If Disaster Strikes, How Is DOD Prepared to Help?

Posted on February 28, 2017
When disasters strike, the Department of Defense, including the National Guard, must be prepared to respond quickly to support civil authorities—such as state and local agencies, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. DOD can provide support to civil authorities, when requested, for a wide range of emergencies, including wildfires; earthquakes; chemical, biological, and cyber incidents; and pandemic diseases. We’ve looked into DOD’s strategies, plans, and interagency coordination efforts related to its capacity to offer support during an emergency. Today’s WatchBlog explores what we found. Hashing out responsibilities for cyber response One area where DOD could play a role is if there are cyberattacks on systems that support critical infrastructure, such as utilities. DOD’s 2015 Cyber Strategy warns that a cyberattack could present a significant risk to national security and the U.S. economy. The department has stressed its need to be prepared to support civil authorities in cyberspace, and has highlighted its crucial role in confronting cyber threats to critical infrastructure. We found that DOD and the National Guard have the capability to help during a cyber incident, and that DOD has practiced its responses to simulated cyberattacks on infrastructure. However, DOD has yet to clarify its roles and responsibilities for providing this type of support during an emergency. Limited support during a pandemic Figure 3: Photograph of the Aedes aegypti Mosquito Responsible for Spreading the Zika VirusAnother way DOD could be helpful is in dealing with the ramifications of a pandemic. The U.S. Army estimates that if a severe infectious disease pandemic were to occur in the United States today, over 1 million people could die. In the event of such a pandemic, DOD could help with logistics and transportation, such as distributing medical supplies and other necessities to affected areas. However, we found that DOD may not be in a position to provide this type of assistance because its capabilities may be limited or unavailable. In a severe pandemic, U.S. workforce absenteeism could reach 40 percent during peak weeks of an outbreak. DOD personnel could face a similar absentee rate, diminishing its ability to support civil authorities. But, still ready to serve There’s good news, too. DOD has made progress in preparing to respond to some disasters. It established the Homeland Response Force to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear disasters within 6 to 12 hours of civilian authorities requesting assistance. This type of assistance could include command and control of DOD forces, search and extraction, decontamination, medical triage of victims, and fatality search and recovery.

Figure 4: Region X (Washington) and Region IV (Georgia) Homeland Response Forces Conducting Decontamination and Search and Extraction Tasks during Their Evaluations(Excerpted from GAO-16-599)

DOD could further improve its ability to assist civil authorities during an emergency by addressing unimplemented recommendations from these reports.