Let's rethink America's dysfunctional response to national emergencies

Let's rethink America's dysfunctional response to national emergencies
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The temptation for the Biden administration, the new Democratic Congress, and some in the media to lay the blame for our nation’s calamitous COVID-19 response and the botched vaccine rollout solely at the doorstep of the departed Trump administration is certainly understandable.  The Trump administration’s constructive role in expediting the development of a vaccine cannot excuse the former president’s studied refusal to take the lead in coordinating a national response or the contradictory messaging about the virus.   

But underlying the government’s pandemic response is a failed planning process that has compromised the emergency responses of prior administrations of both parties.    

Consider the following disaster responses: 9/11. Katrina. COVID-19. The storming of the Capitol.   

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At first glance, these four disasters have little in common. They vary in cause, in geographic scope, in affected demographics, and in the manner and mode of the appropriate emergency response. In reality, however, the responses to these four major crises of the past 20 years have shared a fundamental and fatal flaw: In each case, the government failed to plan to respond to the emergency the way common sense and experience suggested the crisis would be lived by responders in the real world, the world where timely emergency decision-making actually saves or costs lives.   

In each case, the emergency planning was deduced from general principles and existing top-down organizational charts and superimposed on an ill-fitting evolving emergency. Those ill-founded deductions rendered the existing protocols immediately irrelevant and required decisions to be improvised. In each case, the failure to plan from the ground up — taking account of the actual decisions that would have to be made and deciding who should make them — compromised the effectiveness of the response.   

Take the COVID-19 response. Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciDemocrats question GOP shift on vaccines GOP Rep. Cawthorn says he wants to 'prosecute' Fauci The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel MORE, who has been at the center of infectious disease surveillance and pandemic planning for decades, stated recently that a state-centered response to the pandemic was probably misguided: “When you’re dealing with a pandemic that doesn’t know the difference between the border of New Jersey and New York, or Florida or Georgia, or Texas and Oklahoma … you have to have a degree of consistency in your response.”   

True, but here’s the problem. We knew this about pandemics before COVID-19; no pandemic respects political boundaries. By their very nature pandemics challenge an emergency response protocol premised on respect for local political boundaries. So why was that obvious reality not baked into the pandemic response planning in which government planners have been engaged for more than 30 years? Why were there no negotiations to put in place formal mutual assistance and cooperation agreements that could be invoked in the event of a pandemic to respond to the infection on a regional, a national, or a global basis?   

This flaw has extended to the planning for the way the vaccine has been distributed. The government had grandiose plans to inoculate 20 million people by Jan. 1, based on a tiered system of distribution that considered everything but, as one observer put it, “the actual task of connecting syringe to skin,” which “relies on providers and patients finding a way to meet, rendering the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]’s tiered system or any other top-down approach pretty much pointless.” 

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Similarly, on Jan. 6, when a battle for control of the Capitol building was lost when law enforcement officers were overrun by Trump-supporting rioters, numerous requests were sent up various chains of command for assistance. Bureaucratic delays ensued. By the time any outside assistance arrived, it was too late. The crowd had penetrated the building, committing acts of vandalism and violence and showing contempt for the constitutional process of selecting the president. Like the phenomenon of a pandemic crossing political borders, a scenario in which the Capitol Police are forced to call for assistance is not beyond the realm of planning; assistance protocols should have been in place so that the response would arrive in minutes, not hours.  Awaiting chain-of-command approval in such a crisis is a prescription for failure.   

This fatal flaw in government planning — failing to ask how the “actual task” of emergency response would happen, while superimposing a top-down, hierarchical bureaucratic model for a response that could never happen in the real world — is not new to the Trump administration, to the Capitol insurrection or to the pandemic response. 

I lived the chaotic response to 9/11 as Attorney General of New Jersey, and studied it as the leader of the 9/11 Commission team studying our nation’s emergency response. When I decided to write a book comparing the emergency response to 9/11 — a surprise terrorist attack — with Katrina — an anticipated Category 3 hurricane hitting New Orleans — it was precisely to underscore how this fundamental “top-down” planning bias had undermined the emergency response efforts of two very different emergencies.   

The hijacking protocol in place on 9/11, for example, made assumptions about both the nature of hijackings and the ability of the government to obtain the necessary approvals from the chain of command in a timely fashion that were unsupported by anything but a government org chart. In the event, military officers in charge of air defense and the Federal Aviation Administration controllers were forced to improvise a national defense, while the top officials spoke with each other in an echo chamber; their discussions turned out to be irrelevant to the critical decision-making that morning. 

Katrina differed from 9/11 in obvious respects. It was not a surprise; disaster planners had conducted tabletop and real-world exercises for years, assuming a major hurricane eventually would strike New Orleans.       

What was similar to 9/11, however, was the dysfunctional emergency response. Once again, the protocols called for top-down critical decision-making by those atop the org charts; once again, the top officials conferred in an echo chamber while the critical decision-making was being improvised by those on the ground as the levees flooded and people drowned.    

This history, and the calamitous response to the Capitol insurrection and COVID-19, should cause the Biden administration — and, perhaps equally important, newly constituted congressional oversight committees — to revisit how the executive branch agencies go about planning for crises and how those plans are reviewed by Congress.   

The process should begin by asking inductively how each crisis will be experienced, rather than concluding deductively how it should be managed. Framing the response according to the realities of the crisis, rather than the imperatives of organizational structure, will restore order more quickly and save lives.  

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.