Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 23, 2006

A ‘national security approach’ to emergency management?

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on February 23, 2006

I’ve taken a closer look at the White House’s report on Katrina, released earlier today, focusing on one of the core sections of the report – Chapter Six, entitled “Transforming National Preparedness.” The chapter looks at the core, systemic lessons of the response to Katrina, noting that the reliance on “pull-model” for disaster response where states and cities request federal assistance is now inoperative in cases of large-scale, catastrophic disaster. The report then suggests that a model of national security is perhaps more appropriate in such catastrophic incidents today:

While this [pull] approach has worked well in the majority of disasters and emergencies, catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina are a different matter. The current homeland security environment—with the continuing threat of mass casualty terrorism and the constant risk of natural disasters—now demands that the Federal government actively prepare and encourage the Nation as a whole to plan, equip, train, and cooperate for all types of future emergencies, including the most catastrophic.

A useful model for our approach to homeland security is the Nation’s approach to national security. Over the past six decades, we have created a highly successful national security system. This system is built on deliberate planning that assesses threats and risks, develops policies and strategies to manage them, identifies specific missions and supporting tasks, and matches the forces or capabilities to execute them. Operationally organized, it stresses the importance of unity of command from the President down to the commander in the field.

Perhaps most important, the national security system emphasizes feedback and periodic reassessment. Programs and forces are assessed for readiness and the degree to which they support their assigned missions and strategies on a continuing basis. Top level decision-makers periodically revisit their assessments of threats and risks, review their strategies and guidance, and revise their missions, plans, and budgets accordingly.

This is a very important passage in this report, and deserves some careful scrutiny.

At a general level, the idea of a “national security approach” makes intuitive sense to me. Reactive strategies for catastrophic response are definitely insufficient, and new, more forward-leaning strategies are required given the increasing likelihood of response situations where state and local responders will be overwhelmed.

But what exact “national security” model are we talking about here? Are we talking about traditional military models – the command-and-control principles that have governed military strategies from the Gallic Wars to the Cold War defense of the Fulda Gap? Or are we talking about leading-edge, technology-enabled models such as net-centric warfare or fourth generation warfare (4GW) that empower decentralized unit-level decision-making and initiative?

Given the language in the second paragraph of the excerpt above, I’m afraid it’s the former, when what we really need is the latter. The paragraph seems to envision planning for every conceivable contingency to a very detailed level, and assigning specific responsibilities in advance. Is that what we really need? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we need a flexible, capabilities-based planning system that focuses on developing the broad set of capabilities that we need – trained people, equipment, systems, etc. – and prepares people by robustly testing these capabilities against a broad set of scenarios in a way that encourages creativity, adaptability and cross-organizational teamwork.

The paragraph also speaks of a hierarchical “unity of command” in this model. But that’s an outdated model in a networked world. Even with robust system awareness, I’d contend that in any large-scale catastrophic response situation, the “effectiveness benefits” due to rapid on-the-ground decision-making will outweigh the “efficiency benefits” of centralized control.

As I mentioned earlier today, I think there are some important and positive lessons in this report. But any shift to greater centralization of the emergency management process has serious risks, and could ultimately weaken the system rather than strengthen it. Instead of trying to over-plan and assert greater control over the national preparedness effort, the federal government should focusing on empowering and enabling the millions of direct participants in the national response system around the country. That’s the ‘national security approach’ that we should take.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn



Comment by J.

February 24, 2006 @ 7:58 am

You’re exactly right, and I will try to expound upon your post next week. The idea that any federal response to catastrophic disasters ought to be developed like we do for military operations is not necessarily sound. The volley of criticisms against the QDR and 2007 Budget reflect the failures of a politicized system that deliberately underestimates the threat in order to procure what it thinks is necessary, rather than what is actually required for the future. The military operational command and control is pretty close to the ICS method used by responders; major differences are that the military has its communications pretty well linked and when someone gives an order, it’s carried out quickly. But let’s not copy the national security strategy planning process.


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 24, 2006 @ 10:05 am

The illusion of federal controlas a solution permeates the Katrina White House report. The country is a big one and when 90,000 square miles are impacted that is a big chunk. The civil agencies have long been starved for preparedness funding, this is deliberate strategy by OMB and the Congress. Witness the weirdness of all response for domestic events except terrorism being assigned to the EP&R Directorate (now disestablished) and all terrorism response being in the office eventually title State and Local Preparedness and Coordination. This was a statutory glitch of a major order. Law enforcement culture, emergency management culture, fire culture, and military culture all have been allowed to continue in DHS but no real effort to analyze how things should work in a federal system has been made. Now the report suggests just let the feds do it. Experience has demonstrated that the feds better improve state and local systems before trying to do it. Congress could help by not preventing DHS from setting standards. There should be a formal military liaison with each Governor not just DHS regions. This is a logical NG role and State and locals should be given the mirror image course that has been funded by DOD for a decade for its base Civil-Military Liaison Officers. DOD is part of each community where it has facilities and operations despite the “town-gown” problems that might exist. By the way does the military command and control system really work? Have we “won” the wars since Vietnam or did the other side “lose”? If Katrina was a war, we lost! And DOD ignored its own systems and processes in large measure. A story yet to be told. DOD is not as ad-hoc as civil agency response mechanisms but it also wants to hand-craft its involvement each time rather than bite the bullet and really organize its domestic response capability. So in order to involve DOD more intimately in civil domestic response that involvement still has to be developed.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » National Journal interviews Thad Allen

June 2, 2006 @ 4:41 pm

[…] Exactly! As I’ve argued previously, this is precisely the type of organizational culture that we need in emergency response today: giving people the tools and training, but when they’re out in the field, allowing them to be flexible and creative, and not dealing with excessive bureaucracy. […]

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>