Imagine a 7.8 Richter Scale earthquake near St. Louis, MO, on the New Madrid fault line. Assume the earthquake causes extreme damage in 8 states along the Mississippi River. This includes over 89,000 dead, nearly half a million people injured, more than 5 million people homeless, loss of numerous bridges crossing the Mississippi, as well as destruction of major oil, gasoline, and natural gas pipelines that serve much of the Eastern Seaboard.
One might think this high consequence (low probability or high probability — take your pick) event would make a natural subject for a national level homeland security exercise.
Perhaps there are some extreme homeland security events — call them catastrophes — where the value of exercising top officials is more symbolic than sensible.
The Vacation Lane Blog — written by William Cumming (a frequent writer in hlswatch) — began its internet life on Saturday with commentary about the postponement of the national level exercise program.
Cumming argues in “The Sinews of Preparedness,”
… this Administration, like all before it, fails to understand that the sinews of preparedness are built with exercises, from table tops to full scale exercises, and with the personnel including appointees that will actually be called on to run the civil domestic crisis management system or be in the chain of command for civil crisis events. Failure to be prepared only makes it more likely that military dominated organizations, which tend to ad hoc despite extraordinary funding, will drive the crisis response with huge implications for the civil sector and federalism.” [my emphasis]
On its face, the author’s recommendation seems sensible: training and exercises will make for a more effective response when something real happens.
Why should anyone believe that claim?
Aristotle said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
One need look no further for evidence about the correctness of this belief than the professional experiences of police, fire fighters, emergency medical professionals, emergency managers, and other responders.
The lessons from Aristotle, Mr. Cumming, and first responder experiences may be true for “normal” disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, floods, tornadoes, and so on.
I wonder if that truth about exercise has much value when it comes to getting “top officials” ready for catastrophes.
For FEMA/DHS, a catastrophe is any incident “that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions.”
Catastrophes, as a colleague has written “are the nightmare scenarios that can bring the nation to its knees.”
There do not appear to have been that many catastrophes in the past half century of our history.
The colleague I just mentioned recently completed a study of the federal part of the post 9/11 emergency planning and response system. As a tangential part of his work, he noted there have been around 1900 presidential disaster declarations since 1953. He found only four of the 1900 events were (definitional) catastrophes: Three Mile Island, and Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew and Katrina.
You might add a few more to his list — like 9/11/01 in New York City, Arlington, and Shanksville. But the number of catastrophes remains small.
My colleague found that federal agencies played major “supporting” roles in all of those catastrophes. But governors — maybe a mayor or two — always retained control of what was going on in their jurisdictions.
It’s my understanding (aided by experiences with early versions of TOPOFF) that national level exercises have some play for state and local officials, but for the most part, the general intention of the exercises is to:
Support U.S. Government Officers’ preparation for managing national crises, and accountability of those who support them.
I have no idea what role training and exercising state, city, or federal officials — especially political officials — played in successful or unsuccessful catastrophic response. I’ve looked for data that sheds light on the utility of exercising for catastrophes, but so far I’ve come up largely empty. (There is the 2004 “Hurricane Pam” exercise example for New Orleans, of course. But that mostly suggests preparedness requires something more than exercises.)
My understanding is the average tenure for a federal political appointee — a top official — is between 18 months and 2 years. How does one train and exercise federal appointed and elected officials for an incident where there are “over 89,000 dead, nearly half a million people injured, more than 5 million people homeless?”
Is there any evidence that justifies spending money on those officials for such training and exercises?
Since 2005, the federal government has spent more than 200 million dollars on national level exercises. Have those expenditures come anywhere close to providing commensurate benefits? If those data are not available, could the 200 million have been spent on some other homeland security-related activities, including local exercises, that might have increased the nation’s preparedness?
I suspect those are largely rhetorical questions, lost somewhere inside the conventional wisdom that worships any homeland security training and exercise as an unquestioningly good thing.
One of the homeland security goals described in the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review is to:
Foster Innovative Approaches and Solutions Through Leading-Edge Science and Technology: Ensure scientifically informed analysis and decisions are coupled to innovative and effective technological solutions.
I like the sound of that goal. It says science matters.
I like the objectives of the goal even more:
- Scientifically study threats and vulnerabilities: Pursue a rigorous scientific understanding of current and future threats to homeland security and the possible means to their prevention and mitigation.
- Develop innovative approaches and effective solutions: Encourage and enable innovative approaches
Both objectives suggest we should look to science to validate our prevention and mitigation efforts, and to lead the nation toward new ways to think about what we do under the banner of homeland security.
The National Exercise Program is a process technology, intended to prepare mostly federal leaders for catastrophic events. I wonder if there is any science undergirding that exercise program technology.
The national exercise program has been described recently as “unrealistic, costly, and overscripted productions … an ‘elaborate game’’ rather than opportunities for officials to work through problems.”
I have personal anecdotes from TOPOFF 1, 2 and 3 that support the accuracy of those views , at least for the early days of the exercise program. I’ve also heard that — like many things in homeland security — they have become better over time.
I am not arguing against a national exercise program. I do think, however, it makes sense to ask about the “science” (in whatever sense one wishes to use that term) that supports the benefit of national level exercises.
I think it is fair to ask whether there are better uses for the money allocated to national exercises.
My internet colleague William Cumming is worried that the
Failure to be prepared only makes it more likely that military dominated organizations, which tend to ad hoc despite extraordinary funding, will drive the crisis response with huge implications for the civil sector and federalism.
If true catastrophes are as rare as the data suggests, perhaps there is logic in purposively integrating the “military dominated organizations” into civilian catastrophic planning.
If a catastrophe is an event that can bring the nation to its knees, we might want to make sure the military is ready to help out.
It’s my understanding they are on the same side as the rest of us.
[The paragraph that starts this post is from slides developed by Dr. Rick Bissell, Department of Emergency Health Services, University of Maryland, Baltimore County]
Usually the comments start in a different section of the blog. Bill and I corresponded over the weekend about his “The Sinews of Preparedness,” post. Here is the exchange we had:
Me to Bill: nice title. i disagree with your claim and am writing something for homeland security watch about it now. nice to see your own blog.