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Major U.S. cities lack the capabilities and know-how to effectively deal with the fallout from a large-scale nuclear and radiological attack by terrorists, according to the government’s top watchdog group.
The federal government has conducted “limited” planning and offered little guidance to major cities that are vulnerable to either a radiological or nuclear attack, according to a Monday report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The disorganization and lack of preparedness could lead to a “disjointed” emergency response, increasing “the consequences,” fatalities, and economic toll of such a disaster, the report said.
These potentially catastrophic “gaps in early response abilities warrant federal attention,” the GAO said.
Most major cities admitted that while local emergency personnel could scramble to treat victims, they remain uncertain about how exactly to deal with such an attack and whether the federal government would come to their assistance.
There is currently “limited federal planning guidance related to the early response capabilities needed by cities for the large attack depicted in the national planning scenarios,” the GAO reported.
The GAO recommends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “develop guidance to clarify the early response capabilities needed by cities for RDD [radiological dispersion device] and IND [improvised nuclear device] attacks.”
“Without greater awareness of and additional federal guidance on the capabilities needed by cities for early response to these attacks, cities may not have the information they need to adequately prepare for and respond to them,” the report found. “This could lead to complications that result in greater loss of life and economic impacts.”
While the GAO has communicated these concerns to FEMA, the federal agency “did not concur” with its recommendation, according to the report.
The GAO approached emergency response officials from 27 major cities including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
These officials reported that they were not certain if the federal government would assist them should a major terrorist attack occur.
“GAO found that federal guidance on the type and timing of such assistance is not readily available or understood by all emergency managers,” the report said.
“This condition could lead to a disjointed and untimely response that might increase the consequences of either kind of attack,” the report said. “Emergency managers also reported a need for improved procedures and more information that FEMA is addressing.”
Of the 27 cities surveyed by the GAO, 11 reported having compiled a radiological disaster response plan. Eight reported that they had a nuclear response plan.
Major cities said that they would primarily rely on their local emergency response teams, though it remains unclear if these first responders are trained for such a disastrous and potentially complicated situation.
“All 27 cities were perceived by their emergency managers as being able to conduct at least a few of the early response activities after an [radiological] attack, such as treating casualties, with assistance from other jurisdictions but not federal assistance,” the report said.
However, “10 of those cities were perceived as not being able to conduct any of the response activities for an [nuclear] attack without federal assistance.”
FEMA maintains that federal guidance would not be necessary despite the apparent lack of preparation and coordination with the federal government, according to the report.
“Federal guidance may not be needed, according to FEMA officials, because they expect cities to address a more likely but smaller [radiological] attack—as they would a hazardous materials spill—with limited federal assistance,” the report said.
“More federal planning guidance applicable to cities has been developed for [a nuclear] response, but this guidance does not detail the early response capabilities needed by cities in relation to other sources of assistance,” the report said.
The GAO is warning congressional leaders that much more preparation and coordination is needed.
“A disjointed or untimely response could put many additional lives at risk, increase economic consequences, and undermine the public’s confidence in the federal, state, and local governments’ ability to respond to such a crisis,” the GAO wrote in a Monday letter to Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.