Continuity of Operations:

Selected Agencies Tested Various Capabilities during 2006 Governmentwide Exercise

GAO-08-185: Published: Nov 19, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 2007.

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To ensure the availability of essential government services in emergencies, federal agencies are required to develop continuity of operations (COOP) plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is responsible for disseminating guidance to federal agencies on developing plans, as well as conducting government-wide exercises every other year to assess federal continuity readiness. In June 2006, FEMA conducted an exercise called Forward Challenge 06, to allow agencies to activate COOP plans, deploy essential personnel to alternate facilities, and perform essential functions. GAO was asked to describe the extent to which agencies tested continuity plans and procedures, personnel, and resources during the June 2006 exercise. To do this, GAO selected the eight civilian agencies with significant responsibilities during national disasters, analyzed agency exercise documentation, and interviewed officials to determine which test and exercise activities each agency included in its participation.

During Forward Challenge 06, the eight agencies GAO reviewed performed various test and exercise activities related to COOP plans and procedures, personnel, and resources. In many cases, agencies provided documentation to substantiate the specific test and exercise activities performed. However, in other cases, agencies reported conducting such activities but did not provide supporting documentation. Finally, agencies also reported not testing or exercising certain capabilities during the exercise. In these cases, participating agencies may have addressed these capabilities in other tests and exercises conducted during the year, which were outside the scope of GAO's review. Agencies' inability to substantiate many of the test and exercise activities that they reported performing during Forward Challenge 06 was due in part to the absence of specific guidance on what should be documented in such exercises. While FEMA directed participating agencies to document issues and requirements for corrective action, significant findings, and important observations during the Forward Challenge 06 exercise, it did not require participating agencies to document the specific activities from their test and exercise programs that they conducted during the exercise. Without adequate records of what has been tested during a major governmentwide exercise, agencies lack assurance that they have adequately tested their continuity capabilities at the frequency outlined in FEMA guidance, which may limit their ability to fully evaluate their readiness to respond to a disruption. In addition, adequate records can reduce the potential negative impact of turnover in key personnel due to attrition or change in administration, and strengthen agency internal control capabilities.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2008, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued Federal Continuity Directive 1 (FCD 1), which provided direction to executive branch agencies for developing continuity plans and programs. Among other things, it directs agencies to develop effective test, training and exercise programs in order to assist agencies in preparing and validating their continuity capabilities. As part of this effort, the directive states that agency exercise programs must include compliance with DHS's National Exercise Program (NEP), which coordinates governmnentwide exercises to examine and prepare the U.S. government and its officials for emergencies. Further, it directs agencies to develop corrective action plans that incorporate evaluations, after-action reports, and lessons learned from agency exercises--including agency participation in governmentwide exercises--in order to assist in documenting, prioritizing and resourcing issues identified during continuity exercises.

    Recommendation: To better assist agencies in assessing their readiness to respond to disruptions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Director to require agencies participating in future governmentwide exercises to document the specific test and exercise activities conducted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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