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Homeland Security releases national emergency plan

From Mike M. Ahlers

Department of Homeland Security
Tom Ridge
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Department of Homeland Security released a wide-ranging national response plan on Thursday to coordinate U.S. government response to large-scale emergencies, including terrorist attacks.

Department officials described the document as historic. For the first time, they said, all federal government departments and agencies will be using the same plan when responding to major incidents such as terrorist attacks, major industrial accidents, hurricanes, tornadoes or tsunamis.

Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge -- who resigned in November and is expected to leave office next month -- unveiled the plan at an afternoon news conference.

"Completion of the [plan] has been one of my department's highest priorities," Ridge said in prepared, written remarks for the document's official release.

The plan will be phased in during the course of a year, replacing an interim plan put into effect in late 2003. Its "tripwire" is any "incident of national significance," defined as "high-impact events that require a coordinated and effective response ... to save lives, minimize damage" and provide for long-term recovery.

DHS officials are quick to say the plan is not a federal effort to muscle in on local authority. The plan was developed by representatives of all levels of government and non-governmental organizations such as the American Red Cross, and it does not change the authority of any government agency at any level, they say.

But it does delineate how the federal agencies coordinate with each other and with state, local and tribal governments during emergencies.

The plan joins together -- and in some cases supplants -- a patchwork of federal emergency response plans, said Robert Stephan, special assistant to Ridge.

Under the old system, an attack by a radiological weapon -- such as a so-called dirty bomb -- would have led to the activation of an FBI response plan, a Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan and probably a half dozen other plans, Stephan said. The new system brings all of those plans under one umbrella, replacing some and integrating others, he said.

When an incident of national significance is declared, the secretary of Homeland Security will have the authority to bring all relevant federal officials together to coordinate a response, and to send a federal officer to the scene to coordinate the federal response there. The secretary will also have the authority to referee disputes.

But the individual departments will retain their authority. In a dirty bomb incident, for example, the FBI remains in charge of the investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency will be responsible for decontamination, Health and Human Services will oversee public health, and so on.

There are four ways in which the secretary of Homeland Security can declare an incident of national significance -- at the direction of the president; when a federal department or agency acting under its own authority requests the assistance of the secretary of Homeland Security; when state and local authorities are overwhelmed and request federal assistance; or when more than one federal department or agency has become substantially involved in responding to an incident.

The plan is lengthy and, officials acknowledge, a dull read. And it is complicated. Certain components of the plan -- such as a 24-hour Homeland Security Operations Center -- are operational.

In the event of a significant incident, only necessary portions of the plan are likely to be activated. The response is "scalable," Stephan said.

Stephan said he expects the plan to evolve over time. The plan acts in concert with another behemoth plan, the National Incident Management System, released in March 2004. That document establishes and standardizes training, organization and communications procedures for federal first responders, and outlines chain-of-command issues between federal and local responders.

As if to underscore the idea that the plan does not change the relationship between state and local governments, the first of numerous planning "assumptions" reads, "Incidents are typically managed at the lowest possible geographic, organizational, and jurisdictional level."

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