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Panelists say regional DHS offices would help disaster response

Participants in Heritage Foundation discussion differ on the role the private sector should play in a regional support system.

The Homeland Security Department should establish regional offices to better support emergency responders in the event of a major terrorist attack or other catastrophe, experts said Monday.

The department has said it intends in this fiscal year to begin developing a regional structure, an idea long championed by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Proponents say regional offices would better incorporate state and local officials' needs into the department's plans and would improve coordination of multi-jurisdiction response efforts, which are often ad hoc or uneven.

Experts at a Heritage Foundation discussion agreed that regional offices are needed to aid state and local responders but differed over questions such as whether aspects of the effort should be outsourced to private companies.

"The regional organization must be about one thing only, and that's the deliverance - the assured deliverance - of preparedness for a catastrophic incident," said Computer Sciences Corporation consultant William Moore.

The retired U.S. Army major general said Hurricane Katrina showed that the federal government was ill equipped to step in effectively in a catastrophe large enough to outstrip local capacity.

"Are we better now than we were when Katrina hit? I think the answer is 'not so,'" he said.

Former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, now a Heritage Foundation fellow, said state and local responders need more help and better coordination systems for catastrophes.

"They feel a lack of connectivity between the federal and the local governments," Meese said, referring to local officials around the country to whom he has spoken.

The two differed over the role of private industry in the effort. Moore said administration of a "regional contingency support system" comprising 10 offices around the country should be contracted out to the private sector, which he said is "more agile" and has "greater resources" than government.

"Industry hasn't been as prominent a player as they ought to be," Moore said. "I would suggest that we outsource - that shakes a lot of people, I know - a lot of support services."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's existing regional structure, Moore said, proved inadequate during the hurricane and should not now be copied by Homeland Security as a whole. Private contractors would have performed better, he said.

"The current effort won't get the job done when D-Day comes," Moore said.

Meese encouraged using the "lessons learned" from Katrina to "correct the deficiencies" - not start from scratch with a new approach.

"Let's keep it as simple as possible and use what has already worked and build on that," Meese said.

In a paper last week, Meese, Heritage Foundation colleague James Carafano and Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis expert Richard Weitz argued that Homeland Security "should create a regional framework that primarily serves the needs of states, local communities and the private sector."

The National Response Plan and National Incident Management System can "provide the national hub" for the regional network, but Homeland Security "lacks a suitable operational structure to support them," the three wrote. They said the regional network should be placed under an undersecretary for preparedness, bringing together parts of various Homeland Security component agencies and most department grant-making authority.

"The DHS should create a regional framework with the primary aims of enhancing information-sharing and other coordination among the states, the private sector and the DHS headquarters in Washington. The regional offices should not have operational or policy-making responsibilities," they wrote.