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Keating: Katrina Lessons to Ensure Better U.S. Disaster Response

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2006 – Lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina have been applied to ensure a faster, more efficient and coordinated U.S. emergency response, the commander of U.S. Northern Command said today.

Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating pointed to a wide range of initiatives, all adopted after Hurricane Katrina, to improve the way military troops and assets are used during an emergency when called on by the president or secretary of defense. These include:

-- Thousands of active-duty troops are now on alert at any given time to respond to an emergency. These troops are organized into “force packages” sized according to “the magnitude of the potential catastrophe,” Keating said.

-- New off-the-shelf communications capabilities ensure a steady communication flow even if local cell phone towers or the electrical grid are disabled or destroyed. “We literally put up a small, portable tower, fire up the generator and start handing out cell phones,” Keating said. “That lets us get a first-hand assessment of the situation on the ground — a capability that wasn’t in place last summer.” Keating noted that while DoD has three of these systems, the Department of Homeland Security has about 12.

-- The national response plan, revised by DHS in coordination with DoD and other agencies, ensures a better emergency response. “It is a more effective more efficient, more timely way of providing our citizens the response capability they need,” Keating said.

-- Full-time, active-duty military defense coordinating officers are now positioned in each Federal Emergency Management Agency region to coordinate with DHS and other emergency responders. By building relationships and an understanding of capabilities and requirements before they’re needed, this ensures a faster, better coordinated response, Keating said.

-- NORTHCOM exercises its response capabilities “frequently and vigorously” and continually improves on its disaster planning and coordination. Keating noted an upcoming exercise, Vigilant Shield, which will test the U.S. response to a simulated nuclear accident.

As NORTHCOM fine-tunes its plans and procedures, Keating emphasized, the military’s job isn’t to run emergency response efforts, but rather to support civilian authorities when directed by the president or defense secretary.

“We will respond, as directed, with the capabilities that are in the DoD and the arrows that are in our quiver,” he said. “We’re not interested in taking charge. We’re interested in saving lives and reducing human suffering.”

That mission requires a deviation from the traditional military emphasis on command and control, he said. Now the big watchwords, he said, are “communication and collaboration.”

“You have to be able to talk to each other,” he said. “You have to be able to assess the situation and you have to collaborate — not just coordinate, but collaborate—on the capabilities we can provide, that the first responders can and can’t provide, and that the National Guard under the auspices of their commander in chief, the governor, can provide.”

This collaboration will ensure a better response and “avoid efficient overlap but at all costs, eliminate the seams,” Keating said.

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Adm. Timothy J. Keating, USN

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U.S. Northern Command

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