Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 14, 2010

Preparedness: The Missing Link

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on April 14, 2010

Last week Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the appointment of 35 individuals to a newly formed task force on preparedness. The panel was appointed pursuant to provisions of the 2010 DHS Appropriations Act, which called for its creation to make, “recommendations for all levels of government regarding: disaster and emergency guidance and policy; federal grants; and federal requirements.” The announcement indicated that the task force would conduct its business with an “emphasis on identifying preparedness policies, guidelines and grant programs that should be updated and recommending paths forward to improve the nation’s collective capabilities for preparing for disasters.”

After reviewing the list of appointees and their affiliations, all I can say is hold onto your wallets folks.

If anything has distinguished the allocation of grant funds for homeland security and emergency preparedness more than the ad hoc nature of the enterprise as a whole, it has been the tendency of grant recipients to spend vast sums on seldom-used, specialized hardware and highly-paid consultants with very little evidence of progress building capacity or engaging communities in collaborative efforts to improve resilience.

Four separate Government Accountability Office reports issued since December 2008 highlight just a few of the issues to which the task force should devote some of its attention:

Fire Grants: FEMA Has Met Most Requirements for Awarding Fire Grants, but Additional Actions Would Improve Its Grant Process, GAO-10-64, Cotober 30, 2009.

Urban Area Security Initiative: FEMA Lacks Measures to Assess How Regional Collaboration Efforts Build Preparedness Capabilities, GAO-09-651, July 2, 2009.

Transit Security Grants: DHS Allocates Grants Based on Risk, but Its Risk Methodology, Management Controls, and Grant Oversight Can Be Strengthened, GAO-09-491, June 8, 2009.

Homeland Security Grant Program Risk-Based Distribution Methods: Presentation to Congressional Committees – November 14, 2008 and December 15, 2008, GAO-09-168R, December 23, 2008.

These are only the most recent but certainly not the only GAO reports that offer a critical perspective on DHS grant-making activities. Others focus on the evolving understanding of the role of risk assessment and risk management principles in prioritizing these programs.

The individuals appointed to the task force reflect a diverse cross-section of public officials from state, county, local, and tribal governments across the United States. I am familiar with many of those appointed, and can say with certainty that they seem well-qualified.

Nevertheless, a couple of things stand out upon scrutinizing the list further, which trouble me more than a little. First, officials with affiliations to the fire-rescue and law enforcement communities seem particularly well-represented, perhaps too much so. Second, rust-belt states and communities in the Midwest and Great Plains are under-represented. And, third, the private, community, and voluntary sectors, upon which any successful response and recovery operation ultimately depends, are essentially unrepresented.

If, as it seems, questions persist concerning what sort of bang we are managing to get for the many bucks spent since 2001 on preparedness, one might reasonably consider it worthwhile to appoint someone other than representatives of recipients to investigate what all this money has bought us. Instead, if the secretary really intents to implement the task force recommendations rather than simply going through the exercise for purely political purposes, she would do well to share the terms of reference they will operate under so we can be sure the kids have not just been put in charge of the candy store.

It has been my experience that no fire service or law enforcement chief executive will ever tell you his or her budget is adequate. Everyone wants more. And with few exceptions, everyone will happily accept someone else’s money if they can get it.

When I served as the executive director of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs in the early 1990s, the association and its regional peers were actively advocating for federal grants that would eventually take the form of the Assistant to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and the SAFER grants. Their argument went something like this, “Our cities and their citizens are strapped for cash. We are finding it harder to deliver service while competing with other programs that must fulfill federal mandates. At the same time, we are falling under new and increasing pressures from regulators to provide personnel protective equipment and training. Besides, law enforcement receives about $11 billion a year in federal assistance, and we get none.” This argument when examined closely amounted to little more than, “They got theirs, we want ours.”

Law enforcement has since the 1970s (at least) received federal assistance to foster interstate cooperation. The logic seems sound enough, criminals do not respect state and local boundaries even though cops must. If we want to help cops cope with wandering criminals, we need to help them cooperate across these imaginary lines at least as well as the criminals tend to do. Most of these investments recognize the importance of collecting, analyzing and sharing information about criminals and crime-fighting strategies.

Fire, unlike crime, does not tend to wander across jurisdictional boundaries, and even when it does, it tends not to travel very far. (When fire does cross such lines and travel far and fast, it tends to be on federal lands or under federal jurisdiction for other reasons already.) Until 9/11 firefighters had no sound interstate nexus argument to bolster their claims for federal support. Indeed, even the argument that national standards were impacting their cost of doing business failed under close scrutiny. The standards to which they referred (especially those applicable to staffing and response times) were often applicable only when adopted by individual states or localities, and were often drafted by the firefighters’ unions and their bosses through so-called consensus standards bodies in an effort to circumvent the local democratic process. In other words, before we needed to equip firefighters to help protect us from terrorists, we really did not have much of an argument to spend federal dollars on their needs.

As we like to say in homeland security circles, 9/11 changed everything. With the threat of attack by foreign extremists on American soil a proven fact, no community could be expected to shoulder the burden alone. Protecting everyone meant protecting anyone. For local communities, who had largely shouldered the preparedness burden alone, this was a windfall. And nobody benefited more from it than those who were already best organized: cops and firefighters.

But disasters, like terrorists, rarely target firefighters and cops, at least not to the exclusion of everyone else. Rather, they tend to operate indiscriminately or with the intention of causing the greatest damage and disruption possible to the community as a whole or at least something very important to it.

This suggests that any effort to assess the state of our preparedness should probably ask not what we have managed to achieve already, but rather what readiness would look like if we actually achieved it. I use the term readiness, rather than preparedness, advisedly. The concept of readiness raises, at least for me, questions about the condition of my resources and what I can do with them, rather than focusing primarily on their availability, which has regretfully become the all-t00-common custom when assessing preparedness in this country.

Any assessment of readiness should begin by asking not simply what fiscal resources and policies are in place, how they are performing, and how we might improve their allocation to satisfy the common good, but should also question how our communities’ stocks of human, social, natural, and political capital informs those decisions. I find it hard to believe we can have that sort of conversation with the people the secretary has assembled around the table to advise her on this issue.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2010 @ 4:08 am

This post is outstanding. I don’t agree with all of it but its coherence and analysis of several issues and policies is wonderful. Where did the blog owners find you Mark? And the others who have come before you and still participate. Seems an unusually wonderful combination of education, training and experience combining to hopefully make this the standard for any blog. Sheepishly hoping my comments can at least on occasion rival the insights of the blog posters. OKAY enough of the gratuitous syncophantic sniveling. Just kidding of course.

First, I don’t remember seeing any effort to collect public input on this preparedness “advisory” committee, its purposes, and recommendations for membership! Did any of that occur? For all of the DHS effort to promote its openess that kind of front end effort would help. Maybe I just missed it as I do many things.

Second, is it subject to FACA[the Federal Advisory Committee Act] because if it is I have yet to see evidence of compliance with that act which also requires OMB approval and a charter to be filed with the Library of Congress. I would like to see that charter describing the committee’s purposes. Congress in recent years has been exempting more and more of the committees in the Executive Branch from FACA and this might be exempt or fall within the exception of allowing committees of STATE and LOCAL governmental officials to sometimes escape FACA requirements. In any event FACA compliance I have found to actually help the departments and agencies to make better use of advisory committees. One thing I always wanted was a verbatim transcript of all meetings but this is not required.

A number of the issues discussed by Mark concerning the Fire Service I have heard in OMB Budget meetings and elsewhere. Actually the Reagan Administration twice zero budgeted the US Fire Administration in the early 80’s as not of federal level concern. I always disagreed with that and long before 9/11/01 helped to reverse that effort with Congressional restoration of the USFA occurring twice. This did not happen though in time to prevent the loss of momentum of USFA in the early years.

And at this point I will skip Law Enforcement for several reasons. First, when “Law Enforcement” is discussed it always means “criminal law enforcement” not “civil law enforcement’! In fact even the federal Posse Commitatus Act should be modified to make that distinction clear. That act was designed to prevent the federal government from using its troops to run the criminal justice system in the former Confederate States and in fact is located in the US Criminal Code-Title 18, a placement of significance often overlooked.
For this comment will stick to the Fire Service. OMB meetings often ended with the statement of some high-level OMB type [whose jobs generally are to push down budget requests seldom to advocated increases] arguing if we give money to the FIRE SERVICE they will just buy more trucks. Okay sometimes they do need new trucks and that might occur.
But let’s go back to Ben Franklin and the origins of the FIRE SERVICE in the USofA. Okay let’s not.

An important historic calibration point for the FIRE SERVICE occurred just after the dawn of the atomic age. The FIRE SERVICE in Great Britain in both WWI and then even more so in WWII was aligned with the civil defense structure. To some degree that occurred in the US also. But with the advent of the atomic age and intercontinental bombers, I have heard many many old timers in the FIRE SERVICE and in the civil defense establishment tell me that the fact that radiation could not be smelled, seen, or initially felt was too great a leap for the members of the FIRE SERVICE to become enchanted with leading the civil defense effort. Of course the very size of the country, the decentralization of the FIRE SERVICE were additional factors. Once this logic had expressed itself in the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 [Public Law 920 of the 81st Congress] the FEDS were left with helping States to organize a separate civil defense cadre, although obviously some FIRE SERVICE personnel entered into it often after service in the military. And then of course Emergency Medical Services and HAZMAT pulled the FIRE SERVICES in new directions primarily after 1965.
That stated, my rationale for federal support of the FIRE SERVICE is primarily leveraging of the federal cadre and effort in both HS and EM. First, the FIRE SERVICE represents, although perhaps as much as 80% or more volunteer effort, the largest single group of trained or semi-trained citizenry in the US in understanding at least one kind of threat and often many. With over 2 million in the FIRE SERVICE as either professionals or volunteers, or full-time or part time this group of citizens with skills relevant to disasters and crisis management [hey a full box alarm would scare the you-know-what out most civilians including me] means they must be utilized as a national resource and deserve that treatment. Other members of the public safety arena are deserving of that same dignity of treatment with federal support, including of course even the Public Health establishment.
It should be noted that in 1996 the Anti-Terroism and Effective Death Penalty Act created a funding and training stream through the then Justice etc. appropriation acts on an annual basis. The FIRE SERVICE funds were administered by the USFA then part of FEMA and once again since PKEMA part of FEMA.
Now to agree with Mark, the threat of terrorism and WMD incident/events and threats of employment has registered fully with all that the FIRE SERVICE deserves better treatment than just being the “canaries in the mines” for the US. IN fact, OSHA requires that properly equipped, trained, and knowledgeable persons are put in the danger zone to help rescue others, and of course protect lives and property generally. This makes absolute sense.
For some time I have tried to engage intellectually in the topic of how the FIRE SERVICE could be even more effectively and efficiently leveraged as a national resource for the response to terrorist and WMD events. This interest goes back to helping and witnessing Congress trying to figure this all out prior to the Atlanta Summer Olympics where of course there was in essence a domestic terrorist who set off a bomb killing one and injuring over 100.

Enough of all of that now. But thanks Mark for the great post! And thanks Secretary DHS for getting help on the preparedness agenda and perhaps how to best leverage the public safety community generally and the FIRE SERVICE specifically will be one of the study areas. I will leave this alone for now but some readers know that I have a rather specialized definition of “preparedness” that really equates to “capability” and its “verification” 24/7 by 365 days a year. That analysis is posted elsewhere.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2010 @ 4:12 am

Oh I should have mentioned that there are almost 55,000 paid FIRE SERVICE personnel in the federal government, and this does not count some of the military that has that as additonal duty. Another national asset that could be better leveraged for national needs and still allowing full measure to be given to daily support of their local citizens.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 14, 2010 @ 5:57 am

Corection to citation in first comment above:
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (PL 104-132) directed the Department of Justice to provide training and equipment to metropolitan fire and emergency services–and authorized $5,000,000 for that purpose!

The funding was authorized and passed through to the USFA which then began to offer courses and develop curricula to support those courses. Many of those courses are still taught to First Responders at the National Fire Academy which together with the Emergency Management Institute constitute the National Emergency Training Center, Emittsburg, MD.

Comment by Peter J. Brown

April 14, 2010 @ 9:02 am

Wy are we still devoting all this time to establishing another national forum when we should be focused instead on the regional response and coordination frameworks along with the implementation of recommendations made in the not too distant past? What will this forum tell us that the GAO has not already addressed? Among other things, the status of National Guard manpowere, mobility and heavy equipment allocations downstream of Iraq — done in a effort coordinated at the regional level — ought to be high on the list.

Comment by Peter J. Brown

April 15, 2010 @ 6:37 am

Following up on my earlier comment. I recommend that DHS hire two summer interns, and that they should be given the task of going back through all the GAO reports issued since 1997 on preparedness and response, and not just the 4 GAO reports issued since 2008 mentioned in this post.

Then, once they have identified and collected all these reports, they should extract all the recommendations, and query DHS on the status of all actions taken in response to these recommendations. These two interns would certainly have accomplished a great deal if they completed this undertaking by summer’s end.

Once all these recommendations are boiled down so that the progress made on each to date is easily understood, then this information should be compiled into a single document and passed along to each of the FEMA regions for further consideration with a request that each regional group prioritize the results accordingly. Those results should then be fed back to DHS HQ for further action.

Does this sort of updated compilation of GAO recommendations currently exist? If it does, I am unaware of it.

This might benefit the 35 people which have been selected to serve on the new task force on preparedness — and everyone else for that matter — because it would augment and compliment whatever roadmap DHS and FEMA now possess, and perhaps it would give everyone more of a sense as to where to best apply expertise, time and energy.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 28, 2010 @ 10:11 am

Peter! Good suggestion and no such a compilation does NOT exist.

Comment by Mrs. Love

August 10, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

I agree with you William on this one. Sorry, I had to.

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