We Need A Better Model For Responding To National Crises

As our response to Covid makes clear, the U.S. lacks a practical approach to deal with an emergency that grips the entire breadth of the country in multiple ways over a prolonged period. Here's what we need to do.

What would one call a scenario that: crashed the economy; inflicted a multi-trillion dollar debt load on the national balance sheet; bankrupted businesses; caused record un-employment; hollowed out the heart of major American cities; reduced family and friend time to remote video calls; and took as many lives as World War II. We would call this a major national security crisis.

Although sometimes called the “War on Covid,” our national actions so far mostly amount to a decentralized health care response. Yes, health care and mass vaccination are desperately needed as quickly as possible, but that alone is insufficient. Of equal importance is an effort to ensure supply chains and critical infrastructure function as close to normal, emphasizing our economy’s vitality and resilience. This balance is as crucial to the country as curing Covid itself.

Under our federal system, states have constitutionally established responsibilities for the health and safety of their citizens. With assistance from the federal government when required, this approach worked well for localized and regional issues. As our response to Covid demonstrates, though, we lack a practical approach to deal with an emergency, similar to an invasion, that grips the entire breadth of the United States in multiple ways over a prolonged period.

The U.S. must fundamentally change how it handles emergencies of such scale and scope that affect the country’s entire fate. This need motivated us at Business Executives for National Security (BENS) to stand up the Commission for a National Response Enterprise.  BENS, a non-partisan, non-profit organization focused on sharing best business practices, observations and advice with government security partners, established a Commission composed of former senior military leaders, CEOs of some of the most respected American corporations, former cabinet secretary, a Nobel laureate, former White House homeland security advisors, members of Congress and state and local leaders to address this concern.

Our Commission found that the real challenge is not with process or organization—it is with execution. In particular, it is about getting the government at all levels to work its very best. It is about public-private partnerships that work in tandem. It is about having the policy and relationships in place to ensure we can respond quickly and effectively. Trust must be an underpinning at all levels, between all sectors, and with the American people.  We had three significant findings—each with a series of specific recommendations.

First, a successful emergency response requires a defined strategy, clear roles and responsibilities, shared visibility and effective relationships. We should start with creating the biennial National Emergency Response Strategy that integrates all other plans under the existing National Response Framework. Also, Congress must amend the Stafford Act making it crystal clear that pandemics and all national emergencies fall under its jurisdiction.

Second, practical response efforts must prioritize getting the right resources to the right place at the right time. Nation-wide emergencies will place unprecedented demand on equipment, supplies and human resources. A surge center within FEMA can help provide the necessary situational awareness and data analytics required across all sectors to drive better decision-making. It is also time to create a Civil Expertise Reserve, modeled after the National Guard, a highly-trained, rapid response force of professionals with critical skills. We also need a better way to aggregate and employ many individual volunteers who are always willing to step forward.

Finally, we must capitalize on new technologies to support our response capabilities and connect every American. An essential first step is to develop a strategy, framework, secure capabilities, and computational resources that make it easy to gather and share data while engendering trust. Congress must create protections for organizations and businesses to share information and data with the government. Finally, it is imperative to connect every American. We simply cannot inform or engage all Americans without quality, high-speed internet across our nation, including rural and underserved communities.

The Commission’s report offers a roadmap to better prepare ourselves for a whole of nation response to crises that simultaneously impacts numerous states and extends over a prolonged period.  While many components are in place, coordinated execution remains the biggest challenge. The time is now for the new administration, Congress and state and local authorities to come together with the private and civil sectors to ensure the nation is better prepared for our next national emergency crisis response. A whole of nation response is the only way to combat national security crises of these proportions.

Mark Gerencser is Chairman of the Board at BENS and served as a Co-Chair of the BENS National Response Enterprise Commission. Previously, he was the managing partner of an international consulting firm and a special government employee with a US intelligence agency. General Joseph Votel is the President and CEO of BENS. He previously commanded USCENTCOM, USSOCOM, and the JSOC.