Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are We Having Top Screen Delays Too?

I had an interesting email exchange recently with a reader who is experiencing delays in getting a CFATS evaluation done by the folks at ISCD. No not a SSP delay; that would be old news by now. No this reader’s facility submitted their initial Top Screen about 90 days ago now and is still waiting on The Decision of whether or not their facility will be preliminarily declared a high-risk facility subject to the CFATS regulations. The reader wanted to know if a 90-day delay was unusual.

Back when the first large batch of Top Screens (almost 40,000) was being submitted within a single 60-day window a 90-day delay was not too unusual and was certainly understandable and defensible. Now, better than three years later, one would think that DHS would have all of the bugs worked out of the Top Screen evaluation system. Additionally, there should be a drastically reduced number of new Top Screen submissions (as opposed to updated Top Screens for currently covered facilities) for the system to handle.

Now, if all ISCD was doing was analyzing Top Screens, I would be very concerned about 90-day delays in getting information back from DHS on a new Top Screen submission. We all know, of course, that ISCD and the CFATS team have their attention focused on the site security plan portion of the CFATS process. I’m sure that that focus is the proximate cause of any delays in the Top Screen or SVA review process.

Now the Top Screen review process at DHS is probably the most highly automated of the reviews required by CFATS, but it is not completely automated. Some of the questions require more of a qualitative evaluation as opposed to a quantitative review. The final decision on whether a facility is covered or not has to be made by a real live person; one would assume a person with some minimum level of bureaucratic authority.

With the minimal staffing levels authorized for the headquarters element of ISCD (as opposed to the Chemical Facility Security Inspectors out in the field), the people making decisions on the Top Screen would be making similar decisions on site security plans. The site security plans being a higher current priority (politically speaking) and requiring many more high-level decisions of a higher degree of complexity (not to mention breaking new ground in almost every new plan being considered) means that the limited supply of decision makers is having more of their decision making time focused on the SSP with very little time left over for Top Screen and SVA evaluations.

So, no, I don’t suppose that it is surprising that there are lengthy delays in anything being done by ISCD these days. The problems caused by the underestimation of the complexity of the site security plan review process are going to have an adverse impact on every operation of this organization; it is inevitable.

And it is only going to get worse. Sooner or later, the personnel surety program will be put together and implemented (and the act of getting there is yet another manpower drain). That will require some level of review by the staff at ISCD. Then there will be the new ammonium nitrate rule that DHS has promised will be in place by November. That will add a whole new level of confusion and implementations issues.

Oh. And let’s not forget that we have to tighten up the purse strings of the Federal government. That will have to have an adverse impact on the personnel situation within DHS.

So, to anyone making any sort of CSAT submissions for CFATS covered facilities, expect delays in getting the necessary responses from DHS. For my Top Screen reader, if you think that it is likely that your facility will be designated a high-risk facility, go ahead and start working on the development of your SVA. There is lot’s of information to collect and organize. Getting it started before the regulatory clock starts to tick will make life easier in the long run.

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