Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 16, 2011

An urban cowboy writes about preparedness

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on April 16, 2011

This post is by someone called H. Grattan.  It was originally posted as a comment.

The author makes an important point about the nature of preparedness, especially about developing and sustaining capabilities appropriate to low probability high consequence events.  On paper, New York City had the capability — measurable and measured – described in the story below.  But as the author suggests, not everything that should be measured about the capability was measured.  Would it even have been worth it?

This is an anecdote.  Do we need to we move beyond “anecdata” to assess preparedness?  Or can we do something creative with anecdotes that gets us to some roughly right indicators of preparedness?  I think we can, but that’s a post for a different day.


Preparedness initiatives lend themselves to affirmation: what could be wrong with kaizen efforts to prepare for emergencies. But preparedness is more about tomorrow and for the most part homeland security practitioners are overwhelmed with today and their core functions.

Prior to September 11, 2001, some NYPD officials wanted to prepare for really bad things. In 1998, in preparation for the Goodwill Games, members of the NYPD’s eight patrol task forces were trained as Level-C hazmat response units to supplement the Department’s elite Emergency Service Unit in the event of a large-scale hazmat incident. The initiative was well intentioned but not well supported.

In the wake of 9/11, the initiative was renewed and the Task Forces were identified as the Department’s secondary for hazmat response. A pilot program was developed to qualify 200 task-force members as Level A hazmat techs and was facilitated on an ad hoc basis. Members of the Task Force were sent to the nation’s hazmat training facilities in New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, and Alabama.

The training was extensive and took away from the Task Force’s core function which was to suppress crime in the City’s hot spots.

The Commanders of those units sometimes resisted efforts to multi-task their units because it debilitated unit effectiveness: arrest and summons numbers dropped [HLS-WTF!].

Consequence: the pilot 200 police officer level-A hazmat qualification metric became a reality but a nominal one. While the approximate 200 officers did achieve initial qualification, few were allowed to renew their qualification. But all were required to take an annual OSHA Hazmat Tech medical. I believe, on paper, the 200 or so retained their qualification.

On July 18, 2007 NYC experienced a steam pipe explosion that was initially thought to be a possible terrorist attack. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_New_York_City_steam_explosion.

Someone in NYPD realized that the Department had a secondary hazmat capability and requested their response. The roster of 200 was dutifully pulled from a shelf and approximately 17 members were determined to be on duty and qualified to respond. On scene, 3 of the 17 were determined to be ready, willing, and able to facilitate the operation. The other 14 were not fully prepared. The failed response was the coup de grace for the Task Force initiative.

IMHO, the Task Force HazMat initiative was an affirmative effort to be prepared. I was part of the initiative and have to admit that qualifying as a hazmat tech was a full time effort and retaining it even harder when the unit was expected to maintain its core functionality, i.e., crime suppression.

At one meeting, I was questioned about my unit’s activity [arrests and summons]. I responded by mentioning that counterterrorism initiatives accounted for approximately 25% of the unit’s man-hours. It was suggested that I do more with less, counterterrorism efforts notwithstanding.

So, the urban cowboys went on [and go on ] nominally prepared for the next large-scale hazmat event.

I understand the NYPD’s decision, i.e. prioritization.

PDD-8 should consider “incremental burden;” are we really doing more with less or just saying so.


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Comment by PHILIP J. PALIN

April 16, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

April 16, 2011 @ 6:52 am
To the Right Honorable Henry Grattan (there’s a subtext if I ever saw one):

Wonderful case in point. Thank you.

The case demonstrates the limitations (even futility?) of depending on a command-and-control approach.

The case also clearly implies the limitations (even futility?) of engaging full participation, collaboration, and deliberation.

The fatal (but not inevitable) problem with command-and-control is the dishonest mask (to borrow a phrase) it has the tendency to create. The statistics are helpful, until the statistics become more the goal than authentic public safety. The enrolling and training for collateral duty can be helpful, until it becomes a bureaucratic exercise more than a meaningful investment.

The one — and perhaps only — benefit of the very difficult process of fuller and wider and authentic participation, collaboration, and deliberation is the troubles are seldom obscured. It is a masked ball, where the identities are in constant and confusing motion, but observable and undeniable.

Rarely another benefit emerges: actual consensus and thoughtful progress. The masks continue in place, but the room — for at least a dance or two — whirls in a shared waltz in the same direction and to the same tune.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2011 @ 4:56 am

First, a worthy topic for a post! Second, the matrics of capability is a huge topic and problem. What is interesting is that even assets nominally directed towards preparedness are not really studied or inventoried.

For example, FEMA has been under a statutory mandate (numerous times and even today) to have studied and analyzed the capability of guess whom–the federal government and the STATES but oddly not their (the States) local governments. Has it done this? Not for the Branch but it has tried to do so for the STATES. Unfortunately except for one survey effort that was more than a paper audit, it relied on the STATES for self-assessment. IN that instance it used an obsolete document, SLG-101 issued in 1996 to do the analysis. Conducted by contractor TITAN if memory serves. That survey did not use Attachment G to SLG 101 that was issued is spring 2001 and guided STATES to prepare “terrorism” annexes. Unlike SLG-101 itself Attachment G had been fully coordinate by the then Independent FEMA throughout the Executive Branch and with the States. An excellent document available form me or on my website homepage at http://vlg338.blogspot.com

But FEMA has negotiated various STATE CAPABILITY assessments over time and even under Public Law 920 of the 81st Congress as amended [the former federal civil defense act of 1950]it was charged with periodic reporting on both federal and state preparedness capability. Strangely perhaps it was under the statutory scheme to transmit to the President and then the President to Congress. This report was complete once and transmitted to President Reagan, after that OMB forbid it preparation and was never done. And the first report was never transmitted to the Congress.

Back to the actual on the ground survey under SLG-101 [that document now superceded by a new version of CPG-101]. The survey flunked 59% of the STATES as to their capabilities under that planning guidance. This was in the mid-2000’s. I would argue of course that Hurricane Katrina was an audit of federal, STATES, and their local government capability or lack thereof. The audit of the current Japanese catastrophe will IMO provide lessons for the rest of this century on the possible impact of events conjoining Mother Nature and Man’s technological advances into a very very complex audit of preparedness. Perhaps even more complex than the audit of warfare.

Well the NYC police force is the nation’s largest. Last I heard had about 30,000 cadre. Outnumbers LA a larger city certainly by metro area by about 4-1. But yet 200 cadre dedicated to HAZMAT could not be maintained. And by the way most police cadre in the USA have no idea that when they knock over that local METH LAB they are entering a HAZMAT site. They are not properly equipped or trained for that hazard.

Admittedly only one sample! Missouri! When I taught a class to all police and fire chiefs in fall 2005 the police chiefs to the extent of about 90% had no idea. Nor did they know that to put unprotected, untrained, and unequipped personnel into a HAZMAT site was potentially a felony under OSHA law and regs.

Well we like our canaries here in the old USA. Police and fire are perfect candidates. Let their bravery and will try and overcome adverse circumstances. Perhaps why over 350 fire service died in the WTC for lack of the proper radio channel for their equipment.

But yes Mayor Guiliani you did a great job locating your EOC in the WTC! I the Republicans win hoping you are the VP and Congress assigns you the job of gearing up American preparedness just like you did for NYC. The VP as I have long argued would be USA perfect location for a crisis manager. Oh,that’s right Joe Biden prefers to NAP!

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2011 @ 5:07 am

Did I mention that if Attachment G to SLG-101 had been utilized in the 2007 survey that 80% of the STATES would have flunked? Also in many ways CPG-101 is not as comprehensive as SLG-101 and its attachment G. They in turn were not as comprehensive as the CPG-101 they replaced since the STATES effectively lobbied against adoption of higher standards of planning and preparedness. OMB of course has never been for preparedness but believes adverse events can be adequately handled after the event occurs.

Comment by John G. Comiskey

April 17, 2011 @ 6:19 am

Preparedness is a hard sell because it is, in-part, about “un- optimizing” and “un- profitizing.”

Ted Lewis’ Bak’s Sand Pile” identifies CI’s frailty -CI is designed for optimization and profit.

The paradox is that the solution de-optimizes and de-profitizes capital ventures. The good news is the problem identifies criticality nodes -fix the nodes and you fix most of the system.

IMHO, Vegas would cover the risk and manage the low-like hood high impact event costs. Worse-case-scenario, Vegas would declare bankruptcy and start over again.

Vegasland security is instructive:

1. Risk management: cover one risk with another and profit from the vig, i.e. don’t risk anything.

HLS-adaptation: insurance? People first, save lives. Property second (recovery), replace and rebuild when and where appropriate and reconstruction creates jobs and promotes the economy (local and national).

2. People management: treat the customer as guests [Disney idea-adaptation].

3. Nudge people -give them an incentive to do the things you want them to do. If you gamble, we’ll feed you.

[also see Nudge:http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Nudge%5D

The challenge to preparedness is to profitize preparedness and not just monetarily: advocate civic duty mindset. Use Breast Cancer Awareness advocacy as a model to adapt. Use celebrity advocacy at Oprah-level to sell civic mindfulness that includes preparedness.The government can nudge with tax and other financial incentives for businesses and private citizens too.

Does Vegas Have VPDs [PPDs]?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 17, 2011 @ 8:01 am

John, You and I seem to mostly agree on both diagnosis and prescription. I also perceive that the widely unexpected — if clearly foreseeable — impact on the global supply chain emerging from the earthquake-and-tsunami is causing many in the private sector to revise some core notions of risk and their definition of “optimization.” It is not clear yet if present pain will cause a persistent shift, but there is more than a nudge in that direction.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2011 @ 11:02 am

If the supply chain disruptions take Japan more than 6 months to fix that economy will suffer greatly IMO!

Comment by Potomac

April 17, 2011 @ 11:19 am

Perhaps another way to look at this post is through the issue of mission and organizational culture.

NYPD does law enforcement, everyday. FDNY does hazards, everyday. Despite effort of NYPD to grow its authority under Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg (I believe it currently has lead for hazmat in NYC, taking that responsibility from FDNY a few years ago), nevertheless its not indoctrinated in its mission and culture, so the effort to build the team in this example failed. Lesson – preparedness efforts must be tied to what is done routinely, within the organizations mission and culture, if it is going to be sustained. You can’t have the specialized training and equipment and then leave it on the shelf for down the road. Our military-trained national/homeland security leadership that influences much of our policy-making has trouble grasping this, because they have always had the luxury of someone in training, someone refitting, and someone fighting in rotation (a 3-1 personnel ratio). In local (homeland) government (especially today) there is no such ratio, so if you don’t use the skills every day, it atrophies. Advanced skills like hazmat and technical rescue will atrophy within 6 months… or so I learned once. This is the challenge (paradox) of managing the grant process, buying new skills and equipment (capabilities) like we’ve done for the past decade, but not funding (or considering) sustainability.

Extrapolate that lesson for preparedness writ-large (aka Whole Community/MoM, PPD8, low-probably high-consequence events, black swans, and a dream of a National Preparedness Goal that is measurable): not everyone should be trained and equipped for everything. Its about knowing what your role (mission) is when the bad thing happens. For the public, what is your role as a survivor; for everyone else, what is your role to help.

Not sure whether this has anything to do with command and control orientation, Darwin or Newton. But perhaps a different lens to view the challenges through, especially when good intent meets operational reality.

Sidebar- Comiskey’s comments on Vegas incentives very interesting. I need to think on that some more…

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

NYPD is lead for all public safety including HS and EM!

Hey they want those guys with guns and badges to go first!

Comment by Potomac

April 17, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

That is because they have chosen to presume everything is terrorism until it is ruled out. A political decision devoid of a real risk-based approach. Wonder where else we have chosen to make that decision across the HS enterprise… (lot’s of places).

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 17, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

Potomac’s point that the extraordinary must be embedded in the everyday is worth saying again. This is fundamental to how any effective capabilities-based approach to preparedness should be developed.

The capabilities that may matter most — such as medical surge, mass care surge, mortuary surge and critical infrastructure continuity — are helpfully exposed through catastrophic (or MOM) thinking. But the benefits can accrue to a wide range of more common operations. One example: in case of catastrophe our strategic capacity for pharmaceutical supply, resupply, and surge mostly resides in the three national wholesalers that account for 90 percent of the market. Recognizing and dealing with this strategic capacity opens up a range of options for fulfilling local capabilities regardless of the scope-and-scale of the event.

To John’s point regarding Vegas Rules: There is a big difference between the risk taken by a skilled blackjack player and playing a game of craps. Conducting a serious capabilities analysis that leads to an understanding of capacity can significantly upgrade the nature of your game. It is not easy or quick, but in my experience most homeland security, emergency management, and public safety professionals prefer blackjack to craps if given the choice.

Comment by Donald Quixote

April 17, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

What is preparedness today? What are we preparing for? How does homeland security differ from emergency management or public safety – a sub-set or a Venn diagram? Who are the definitions set by? The one paying or the local subject matter expert? Do we train the skills that prepare for the most possible threats or the most likely in hindsight – what has already happened?

Without defining and framing the preparedness mission and goals, can we ever achieve it?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2011 @ 2:29 am

Many Windmills of the mind need tilting IMO Don Q!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2011 @ 6:43 am

What many of us perceive as preparedness was demonstrated on Saturday. According to the Associated Press:

More than 100 employees and customers at a home improvement store, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder seeking safety from one of the deadly storms that ripped through the South, screamed in near unison once the steel roof curled off overhead, the store’s manager said Sunday. They all made it out alive Saturday, thanks to quick action by Lowe’s store manager Michael Hollowell and his employees, who carried out an emergency response plan they had learned.

This morning on CNN the store’s Assistant Manager emphasized at least three principles of good practice: 1) public-sector warning, 2) private sector attention, 3) pre-event preparedness in terms of building construction, planning, training, and exercising, and 4) “people helping people.”

See Associated Press Video report — ” Alert Staff Kept NC Shoppers Safe” — at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76vVb591msE

Comment by Donald Quixote

April 18, 2011 @ 7:40 am

Thank you for that example. That is old school preparedness (logic) on a very local level that works when designed and executed by properly trained staff. However, the larger wicked threats of significant pandemics or serious CBRNE (WMD) attacks pose a greater concern for us and more significant consequences. Can preparedness be expanded to that level?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2011 @ 7:54 am

Don, I think the principles apply across the risk continuum, though they become more and more difficult to apply as the risks become more complex.

I would adjust your observation regarding what happened at the Lowe’s in one way: I do not perceive that what we saw there was “designed and executed by properly trained staff”, at least not in the way that phrase would be used out-of-this-specific-context by most emergency managers. Certainly the staff involved were not professionals in homeland security, emergency management or public safety.

The distinction is germane, it seems to me, especially as we consider preparedness for your “more significant consequences.” In Japan we saw 1.4 million people in harm’s way of the tsunami. 28,000 deaths are bad enough, but it certainly could have been much worse if there had not been long-term investments in 1) public-sector warning, 2) private sector attention, 3) pre-event preparedness in terms of building construction, planning, training, and exercising, and 4) “people helping people.”

Comment by Donald Quixote

April 18, 2011 @ 11:13 am

I strongly concur that the principles apply across the risk continuum (or should at least) and most definitely become much more difficult as the complexity increases. But do you have to be a professional in homeland security, emergency management or public safety to be properly trained staff to be successful? Obviously not. If we solely rely on the limited professionals for small and large incidents, the people may be disappointed. Resilience (however it is defined) is the key for the public and private sectors. Hopefully we will adopt more of a British mindset.

Japan established an impressive level of preparedness, but was it only for what had already occurred in their past? Do we only plan for the past? Is our preparedness really only a type of delayed response? Is it just too hard to justify and fund preparedness outside of the box?

As well demonstrated by Mr. Grattan above, we often focus on the current priority – possibly at the expense of the future. I guess we may be short-sighted at times or just human.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2011 @ 11:37 am

Don, You and I agree on the need for “non-professional” preparedness. We agree the British model of resilience has value. We agree there is a tendency to discount prospective risk… especially the bigger and badder the risk. I will also note that in my personal experience if you can embed risk readiness into a broader agenda of community priorities, where there is already an authentic set of meaningful community relationships and local leaders, there is a surprising (at least to me) readiness — sometimes even enthusiasm — to think outside the box.

Comment by Donald Quixote

April 18, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

To achieve the British approach or mindset, we must be honest with the public so they have realistic expectations of their responsibilities and governmental capabilities. We need leaders, not place-holders who hope that the incident does not occur on their watch.

I fear that we are agreeing too much. I must return to La Mancha.

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