State Department urged to improve evacuation training

The State Department needs to provide more frequent and more relevant training to Foreign Service officers posted overseas to ensure that evacuations of American citizens and embassy staff are conducted safely and effectively, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

"About 24 percent of posts reported that [Emergency Action Committee] members are only somewhat aware or not aware of their responsibilities and need to make more preparations for evacuation under the new [Emergency Action Program]," GAO investigators found. "Over 75 percent of posts reported that EAC members receive training or rehearse their assigned emergency action functions on the EAC at most once a year, if at all."

The training often does not address some of the most pressing gaps in preparations for evacuations, the report (GAO-08-23) stated.

Less than a third of posts reported that officials from host governments participated in evacuation drills or exercises, the investigators said. And though the Defense Department has a memorandum of understanding with the State Department to provide assistance during emergencies, many State officials told the GAO that they were not trained on how to work with the military during a crisis.

"A majority of posts reported that they have had little or no training or preparations for a potential large-scale evacuation with DoD," the report stated. "Since large-scale DoD-assisted evacuations occur infrequently, explicit guidance between State and DoD is needed to speed communication and coordination between the departments."

In addition, State Department staff members told GAO that the training exercises they used involved unlikely scenarios.

"For example, staff at one post said the exercises focused on a catastrophic but unlikely scenario, such as a weapons of mass destruction attack, rather than smaller-scale, more likely events, such as an ordinary bomb blast," the report said. "Staff at another post pointed out that such catastrophic scenarios are inappropriate because they involve post staff making decisions that would normally be made at a much higher level in Washington, D.C."

The State Department concurred generally with the GAO's finding that training needs to be improved, but noted that not all scenarios are relevant to all postings and not all embassy staff need evacuation training.

"In some countries, the stability of the society, economy and political situation weighs heavily against the possibility of a mass evacuation of American citizens or a drawdown of our posts," wrote Bradford Higgins, assistant secretary for resource management, in State's response. "Posts in these countries face a far greater likelihood of other contingencies: terrorism, mass casualty events (e.g., a plane crash), demonstrations near the embassy, etc. Including evacuation training in all of our exercises -- including posts where evacuation is improbable -- would not be the best use of training time and resources."

GAO did praise certain innovations in State Department evacuation training, including planning more targeted exercises devoted to improving specific skills, designing situations that include both government and private sector entities and using teleconferencing to facilitate training.

"Staff at one post cited examples of shorter, more practical exercises," the investigators found. "These included an exercise focused on bird flu, which preceded an actual case of bird flu in the country, and one in which they practiced text messaging their colleagues to warn of a car bomb at the embassy so people would know not to go back into the building after returning from lunch."

The Foreign Service Institute has used videoconferences for exercises tailored to upcoming events that pose a risk, such as major sporting events, the report said. "It has also conducted videoconferencing-based exercises from hubs in several countries that have allowed staff from outlying posts to participate without having to travel to the training location." GAO stated.

Higgins also noted that the State Department wants to include plans for countries to receive evacuees. "Our mission in Germany is not a likely candidate for evacuation, but the Consulate General in Frankfurt, located at a major transit point for international air travel, has received evacuees in the past from other countries and posts," he wrote.

Despite these innovations, State needs to do a better job of incorporating the experiences of officials who have actually managed successful evacuations, GAO said.

"While the material presented in the courses [at the Foreign Service Institute] provided some useful information," the report noted, "some of the most practical, as well as engaging, parts of these course segments -- comments from participants who happened to have been through evacuations -- were included by chance rather than being formally incorporated."

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