Veterans Affairs launches new office for homeland security

The Veterans Affairs Department has created a new office to centralize the department's homeland security efforts. VA Secretary Anthony Principi approved the creation of the Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness in November after he and other department officials reviewed the results of a six-week study identifying improvements the department could make in its terrorism response plan. The new office, which will oversee VA's readiness and emergency activities, will merge the department's emergency operations center and security and law enforcement office. "This is a very different animal we're facing now with homeland security problems," VA Deputy Secretary Leo S. Mackay told Government Executive during a recent interview. "In looking back at our experience on Sept. 11…gaps were identified in our ability to control the operations of VA under stressful conditions and offer as emergency backup in the federal response plan the resources that VA brings in medical preparedness and public health," Mackay said. VA plays a key role in the federal government's national preparedness plan by working with state and local health care providers and by providing training for responding to chemical, biological and radiological warfare. While VA is experienced at responding to disasters such as floods or tornadoes, the terrorist attacks brought on unanticipated problems. "We were doing things, but we were not doing things at a departmental level and there wasn't an interagency process," Mackay said. The Office of Operations, Security and Preparedness will review everything from VA's health care assets, to its decontamination and isolation procedures and the size of its law enforcement staff to develop a plan for deploying those resources in emergency situations, Mackay said. Currently, VA is shifting resources inside the department, with a focus on working with the Homeland Security Council, which assists the President on homeland security issues. Mackay and Principi expect VA's new office to bridge the gap between the department and the council. VA officials are still organizing the office, assessing staffing and budget needs and deciding whether or not to establish an assistant secretary position specifically to oversee it. In the interim, responsibility for the office falls to C.M. "Mick" Kicklighter, VA's assistant secretary for policy and planning. "We have new functions that are going to require new slots and new positions, but there is a lot of capability already in residence," Mackay said. "We're looking at how to leverage existing capabilities so that when we stand this office up, we stand it up as a robust entity, with a minimum amount of new hires and new expenditures."
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