use of federal resources.


    The NRP bases the definition of Incidents of National Significance on situations related to the following four criteria set forth in HSPD-5:

    1. A federal department or agency acting under its own authority has requested the assistance of the Secretary of Homeland Security.

    2. The resources of state and local authorities have become overwhelmed and federal assistance has been requested by the appropriate state and local authorities.

    Examples include:

    • Major disasters or emergencies as defined under the Stafford Act;
    • Catastrophic incidents

    3. More than one federal department or agency has become substantially involved in responding to an incident.

    Examples include:

    • Credible threats, indications or warnings of imminent terrorist attack or acts of terrorism directed domestically against the people, property, environment, or political or legal institutions of the United States or its territories or possessions; and
    • Threats or incidents related to high-profile, large-scale events that present high-probability targets such as National Special Security Events (NSSEs) and other special events as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with other federal departments and agencies.

    4. The Secretary of Homeland Security has been directed to assume responsibility for managing a domestic incident by the President. According to the NRP, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) of command and control (as outlined in article five of this series) is to be used for both Stafford Act and Non-Stafford Act incidents. The key for first responders is to be familiar with the NIMS command and control structure so that they are more effective during Incidents of National Significance. Moreover, knowing when and how federal response can be expected should be incorporated into state and local planning.


All-Hazards Approach

The NRP establishes a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident management. Essentially, the concept of an all-hazard approach means that emergency planners identify the similarity of effects that can occur across a range of potential disasters. A good emergency planner looks at how to plan and train for both an earthquake and a suicide bomber.

As an example, an efficient and effective means of planning for terrorist incidents would be to recognize the similarities and differences between the emergency response plans for Hurricane Katrina and the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). One of the striking differences between Katrina and the WTC response efforts is strong local leadership. Within hours after the attack on the WTC, we knew who was in charge. Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, established a strong local presence, providing state and federal officials a conduit through which to aide the City of New York.

In contrast, it remains difficult to identify the one person in charge at Katrina's Ground Zero even now, three months after the disaster. Clearly, strong, competent leadership at the local level is a critical piece of the all-hazards approach and is critical to the implementation of the NRP.

Plans and More Plans

At the federal level there are different plans and responses to incidents involving natural disasters, bombings and even the use of weapons of mass destruction. Depending on what happens, federal agencies provide a variety of resources and play different roles.

As an example, the threat or use of a radiological weapon of mass destruction would trigger a response from the Nuclear Incident Response Team of the Department of Energy (DOE). While the Nuclear Incident Response Team does not directly report to FEMA through the DHS, its response, under the National Response Plan would be coordinated through DHS. As the NRP states, planning for disasters is best done at the smallest organizational, jurisdictional or governmental level.

Whether planning for your beat, your division or your city, you are the best person for the job because you know the needs, strengths and weaknesses of your community. Using an all-hazards approach to your planning, using NIMS as a framework for command and control, and becoming familiar with the different state and federal emergency plans and resources will make your community safer.

i The restrictions placed on the military by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 are not discussed within this article. The law has an interesting and lengthy history. It is likely that we will see changes to the law or perhaps the interpretation and implementation of the act. Suffice to say, as it stands now the United States military, perhaps the organization best equipped and trained to respond massively to disasters is relegated to a supporting role.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Terrorism Prevention and Response

Sponsored by

Copyright © 2018 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.