Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 23, 2009

Natural and/or Accidental and/or Intentional we can handle (if barely)

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 23, 2009

But what about Natural x Accidental x Intentional?


Flooding in Mabletown, Georgia. Photo by John Bazemore, Associated Press

Several days of extraordinary rainfall has cause death, injury, and destruction across a wide area of the Southeast United States.  (More from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Times.)


Firefighting in Ventura County, photo by Mike R. of Gather News

Early and unconfirmed reports suggest the quickly expanding Guiberson Fire in Ventura County, California was ignited by spontaneously combusting manure.  According to CNN, the flames are threatening oil pumping and transmission lines which, unless effectively managed, could produce a catastrophic result.  Wouldn’t that be an accident causing a bigger accident? (See more from the Los Angeles Times.)


No. 30 bus, July 7, 2005 Tavistock Square, London.  Photograph by Peter Macdiarmind, GETTY

Tuesday federal authorities reminded public safety agencies and private sector organizations of the ongoing risk related to  bombing attacks on luxury hotels, sports stadiums, and transportation systems.

The Associated Press is reporting that a suspected terrorist cell operating in Denver and New York may have been planning an attack using a hydrogen peroxide explosive, similar to that used in the July 2005 London Bombings.  The AP is headlining their report, “Tiny, Cheap and Deadly.”

Hydrogen peroxide was also implicated in the 2004 Madrid bombings and in the 2007 arrest and recent conviction of intended terrorists in Germany.

Force multipliers are a classic feature of warfare.  The tactic is especially favored by the weaker side in an asymmetric struggle.  It is reasonable to expect that violent extremists of various types are looking for dams to blow up, wildfires to start, chemical plants to weaponize, and other such variables to plug into their multiplication tables.

At the very least, this is another reason to pursue a persistent,  multidisciplinary strategy that gives priority to prevention and mitigation of all-risks.

(This post was completed at 2200 hours (eastern) on Tuesday to be published on Wednesday.  I will be unable to update on Wednesday and — rather obviously — current conditions could be considerably altered by then.)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2009 @ 6:27 am

Multiple events occurring simultaneously? concurrent events? Coincidental events? What can go wrong does go wrong? The “Normal Accident” [respects to Mr. Perrow]! Human intervention making things worse. Elaborate studies of causation can delay the appropriate emergency response. EPA in the 80’s published a document in the federal register (don’t have citation) specifying which legal authorities applicable for EPA response to which kind of events. Hey it was clear that sorting out the legal authority issue at the time of the incident/event could only delay appropriate/effective/efficent response. Interestingly even today no one knows how the technical response agencies, including DOD, EPA, DOE, DOT, NRC, etc have integrated the NRF [National Response Framework-2008] and NIMS [National Incident Management System-2008] and the Integrated Planning System-2007 and the National Emergency Communications Plan-2008 and the Target Capabilities List–2007 and the Annex I to HSPD-8–2009 into their various federal plans such as the NCP published at 40 CFR Part 300! And of course no telling how many state and local governments have referenced the above in their plans or the National Preparedness Guidance–2007 and/or CPG-101–2008 in their various plans. So let’s be clear after crossing the 8 year mark since 9/11 and the creation of DHS! And of course my bottom line is always perhaps oversimplified. Who understands and comprehends all of the above? And exactly, who will show up in a real world incident/event? What resources both financial and personnel and equipment and sytems {logistics} will they have? What will their training and experience consist of? Who will have verified their capabilities 24/7 and 365 days a year.
Let’s take a moment out an look at the US Tort system which is totally a function of STATE law but devolves around the following points:
First is there a standard of care?
Second, has that standard been breeched?
Third, was there an injury?
Fourth, was the injury caused by the breech of the standard of care?
Fifth, was were the damages as a result of that injury?

Okay–Courts are highly deferential to EMERGENCY PLANNERS AND RESPONDERS and their decision processes! Also probably to HS types and their operations whether labeled public safety generally or police and fire or EM or EMT or HAZMATS! But how and where will these systems described above mess in a country (US) that abides by the rule of law.

Well first, let’s make sure its not amateur night when responders show up. Handing out business cards for the first time. Handing out copies of plans and guidance for the first time. Isn’t it interesting that no public release yet of comprehensive reviews of the four TOPOFF exercises first held in 2000 or the recently conducted (first part of August) National Level Exercise V that replaced TOPOFF series.

Hey is this whole system transparent or confusing. Short story. Once there was a real world event (hint–this one was in 80’s not 70’s) and a certain agency formally notified FEMA under its agreements with FEMA that a real world event was under way. Well FEMA took the call at one of its 24/7 and 365 days a year EOC and given that “Warning” had been issued by the other agency FEMA was now charged with “alerting” and “Notification” of appropriate persons and organizations. This was to be accomplished by way of various types of call-up lists. Well guess what the EOC did its job by executing its various alerting and notification call lists. Then what happened. I was inundated with calls form persons in FEMA contacted asking me (yes was a lawyer then) what they should do, what was required, how would it happen. Well I did my best but you can understand my concern almost 3 decades later that I still might get such calls even though retired from FEMA 10 years in just 7 days. So how about the “New” FEMA and the “new DHS” making sure that I never get those calls and everyone understands who the players are and what is their play book. And test and exercise and verify all of the above including letting everyone know what standards of performance, CONPLANS and SOP’s are being utilized.

And Congress does it make you happy that you have no idea based on mostly worthless oversight such as sessions on how to do business with DHS as to how this all works and who is accountable and why are they accountable. Good luck to all involved. Hoping skill, knowledge, experience, and competence is available in abundance.

By the way a number of the calls mentioned above were from other departments and agencies so that FEMA ended up providing some training to other Departments and agencies on their own authorities and plans. Yes, disclosure I was one of many instructors. And some of those notified and alerted told me flat out they had no idea how their names appeared on those lists at the FEMA EOC! Also some from other departments and agencies. nAs always hoping for the best!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2009 @ 6:30 am

CORRECTION: Annex I to HSPD-8 was published in December 2007!

Comment by Pat Longstaff

September 23, 2009 @ 8:17 am

I am surprised that Phil seems to be supporting the idea that anyone can devise what he calls a “strategy that gives priority to prevention and mitigation of all-risks.” I know that Phil and most readers here recognize that this is not, strictly speaking, possible. Yes, that is what voters want. I would prefer it myself. But by trying to give it to them, public servants are setting themselves (or the people who sit in their chairs later) up for wave of public anger that will ruin the careers of good people and further instill distrust in government. It is another symptom of our badly polarized electorate that nobody can speak this truth. So I hope we will spend some of our resources quietly getting communities ready to help themselves when floods, fires, and bombs-on-buses happen to them.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2009 @ 9:08 am

Agree completely with Pat’s comment as no system of prevention and mitigation can totally prevent “Leakage” as observed by those arguing for missle defense systems.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

September 23, 2009 @ 9:33 am

I do not perceive an innate conflict between prevention, mitigation, and resilience. As Pat suggests, if those practicing prevention perceive they must be (can be) 100 percent successful, then they are deluding themselves and encouraging an unhelpful illusion by others

An argument by analogy:I am more resilient because I have chosen not to smoke, because I exercise, because I am careful regarding my diet. I am less resilient than some others due to inherited physical and psychological factors and because I spend too much time in the sun. That last risk is chosen and I am probably indulging in typical positive illusions in doing so.

Pat might have been less surprised if I had been explicit about prevention and mitigation as part of an overall strategy of resilience. This was my (implicit) intent. But I would not have been as explicit as in this response. Perhaps even sloppy writing can have a benefit.

Does the argument by analogy work? Is there an important role for proactive prevention and mitigation as part of a strategy of resilience?

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 23, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

A Wenn diagram of the sets of mitigation, prevention, and resilience would demonstrate substantial overlapping IMO!

Comment by Pat Longstaff

September 23, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

It is, of course, partly semantics so analogies can be helpful. Yes, any community (and any person – including Phil) will be better off if they take steps to resist the dangers that they know about – as long as that does not deprive them of resources that they need for growing. I get worried when people spend all their time preparing for the worst-case scenario when this keeps them from devoting any resources to planning for the best-case scenario. I’m sure Phil’s time in the sun falls into the second category.

Comment by christopher tingus

September 24, 2009 @ 6:20 am

First, the retirement of William Cumming from FEMA was a hugh loss to FEMA and all of us!

We are all fortunate to be so enlightened by an individual so articulate, so well prepared and willing to continue to share himself for obviously he is a true patriot and Loves this beloved nation so much in peril these days and so unprepared in many aspects whereby we Mr. & Mrs. Citizen Joe would believe differently thinking that we are a nation which can rely on many resources as we see our local law enforcement, firefighters and EMT’s doing their best daily even w/budget restraints and less than the basic first responder staffing….

At least here in Massachusetts, I (we) can depend on the diligent public safety responders, but we little confidence in the ability of legislators to even understand what they must do – if they could only get out of their own way – to truly address a really comprihensive plan incorporating all the comminities in case of substantial need. I have often thought that more on-hands citizen training be shared so that street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, at least oen or two individuals in an immediate area has more formal training to address a real scenario where local and regional response is overwhelmed and citizens help other citiens at least in basics until the professional can arrive –

As the economy worsens over the next thirty-six months and we see more stress on the individual and family (community), coupled with national and global politics which is certain to bring us to the brink of having to respond quickly and with much efficiency and professionalism, it is time to demand more from nationak and state politicians and to get involved with our local comunities and demanding the transparency that the President and locals talk about…promise when campaigning, but like the President, when elected, seem to forget easily…too easily as the government making every attempt possible to reach into the pockets of Mr. & Mrs. Citizen everywhere it can is having a negative affect on Main Street USA as so many distrust government.

Let’s see if we can muster the genuine ooncern for one another as prerequisite to being prepared!

Christopher Tingus

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 24, 2009 @ 9:03 am

Hey Thanks Chris! My guess is that my retirement cause 1/2 the agency’s personnel to sleep better and 1/2 to lose a lot of sleep. And based on phone calls some other agencies also.

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