Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff will put his stamp on the DHS through a major reorganization of the troubled agency, which is scheduled for October. State and local officials hope the changes will both improve federal disaster response and promote better intergovernmental communications.
The overhaul includes eliminating the position of the director for emergency preparedness and response, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and creating a new emergency preparedness division meant to focus exclusively on preparedness activities. In addition, FEMA will report directly to the secretary and be the department's response division.
The reorganization also creates a new Office of Intelligence and Analysis, tasked with disseminating information to appropriate federal, state and local partners.
But how much will the country, and specifically state and local public safety officials, benefit from the DHS reorganization? In August, during a break from meetings with DHS staff, Arizona Director of Homeland Security Frank Navarrete expressed guarded optimism.
"We're hearing the right words, and the sense of direction seems to be positive," Navarrete said. "Quite frankly [Chertoff] is taking on some pretty significant changes to streamline the operation, and make us all more efficient and effective."
Those changes include improving the way information is shared with state and local officials -- which has improved somewhat since 9/11, with the advent of the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) and as a result of Joint Terrorism Task Forces. But officials charged with protecting local communities continue to express frustration that intelligence is too often tardy and lacking detail by the time it reaches states.
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The DHS convened two days of meetings in August with state and local officials to discuss Chertoff's six-point agenda for reorganization. The agenda focuses on preparing the nation for a devastating attack by securing transportation modes, improving cargo screening technology, improving border protection with technology, and enhancing information sharing with state and local government officials. This will include supporting data fusion centers emerging in a number of states, revising the Homeland Security Advisory System, creating a new Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and consolidating preparedness efforts.
The six-point agenda stemmed from an extensive department review undertaken by Chertoff soon after his appointment in March. The agency sustained a barrage of criticism that, in its two-year existence, it plodded toward a vague mission with an unfocused, poorly coordinated staff of 180,000 employees.
The summit included state homeland security directors and emergency managers from around the country who listened to Chertoff and his staff, and provided feedback on the upcoming changes.
"We recognize that information sharing is not perfect yet," said Valerie Smith, assistant press secretary of the DHS. "As the secretary pointed out in his speech on July 13, information sharing -- or better information sharing -- with state, local and tribal partners, is going to be one of the six most important priorities for the year ahead, and he did say he would announce more specifics in the next few weeks and months."
The DHS attempted to address this issue by creating the HSIN and a series of local Joint Terrorism Task Forces. But these moves haven't completely cured the problem.
The HSIN links the Homeland Security Operations Center to state homeland security offices, public safety departments, emergency operations centers and offices of the National Guard via computer-based communications.
Joint Terrorism Task Forces focus on homeland security intelligence matters. The FBI has a Joint Terrorism Task Force in each of the 56 FBI field offices throughout the country, as well as 10 stand-alone, formalized task forces in its largest satellite offices known as resident agencies, according to the FBI.
It is hoped that the new Office of Intelligence and Analysis will promote better communications among