Friday, December 12, 2008

State-by-State Report on the Status of Emergency Medicine

As a nice complement to the "Ready or Not?" report released earlier this week, the American College of Emergency Physicians has published its annual "National Report Card on the State of Emergency Medicine," which examines emergency medicine on a state-by-state basis and concludes that:

The emergency care system in the United States remains in serious condition, with numerous states facing critical problems. That is the disturbing but unmistakable finding of the 2009 edition of "The National Report Card on the State of Emergency Medicine," a report designed to provide the American public with an objective assessment of the emergency care environment across the country.
Which is, of course, not a surprise. For years, hospital managers have applied "just-in-time" principles to their operations, in an attempt to hold down spiraling costs. They've trimmed as much fat as possible, leaving hospitals with little surge capacity.

Granted, we are stockpiling vaccines and other medications, which will help in the event of the inevitable health care crisis. (I'm less sanguine about our ability to deliver them in a timely, organized, effective manner; but that's another story.) Unless we re-build some excess capacity in our health care system, other necessities such as bed space, health care staff, respirators, etc., are simply not going to be there.

We pays our money, we takes our chances...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Worthwhile Reading: "Marrying Prevention and Resiliency"

There's some good food for thought in this occasional paper from RAND, which advocates a "hybrid" approach to prevention and mitigation:

Instead of seeing an either/or choice between traditional prevention and mitigation or resiliency measures, it is more productive to consider them together in an integrated way—as two complementary elements of a strategy aimed at lessening the consequences of successful terrorist attacks. Doing so essentially stretches the concept of prevention beyond the ideal of halting attacks before they happen to also include efforts to limit the human and economic costs of even successful attack operations.
It's not a terribly long read, and it's worth the time.

We still haven't found the right balance of prevention, mitigation, and response. The unfortunate political reality is: It's much too easy to allow preventive efforts to devolve into "security theater"; it's much to easy to give short-shrift to mitigation, despite the effectiveness of many mitigatory efforts, because mitigation almost always lacks sex appeal; and it's much too easy to overemphasize response, since everybody wants to take the credit for a successful response to the inevitable disasters and nobody wants to take the blame for an unsuccessful one.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Earthquakes in the Midwest: Who's Prepared?

Not good news:

Tennessee is the only one of eight states in the Central United States Earthquake Consortium to finish its revision to the Catastrophic Event Annex of our state's emergency-management plan.
Anyone in the Midwest who's unprepared for a major earthquake simply doesn't appreciate history. In 1811 and 1812, three enormous quakes in the New Madrid seismic zone devastated a wide area. Fortunately the population was very low at the time. But today? Memphis and St. Louis are both in the zone and could sustain major damage from a big quake.

Check out November's report by the Mid-America Earthquake Center, which said:
[T]he total economic impact of a series of New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ) earthquakes is likely to constitute by far the highest economic loss due to a natural disaster in the USA.

An earthquake of magnitude 7, as has been predicted, or a recurrence of the 1811-1812 series could have devastating impacts on the region, with considerable national repercussions, as transportation routes, natural gas and oil transmission pipelines are broken and services are interrupted. Preliminary estimates, including those completed by the Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAEC), found that economic losses from a magnitude 7.7 (Mw7.7) event in the NMSZ could reach $50-$80 billion dollars in direct losses alone. Additionally, there could be thousands of fatalities, tens of thousands of injured victims, and even hundreds of thousands left without homes.

According to Hildenbrand et al. (1996), the chance of a magnitude 6 or 7 earthquake occurring within the next 50 years is roughly 90%.
1812 seems like a long time ago, but complacency is unforgivable.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Poughkeepsie Gets It

Good practice in Poughkeepsie:

When different police departments talk to each other, it's bad news for the bad guys.

The Field Intelligence Group is an unofficial association of about two dozen police officers, probation and parole officers and other law enforcement officials from the various departments in Dutchess and Ulster counties.

They meet weekly and stay in contact constantly, using text messaging and e-mail to alert each other of crimes and trends and work together on cases that cross jurisdictions.

Information they share include descriptions of suspects or crimes. These days it does not take long to distribute surveillance video to all the police agencies in the area.

"You'd be surprised how many times we get video of something and we send it out, and you'll get three or four calls within a few hours ... saying, 'Hey, I know him,' " said Detective Erik Lindmark, field intelligence officer for the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department.

Dutchess' Field Intelligence Group was born out of tragedy. After Sept. 11, 2001, a lack of communication between different federal agencies was blamed for not preventing the attacks. A lack of communication between the New York City police and fire departments was blamed for further loss of life that day.

Deputy Sheriff Stephen Reverri, the field intelligence officer representing the Dutchess County Sheriff's Office, said Sept. 11 shed light on the importance of communication on the local level, as well.

"Information wasn't being shared, and we saw it on a local level dealing with common criminals," Reverri said.
Share information. Preserve civil liberties. Protect the public. It works. And ... it's free!
The group has no budget; it relies on individual agencies allowing their officers the time to participate.

Quickly Noted: Annual "Ready or Not?" Report Published

The Trust for America's Health has released its annual "Ready or Not?" report, analyzing the readiness of the U.S. public health system for a major biological disaster. The report includes state-by-state rankings and always makes for interesting, if somewhat depressing, reading.

Here's the press release and summary of key findings. Here's the full report (pdf, 2.6MB).

Lessons Learned: Only Our Own?

It's probably a universal human trait: We're very adept at changing our ways based on what's in the rear-view mirror. But only our own, not someone else's.

That's why it's so vital to share information and learn from others' experiences. For example:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County officials have changed an emergency response plan more than three months after a deadly explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

Depending upon the severity of an event, Emergency Services Director Dale Petry says the county will issue an automatic shelter-in place during a chemical emergency if officials can't get clear information about the incident within 10 minutes.

Emergency services officials have criticized Bayer CropScience for failing to provide timely information following the Aug. 28 incident in which two people died. The incident remains under federal, state and local investigation.
Has Kanawha County's experience caused any other local government officials, anywhere else in the United States, to re-consider their own emergency response plan?

There are 15,000 hazardous chemical facilities in the United States. 7000 of them could affect more than 1000 people in the local area in the event of an accident or intentional release. 123 of them could affect more than 1 million people (source). When is the last time the communities near those chemical facilities examined their emergency response plans?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

LA Re-thinks Emergency Management

The Mayor's office in Los Angeles has released a new emergency management initiative.

This initiative ... involves several components to enhance the City’s planning and preparedness efforts, train city employees in disaster response, better prepare the community in disaster preparedness, and modernize the City’s antiquated emergency management structure.
Here's one thing I find interesting. To describe the current state of preparedness, the city uses measures such as staffing levels, training exercises, programs and strategies. For example:
[T]he City Council recently approved the Mayor’s request to add three new positions to EMD to work on planning and preparedness activities, emergency operations, and public information. In addition, through the leadership of General Manager Jim Featherstone, a former Captain in the LAFD’s Planning and Tactical Training Division, EMD is modernizing its operations, procedures, and principles to reflect a contemporary emergency management approach to the numerous dangers the City faces.
But that's not the best measure of preparedness. Real preparedness has to be measured in terms of capabilities. It's not just how many training exercises you have, the size of your staff, or the strategies and tactics you employ. Those are necessary, yes. But they're not sufficient. If you're going to assess your state of preparedness, you need to be able to declare with some confidence what your capabilities are.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Planning for a Pandemic? Meh.

In direct contrast to the immediately previous blog entry, and a week after the NYT's Freakonomics blog asked, "Why do voters reward poor disaster preparedness?" a story comes out of Georgia about some local elected officials who haven't even shown up to the meeting to prepare for a pandemic flu:

Jones County’s biggest problem with a pandemic flu occurrence may be the perceived apathy demonstrated in planning for the event by local elected officials.

Jones County’s pandemic flu preparedness committee met July 17 at the Emergency Management office and has the task of educating the public to the reality of having to be self-sufficient if the disease hits. In the case of a pandemic, communities cannot be dependent on federal or even state assistance.

City and county elected officials were conspicuous by their absence at the meeting with Probate Judge Mike Greene the sole representative.
They also didn't show up to a table-top exercise in February:
An after-action report by the North Central Health District Office about Jones County’s Feb. 20 table top exercise stated, “The fact that no elected officials or business leaders were present at the exercise lends itself to the belief that the leadership of Jones County does not seem to have bought into this concept.”
Any local official who isn't involved in this type of planning is doing their community a great disservice. A pandemic is not a question of if, but when. And every community will be affected.

I've bolded the key concept in red. Every local official needs to realize that in the event of a major pandemic, local communities are going to be largely on their own. Local planning is essential.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Preparation In the Absence of Press

The threat of pandemic flu has gotten a lot less press lately, mostly because the incidence of avian flu seems to have plateaued somewhat (though Indonesia is still being really tight-lipped about what's going on there, so who really knows?)

But even though the issue is getting less attention in the media, some communities are continuing to do the smart thing and developing plans to address a pandemic flu. It's worth remembering that there's no guarantee that the source of the next human pandemic will be avian flu. It could come from another source, and it could conceivably come out of nowhere and surprise us.

So it's good to see local communities, like these in South Dakota, working together to develop plans to deal with the threat, which in its severest instances (e.g., an event comparable to the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak) could have more widespread impacts than almost any other catastrophic event:

After more than a year of work, the members of a local planning committee will present their pandemic influenza response plan to the public.

The 131-page plan was developed by committees from Aurora, Davison and Hanson counties and it provides guidelines on how to deal with a pandemic flu outbreak that many medical professionals believe is inevitable.

[The plan] provides action checklists to help schools, businesses and other community organizations develop a coping plan, in the event of a flu outbreak.

A family preparedness kit will ... demonstrate what items should be on hand in the event of an epidemic. Such preparedness will be important in the event of a flu outbreak.

While the Centers For Disease Control and the state Health Department will monitor and report on all flu outbreaks, said Assistant Mitchell Fire Chief Steve Willis, local jurisdictions will largely be on their own.

Apathy is the greatest danger when it comes to planning for a dangerous flu outbreak, says Jim Montgomery, Davison County Emergency Management director.

Mr. Montgomery is absolutely right - the best community-based plan will be useless unless individual citizens, businesses and other entities such as churches and community groups do their part to prepare.

In my humble opinion, the effort to create the plan ought to be dwarfed by the effort to distribute it, publicize it, and follow up to ensure that people are prepared. According to the Red Cross, more than 90 percent of Americans are not prepared for a major disaster. In Mitchell, only about 40 people (in a population of 15,000) showed up at the meeting to learn about the pandemic flu plan. But as the dedicated John Solomon regularly and diligently reminds us (because repetition makes a message stick) citizen preparedness is vital.

The Holy Grail of preparedness is getting more individuals to prepare on their own. Every citizen that's adequately prepared will help the system - not only by being better off themselves, but also by reducing the strain on community services, improving the situation for their neighbors as well.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Sensible Decision

An update on this story:

Prosecutors have dropped the "weapons of mass destruction" charge in the case of the South Carolina teenager who allegedly planned to bomb his school.

The teenager who allegedly planned to destroy his high school with explosives will not face a WMD charge at his anticipated trial, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Ryan Schallenberger, 18, had been charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in connection with his suspected plot against Chesterfield High School. Federal prosecutors dropped the charge without explanation in May.
The WMD charge never made sense. He had enough ammonium nitrate to take out a classroom or two, but that's a far cry from a weapon of mass destruction.

Calling something "WMD" when it's not only confuses and dilutes the meaning of the term.

For What It's Worth

One time I recall hearing someone quip that to understand what's meant by the word "expert," you just have to analyze its two syllables. When you do this, you realize that an "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.

So then.

A group of homeland security experts have spoken:

Book Hill Partners and the Homeland Defense Journal released the results of a survey of 122 homeland security experts on priorities for the next administration in protecting the American people and homeland.

Key findings of the survey include:
  • Over 83 percent of experts surveyed expected a major disaster of some kind in the United States within the next four years, within the term of the next president.
  • Roughly 58 percent of respondents said that the most probable scenario for a major disaster was a natural disaster. More surprisingly almost 22 percent of experts said that the most probable scenario for a major disaster was a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear specifically).
  • Almost 72 percent of respondents expect major changes if Sen. Obama is the next president. In contrast, over 80 percent of respondents believed that homeland security policies under a McCain administration would be largely unchanged from those under the Bush administration.
  • The next administration's top four homeland security priorities should be border security, emergency response, development of medical counter-measures to weapons of mass destruction, and port security.
Prognostication is always a nice safe business. Even if you're wrong, it was just an educated guess anyway. But I am curious as to how anyone could predict a "major natural disaster" within a given timeframe. You can lay odds on it, sure, but to expect that one will happen? Hmm...

Terrorists and the Energy Infrastructure: What's the Risk?

In a brief paper published under the auspices of the Naval Postgraduate School, Dr. Michael Mihalka and Dr. David Anderson analyze the risk of catastrophic terrorism targeting the energy infrastructure. They argue that the risk is relatively slight when compared to other threats:

The threat from and effect of transnational terrorism [to the energy sector] is much less than many pundits have argued. In essence, the transnational terrorism poses a challenge well within the parameters of natural events and the ability of the current security system to handle.

Well, we must remember that the prime threat to the security of supply in the short-term perspective is not terrorism, or even politics. It's Mother Nature.
It's certainly true that a terrorist group would really have to "go big" to replicate the kind of disruption to the energy sector that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused.

Energy is one sector in which the ability to respond and recover can be a real deterrent. A primary goal of any direct attack on energy infrastructure would be economic. But if the economic damage is mitigated by resiliency in the sector, then there's less rationale for the attack.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

How Do They Do It? ... Volume! Volume! Volume!

State, local, and tribal governments will soon be able to leverage the federal government's buying power to purchase homeland-security related items:

The U.S. General Services Administration received new authority to help state and local governments in purchasing homeland security equipment and services under the Local Preparedness Acquisitions Act (HB 3179) signed by President Bush last week. The new law authorizes the GSA Administrator to allow state, local, and tribal governments to buy homeland security goods and services through the cooperative purchasing program. Officials will be able to use GSA's Schedule 84 to buy items such as alarm systems, facility management systems, firefighting and rescue equipment, law enforcement and security equipment, and marine craft.

Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Jim Williams said, "GSA's ability to leverage the federal government's enormous buying power enables us to provide goods and services at best value and pass the savings on to our client agencies. Now we can pass these discounts on to state and local governments ...
Using your organization's buying power to get discounts is, of course, a no-brainer.

At the same time, state, local and tribal governments have to maintain strategic discipline and avoid slipping into the tempting but faulty line of thinking that homeland security means the opportunity to buy more stuff (!)

Material purchases should always support the state and local homeland security strategy. If they don't, the money is probably better spent elsewhere, even if the new stuff looks great and provides local politicians with some really nice publicity shots.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sensible Medicine

The Florida legislature recently passed a law that makes sense. It will allow people to refill prescriptions in an emergency, even if their insurer says they're not yet due for a refill:

Recently, the Legislature passed the Emergency Prescription Refill bill (Florida Statute 252.358 and 462.0275). This law requires all insurers and managed-care organizations to suspend refill-too-soon restrictions when a patient seeks a refill in a county that:
  • Is currently under a hurricane warning issued by the National Weather Service
  • Is declared to be under a state of emergency in an executive order issued by the governor
  • Has activated its emergency operations center and its emergency management plan
This law also allows patients outside of these areas to get an emergency 72-hour refill if the pharmacist is unable to readily obtain refill authorization from the doctor.
In certain cases, simply telling people to "be prepared" is not enough. Sometimes you've got to remove obstacles for them. This law is a good example of that.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

FEMA: The Iceman Will No Longer Cometh

Catching up on this one:

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said in April his agency will only distribute ice for medical emergencies or life-threatening situations following a disaster. Since its inception, FEMA has provided ice to disaster victims, especially in areas where power outages occur.

“We’re not in the ice business anymore,” Paulison said, and that it is not a “life-saving commodity” for most people. “It takes a tremendous amount of resources, and it really doesn't accomplish much, other than making people feel good because they have a bag of ice," Paulison added. “Ice is more of a comfort thing.”

“My response is that during July, August and September in South Mississippi, ice is not necessarily used to cool water to drink,” said Don McKinnon, director of the Jones County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “During emergencies, it is used for medical purposes to keep specific medications cool, to help keep food good in refrigerators until power can be restored, and for cooling people off. It is a necessity here."

With the current situation (FEMA out of the ice business), McKinnon said the “state is trying to take up the slack. They (state emergency agencies) have limited resources, and can’t do it quite as effectively as FEMA did. Our pockets aren’t that deep. Locally, we hope we keep water pressure and generators to try to provide ice. Large chicken plants produce large amounts of ice and they have been kind enough to share it with the citizens of Jones County. After Katrina, they provided several thousands of pounds of ice.

“Who will distribute the ice?,” McKinnon asked. “We don’t have the manpower or resources to do that, or don’t have funds to buy ice and give to people. It’s a big void in our plan right now; we don’t know what we’re going to do. If we’re able to get any ice at all, it will probably be from the state if local providers are down. We will definitely focus on medical needs, and the elderly and young to keep them cool to prevent heat stroke and deaths."
This needs to get worked out. Your bottled water may not need ice, but your food and medicine do. The big question: How does FEMA define a "medical emergency" or "life-threatening siutation"?

Here's what's puzzling to me: It's fine if FEMA doesn't deliver the ice themselves - they have already vowed to get out of the logistics and transportation business, leaving that work to contractors. But with their buying power and their network of suppliers, they ought to be able to facilitate the supply of necessary ice during an emergency.

This also seems to show a disconnect between state and local homeland security and DHS/FEMA. Did FEMA get local input before making this decision?

Friday, June 27, 2008


Forgive me, it's Friday and I couldn't resist posting this:

Delivery boys across America, beware: Zach Phillips was arrested by Homeland Security Thursday afternoon in Kansas City—for delivering a pizza. Phillips parked his car in front of the KCMO Federal Courthouse to deliver lunch to a few judges and on his way out, he was approached by several Homeland Security officers. When questioned, Phillips forked over his I.D. to the inquisitive officers. According to Phillips, the officers then shoved him up against their S.U.V., cuffed him, and escorted him down the block to the county jail. His crime? An outstanding warrant for a minor, non-moving traffic violation. "They were real rough with me, throwing me up against their car," Phillips told CMJ.

"[Kansas City police officers] couldn't believe [Homeland Security] arrested me," Phillips said. "[KCPD] actually apologized to me. They were like 'We like you! Don't spit in our pizza!'" Phillips had a hard time believing it himself. "I was like, shouldn't you be looking for Osama Bin Laden?" said Phillips.
Hmm ... sounds like there are a couple of disconnects here: One between DHS and KCPD, and the other between DHS and its priorities.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Useful Terrorist Profile

There still isn't one.

A new joint security alert from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warns that terrorists are increasingly turning to women and teenagers to carry out suicide bombings.

The bulletin, obtained by CBS News, says “Female suicide bombers conducted more than twice as many attacks in Iraq in the first six months of 2008 than in all of 2007”.

US intelligence analysts also say Islamic radicals are enlisting greater numbers of teenagers for their deadliest missions.
It's not who they are; it's what they do.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

DHS Targets Chemical Facilities

DHS has set its sights on U.S. businesses that manufacture, process, and store large amounts of chemicals, pointing out that such operations could be targets for terrorists (not to mention accidents):

The federal government will tell 7,000 businesses next week that they are considered high risk-terrorist targets because they house large amounts of chemicals.

The sites — which range from major chemical plants to universities, food processing centers and hospitals — will need to complete a vulnerability assessment so the government can decide how to regulate their security measures in the future.

U.S. intelligence officials say terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, favor chemical attack methods because of the severe consequences they can inflict.

"This is never going to be an impregnable target set, but I want to introduce enough complexity into the mix that al-Qaida's going to go somewhere else," said Bob Stephan, assistant secretary of infrastructure protection at the Homeland Security Department.

As the department considers these 7,000 sites, it also will look at physical security; cyber security; insider threat potential; how hazardous a chemical release could be to the nearby communities; how dangerous the chemicals are if they are mixed with water; and whether the chemicals could be easily stolen from the sites and used to kill.
Sounds like purely protective intervention - harden the most potentially dangerous sites, thereby force the potential adversary to seek a softer target.

I like the move, because I've never been convinced that chemical facilities have been secured in proportion to the potential threat. The same goes for chemicals in transport via train and truck.

At the same time, it's important to contextualize this sort of action. No one should heave a sigh of relief, thinking that the possibility of a terrorist attack involving chemicals has just become vanishingly small. It remains necessary to fight terrorism at the source by complicating the efforts of potential terrorists to recruit, train, raise funds, organize into operational cells, and plan attacks. That sort of activity will do more to prevent a terrorist attack - via any attack mode - than any protection regime.

One point of fact in correction of the above: Historically, terrorist organizations have not favored chemical attacks. The overwhelming choice of attack is with conventional explosives. For a while in early 2007, al Qaeda in Iraq experimented with combining conventional explosives and chemicals (usually chlorine but also nitric acid in at least one instance), but that attack mode didn't seem to be much more deadly than the conventional explosives alone.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Disaster Preparedness: Status Update

Shameless linking:

HSToday does a good job summarizing a number of recent reviews of the federal disaster preparedness system.

Shameless quoting of a few key points:

DHS “needs to better integrate stakeholders in its revision of key policy documents, particularly the National Response Framework,” stated William O. Jenkins, Jr., director of GAO homeland security and justice issues.

[In] the National Pandemic Strategy and Implementation Plan, [GAO] found that there are numerous shared leadership roles and responsibilities, leaving uncertainty about how the federal government would lead preparations for and response to a pandemic.

[G]iven what a good many authorities – including federal preparedness insiders – have told about preparedness problems throughout the federal government (see’s reporting on emergency medical care, pandemic planning, and FEMA disaster preparedness), the ability of the federal government to adequately respond to a major and catastrophic disaster or crisis clearly is in doubt - despite the fact that the government's readiness today is clearly far, far better than it was just a few years ago.

"There is a real concern among the state homeland security directors around the country that there are people in the federal government who want to put the interests of the accountants ahead of the interests of our citizens. That would be a grave mistake," the subcommittee was told by Alabama Department of Homeland Security Director, James M. Walker, Jr.
It's not all bad news, though it may seem so from the excerpts above. DHS is moving forward slowly, slowly...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Defining Resilience Isn't Enough; It Must Also Be Facilitated

Rich Cooper at Security Debrief points out that the flooding in the Midwest provides a good example of resilience:

If you are looking for real-life resiliency happening today, pay close attention to what is happening right now in the heartland of America. Over the past several days, the citizens of Cedar Falls, Iowa, have filled hundreds of thousands of sandbags to save their City from the rising waters of the Cedar River. Thousands of volunteers of every age and walk of life have stepped forward to fill bag after bag and put them in place to save their ‘homeland’ and preserve the ‘security’ that it brings to them.

Cedar Falls and others like her in the Midwest that are fighting the ‘battle’ for survival represent the personification of resilience. They are offering us all a teachable moment and we all have a lot to learn.

There was no legislative mandate that made the citizens of Cedar Falls step forward to fill sandbags and stack them atop one another. Nor were there FEMA checks handed out to make them come downtown to save the City streets from more ruin. They just showed up and did it. They were business owners, employees, parents, students, etc. – all citizens committed to the survival of what is important to them. That is what resilience is: action that enables survival. Before we allow the word to become so overused that it loses its meaning (e.g. interoperability), we need to remember that people focused on a mission are at the center of resilience.
True enough, but it leaves out a crucial point: It's not enough to rely on the willingness of citizens to step forward, pitch in, and try to save their own communities. Citizens have always done so, and will continue to do so. And this sort of activity has always been more organized and effective in localized disasters such as the Midwest flooding than in widespread, catastrophic disasters.

The key to resilience, especially for catastrophic disasters, is to create systems that facilitate those efforts - by citizens, by businesses, by public agencies - so that they are as effective as possible. I'm talking about communications systems, logistical systems, healthcare systems, etc.

In a catastrophe, these systems will spontaneously organize themselves through whatever means are available, even if no planning is done. But it's the job of homeland security professionals to ensure that the planning is done, and that when the disaster happens, the systems that support citizen action are as robust as possible.

So while the activity of "people on a mission" is at the heart of resilience, it's only a necessary but not sufficient condition. The engine that makes resilience go is the creation of reliable systems that facilitate the actions of those responders.

Preventing Vandalism = Homeland Security?

Santa Rosa, California, will spend some of its Homeland Security money on surveillance cameras, in part to prevent vandalism:

Sonoma County transit agencies will buy surveillance cameras with the first installment of voter-approved state Homeland Security funds announced Wednesday.

The county and the city of Santa Rosa will get a combined $57,000 of the $21 million that went to 14 Bay Area bus, train and ferry operators.

Brian Albee, head of Sonoma County Transit, said the agency's $31,800 portion will be used to mount cameras at its West Robles Avenue bus yard. The project is expected to cost about $50,000, he said.

Mona Babauta, Santa Rosa's deputy director of transit, said the city will spend its $25,100 on cameras at some bus stops plagued with vandalism.
Unless they're integrated into a real-time information-reporting system, surveillance cameras are not tools for prevention. They'll help you identify perpetrators after the damage has been done.

The larger question is, is this really a homeland security issue? Just what are we protecting ourselves from? Vandalism may be a problem, but unless it's sabotage, it's not a security threat.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lone Wolves = Good News?

The risk of Islamist "lone wolf" terrorism may be on the rise:

A newly declassified Canadian intelligence report is warning about the emerging threat posed by "lone wolf" Islamist terrorists who operate completely on their own.

Terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda have, in the past, tended to work in cells, but the report says they are beginning to use the solo strategy once associated with the militant far right.
Lone wolves such as Timothy McVeigh can do damage, of course. But they're not going to pull off an attack on the scale of 9/11 or the East Africa embassy bombings. So in a sense, this could be seen as good news. If they don't feel secure gathering together, that's a victory for our counterterrorism efforts.

But there's another view: The idea that this is all a great strategic distraction, to keep us chasing our tails:
Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said he believes the Canadian assessment is correct and that the shift is part of a larger strategy to distract and exhaust Western counterterrorism agencies.

"I think it's right but I think this is yet another example of the strategic sophistication of our adversaries in that by encouraging lone wolves, I think they're trying to suck the resources from our security and intelligence services and police departments," he said.

"In other words, if there's a homegrown threat, which is one thing, now there's a lone wolf threat. And I think they're both legitimate. I think part of al-Qaeda's strategy, the jihadi strategy, is to get everyone so consumed with these grassroots threats that it gives greater scope to the real professionals to operate."
Such a view is in harmony with what bin Laden himself said in 2004:
All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the [American] generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses ...
So, what to do? Spend energy on the risk of lone wolves, or continue focusing on preventing the emergence of more organized operations? My vote is for the latter.

Lone wolf attacks, even in a series, would be localized and unlikely to have a lasting effect on the U.S. From a risk-management perspective, the better option may be to continue focusing on preventing the formation of operational cells that could inflict greater damage.

Friday, May 30, 2008

FEMA's Revised Logistics Operation

The Federal Times takes a look at FEMA's revised logistics operation:

“Katrina showed we did not have the capability in place to replenish what we had,” said Eric Smith, FEMA’s national logistics coordinator. “Our reliance was too much on what we had in stock.”

FEMA has developed several new approaches to disaster preparation. One is transparency: making visible to everyone concerned what FEMA has in stock — items such as blankets, generators and portable housing units.

Another is partnerships with first responders, such as the Red Cross, which is often first on the scene with first aid, food and temporary housing, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with providing ice, water and emergency power.

Also, FEMA has forged a closer link with the Defense Logistics Agency to help it provide fuel, food, water, cots, blankets, “anything in their inventory,” Smith said.

Tom Essig, chief procurement officer at the Homeland Security Department, FEMA’s parent agency, gives another example.

“After Katrina, FEMA bought ready-to-eat meals. We don’t do that now. Now we contract. When we need it, we provide it. We don’t buy and store any more. We buy the service, which includes the transportation. The companies themselves are responsible for the logistics of transportation,” Essig said.
This is more in line with FEMA's structure and purpose. FEMA is not supposed to be a massive agency that stockpiles emergency supplies and delivers them in the event of a disaster. FEMA is a relatively small agency that needs the authority (and often the political cover) to direct other, larger agencies to do what needs to be done.

As Katrina showed, situational awareness and communications are two more critical requirements for FEMA. The best logistics system in the world won't do you any good if you don't have information on what is needed where, or if those needs can't be communicated.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cohabitate :: Collaborate

One way to get to know people is simply by being around them.

In Edison, New Jersey, they're putting that principle into practice by building a new "public safety center" which will house police, fire, EMS, and training facilities:

The facility, which Mayor Jun Choi expects to be open by early next year, will house police, fire and EMS personnel all under one roof. It is intended to be a state-of-the-art facility and will have a full training center for all the township's public safety personnel ... Choi said that coordination between different branches of public safety is essential in improving emergency response in town.

The importance of coordination between police, fire and EMS was a theme repeated multiple times ... something that people said would definitely be helped through the placement of personnel from all three services in the same building.

Col. Rick Fuentes, New Jersey State Police superintendent ... noted that fire and police could help each other, for example, in sharing information about the nature of certain buildings, noting that fighting fires at, say, a methamphetamine lab might be particularly dangerous and require contact with police.

Conversely, he noted that some firefighters report gang members stopping fire trucks from getting near burning buildings until incriminating evidence is cleared.
It's a step.

Cheap Preparedness Stuff

Good idea: In conjunction with Florida's Hurricane Preparedness Week, retailers have lowered the prices on items that can help citizens become better prepared:

Governor Charlie Crist today joined state and local emergency managers and the Florida Retail Federation to promote Florida Hurricane Preparedness Week, May 25-31, 2008. He announced that some Florida retailers will be hosting special sales on hurricane supplies, beginning Friday, May 30, and continuing through June 8.

Some of the items included on the emergency supply list include:

· Flashlights and portable, self-powered light sources
· Portable radios, two-way radios and NOAA weather-band radios
· Flexible waterproof sheeting (tarps)
· Gas or diesel fuel containers
· Batteries
· Medications
· Ice chests or other food storage coolers
· Portable generators
· Carbon monoxide detectors
· Storm shutter devices
· Pet carrier and supplies

That's nice public-private sector collaboration.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lead, Follow, or ... Something

Evidence that 9/11 is receding into memory: an article in today's New York Times, describing state and local resistance to DHS' priorities for homeland security funding:

More openly than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks, state and local authorities have begun to complain that the federal financing for domestic security is being too closely tied to combating potential terrorist threats, at a time when they say they have more urgent priorities.

Local officials do not dismiss the terrorist threat, but many are trying to retool counterterrorism programs so that they focus more directly on combating gun violence, narcotics trafficking and gangs — while arguing that these programs, too, should qualify for federal financing, on the theory that terrorists may engage in criminal activity as a precursor to an attack.
I've long argued that precursor crimes are a good way to target potential terrorist cells. But it depends how it's done. If it's a strategic effort that involves information-sharing in an active search for links to potential terrorism, that's good. But if it's simply an attempt to conflate ordinary crime-fighting with "potential terrorism" (because, well, you never know who might be a terrorist...), then that's not strategic. It would just be a matter of luck. Your effort to stop crime might uncover a terrorist because any type of police work could.
The Seattle chief of police, R. Gil Kerlikowske, said, “If the law enforcement focus at the local level is only on counterterrorism, you will be unable as a local entity to sustain it unless you are an all-crimes operation, and you may be missing some very significant issues that could be related to terrorism.”

Chief Kerlikowske is president of a group of police chiefs from major cities who said in a report last week that local governments were being forced to spend increasingly scarce resources because, they say, Homeland Security did not pay for all the costs. “Most local governments move law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence programs down on the priority list because their municipality has not yet been directly affected by an attack,” the report said.
What we're seeing here is two ends of a spectrum, neither of which is appropriate. On the one hand, it's ridiculous to imagine that local law enforcement should exclusively focus on combating terrorism.

And on the other hand, no jurisdiction should ignore the potential for terrorism or erroneously conflate all crime-fighting with counterterrorism. Like any low-probability, high-impact event (an earthquake, a tornado, etc), a potential terrorist attack should be prepared for and prevented and/or mitigated to the degree possible.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Information Sharing Through "Enlightened Bribery"

Alabama has created a geo-spatial tool, Virtual Alabama, that accumulates public data about homes, schools, businesses, and other locations within the state. Police, fire departments, health care providers and other users can use the tool for preparedness and response. (Also see this post from last July.)

Government Computer News offered an inside look at how the state's Department of Homeland Security went about getting the information to populate the database:

[P]rojects such as Virtual Alabama are always hungry for data, especially in their early stages. And one of the best ways to get data from other local agencies is a form of enlightened bribery, Walker said.

“We determined very quickly that the best imagery available in Alabama was in either state agencies or in county revenue departments because they fly and take a picture of your house to reassess it,” Walker said. “So we go to the revenue folks, and I say, ‘I’m the Homeland Security director, and I’d like your imagery.’ And they say, ‘I’m not giving you my imagery. I paid a million dollars for this imagery.’ They don’t want to give it to anybody because they assume that you have some sort of financial gain after they’ve spent this money. So how do we solve this problem?”

Walker’s strategy was to do an end around by going to county sheriffs. “The typical Alabama sheriff carries a pretty big stick in his county,” Walker said. “He can get just about anything he wants. So we bring the sheriffs together and say, ‘OK, sheriffs, if we had your county’s imagery, these are the kinds of things we [could] give you for free,’ ” he continued.

Walker offered to give the sheriffs free access to the data on one condition: “You’ve got to get me your county data.” So, Walker said, “the sheriff goes to the revenue commissioner and says, ‘I’ll tell you what: You’re going to get a ticket every day if you don’t give the Homeland Security director the imagery from our county.’ ”
Sounds like good old-fashioned leveraged negotiations to me.

Virtual Alabama is a real-world demonstration of the concept that, for information-sharing to be successful, two conditions must exist:

1. Parties must be willing to share the information.
2. The information must be presented in a usable format.

Virtual Alabama succeeds on both counts. But too often, even if the first hurdle is passed, the second one is not. We're hearing that out of fusion centers - that there's a lot of data being ostensibly shared, but it's not in a usable form, so it's difficult to use effectively.

Form follows function.

Terrorism and the Drug Trade

A good post from Douglas Farah, discussing the U.S. first drug conviction with a connection to fund-raising by a radical Islamist terrorist group - in this case, the Taliban. Key points:

As money from donations and charities becomes harder to acquire and move safely, the easy alternative is the drug trade.

I believe this is the future. Religious/ideological radicalism and organized criminal groups will become less and less distinguishable in the pipelines of illicit activities we see more and more.
This argument has been made many times before. Call this another data point.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Local Networks as Counterterrorism Tools

I don't have much to add to this story from In Homeland Security, except to say I think it's spot-on:

Israel places a high value on Human Intelligence and weaves HUMINT into all aspects of their law enforcement activities. A prevalent saying in their intelligence community guides their efforts: “the small bring in the big”. Israeli law enforcement and intelligence collection agents build long term, lasting relationships on the ground with all types of business people.

For instance waitresses, bartenders, taxi drivers and barbers can be a wealth of information. Emergency room employees, gas station workers, and grocery or drug store employees are all good collection sources. Around a specific target, street vendors are worthy of engagement since they frequent the same area and have a perfect viewpoint for noticing out-of-the-ordinary activity. If protecting a church is the objective, the clergy and worshippers are valuable informants.

The key is to cultivate the relationship; visit the sources regularly, build their trust, instruct them on what to look for, and make sure they have a way of contacting you 24/7 if they notice something suspicious. Your sources are force multipliers and critical to gleaning the information needed to identify, monitor and then disrupt terrorist activities. ...

If illegal weapons such as grenades are needed, the builder will need to move out of the circle of those aware of the plot, potentially exposing him and the planners. Well cultivated sources will notice this unusual activity and alert you.
Any kind of malicious actor is vulnerable to exposure at certain stages, because they have certain material needs that must be filled. Building a local network, cultivating relationships and - importantly - instructing your partners on what to look out for - is indeed a "force multiplier" in detecting these moments of exposure.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Interfaith Disaster Preparedness Groups

Does your community have one? It's a good idea. Local networks with common interests can accomplish a lot. For instance, here's what they're doing in San Francisco:

Leaders from more than a hundred San Francisco-based churches, synagogues and other places of worship are expected to gather today at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco to learn how to make their spiritual sanctuaries into places of physical refuge. Alameda and Santa Clara counties have made similar efforts.

In sessions organized by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the church leaders will be taught how to create disaster plans for themselves, help congregants prepare their own households and be safety hubs for their neighborhoods in the midst of disaster.

"This is not to say we expect congregations ... to conduct a full-scale disaster response," said Alessa Adamo, program director for SFCARD, a nonprofit that trains faith groups and nonprofits on disaster preparedness. "What we're hoping for is that they're able to take care of their existing client base, help their immediate neighbors and provide a way for volunteers to help."

One of the main goals of today's gathering is to create neighborhood-based clusters of sanctuaries so different congregations can learn how to work as teams.
One thing not to repeat: The tendency to wait until after a disaster:
The San Francisco Interfaith Council was created after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake after leaders realized they needed to figure out collaborative ways to bring calm after a crisis. The Marin Interfaith Council was created in response to the devastating floods in 1982.
Business groups and non-profits can also work together, along with public officials. The more planning and preparation that's done ahead of time, the better.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Does This Make Sense?

A pair of simultaneous reports has me scratching my head. First, from Syracuse, New York, we learn:

[Radiation] detectors are now in the hands of two local police agencies, as well as state police, as the Office of Homeland Security expands its radiological security program into Central New York.

The hope is if a terrorist is transporting radioactive material to make a dirty bomb, police will be alerted to the material in transit, at the assembly point of the device or at the plot's launch site, said Frank Tabert, deputy director of the state Office of Homeland Security.

The detectors are paid for by grants from the Office of Homeland Security. Twelve police agencies statewide with bomb squads shared $1.4 million in grant money.

Generally speaking, Deputy Chief Michael Kerwin of the Syracuse police, said the devices usually are given to traffic units on the highways and used at large events downstate, such as Times Square on New Year's Eve.
While radiation detectors have some utility in a protective system, their biggest limitation is that they are, for the most part, a last-minute intervention. For this type of intervention to work, you've got to have a bad guy who is already in the U.S., has procured radioactive material and is transporting it so that he can assemble it (i.e., the 11th hour) or deploy it (i.e., the 11th hour, 59th minute).

Granted, the article does say New York intends to station larger, more sophisticated detectors at toll booths and other locations - and this makes some sense, as it's a good idea to station such equipment at transportation bottlenecks. But detectors alone are far from sufficient to protect against radiological threats.

At the same time, in the UK there is doubt about whether European ports - another key bottleneck in the transportation system - will continue radiation scanning of US-bound cargo. The problem? Not enough money:
Doubt has been cast over whether the security scanning of containers bound for the US from Southampton docks will continue after questions were raised over the financial feasibility of the move long term.

The city's docks were among the first ports in the world to start scanning containers destined for the US for nuclear materials as part of a move to step up homeland counter terrorism measures.

[I]t has been reported that the European Union has expressed concern over the long term feasibility of the programme after it was calculated that imposing the scanning of all containers would cost in the region of $500 a unit to US trading partners, based on simple calculations.
Overseas radiation scanning of cargo containers makes a world of sense. It is part of a layered security strategy, aimed at preventing the theoretical bad guy from moving radiological materials into the U.S. in the first place.

Not only that, but ports themselves are key potential targets for a radiological attack. If a "dirty bomb" were deployed in a port and the area became contaminated with radiation, port operations might be shut down for an extended period, with significant economic effects (especially locally).

The idea that we are deploying a new, 11th-hour intervention but potentially losing another layer of the security system is a puzzler.

Collaboration: A Quick But Worthy Read

The Partnership for Public Service has published this brief paper, entitled "Collaboration in Times of Crisis," which captured the lessons learned from a series of roundtable discussions. My favorite takeaway:

Following the panel discussion, our experts and audience discussed ways to improve coordination across other agencies and advance the collaborative capacity of the federal workforce. Their recommendations include:
  • Engage leadership who support and model collaborative behavior
  • Plan and budget for collaborative efforts
  • Enable workers on the ground to regularly interact across teams and agencies
Are you better at collaborating or talking about collaboration? Do you plan your collaborative efforts? Do you budget for them? Does collaboration happen throughout all levels of your organization?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Winning the Battle of Ideas

I found a couple of thought-provoking comments in this opinion piece by Erik Iverson in the Harvard International Review. Although the main focus of the article is on the national counterterrorism strategy, I thought a few points were fit for consideration by state and local "first preventers." First, this is an excellent encapsulation of counterterrorism strategy:

The objective of counterterrorism efforts is to reduce the incidence and effect of terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, an element of behavior; it is not an ideology. Consequently, the objective of counterterrorism policy should not be to change what extremists believe. The objective should be to change how terrorists act on those beliefs.
In other words, focus on behavior. Focus on what they do and how they do it - not on their underlying value structure. An extremist is not likely to be deterred by a crisis of belief, but they can be deterred by a crisis of confidence in their chances for success. To that end, one of Iverson's recommendations includes:
The United States should aggressively exploit the weaknesses of Al Qaeda’s new decentralized structure. It must degrade the trust in the organization’s systems, among its activists, and between its leaders. Al Qaeda is now critically dependent on a high degree of trust for cohesion among its many elements.

Paralysis of Al Qaeda’s critical organizational systems and the degradation of its most important relationships will not eliminate the Salafi jihadist terrorist threat. It will, however, reduce the ability of the organization to execute operationally complex, high-impact, spectacular attacks.
This is the sort of thing that's possible on the local level. During the recruiting, fund-raising, and operational phases, anyone interested in launching an attack - especially a complex, high-yield attack - will have to take actions that risk exposure. All of these actions present an opportunity to sow doubt and discord.

It's absolutely critical to make distinctions, however. If the reach is too broad and innocent people are swept up, then this just feeds into al Qaeda's paranoid propaganda (i.e., "The West is against us!"). But if the targeting is accurate, then there is a potential to disrupt the trusted networks that are so critical to success.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Senate Report on Homegrown Terrorism

I don't really have much to say about the new Senate report on homegrown terrorism and Internet recruiting, because it covers ground that I've covered before.

But after 10 pages - more than half the report - describing al Qaeda's sophisticated media, communications and marketing campaigns, this stuck out like a sore thumb:

[T]he U.S. government has not developed nor implemented a coordinated outreach and communications strategy to address the homegrown terrorist threat, especially as that threat is amplified by the use of the Internet. According to testimony received by the Committee, no federal agency has been tasked with developing or implementing a domestic communications strategy. While there are a series of outreach efforts being pursued by federal agencies, those efforts are limited, isolated, and not part of a strategic, government-wide policy to significantly minimize the influence of violent Islamist ideology in the United States. ...

And finally, the efforts by DHS' Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and the FBI’s Community Relations Unit are not tied into programs administered by local police departments, some of which are quite comprehensive.
Lesson to local law enforcement and homeland security professionals: If it is to be, it is up to you. (Be countersubversive.)

It's worth remembering that, while someone can be radicalized via the Internet, two things remain true:

1. Radicalization involves a separation from society, so if recruits can be pulled back into the real world of family and society, the process can be reversed.

2. Before recruits can become a legitimate threat, they need tactical skills. To some extent these are available via the Internet (e.g., bomb recipes). But for larger, high-yield attacks, they need to coordinate with others, raise money, and perhaps acquire specialized training. Making these connections and participating in this type of training can be a significant vulnerability for them, as it requires them to leave the relative safety of the virtual world.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Shift in Counterterrorism Communication Strategy

Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson write in PolicyWatch that the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has recently undergone a shift.

Where, previously, the emphasis was on selling the U.S. as "the good guys" (Remember Charlotte Beers? Remember Karen Hughes?), the emphasis now is on demonstrating the degree to which al Qaeda and its fellow travelers are "the bad guys":

Today contesting al-Qaeda's ideology is an integral part of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Efforts now concentrate on discrediting the terrorists. The United States has gone about this using a two-fold approach. As National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Michael Leiter suggests, the United States is trying to point out "how bankrupt" al-Qaeda's ideology is, and demonstrate that "it is al-Qaeda, and not the West, that is truly at war with Islam" by highlighting the extent to which Muslims are victims of the organization's attacks.

In general, the United States is trying to highlight the fact that al-Qaeda is a merciless and cruel organization whose tactics -- such as deploying mentally deficient people as suicide bombers -- are repugnant. As Leiter argued, "showing the barbarism of groups like al-Qaeda in the light of truth is, ultimately, our strongest weapon."
This message can have some traction - for instance, we've already seen evidence of this in the eventual Sunni rejection of al Qaeda for its horrific practices in Iraq.

In a way it's basic politics: Demonize your opposition.

For the strategy to be effective, this message needs to work on the local level. The homegrown threat, which was discussed in this post on Tuesday, can be countered by demonstrating the bankruptcy of al Qaeda's ideology. Trusted Muslim leaders can be a vital ally, as they are best able to formulate counter-arguments that are based on an Islamic perspective. These arguments can have real weight against the "cut-and-paste" version of Islam that is taught by the usually self-taught radicalizers (see this post).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Review - Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't

It's time for another book review. This one is James Miskel's Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't (2006). In general, I found that the book accurately identified some of the problems with disaster response, but I'm somewhat skeptical about some of the proposed solutions. Let's dig in:

Problems With The Current System

In discussing the problems with the disaster response system in the U.S., Miskel argues that it often works well for smaller, more common disasters, but not for major catastrophic events:

There has, indeed, been a pattern of "failure" in meeting the needs of the victims of certain types of catastrophic disasters. ... Where preparedness is lacking is in the realm of out-of-the-ordinary disaster.
But the disaster response system has not been improved because it generally works well and fails only in less frequent catastrophic disasters, especially hurricanes:
In fact, few studies look at disaster relief as a system that is built upon a network of interdependence among too-numerous organizations. That network usually functions reasonably well, but it has repeatedly stumbled over its own feet in certain types of major disasters. ...

[A] review of the history of the disaster relief program indicates that the system has never responded well to major hurricanes.
Given that after-action reports on many catastrophic disasters have identified the same problems, again and again, Miskel argues that big changes are needed:
It seems clear that this fine-tuning has not made enough of a difference and there is no reason to believe that the answer is more fine-tuning.
As I said earlier, Miskel identifies a number of problems inherent in the system. First, there are many cooks in many kitchens, which seriously complicates the response to major disasters:
Private sector organizations, state and local government agencies, and federal agencies each have their own disaster relief programs and the challenge imbedded (sic) in the system is how to orchestrate these multiple programs effectively. ...

Just as uncertainly and information overload are inescapable features of war, they seem as well to have been inevitable in the responses to major relief operations. What has made them inevitable is, of course, the scale and geographical dispersion of the disaster itself and the complexity of the response system itself - with its too-numerous actors at the federal, state, and private sector levels...
This problem plagues the response at all levels, not just the federal level:
When Hurricane Hugo struck the state [of South Carolina], the governor's office chose to rely upon the state police radio network to collect information about storm damage, rather than the network that had been set up by the emergency management agency. ... Whatever the motive, the result was that there were two emergency operations centers in the state: one in the governor's office and the other at the emergency management agency, and there were reports that for ten days the emergency management agency did not even know that the second emergency operations center existed.
Another problem, Miskel argues, is that the current reimbursement system provides an incentive for state and local governments not to prioritize preparedness. In the wake of a disaster, the president decides whether to issue a formal disaster declaration, making the state or local entity eligible for federal reimbursement of costs. Then, the federal government makes a political decision regarding the rate at which reimbursement will be provided - usually, 75%, 90% or 100% - though in major disasters the rate tends to creep up, as federal elected officials want to be seen as generous in a time of crisis. Miskel argues that this has a negative effect on the preparedness efforts of state and local governments:
Ninety or 100 percent reimbursements amplify the incentives for states, local governments, and even individuals and private sector organizations to spend less on preparedness on the presumption that whatever the costs are of inadequately preparing for disasters, most if not all of them will ultimately be assumed by the federal government.
The only time there is a focus on preparedness is in the aftermath of a major disaster such as Katrina. But the focus and energy soon fade:
Coordination of before-the-disaster preparedness efforts, on the other hand, is rarely either proactive or consistently effective. Except in rare circumstances (such as the immediate aftermath of disaster when the images of the destruction and suffering are still vivid and the political pressures for action are still strong) preparedness measures have historically been regarded as a low priority relative to other government functions. As a result, the coordination of preparedness at the federal and state level has been only intermittently energetic.
One noteworthy exception: Miskel points out that some private-sector entities, such as insurers and utility companies, have a strong economic incentive to respond quickly and effectively to disasters. And as a result, these entities have generally done a better job of focusing on preparedness.

For its part, the federal government tried to deal with the problem of insufficient preparedness in 1979, when it created FEMA. But FEMA was never vested with sufficient authority to overcome this structural obstacle:

[When FEMA was created in 1979] the prescription was for centralized federal orchestration of preparedness planning at all levels of government by a new agency, FEMA. The executive order did not, however, give FEMA enough clout to overcome the low priority that is ordinarily assigned to preparedness.
As a result, when there a major disaster does strike, the White House usually finds it necessary to play a direct role:
[O]ne of the lessons that can be drawn from tropical storm Agnes [in 1972] is that a heavy White House hand is sometimes necessary to achieve responsiveness and unity of effort within the family of federal agencies. ...

[Hurricane Andrew] was another example of the need for the White House to take special steps to ensure unity of effort by the federal agencies. The other examples that have been noted so far are Vice President Agnew's fact-finding tour after tropical storm Agnes; Jack Watson's interagency strategizing in the Carter White House, and the appointment of Harold Denton as the president's "personal representative" during the Three Mile Island episode; President Clinton's flood relief summits during the Midwest floods; and the replacement of the FEMA Director by Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen in the response to Hurricane Katrina.
So, federal operational leadership is not the reason why the system tends to succeed in response to disasters that are relatively limited in scope. Miskel credits others:
When it succeeds, the disaster relief system does so not because of inspired operational leadership at the federal level, but because it is a system whose pieces have been built beforehand, over time in response to federal preparedness policies, state and local government initiative, and private sector response to market incentives and regulation, as well as the dedication of private voluntary organizations, and the acumen of individuals and families.
Miskel expects nothing to change:
Given the fact that preparedness has always ebbed in the months and years after events such as a major earthquake, hurricane, or terrorist event, there is no reason to expect anything different in the future as long as the existing structure of the disaster relief system remains in place.
So, in review, the basic problems are a too-complicated system, a low priority on preparedness, and an overreliance on federal assistance, especially operational assistance.


In discussing potential solutions to these problems, Miskel compares the disaster relief systems in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. These other countries are like the U.S. in that they have developed economic infrastructure, and each also has a federalist system of government in which states and provinces have important - and in many cases, primary - responsibilities.

In making these comparisons, Miskel spends much effort on describing the process by which reimbursements are doled out to Canadian and Australian provinces, in comparision to U.S. states. It is clear that the reimbursement system in both Australia and Canada is both de-politicized and less generous than the U.S. system. Miskel argues that there's an important effect to this:
Lower reimbursement rates are an important consideration. Not only do they restrain federal spending, they also give a stronger incentive for states to take emergency preparedness seriously because that helps reduce costs and to manage their disaster relief expenditures carefully.
Miskel suggests the Canadian model as exemplary. Under Canada's system, provinces are responsible for all disaster response and recovery costs up to $1 per capita, after which the federal government kicks in 50% of all costs up to $3 per capita, 75% of costs from $3 to $5 per capita, and 90% of costs over $5 per capita. Miskel writes:
If the right [reimbursement] trigger were established, as it appears to have been in Canada, states would always have the financial incentive to manage relief operations effectively because their share of the costs would never get as low as it does in the United States.
Recalling the earlier point that federal operational leadership is not often the determining factor in the success of a respons, Miskel's more significant proposal is for the federal government to largely
abandon the disaster response business and focus on preparedness. He argues that the federal government's direct involvement in response activities is actually a detriment to an effective response:
One of the surest ways to weaken the self-organizing features of response in the private sector and at the state and local government level would be for the federal government to assume a more direct role in managing disaster responses. The very last thing that the federal government should do is crowd initiative at nonfederal levels out of the system in the name of improving the federal response to catastrophic disasters. ...

The more effective and proactive the federal government becomes at providing disaster relief and the more generous it is in reimbursing state/local governments, the more it may be encouraging the states to trim their investments in preparedness

As the federal government preempts the states in more and more disaster responses, the result will be the displacement of the very things that make the system work most of the time - state, local, and private sector preparedness and initiative.
Miskel argues that unless the federal government abandons operational assistance for "routine" disasters, not only will state and local governments continue to provide a less effective response, but the federal response to major catastrophes will always be less effective than desirable, because FEMA will always train and prepare for routine events rather than catastrophic ones:
[A]s long as the responsibility for routine and catastrophic disasters remains in FEMA or a successor agency, the habits and protocols that the agency learns and repeatedly relearns during the course of responding to the forty to sixty disasters that are declared in a typical year will necessarily dominate its culture and influence how it responds to atypical disasters.
The answer, Miskel argues, is for the federal government to focus almost exclusively on preparation for major disasters:
[I]f the federal government were to get out of the business of responding to routine disasters, it would be better able to concentrate on addressing the shortcomings in preparedness that have been identified after each of the catastrophic disasters since 1972.

If the Canadian or Australian model were adopted for routine disasters, presidential disaster declarations would become considerably less frequent as they would be required only when a state requested physical, operational assistance from the federal government. ... As state governments would then become unambiguously responsible for disaster response, this should result in greater political attention to preparedness at the level of state and local governments.
So state and local governments would be clearly in charge for routine disasters - but what about major disasters? What sort of steps would the federal government take, once it took charge of preparedness for major disasters? Miskel would give the military much of the job of designing the response system:
[C]onsideration should be given to assigning the military with the mission of developing and managing both a command and control structure for disaster operations and a program for conducting drills and exercises that would work out over time the kinks in command and control procedures, identify gaps in operational plans, and train federal agency personnel.
And since White House pressure is always needed in major disasters anyway, Miskel would formalize this:
In any event, greater White House involvement will be essential if the shortcomings of the past are to be avoided in the future. ... The responsibility for overseeing federal and system wide preparedness should be taken from FEMA and added to the vice president's portfolio or assigned to an Emergency Management Council based in the White House.
I like Miskel's ideas regarding the de-politicization and limitation of the reimbursement process - it never makes sense to incentivize inadequate preparation.

I also agree with his argument that the disaster response system generally deals quite effectively with smaller, more localized disasters.

But I'm less persuaded by his proposed fixes for the federal system. Essentially the argument seems to be that if the military and the White House take over, they will have sufficient capability and power to bring the federal operational response under control, even during a chaotic response to a catastrophe. But how will the federal government interact with state and local governments? How would federal agencies perform during catastrophic operations that are, by definition, infrequent events? How much more seriously will the federal government take its preparedness efforts? Won't the tendency to short-shrift preparation for unlikely catastrophic events persist, even if the charge is led from the White House? Would the White House be able to improve the response under the proposed system, moreso than in the current system, when it has to get involved anyway?
Essentially it seems like the details of the federal response would be kicked over the wall, into the Pentagon and the White House. And it's not clear to me that those are the silver bullets to fixing the federal response system.

On Resilience

HLS Watch has a nice recap of yesterday's hearing on resilience by the House Homeland Security Committee. A key takeaway from Jonas' post:

DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy, Stewart Baker, represented the federal government and its views on resilience, as well as current efforts to invest in this capability. Much of A/S Baker’s prepared remarks focused on the ability to “bounce back” as the goal of resilience. This is important, but it leaves out other dimensions that make the concept of resilience valuable (i.e. deterrence, measured response, dual use, etc.).

You're not going to be able to sell resilience as a policy unless you can argue that a resilient target is an unattractive target. Politically, you just can't say, "We must beef up our systems so that when the terrorists destroy them, we'll be able to rebuild quickly." But given that al Qaeda seeks to harm us economically, there is a persuasive argument to be made that resilient systems will be a less tempting target.

Dumb analogy: You know all those action, sci-fi and horror movies, where it doesn't seem to matter what you do to the bad guy - he reacts as if nothing happened? Well, this attribute - all by itself - makes him a pretty formidable adversary. As viewers we begin to despair for the hero. We think, "Why even bother fighting this guy - nothing works!"

Of course in the movies, the small, scrappy good guys always win because they're the good guys. But in the fight against terrorists, the small scrappy guys are pretty darned abominable. If the U.S. is a resilient, indefatigable force for good (read: soft power), we are clearly the stronger horse and the more attractive option. Choosing terrorism becomes a dual loser: You choose not only an abhorrent ideology, but futility as well.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Al Qaeda in the U.S.

Last week FBI Director Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee there have been al Qaeda cells in the U.S.:

FBI Director Robert Mueller said last week that the FBI has uncovered small groups of Al Qaida terrorists in the United States, although he declined to provide details.

As to your first question as to whether we have found affiliates or, as you would call them, cells of Al Qaida in the United States, yes, we have."
Mueller gave some credit to the FBI's program to develop relationships within America's Muslim community.
“And every opportunity I have, I reaffirm the fact that 99.9 percent of Muslim-Americans or Sikh-Americans, Arab-Americans are every bit as patriotic as anybody else in this room, and that many of our cases are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States,” Mueller said.
Within some circles, engaging the U.S. Muslim community is controversial. But as a tactic to deter the emergence of radical jihadism in the U.S., I think it only makes sense. As Mueller argues, the vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful, and it only make sense to engage them as allies to be on guard against the emergence of violent groups. This approach is codified in the National Strategy for Homeland Security:
The arrest and prosecution inside the United States of a small number of violent Islamic extremists points to the possibility that others in the Homeland may become sufficiently radicalized to view the use of violence within the United States as legitimate. ... We will continue efforts to defeat this threat by working with Muslim American communities that stand at the forefront of this fight.
I'm also reminded of this 2006 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which found that, although the FBI had been more proactive in its outreach efforts within Arab American communities, those communities generally perceived local law enforcement as more trustworthy:
Toward local police agencies, Arab Americans reported a fair amount of goodwill, even in jurisdictions where the two had little interaction. Where departments invested resources to cultivate this goodwill, the evidence points to dividends in the form of reduced tension. Community perceptions of federal law enforcement were less positive. Even though most of the FBI field offices in the study had reached out to Arab American communities, many Arab Americans remained fearful and suspicious of federal efforts.
Local law enforcement has a role to play in detecting potential threats of all types - not only those that emerge from a radical jihadist mindset, but from other ideologies as well (e.g., Timothy McVeigh-type "patriot" groups, narco-terrorists, etc.) My post on the Vera report is here.

Update 2008-05-07: Yesterday, DHS Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Charlie Allen also riffed on al Qaeda's improved recruiting capabilities in Western societies:
Al-Qaeda's leadership has delivered over the past 12 months, an unprecedented number of audio and video messages and has increased its translation capability, diversity of subject matters, and media savvy to reach out to wider audiences globally. Its objective is to gain wide Muslim support, empathy, financing, and future recruits.

At the top of this sophisticated marketing machine, al Qaida leaders have carefully crafted and controlled their words. Al Sahab produces the audio or videotapes; the al-Fajr online media network plays the messages on numerous electronic platforms to include messages that download onto iPods and similar electronic devices. The Global Islamic Media Front then translates, re-packages, and re-disseminates these messages onto numerous - sometimes redundant - websites with the capacity to regenerate any website if a government or private entity attempts to bring it down.

I find it particularly alarming that al Qaida is improving its ability to translate its messages to target Europeans and North Americans. A year ago, al Qaida leaders solicited for "English translators" and subsequently have ratcheted up the speed and accuracy of translated statements openly marketed to U.S. and other English-speaking audiences. Last month, Osama bin Ladin's Chief Deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri released English translations of a two-part online interview to address questions from both extremists and mainstream Muslims around the world. To help al Qaida target US citizens, several radical websites in the United States have re-packaged al Qaida statements with American vernacular and commentary intending to sway U.S. Muslims.