Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 30, 2009

Ready or not, what’s our resilience plan?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2009

Tuesday’s afternoon speech was a bit of a command performance.  The vast majority of those in the hall were either FEMA officials or semi-official American Red Cross personnel.

The ARC personnel were arguably proxies for Secretary Napolitano’s  intended audience: the American people.  But whether Arcan or Feman, most probably nodded gravely at her main message.

So this is a very good time to take stock and talk about how we go about building a more ready and resilient nation. A ready nation is one where communities are prepared for the types of emergencies they are most likely to encounter.

It’s one where federal, state, local and tribal governments are working in harmony with local communities, the private sector, and individuals; taking steps, big and small, to be better prepared for natural disasters they may face. But they also prepare for the seemingly random but deliberate attacks that can occur.

Being resilient means having the plans, the resources and the capacity to bounce back quickly, adapt to changes, and emerge stronger than before when disasters strike. We need to have both readiness and resilience. We think of them like twin strands that make a stronger cable once they are woven together.

The strategic framework I am reading-between-the-lines is that readiness is focused on likelihood, while resilience is especially needed for what cannot be anticipated.  And while both the private and public sectors can be ready and resilient, there is a particular need for the private sector to be resilient.  The Secretary continued,

…building a resilient nation doesn’t come from a top-down, government-only, command-and-control approach; it comes from a bottom-up approach; it comes from Americans connecting, collaborating; it comes from asking questions and finding new solutions. And it comes from all of us as a shared responsibility….We need ready and resilient communities. And to build these, the country needs you, it needs each individual. It needs you to get involved in your communities on a regular basis—not just in times of crisis—so that taking steps toward readiness and resilience becomes a routine.

The specific measures that the Secretary celebrated and advocated are those that allow victims of disaster to survive without outside help and extend help to others.  Depending on the scope and scale of a disaster, individuals and communities may not receive outside assistance for hours or days.  Planning to be on your own for three days is a typical rule-of-thumb.


The 8.3 earthquake  hit 120 miles south of American Samoa about an hour before the Secretary arrived at Red Cross Headquarters.  The first South Pacific tsunami warning was issued by NOAA at 1803 UTC or 1:o3 PM Eastern Standard Time.


Notice the past tense.  Ocean sensors being monitored at the NOAA office in Hawaii indicated the tsunami hit Pago Pago, American Samoa about one hour before the confirmation was issued, about eleven minutes after the initial quake.  The crest of the tsunami is reported to have ranged between 20 and 30 feet.

According to BBC reports, “American Samoa Governor Togiola Tulafono said the effects of the tsunami would touch everyone. ‘I don’t think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster,’ he said. Eni Faleomavaega, who represents American Samoa in the US Congress, said the waves had ‘literally wiped out all the low-lying areas in the Samoan islands’.  He said the tsunami had struck too quickly for a full evacuation.”

Tuesday night President Obama declared a “major disaster” under the Stafford Act.

American Samoa has about 60,000 residents. The  total land area  of five islands is a tad larger than Washington D.C.  The islands are nearly 2500 miles south of Hawaii.  I hope they were ready. There have been, reports suggest, tsunami drills. Given Samoa’s isolation and the apparent impact of the tsunami, they will surely need to be resilient.


The Secretary herself identified this as one of five critically important policy speeches she will give.  It was written for a general audience.  It was heard –at least in the hall and here — mostly by specialists, geeks, and wonks.  I have not found a single mainstream media mention.

I understand the motivation to make resilience sound familiar.  As the Secretary points out in her speech, it has a long and honorable pedigree.  But as policy and strategy it is new.  Partly it is new because in some ways our culture, economy, and infrastructure have become less resilient than was once the case.

Part way through the speech, the Secretary said, “So I’m calling on you—and the President and the First Lady are calling on you—to go one step further, to get involved. And to start that, we’re asking you to raise your hand and ask whenever you are in one of those groups, “What’s our plan?”. You know, the next time your group meets or your staff gathers for lunch, I want you to raise your hand and ask, “What’s our plan?”

Well… here’s my call to action.  I invite the readers of this blog — and anyone else you can recruit — to develop the geekiest, wonkiest, most specialized resilience strategy you can.  Announce it here, link it here, consult on it here.  I will be on the look-out to headline the most interesting contributions.  Keep the first draft (executive summary?) at ten pages or less.  I will read each one.  I will choose what I think are the best three strategies submitted.  I will probably ask Chris and Jess for their advice, but I will make the final choice.

I will then buy lunch for all three authors at a Washington D.C. restaurant called Policy (haven’t been there, heard good things, seems appropriate).  While eating lunch we will try to craft a common approach to a resilience strategy, report it out here at The Watch, and push it into the Secretary and others anyway we can.

Look, look — over here — I’m raising my hand!  What’s our plan?

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 30, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

Okay some basics. 2.2 to 2.4 million Fire Service personnel with over 80% volunteer. This is a huge slug of those with time and patience and willingness (including physical fitness) to volunteer for emergnecy situations. Just for the record the most recent statistics indicate that over 50% of outcalls by the Fire Service are now EMT related or HAZMATS. These are almost completely separate professions and skills from the fire fighting paradigm. Interesting how no discussion of these facts in current health care reform debate and discussion of untrained personnel on private ambuluance services that dominate that aspect of emergencies nationwide. No real standards set or training and skill requirements. Hey it used to be “dual use” on the funeral hearses.
Anyhow perhaps the volunteer set of the FIRE SERVICE and TEACHERS during summer sessions could for a small incentive (stipends)or whatever learn to be the “Train-the-Trainers” for general preparedness of the populations and e.g. before each high school football game in America (or whatever sport) a small handout package for the spectators with info on family preparedness and perhaps even plain language non-technical demos including first aid, CPR, or whatever is appropriate. In fact perhaps a little less of half-time show and allow local police and fire to address spectators on what those Public Safety officials cannot do and rely on citizens to do.
Disclosure–hoping this is not the case but maybe some impact! Before becoming agency ethics official and in the past the Director of FEMA sat on Board of Directors of American Red Cross. Because FEMA sub silento funded ARC ops including an ARC rep salary at each FEMA region and well as Mass Care including sheltering mission assignments (ARC is mentioned in Stafford Act)I took the position that the Director {now Administrator under PKEMA) should not be on the Board of the ARC. The then General Counsel agreed and so did the then Director. Because prominent REPUBLICANs–Elizabeth Dole–headed ARC at the time–perhaps this also a factor in deterioration of FEMA/ARC relationships. My bottom line is ARC is needed, Federally charted since 1904 but badly funded and prepared for its full mission. Donations just don’t come in for preparedness activities. This has resulted in ARC self-defining its mission more and more narrowly. ARC is largely a volunteer organization. So we talk of resilience. How about just an annual preparedness appropriation for ARC budget? ARC always worried this would detract from donations post-disaster but not if carefully explained. It should be noted that even though Mass CARE ESF-6 activity now has FEMA instead of ARC in lead role (ARC still in support role) FEMA has not come anywhere near gearing up in budget and staff and skills to take the lead on this ESF-6! And yes this is the “new” FEMA I am talking about.
So lets fund public safety officials and teachers with stipends for preparedness training and fund the ARC with appropriated funds to perform the preparedness elements of their mission. Notice the ARC still has a large First Aid, Swim Instruction, CPF and other citizen preparedness role but it badly needs funding. Another example where donation system simply does not “Think in Advance” and largely reactive to disaster just as federal, state, and local policy makers are reactive to events and seldom have vision (preparedness as a priority)! Hope this comment is helpful and not hurtful to the ARC which is and should be considered an American icon of what organized volunteering can accomplish. Unfortunately, some of the former 1700 Chapers, now 700, will be badly missed in my opinion. And the nation’s blood supply continues to be highly problematic in a catastrophic situation or where military requirements are very high.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 30, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

IMO the technical info in the post may be in error! I thought the earthquake generating the Tsunami for American Samoa occurred near Penyang off coast of Sumatra?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 1, 2009 @ 6:02 am


There were two recent big quakes along the rim of fire: one south of Samoa and the other at Sumatra… several hours apart. The embedded links will take you to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center for primary documentation.

I am less confident of my translation of UTC to EST. But tried to double-check and think it is correct.

I very much appreciate your attention to volunteer firefighters and EMTs, and the role of voluntary organizations in general. It seems to me that supporting and amplifying these existing voluntary organizations is one of the best ways to enhance resilience.

Comment by christopher tingus

October 1, 2009 @ 6:10 am

once again, an interesting and informative reply by William Cumming. To other readers, pls do share your perspectives on the many issues raised here in this invaluable and informative place where all can share ideas from we here on Main Street USA to the professional so committed to serving the public at a time when some seek our demise.

Thirteen years ago, when the local Board of Selectmen (local government) and Town Meeting were willing to close down a fire pumper and station, I began the morning of the fire station closure what I thought would be a brief citizen protest, however it took my standing in the midst of nor’easters, wind, rain, cold, hot, in the middle of thunderstorms for 1,491 hours over three (3) years to finally one day see the local television and newspaper crews and reporters and a ribbon cutting ceremony where with over 6,000 citizen petitions signed, I cut through the ribbon and today the station is the busiest in the community rendering 911 assistance to fellow citizens.

I share this story because while it initially took a one-man crusade to enlighten others as to the wrongful and intentional actions of “entrusted” political leadership wiling to compromise the helath and well-being, even willing to sacrifice the Life of fellow citizen or compromise a less than properly staffed team responding to a public safety scene, people were willing to stand and be counted!

Those – elected – to office have an entitlement perspective and often arrogant and lusting for power and while I am an advocate for term limits for every elected office local, state and national and a review of the salaries of government while it restricts the salaries on Wall Street, never underestimate the power of one individual and the enlightenment of the American people for we are the most charitable by far, however quite willing to stand tall to protect our rights despite government making every attempt to impose its expansion when we seek less government!

The grassroots effort in the nation is very much apparent and when it comes to public safety, we are honored to stand tall with every police officer, firefighter and EMT and if you need a good sign holder or community organizer for any public safety scenario where the public is getting shortchanged, call and I will be on the scene elightening those that do not have a lot of time in our busy lives, but once informed, willing to come forward and be counted!

Christopher Tingus
64 Whidah Drive
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2009 @ 7:10 am

Thanks Phil for your further info. WOW! The ring of fire is quite active as always. It is interesting to watch as the largely statistical field of seismology is gradually yeilding ground to the physicists with their knowledge of high level mathematics and related science. What is happening as I understand it is that the deep deep earth sensing senors are generating more and more accurate data on subsurface, subcrustal magma and other flows. Vulcanology of course is separate and appart but if my understanding is correct there are 6-10 vulcanoes in the lower 48 that have been active in recent geologic time (last 100,000 years)! So enjoy the scenry but do have a plan as those pyroclastic flows can really burn you.

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