Understanding the communication roles and responsibilities of the Federal Government and its counterparts at the State and local levels during the planning for, and reaction to, emergency risk situations is a challenging task. Issues include:

  • Many players
  • Evolving communication plans
  • Changing environment.

There are numerous agencies, organizations, and interagency partnerships, all responsible for different, and not necessarily distinct, components of different emergencies. The Federal agencies play a role in an emergency event mainly during the first 48 hours following the onset of that event. The States remain the first responders to an emergency incident until Federal assistance can be coordinated and deployed.

Be aware that the roles and responsibilities of the key agencies often overlap. Many of these agencies are still clarifying their communication protocols in relation to other organizations.

Administrations and threats change. New technological advancements arise. New or re-emerging incidents occur and the manner in which those incidents are handled and the reactions to that handling vary. All of these lead to a constantly changing environment within the roles and responsibilities arena.

The environment in which you will be assigning roles and responsibilities while developing your communication plan is constantly changing. Federal agencies, States, counties, and cities all have to adapt to the changing environment, priorities, and budgets when it comes to planning for emergency risk situations.

National Agencies

The following list is provided to help public health organizations understand the current roles and responsibilities of major national agencies.

American Red Cross (

The Red Cross is a private, voluntary organization that is tasked by the Federal Government to provide immediate disaster relief, such as shelter, food, and health services, to victims of disasters of all kinds -- natural and manmade.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (

The CIA provides evidence-based foreign intelligence related to national security, including information about the potential terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents.

Department of Agriculture (USDA) (

USDA has the primary responsibility for protecting the safety of the Nation's food supply. The agency has a comprehensive biosecurity system designed to prevent the harmful introduction of plant and animal pathogens into America's system of agriculture and food production. This system includes resources and response mechanisms in case an emergency should occur. USDA also closely coordinates with the States, industry, law enforcement, and other Federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), CDC, and the U.S. Customs Service, on biosecurity issues.

Department of Defense (DoD) (

The armed service branches of DoD, including the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, and National Guard, continue to be the frontline military defense against terrorist threats.

The DoD's Defense Threat Reduction Agency focuses specifically on safeguarding America from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high explosives) by reducing the present threat and preparing for the future threat.

In addition to its traditional military role, the DoD also supports the operations of other Federal Government agencies as well as State and local governments. The mission of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command's (SBCCOM) Homeland Defense Business Unit is to enhance the response capabilities of military, Federal, State, and local emergency responders to terrorist incidents involving WMD.

Department of Energy (DOE) (

One of the DOE's primary missions is to enhance national security in relation to nuclear energy. The Emergency Operations unit of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) directs DOE's and NNSA's emergency responses at DOE and NNSA facilities and field sites, and to nuclear and radiological emergencies within the United States and abroad.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Chemical and Biological Defense Program (PNNL) has researchers focusing on the whole spectrum of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. In addition to creating pathogen detection systems, PNNL prepares military forces and emergency responders to recognize and respond to incidents involving WMD, with emphasis on chemical and biological threats.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (

HHS is the primary agency for coordinating health, medical, and health-related social services under the Federal Response Plan. HHS also provides medical teams to assist the FBI, Secret Service, and Department of State in the field.

The HHS National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) ( is a federally coordinated system that augments the Nation's emergency medical response capability. The overall purpose of the NDMS is to establish a single, integrated, national medical response capability for assisting State and local authorities in dealing with the medical and health effects of major peacetime disasters and providing support to the military and Veterans Health Administration medical systems in caring for casualties evacuated back to the United States from overseas armed conflicts.

The HHS Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) has the departmental responsibility for managing and coordinating Federal health, medical, and health-related social services and recovery to major emergencies and federally declared disasters, including natural disasters, technological disasters, major transportation accidents, and terrorism. Working in partnership with FEMA and the Federal interagency community, OEP serves as the lead Federal agency for health and medical services within the Federal Response Plan. OEP also directs and manages the National Disaster Medical System. OEP is also responsible for Federal health and medical response to terrorist acts involving WMD.

Department of the Interior (DOI) (

The DOI's Hazards and Facilities Team of their Office of Policy Management and Budget works to ensure adequate capability to prepare for and respond to incidents caused by natural or human effects that impact Federal lands, resources (including nationwide fish and wildlife resources, flood plains, wetlands, and cultural/historic resources), facilities, tenants, employees, visitors, and adjacent landowners.

Department of Justice, Office for Domestic Preparedness (

The Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), is the program office responsible for enhancing the capacity and preparedness of State and local jurisdictions to respond to WMD incidents of domestic terrorism. ODP's State and Local Domestic Preparedness Program accomplishes this through its training, exercises, equipment grants, and technical assistance programs.

Department of State (

State Department activities related to emergency response include protecting and assisting U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad and keeping the public informed about U.S. foreign policy and relations with other countries.

The Office of the Coordinator of Counterterrorism coordinates all U.S. Government efforts to improve counterterrorism cooperation with foreign governments and coordinates responses to major international terrorist incidents in progress. Another primary responsibility of the Office is to develop, coordinate, and implement American counterterrorism policy.

Department of Transportation (DOT) (

DOT contains several important agencies that deal with emergency situations. The U.S. Coast Guard responds to maritime emergencies and also may assist State and local officials in dealing with chemical incidents, particularly oil and hazardous materials spills.

Other DOT agencies that may be involved in emergency response are the Federal Aviation Administration ( and the Federal Railroad Administration (, particularly their Hazardous Materials Division.

Department of the Treasury (

The primary divisions of the Department of the Treasury involved in emergency response are the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the U.S. Customs Service. ATF supports Federal, State, and local governments in responding to and investigating incidents caused by arson and/or explosives. They have national response teams typically able to respond within 24 hours of the incident.

The U.S. Customs Service guards U.S. borders to prevent the entry of illegal substances that may be used for a terrorist attack.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office (CEPPO) (

EPA's CEPPO provides leadership, advocacy, and assistance to (1) prevent and prepare for chemical emergencies, (2) respond to environmental crises, and (3) inform the public about chemical hazards in their community. To protect human health and the environment, CEPPO develops, implements, and coordinates regulatory and nonregulatory programs. The Office carries out this work in partnership with regions, domestic and international organizations in the public and private sectors, and the general public.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (

The FBI serves as the lead agency for preventing acts of terrorism in the United States. The FBI Web site includes descriptions of major investigations under way as well as specific reports on terrorism.

The Awareness of National Security Issues and Response (ANSIR) Program is the FBI's national security awareness program. It is the public voice of the FBI for espionage, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, economic espionage, cyber and physical infrastructure protection, and all national security issues. The program is designed to provide unclassified national security threat and warning information to U.S. corporate security directors and executives, law enforcement, and other Government agencies. It also focuses on the "response" capability unique to the FBI's jurisdiction in both law enforcement and counterintelligence investigations.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (

FEMA is the Federal agency that coordinates the response of Federal agencies to disasters and the communication of information about disasters between Federal agencies and the public, particularly within the first 48 hours following the event.

FEMA's Guide for All-Hazard Emergency Operations Planning State and Local Guide (101), Chapter 6, Attachment G - Terrorism, Tab B, April 2001, provides a detailed list of Federal departments and agencies with counterterrorism-specific roles. Agencies mentioned include FEMA, DOJ, DoD, DOE, HHS, EPA, DOA, and NRC.

National Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO) (

The mission of this Office is to coordinate and facilitate all Federal WMD efforts to assist State and local emergency responders with planning, training, equipment, exercise, and health and medical issues necessary to respond to a WMD event. Program areas encompass planning, training, exercises, equipment, information sharing, and public health and medical services. Federal partners include FEMA, FBI, DOE, EPA, DOJ, Office for State and Local Domestic Preparedness Support, HHS, and the National Guard Bureau.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) (

NRC's Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response (NSIR) is ready to respond to an event at an NRC-licensed facility that could threaten public health and safety or the environment. NRC's highest priority is to provide expert consultation, support, and assistance to State and local public safety officials responding to the event. Once the NRC incident response program is activated, teams of specialists obtain and evaluate event information to assess the potential impact of the event on public health and safety and the environment.

Office of Homeland Security (

The Office of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council have been established to develop and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to strengthen Federal, State, and local counterterrorism efforts. Resources include the Homeland Security State Contact List, which shows the homeland security contact for each State.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) (

The TSA is a new agency, developed in 2001 in response to the events of September 11, to protect the Nation's various transportation systems. Some of its duties include strengthening security systems at airports and coordinating transportation matters for the Federal Government in the event of a future terrorist incident.

U.S. National Response Team (NRT) (

The NRT consists of 16 Federal agencies with responsibilities, interests, and expertise in various aspects of emergency response to pollution incidents.