GAO: US agencies unprepared to run emergency operations

U.S. federal agencies have made progress in preparing plans to continue their core operations in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack, but more work needs to be done, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The 71-page report found, for example, that nine of 23 selected federal agencies have created plans for essential employees to telecommute in the event of a disaster, but added that workers at the nine agencies haven't been told of the telecommuting plans, nor have they been briefed on what to do if the plans are called into operation. The GAO reviews were done from July to February of this year.

In the last GAO study, conducted two years ago, only three of the 23 core agencies reviewed said they had plans for workers to telecommute in the event of an emergency. In its report, the GAO refers to telecommuting as telework.

A key problem, the report said, is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for monitoring such emergency plans for government agencies, has not adequately maintained oversight of the work that needs to be done.

"The lack of specific guidance on preparations for telework during such an event contributed to the low levels of preparation that agencies reported," according to the GAO. "If agencies do not make adequate preparations, they may not be able to use telework effectively to ensure the continuity of their essential functions in emergencies."

According to the GAO, FEMA, which falls under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has developed a schedule of oversight activities to bump up its efforts, including plans to conduct assessments of continuity plans for federal agencies beginning in July. But the GAO criticized that initiative because the assessment methodology FEMA intends to use to conduct the evaluations is not finalized.