Monday, April 30, 2007

Review: FDNY Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness Strategy

I've had a chance to read the entire FDNY Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness Strategy (html | pdf) and I have found a lot to like.

When I reviewed the FDNY's general Strategic Plan in February, it was not clear to me how serious the FDNY was in its intention to collaborate with other agencies to manage risks. Building collaborative relationships among various agencies is vital because it has real-world effects. For example, better coordination between agencies on 9/11 could have saved lives - i.e., if FDNY had been able to get the message from police helicopters that the support beams of the Twin Towers were buckling.

Even so, communication during the response is only the half of it.
Agencies must collaborate and share information to prevent potential acts of terrorism as well.

After reviewing FDNY's terrorism-specific plan, I'm persuaded that FDNY is serious in its efforts to proactively collaborate and share information, and to use its unique capabilities to recognize threats. From a strategic perspective, the FDNY has developed an excellent model for involving firefighters in a collaborative effort to prevent terrorism and mitigate its effects.

Early on, FDNY makes its intentions clear:

[Defining and assessing] FDNY's role in the homeland security network involves evaluating the outcomes of actions taken to reach these preparedness goals and finding new and better ways to work collaboratively with security partners.

The FDNY has many crucial responsibilities in homeland security. This Strategy is designed to help members fulfill those responsibilities and work with all homeland security partners to enhance terrorism and disaster preparedness for the Department, the City and the nation.
To improve its response capabilities, FDNY is trying to address the information-sharing problems that plagued the response to 9/11:
Network-centric command is an information-sharing framework that integrates voice, video and data information from multiple internal and external sources. … This information comes from FDNY databases, imaging libraries and field units, as well as from other City, State and Federal agencies, the private sector and the media.

The FDNY's newly designed and substantially upgraded Fire Department Operations Center (FDOC) serves as the hub for the Department's network-centric command system and interoperable communications capabilities. Additional components [include] network connections to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), New York City Police Department (NYPD), New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and other City, State and Federal agencies.
These are useful tools during the response to an incident. But even more impressively, FDNY is also focusing on building better relationships with other agencies in advance of incidents, to promote prevention and preparedness.
The FDNY has worked steadily toward increasing the ability to interface with other local, State and Federal emergency management, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to collectively enhance prevention and preparedness through the rapid and comprehensive exchange of information.

The FDNY will continue to work with security partners to fill the significant information-sharing gaps that exist. … Additionally, the Department has liaisons with the NYPD and the FBI. Several members of the BFI also serve on the JTTF. These important connections help inform the Department's leaders of current threats the FDNY must prepare for, as well as how the Department can better contribute to the City's preparedness efforts.

The FDNY also is working with the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis to establish a direct information conduit between the FDNY and DHS.
Perhaps most impressively, FDNY envisions that its "prevention" mission has evolved. It is involved not just in fire prevention, but in terrorism prevention. This is a vitally important new mindset:
The events of 9/11 … prompted the Fire Department to see prevention on the same level as consequence management. And, like fire prevention, terrorism prevention is a role of the FDNY that needs to develop and grow.
The key to FDNY's prevention efforts is sharing information:
The FDNY [has] recognized that the Department could help to fill some of these [information] gaps by contributing to local intelligence-gathering efforts. When routinely shared with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the information gathered by FDNY personnel could make a significant contribution to existing intelligence and lead to the identification and disruption of terrorist activities.
And FDNY rightly knews that it has access to information that others do not:
Terrorism-related information can be gathered by the FDNY in many ways. During the course of routine building inspections, arson investigations and the response to fires and medical emergencies, FDNY personnel have unique access to homes and buildings that generally are concealed from outsiders. For example, the FDNY conducts frequent building inspections, system testing and safety and evacuation plan reviews throughout the City.

The FDNY's information-gathering potential is substantial. Each year, FDNY units make approximately two million fire, medical and other emergency responses and 300,000 building inspections.

FDNY personnel also may observe characteristics – materials, equipment, literature, etc. – during their normal response operations that would indicate a threat of terrorist activity.
Because it has unique information-gathering capabilities, FDNY intends to be an active partner in recognizing threats and acquiring intelligence:
In reaction to information gathered and based on the type of intelligence received, the FDNY can increase inspection activity to assist in detection or strategically locate additional resources to act as a terrorism deterrent.

Collectively, this respresents an incredible opportunity for FDNY personnel to be what the President has labeled the nation's "First Preventers" – first responders who are able to recognized tell-tale signs of danger to homeland security, report the suspicious activity and preserve the scene until the proper authorities arrive.
To discuss the potential power of this approach, I'd like to specifically focus on one type of inspection/detection activity that FDNY mentions in its plan. This exemplifies a number of concepts that I've written about in the past week or so.

As I've discussed in a couple of recent posts, DHS has plans to install arrays of radiation detectors in all
major cities.

That's fine, but as I've argued, it's essentially just a passive "net" of equipment. Such a system should be just one of a number of systems to prevent radiological threats.

Now let's consider how the FDNY intends to supplement the passive-detection system:

The hazardous materials monitoring equipment carried by every Fire Department unit can detect radiation and potentially lead to the discovery of materials intended for use in a dirty bomb attack.
This is a much more robust detection regime. It's one thing to have a network of radiation detectors silently watching the city
like an army of HAL-9000s. But how much better is it to supplement those passive detectors with an department of firefighters who carry radiation detectors with them and are trained to identify the precursors of terrorist activity - or in Bruce Schneier's word, to recognize what's "hinky." The passive system is now supplemented by a much more active system.

To their great credit, FDNY is training its personnel to recognize the precursors to terrorism:
The FDNY currently is developing a training program to provide personnel with the skills they need to be optimally effective in identifying and reporting suspicious materials, activities or symptoms.

The Department has institutionalized counterterrorism training into the standard emergency response curriculum for all personnel.
There's more, though. Recalling that "threat" is only one aspect of risk, FDNY correctly acknowledges that it can bring a unique perspective on the other aspects of risk: vulnerability and consequence:
While law enforcement generally examines structures from a security perspective, the Fire Department provides another dimension of knowledge by looking at the same structure from a vulnerability and consequence management point of view. When fire personnel conduct building inspections or perform a size-up of an incident, they observe those characteristics that would profoundly affect a building's vulnerability to attack and the likely associated consequences of an attack …
In summary, FDNY has created an excellent strategic plan that incorporates many of the foundational elements of prevention. It's really good stuff and a good model for any fire department.

Update #1 - 2007-05-01: A recent incident on a New York highway, involving an NYPD officer, illustrated the benefits of putting radiation detectors in the hands of homeland security professionals, as Newsday reported:
A counterterrorism officer was driving to work near Coney Island on April 27 when a radiation detector alerted him to a possible problem.

The officer, Lt. Steve Donahoo, "got a positive reading from the car that was next to him," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

It turned out to be a false alarm: The Mercedes sport utility vehicle was carrying an engineering tool that uses a small amount of radioactive material to measure soil density. But the episode demonstrated how the New York Police Department has turned to hand-held radiation detectors in hopes of foiling any plot to detonate a so-called dirty bomb.

In recent years, the nation's largest police department has quietly deployed more than 900 of the five-ounce detectors, which are roughly the size of an MP3 player and cost at least $1,000. The devices are sensitive enough to differentiate between harmful, artificial isotopes and naturally occurring, innocuous ones, police said.

Officers typically wear the detectors on their belts like pagers while on patrol. The devices emit an alarm that intensifies as they get closer to the source.
Putting detectors in the hands of professionals provides a blend of technology and human expertise. That's a powerful combination, especially when information is shared among a network.

Update #2 - 2007-05-01: Here is another thought on using fire department personnel to gather intelligence on potential threats:

Although the concept of having fire department personnel collect and share information with other agencies is an excellent means of identifying potential terrorist threats, it will be important for the FDNY to define its mission carefully and stick to identifying terrorist threats.

The FDNY must avoid "mission creep." Firefighters should not become a reconnaissance arm of law enforcement, because doing so might jeopardize the public's trust in the fire service.

If they stick to terrorist threats, they should be fine. If their mission expands, then there could be problems.

Cross-posted in IPS Blogs at the Institute for Preventive Strategies.

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