Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 27, 2009

Trying to track the scope of risk, recent homeland security headlines

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on June 27, 2009

I find it challenging to consistently track all-hazards (or, what I think is a better framework, “all-risks”).  

My own interests and expertise push forward specific concerns.  The  unfolding events of each day push forward other concerns.  I am most often surprised by those risks that fall in-between.  I don’t  so much mind making a conscious choice and losing the bet.  Being surprised is a  bigger problem.

So I try to keep on my intellectual radar a wide range of threat-capabilities, more than specific threats.  For example, the threat of losing electric power, regardless of cause, is usually toward the top of my list.  The cascade of second and third order effects of losing power exposes a wide range of vulnerabilities.  I might be able to reduce or mitigate those vulnerabilities in advance.

I am not trying to — could not — capture all possible risks, even for  just the last few days. But what are the most important risks  not referenced below?  How do you define important?  What would you take off the list and why?


Three dead in Chicago heatwave

Thunderstorms spawn tornadoes and watersprout

House passes climate change bill

Boehner promises climate bill will cause bureaucratic nightmare

A tropical wave has formed south of Cuba

US rate of H1N1 infection increases

US swine flu vaccination program considered

H1N1 spreads across Southern Hemisphere: Australia, Brazil, and South Africa

Swine flu vaccine: the race is on


Leaky dam increases flood risk

Utility device sparks wildfire

DC Metro control system fails test

Safety board can’t investigate ammonia leak

Chemical leak sends five students to hospital


House committee passes Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act

Dems moving to gut chemical security bill

Military command is created for cyber security

Pakistan bombs Taliban in Waziristan

Islamabad urges US to stop drone attacks inside Pakistan

Calderon says Mexican democracy is at stake

Pentagon, DHS divided on military’s role at border

People on terrorist watch list allowed to buy guns

Shift possible on Terror Suspects’ Detention


House passes DHS appropriations bill

Johnson testifies on I&A mission and budget

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 27, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

The all-risks and all-hazards preparedness can bog down in semantics and probabilities. Does not mean the discourse does not help enlighten. But also true that some risks/hazards require a highly technical response effort to cope with monitoring/decontamination/access and re-entry issues and the whole “rendered safe” problem.
The problem is that both the technical response organizations and those responsible for mass care including evacuation or shelter or other elements of coping with an impacted population really don’t train, equip, or understand each other very well and often don’t speak the same crisis management language. Why? Because no baseline capability has been established that could be surged depending on the need. So really no one can answer the vital questions for each risk or hazard impacting the public or even special populations: Who, what, where, what funding, what equipment, what competencies seem still pretty unanswerable. Still no real system but just ad hoc relationships that may get many killed should events turn out to be complicated by geograph y, demographics, economnics, or other factors. Is there a system being developed or just a paper system that could easily rip or shatter? Time will tell.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

June 27, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

Phil — You wrote: “I find it challenging to consistently track all-hazards (or, what I think is a better framework, “all-risks”).

I once heard someone suggest we should use the term “all-disciplines,” rather than all-hazards or all-risks. That construction encourages reliance on the professional disciplines to identify threats and capabilities. Under the right conditions (http://tinyurl.com/nfggd3)it might be worth experimenting with an all-disciplines focus as a way to allocate homeland security resources.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 28, 2009 @ 2:55 am

Chris’ comment is right on. Each discipline seems to percieve risks and hazards through their own prism. This approach might just be the common sense one of using a building block approach to risk from the various disciplines instead of percieved risk by the politicos.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 28, 2009 @ 5:20 am

I readily accept that some (most?) risks/hazards benefit from competent, discipline-specific engagement. Further, the time, energy, and focus needed to develop such competence and discipline encourages drilling deep rather than looking broad.

It is also my experience that such pockets of professional expertise can become personal and institutional traps.

We need — as individuals, organizations, and as a society — the abilty to both focus and scan. For a host of practical reasons we are regularly encouraged to focus. Specialization is pushed by the increasing knowledge-base and complexity of our disciplines.

Along the way, it seems to me, we are forgetting some of the disciplines associated with scanning. There may even be a tendency to mistrust scanning as innately superficial. It often is, but does not need to be.

I agree that too many politicos scan in a way that undermines the credibility of scanning. But if we only use a building-block approach from the disciplines out, we will miss too many gaps.

I suggest that effective scanning must incorporate all-disciplines, it is empirical (especially in respect for the null-hypothesis),it will be principle-based (especially in being explicit regarding purpose), it is inclusive and transparent, and it is oriented to finding integrative solutions through a process of appreciative inquiry.

I think we once, in ancient-of-days, called this the political process. But we will clearly need to rebrand it.

Comment by pat longstaff

June 28, 2009 @ 8:43 am

Or, we could learn to accept the uncertainty. Instead to trying to focus all our energy on (or scan for) many risks (hazards, disciplines) we could spend part of our time focusing on underlying resilience that is likely to be of service no matter what the “surprise.”

It is not surprising that there re new surprises every day – but it is surprising that we are still surprised.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 28, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

Touché, Pat. But even if resilience is our first priority, doesn’t disciplined scanning and specialized knowledge help inform how we invest in resilience? It is an authentic question.

Comment by pat longstaff

June 29, 2009 @ 7:26 am

I did not mean to suggest that resilience is the only strategy that is appropriate. Don’t you hate it when people see their pet theory as the ONLY one that should be applied?

The danger (and I use that word deliberately) is that this scanning/specialized-knowledge activity will be seen as enough to kept us safe. We turn the problem over to “experts” at our peril because they can not predict (or help us prepare for) all the surprises that might come our way. Scanning and reports by experts are activities that can be observed and measured in the short term. We can see what we are getting from our investments. Understandable that they would be popular in government.

Building resilience capacity in communities is not so easily measured and its utility will only become obvious in a few places every year. The political viability of resilience investments requires us to see those few places each year where surprises happen as part of “us” and every community that bounces back as a victory for the nation (and its government) as a whole.

But it is certainly true that if you are trying to protect a chicken coop you would post a watch for foxes.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 29, 2009 @ 8:33 am

Thanks and I think we may be — at least for a moment — in total agreement. I especially share your concern about “turning over” our problems to experts. We need experts and should fund and support current and emerging expertise. But our most serious problems — wicked problems — are ipso facto beyond the scope of such expertise. Here we need disciplined scanning, the exercise of judgment and, finally, some not-so-simple choosing among tough options. This requires communications and a sense of community. Unless there is a sense of shared relationship and common destiny (a rough definition of community?),I don’t think such choices can be made and resilience will remain elusive.

Comment by puta

May 16, 2013 @ 6:18 am

I’ll not speak about your competence, the post just disgusting

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