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Opinion: The Covid relief bill is a good start, but what about the next national emergency?

Addressing this virus and its significant effects, as the newly-passed Covid relief bill aims to do, is necessary for the near term. Still, it is not sufficient if we are to be prepared for the next sustained national emergency — such as another pandemic, a major cyber strike or an attack on our energy grid, any of which could grip the entire breadth of the United States in multiple ways over a prolonged period.

Mark Gerencser

To better combat an emergency of this scope and scale, we need to find a way to harness our entire nation’s capacity, including businesses, civic organizations and citizen volunteers. Engaging all of these stakeholders not only enhances our capacity to respond, it also promotes innovation in areas the government can’t possibly achieve or imagine.

Businesses can temporarily re-tool their production floors, re-purpose their supply chains, leverage their distribution channels or redeploy their people to offset debilitating effects such as disrupted supply chains. Similarly, medical doctors and others with critical emergency skills can temporarily transition from their on-going jobs to add significant value through well-managed, shorter-term volunteer work on a national scale.

This so-called “whole of nation” response fits our constitutional model but can’t be effective without proper planning, preparation and coordination. The United States must fundamentally change how it handles emergencies that affect the country’s entire fate. This need motivated us at Business Executives for National Security (BENS) — a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on sharing best business practices, observations and advice with government security partners — to create the Commission for a National Response Enterprise to address this concern.

The commission is composed of former senior military leaders, CEOs of some of the most respected American Corporations, a former cabinet secretary, a Nobel laureate, former White House homeland security advisors, members of Congress and state and local leaders.

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A February report from the commission offers a roadmap to better prepare ourselves for a whole-of-nation response to crises that simultaneously impact numerous states and extend over a prolonged period. Many of the big pieces needed for an answer are in place, but we are challenged in execution, as demonstrated by the pandemic.

Among its recommendations, the commission highlights several important actions:

  • Develop a national emergency response strategy: Over time, the well-intentioned desire to prepare for every possible type of crisis has led to the creation of numerous national plans to respond to specific threats. This proliferation of plans, combined with their infrequent use and testing, can create confusion when new crises occur. A single strategy developed every two years under the Secretary of Homeland Security would provide an over-arching national approach nested in the National Security Strategy, similar to what the Defense Department does with its National Defense Strategy.
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  • Amend the Stafford Act: When state and local response capabilities are overwhelmed by a major disaster or emergency, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorizes the federal government to provide aid in the form of financial, technical, logistical and other assistance. Uncertainty about whether a pandemic is eligible for major disaster assistance resulted in critical delays in federal response and resources to Covid-19. Congress should amend the act to specify eligibility for pandemics, terrorism, cyber events or other disasters of extended duration or with possible national impacts.
  • Re-imagine FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center: The NRCC is a multi-agency center that FEMA can activate to coordinate overall federal support for major disasters and emergencies and to act as a clearinghouse state and local government resources and policies in impacted regions. This center should operate around the clock, 365 days a year, to enable faster more effective action when federal assistance is called for. Additionally, leveraging interoperable IT capabilities and emerging technologies within a redesigned NRCC would create the potential for the secure two-way information exchange and shared data analytics needed by all sectors to drive accurate, real-time decision-making and coordination.
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  • Formation of a Civil Expertise Reserve: Modeled after the National Guard, the CER would recruit, manage, and deploy rapid response forces with critical skills and expertise in fields such as medical, technology, engineering, etc., needed in responding to emergencies. The program would ensure that the talents of professionals are available, trained, maintained, and employed in the most effective manner possible when needed and called upon at the state or federal levels.
  • Provide guaranteed access to broadband: FEMA’s National Response Framework stipulates that every US citizen is responsible for planning and responding to disasters, to the maximum extent possible, before other assistance will be made available. Stay-at-home orders during Covid-19 also demonstrated the essential need to be able to connect to work, school, and healthcare remotely. It’s imperative that the US invest in a high-quality, national digital infrastructure capable of extending service to every household in the nation.

The time is now, while the impact is fresh in our minds, for the administration, Congress, and state and local authorities to come together with the private and civil sectors to make sure the nation is better prepared for our next national emergency crisis response. A whole-of-nation response is the only practical way for us to combat national security crises of these proportions.

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