Skinner: Topoff would benefit from effective info sharing

The federal government's biennial Top Officials exercise for homeland security would be more effective if IT systems were developed to track and share information more openly and efficiently among participating agencies and with the private sector, according to a new report from the Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner.

The report evaluates the Topoff 3 exercise conducted in April 2005 that simulated a pneumonic plague outbreak in Union and Middlesex counties in New Jersey and a mustard gas attack in New London, Conn. The participants included 27 federal, 30 state and 44 local departments and agencies and 156 private-sector organizations.

Overall objectives for the drill were met, the inspector general concluded, but "there is room for improved coordination," he said. Among the shortcomings was participants' lack of understanding of the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System.

In the area of information-sharing, Topoff 3 exposed several deficiencies. The secured messaging system and information-reporting structure was insufficient, the inspector general said. Also, there was no standard format for collecting and reporting and no mechanism to determine when and if mission assignments were processed.

"The exercise highlighted the need for participating responders as well as coordinating departments and agencies to have a common operational picture, which is essential to an efficient and effective command and control structure," the report said.

The inspector general recommended that the executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness design an information management system for future exercises to make information-sharing more standardized and efficient.

In a management response, Matt Mayer, acting director of the state and local coordination office, recommended that the DHS chief information officer be responsible for such an IT system. However, the inspector general rejected that change and the recommendation remains unresolved.

In addition, improvements are needed for better information-sharing with the private sector for future Topoff exercises. Barriers to information-sharing include confusion, existing ad hoc networks, privacy concerns and financial barriers, the report said.

"Current information sharing networks are not geared towards supporting nongovernmental organizations or small business owners," the report said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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