GAO urges more effort to gird US infrastructure for pandemic

Nov 2, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – The federal government should step up efforts to prepare the nation's key infrastructure industries, such as energy and transportation, for an influenza pandemic, Congress's investigative agency said in a report this week.

The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), released Oct 31, recommends that the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) take the lead in encouraging the "coordinating councils" for the infrastructure sectors to prepare for the challenges the sectors will face during a pandemic.

The coordinating councils are advisory groups set up by DHS to foster collaboration within and between government and the private sector to protect the nation's "critical infrastructure." A government coordinating council and a sector coordinating council were set up for each of 17 industrial sectors, ranging from information technology and telecommunications to water and electric power.

More than 85% of the nation's critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, the report notes. It says that public-private partnerships are vital to ensure that essential services will continue during a pandemic or other national emergency.

The GAO reviewed preparedness efforts in the five sectors (other than public health and healthcare) that it deems most essential to maintaining society and the economy during a pandemic: transportation, food and agriculture, water, electric power, and telecommunications.

The agency interviewed officials from the federal agencies responsible for infrastructure protection related to the five sectors and also reviewed infrastructure protection plans, regulations, and guidance.

The federal government and private sector have already taken some steps to prepare the nation's infrastructure for a pandemic, such as developing general preparedness guidance and determining the number of workers necessary to maintain operations, the GAO says.

In some cases the federal and private sectors are using the coordinating councils to cooperate on infrastructure protection, but those efforts so far focus mainly on hazards in general rather than a pandemic in particular, the report says. Yet some specific pandemic preparations are under way. For example, the Communications Sector Coordinating Council has set up a working group to address telecommuting issues.

Government and private-sector officials who were interviewed by the GAO reported a number of challenges they face in working together on pandemic preparedness:

  • Maintaining a focus on pandemic planning, given the unpredictable timing of a pandemic and the existence of more immediate problems, such as foodborne disease outbreaks
  • Uncertainty about federal and state roles in areas such as state border closures and pandemic flu vaccine distribution
  • Potentially confusing and conflicting messages from the many government agencies responsible for providing information on the pandemic issue
  • Developing strategies to address "the crucial cross-sector interdependencies" in the nation's infrastructure, "such as the electricity and telecommunications capabilities that are necessary to support all the other sectors"
  • A need for more funds for training and infrastructure and dealing with potential legal and regulatory issues

"While some discussion has occurred, there are opportunities to further address these issues through the increased federal and private sector use of the sector-specific and cross-sector coordinating councils," the report states.

DHS is in a good position to lead this endeavor, because it is responsible for coordinating infrastructure protection and is the lead agency for more than half of the critical industrial sectors, the GAO says.

Accordingly, the agency recommends that the DHS secretary, working with other sector-specific agencies, "lead efforts to encourage the government and private sector members of the councils to consider and help address the challenges that will require coordination between the federal and private sectors involved with critical infrastructure and within the various sectors" before and during a pandemic.

A letter from a DHS official, included in the report, says DHS concurs with the GAO recommendation.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the GAO report confirmed his view that DHS should make better use of the infrastructure coordinating councils, according to a Nov 1 report by CQ Homeland Security, published by Congressional Quarterly Inc.

See also:

GAO report: Influenza pandemic: Opportunities exist to address critical infrastructure protection challenges that require federal and private sector coordination
http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0836.pdf

Sep 11 CIDRAP News story "GAO finds gaps in federal pandemic planning"

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