Although some changes were made to the National Response Plan (NRP) following Hurricane Katrina, significant weaknesses remain in the duties and authority of the Principal Federal Official, the role of the Joint Field Office, and the application of the Incident Command System in the aftermath of a disaster response.   According to the National Response Plan, the Principal Federal Official does not have “directive authority” over other federal and state officials involved in the response of what is termed an “incident of national significance.”  Instead, he or she “coordinates the activities” of federal officials. But that construct does not align with the public and political perceptions and expectations, particularly as demonstrated during the response to Hurricane Katrina, where the Principal Federal Official was generally assumed to be in charge and therefore accountable for the success or failure of the response. In the field of domestic preparedness as in the military and other fields of human endeavor common sense and operating doctrine, according to management officials both inside and out of government, is or should be the same:  Authority must accompany accountability. In other words, whoever is designated the Principal Federal Official must have directive authority over all of the operational units of all federal agencies engaged in the response. The National Response Plan establishes the Joint Field Office (JFO) as a “multi-agency coordination center” that “enables the effective and efficient coordination of federal incident-related” response. The JFO is organized in accordance with the precepts laid down in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) and is led by the Principal Federal Official during incidents of national significance. An Unfortunate and Unworkable Assumption For operational purposes, the JFO focuses on 15 Emergency Support Functions – e.g., communications, mass care, and urban search and rescue–common to most if not all incident-response situations. The JFO receives a request for federal assistance from the state or states affected by a natural or manmade disaster and assigns the request to the official in charge of the appropriate support function, who then coordinates the assistance needed. The problems in JFO operations arise in determining with whom or what agencies the Emergency Support Function coordinate at the field level.   The National Response Plan assumes that an incident command will be established that the Joint Field Office would support. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of specific guidance provided as to what the incident command structure for a disaster should look like, and the possibilities are endless. There might be a single incident command, for example, overseeing all functions of the response and recovery operations. But there might just as easily be several incident commands – one or more overseeing multiple functions while others focus on single functions. Another possibility is a combination of incident commands and other less formally organized response entities. The almost inevitable result of the latter, according to the same management experts, would be an almost certain blurring of responsibilities among the various agencies involved. This looseness in the response structure below the JFO level could significantly degrade the efficiency of units and agencies providing, or receiving, federal assistance. In addition, having an Incident Command attempting to manage several response functions simultaneously during an incident of national significance might not only overwhelm those in charge, but also would diffuse the expertise available. The latter point is easy to overlook, but it should not be. The expertise required to manage a mass rescue is different from the expertise needed to manage mass-casualty care. To correct these and other problems, the JFO should be restructured to function more as a NIMS ICS Unified Area Command. Under NIMS, the Area Command would not be a coordinating body, but a strategic command. Its responsibilities would include but not necessarily be limited to the setting of overall incident-related priorities, the allocation of  critical resources according to priorities, and ensuring not only that incidents are properly managed but also that the incident-management objectives established are met and do not conflict with one another.   A More Logical Chain of Command Under the Area Command construct, the Joint Field Office would be led by a unified command consisting of the Principal Federal Official designated, the governors or empowered representative of the various states involved, and the mayors or empowered  representatives of the larger municipalities within the impacted area. Collectively, those officials would be the logical jurisdictional authorities involved in the strategic management of response operations. Under this same construct, the JFO would provide incident commanders with overarching priorities, receive resource-requirement requests from the incident commanders, obtain the resources needed through local or state emergency operations centers (or from federal agencies), and provide those resources to the incident commanders. Below the Joint Field Office/Area Command there should be a Unified Incident Command for each Emergency Support Function relevant to the situation, each of which would be led by local, state, and/or federal officials possessing the expertise needed for the given function. Each functional incident command would be authorized to communicate directly with its supporting element within the Joint Field Office/Area Command. The Area Command itself would retain the authority and responsibility for ensuring coordination between the various Unified Incident Commands. In short, to more effectively unify and streamline the local, state, and federal response to an incident of national significance, the senior leaders from each level of government must join forces to form a Unified Area Command responsible for providing strategic direction and management of the response and recovery operations. That would ensure not only that the Principal Federal Official has the authority needed to match his or her accountability but also that he or she is formally linked, from the start, with his/her state and local counterparts. The Joint Field Office would be the most logical entity to convert into a Unified Area Command.   Below the JFO level, Unified Incident Commands should be established for each relevant response function: (a) to ensure that the proper expertise is both available and appropriately focused; and (b) to align with the Joint Field Office Emergency Support Function organization to facilitate the flow of external resources to the incident site.

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Translate »