NLE 09 Exercise Reveals Interagency Communications Problems Persist

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Interagency communications remains the toughest challenge in a large-scale response to a terrorist attack, according to two defense and public safety officers who participated in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 2009 National Level Exercise (NLE 09), which simulated a terrorist attack scenario involving a number of high-level targets in the U.S.

"Communications are not adequate to modern day needs," said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Leonard, chief-planning & readiness for the U.S. Coast Guard. "We also need to improve the way we share information with the private sector."

Speaking Wednesday at the 2010 Industrial Fire, Safety & Security Expo in Houston, Leonard tag-teamed his presentation with Lt. Gary Scheibe of the Houston Police Department' Criminal Intelligence-Homeland Security unit. Both were involved in NLE 09 activities in FEMA Region VI, which takes in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Control sites included the Houston Fusion Center and an emergency operations training center in College Station, Texas.

In addition to proffering lessons, the exercises also validated number of best practices, including the effectiveness of pre-set action plans. The communications requirements that emerged however, should fuel interest in the greater use of integrated voice, data and video networks to evaluate threats, determine proper response and relay information to and from command posts and response teams in the field.

With the Department of Homeland Security stinging from its mishandling of the actionable intelligence that surrounded the Christmas Day airline bomber, plus the assessment by Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, who told Congress earlier this week that he expects Al Qaeda to attempt another attack in the next three to six months, the push to solve communications problems among various intelligence, defense and police and private sector agencies has gained renewed urgency.

NLE 09, conducted between July 27 and 31, 2009, focused on information sharing among intelligence and law enforcement communities, and between international, federal, regional, state, tribal, local and private sector participants.

The NLE 09 scenario was set as an aftermath of a national terrorist event outside of the U.S., and centered on preventing subsequent attacks on domestic targets, including critical infrastructure. It used the dynamic adversary concept, meaning the participants taking the terrorist role were permitted to adapt their plans in response to government countermeasures.

Leonard and Scheibe had roles in coordinating responses in the Houston-Galveston area, which in addition to the Houston Ship Channel, a major delivery point for much of the U.S.'s imported petroleum, includes a significant number of oil and gas refineries and chemical plants.

Among the lessons learned from the exercise:

* Communications coordination between responders continues to be a problem. In some cases, it was a matter of facilities not being able to handle the scale, such as keeping 30 individuals on line at once. In other cases it was a matter of determining a proper contact at a specific agency.
* The public sector must improve its sharing of information with the private sector. Too often, critical information is withheld on the basis of overvigilant "need-to-know" restrictions.
* Homeport, the Coast Guard's main Web portal for communicating with the private sector, needs to be more user-friendly.
* The Coast Guard must improve the process to facilitate timely notification of stakeholders regarding maritime security (MARSEC) levels and alerts. Alert elevations were promulgated quickly, Leonard noted, but notices of alert downgrades were often slow.
* Pre-formatted messages, containing specific response instructions, need to be developed and used to enhance notification and interagency communication. These messages, loaded in mass notification systems, can be quickly dispatched when required.

Read about the Coast Guard's upgrade of its IWSAlerts emergency notification system here.

Despite efforts to work better across agency lines during emergencies, NLE 09 revealed that the "silo effect" still exists, Scheibe said, which he sees as a critical vulnerability. "Criminals and terrorists don't care about fence lines and jurisdictions."

Although the exercise spotlighted problems, it did validate a number of best practices.

Centralized operations centers, such as the Houston Fusion Center, proved to be a viable and effective means to assess intelligence. Pre-formulated action plans proved effective. Most NLE participants had response plans in place which largely worked, Leonard said. Private sector participants had anticipated needs and force levels and knew what required from the military and police agencies. Scheibe likened a terrorist response plan to the first ten plays a football coach might script before a game. Such plans, however, Leonard said need to be regularly revised and updated, and compared against plans of local first responders and neighboring facilities. "It has to be a living, breathing document, not a big, thick plan that stays on a desk," Leonard said.

Best efforts and practical lessons learned may contribute to a better understanding of the value of converged security and the role of physical security information management (PSIM), which can gather, sort and prioritize security threats and recommend action according to pre-set rules. The Port of Houston and the city itself have adopted PSIM solutions. More should be discussed at this afternoon's IFSS session on the Houston Fusion Center.

Interagency communications remains the toughest challenge in a large-scale response to a terrorist attack, according to two defense and public safety officers who participated in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 2009 National Level Exercise (NLE 09), which simulated a terrorist attack scenario involving a number of high-level targets in the U.S.

"Communications are not adequate to modern day needs," said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Leonard, chief-planning & readiness for the U.S. Coast Guard. "We also need to improve the way we share information with the private sector."

Speaking Wednesday at the 2010 Industrial Fire, Safety & Security Expo in Houston, Leonard tag-teamed his presentation with Lt. Gary Scheibe of the Houston Police Department' Criminal Intelligence-Homeland Security unit. Both were involved in NLE 09 activities in FEMA Region VI, which takes in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Control sites included the Houston Fusion Center and an emergency operations training center in College Station, Texas.

In addition to proffering lessons, the exercises also validated number of best practices, including the effectiveness of pre-set action plans. The communications requirements that emerged however, should fuel interest in the greater use of integrated voice, data and video networks to evaluate threats, determine proper response and relay information to and from command posts and response teams in the field.

With the Department of Homeland Security stinging from its mishandling of the actionable intelligence that surrounded the Christmas Day airline bomber, plus the assessment by Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, who told Congress earlier this week that he expects Al Qaeda to attempt another attack in the next three to six months, the push to solve communications problems among various intelligence, defense and police and private sector agencies has gained renewed urgency.

NLE 09, conducted between July 27 and 31, 2009, focused on information sharing among intelligence and law enforcement communities, and between international, federal, regional, state, tribal, local and private sector participants.

The NLE 09 scenario was set as an aftermath of a national terrorist event outside of the U.S., and centered on preventing subsequent attacks on domestic targets, including critical infrastructure. It used the dynamic adversary concept, meaning the participants taking the terrorist role were permitted to adapt their plans in response to government countermeasures.

Leonard and Scheibe had roles in coordinating responses in the Houston-Galveston area, which in addition to the Houston Ship Channel, a major delivery point for much of the U.S.'s imported petroleum, includes a significant number of oil and gas refineries and chemical plants.

Among the lessons learned from the exercise:

* Communications coordination between responders continues to be a problem. In some cases, it was a matter of facilities not being able to handle the scale, such as keeping 30 individuals on line at once. In other cases it was a matter of determining a proper contact at a specific agency.
* The public sector must improve its sharing of information with the private sector. Too often, critical information is withheld on the basis of overvigilant "need-to-know" restrictions.
* Homeport, the Coast Guard's main Web portal for communicating with the private sector, needs to be more user-friendly.
* The Coast Guard must improve the process to facilitate timely notification of stakeholders regarding maritime security (MARSEC) levels and alerts. Alert elevations were promulgated quickly, Leonard noted, but notices of alert downgrades were often slow.
* Pre-formatted messages, containing specific response instructions, need to be developed and used to enhance notification and interagency communication. These messages, loaded in mass notification systems, can be quickly dispatched when required.

Read about the Coast Guard's upgrade of its IWSAlerts emergency notification system here.

Despite efforts to work better across agency lines during emergencies, NLE 09 revealed that the "silo effect" still exists, Scheibe said, which he sees as a critical vulnerability. "Criminals and terrorists don't care about fence lines and jurisdictions."

Although the exercise spotlighted problems, it did validate a number of best practices.

Centralized operations centers, such as the Houston Fusion Center, proved to be a viable and effective means to assess intelligence. Pre-formulated action plans proved effective. Most NLE participants had response plans in place which largely worked, Leonard said. Private sector participants had anticipated needs and force levels and knew what required from the military and police agencies. Scheibe likened a terrorist response plan to the first ten plays a football coach might script before a game. Such plans, however, Leonard said need to be regularly revised and updated, and compared against plans of local first responders and neighboring facilities. "It has to be a living, breathing document, not a big, thick plan that stays on a desk," Leonard said.

Best efforts and practical lessons learned may contribute to a better understanding of the value of converged security and the role of physical security information management (PSIM), which can gather, sort and prioritize security threats and recommend action according to pre-set rules. The Port of Houston and the city itself have adopted PSIM solutions. More should be discussed at this afternoon's IFSS session on the Houston Fusion Center.

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