Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 17, 2011

Is Regional Planning Just Too Hard?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on October 17, 2011

The Washington Post Editorial Board took time off from calling for further U.S. involvement in Middle East quagmires to bring some attention to the continuing problems of coordination and cooperation in the National Capital Region (i.e. Washington, DC and all the surrounding areas located in various states where much of the population has ties to the Capital):

The D.C. Council and a House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee held separate hearings that reviewed the response to the earthquake that shook the region in August. “Everyone did the wrong thing,” council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said of the gridlock that occurred when workers, ill advisedly exiting buildings, tried to get home. In a separate hearing on Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said that federal workers “literally had no idea what to do.” Sadly, the earthquake, which Ms. Norton aptly called “a perfect proxy for a terrorist attack,” was not the first time weaknesses have been revealed in the area’s response to an unexpected, rapidly developing situation.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time such sentiments have been expressed nor is it likely the last. The issue is not a simple one:

The mayor has the authority to order an evacuation from the city, but beyond that there is no single entity with authority to advise the public in a fast-moving emergency. Instead, there are 17 local jurisdictions and the federal government sharing information (to be sure, a good thing) but each able to call its own shots.

Identified as a concern following 9/11 (and I’m sure an issue raised before that event provided a bullhorn), there are officials, committees, papers, and government offices focused on finding solutions.  One could argue that despite the attention paid there has not been enough attention paid.  Or is it a question of quality and not quantity? The fact that particular aspects have to be addressed makes one’s head hurt:

The first message alert about the earthquake came nearly a half-hour after it occurred, and the message about what to do was mixed. Officials with the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency said they’ve taken steps to refine the messages and get them out sooner. In particular, they say, it’s likely they will advise people to stay put rather than to drive home because it’s clear that an area so congested on a routine day can’t manage a mass exodus.

(That last sentence indicates that maybe someone is listening to Phil who has made that exact point…). The notion of a regional authority able to make “the call” is not a bad one, but is it viable if modeled on incompatible systems?

A more sensible system, as we’ve pointed out before, is one in which there are designated, trained staff people to collect information, make decisions and inform the public. New York City has such a system. So does London.

The political and geographic terrain of the National Capital Region greatly differs from that of New York and London.  Expected evacuation route destinations and decision-making authorities must be taken into account not only in tactical decisions of why, when, who, and how but also strategic constructions of why, when, who, and how. It is easier to repeat “regional working group!” and “cooperation!” and “New York City is awesome!” than wrestle with the reality of a city that does not have control over much of it’s real estate, budget, or even public safety authority.

Considering that even the National Capital Region frame of the issue is such a tough nut to crack, what can be reasonably expected when the problem is expanded to include municipalities further out which should expect to be affected by a truly catastrophic event? This applies not just for the greater Washington, DC region but for all major urban areas where the biggest players must ask “will you jump, and if so, how high are you able or willing to go” rather than simply bark orders.

Regional planning: too hard or too necessary?

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 17, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

Arnold, Thanks for treating the issue. I just spent the day in a series of several meetings related to catastrophe preparedness in the National Capital Region.

The problem deserves a book or a dissertation or some sort of credible attempt at objective analysis not initially tied to any political agenda.

But at least one important aspect of the persistent challenge relates to the functional, management, and personnel differences between planning and exercises and between both of those and operations… across each of the disciplines and all the jurisdictions.

Even the best planning will not suffice. The plans must be exercised in a way that will shape operational behavior. I’m not suggesting current planning is sufficient, but even fixing planning is unfortunately not enough.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

October 17, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

Considering the amount of funding and attention given to regional planning in the National Capital Region, it does seem surprising not more has been accomplished.

Comment by local NCR

October 17, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

This is a longstanding issue exacerbated by federalism and parochialism.

– 17 local jurisdictions.

– 3 states: Maryland (HS,EM based in Annapolis); Virginia (based in Richmond), and DC, whose mayor shares the same authorities as a governor.

– A big federal government (that is really numerous, independent executive branch agencies, and of course the House and the Senate, who have separate EM agencies for each side of the building), so rarely one voice to lend to regional crisis management.

Since 9/11 the NCR governance structures have evolved around trying to control distribution of homeland security grants. The states take a big cut for their needs away from the locals. Likewise the local UASI is governed by the three state entities political appointees, not the local governments (well, DC plays both sides). Additionally, the NCR UASI structure was usurped by the state homeland security advisers, much less equipped to understand the political and operational challenges at the local level. But well- equipped to siphon money for tight state budgets away from the wealthy DC metro jurisdictions.

DC has also behaved like NYC, with successive Mayors who consider themselves in control of the media and want to be Rudy. However, unlike NYC, the surround jurisdictions are mostly better resourced and more collaborative.

This is a wicked problem that has largely been ignored since 9/11, with no solution to really focus on how to create regional, collaborative, crisis decision making among the politicians across the boundaries of the region or the levels of government in the first minutes or hours of an event. Some of the locals, especially in Northern Virginia first responders, have been trying, but it hasn’t evolved beyond the rare conference call for political leaders when something goes bad. The politicians don’t have the time or the inclination to put the effort in, and their faces are constantly changing. Additionally, DC and MD have, mostly, powerful elected officials who want to be in front of the camera; Northern Virginia has, mostly, appointed administrators (county/city managers) who get in front of the camera in place of their elected councils at their own peril. The result militates against regional operational efforts: although there have been many successes amongst the first responders, especially the police chiefs and fire chiefs, and the military has unified its structure as Joint Task Force NCR and has tried very hard to build good relations with the locals, so I don’t want to make it seem all has been lost – the tough challenges are really at the political level, and doing anything requires far more effort than it should.

Recent regional crises, the earthquake and last year’s snowstorms, actually resulted in all the jurisdictions behaving like turtles and abandoning regional crisis response efforts. Someone should study how many operations centers and command posts also existed during the Inauguration.

The FEMA Office of National Capital Regional Coordination is a paper tiger, led by a series of well-meaning but disconnected former State-level appointees focused on funding. It was initially intended to solve these problems, but we know top-down solutions to bottom-up issues don’t work so well.

Add the recent budget crisis and things get worse. Surprised the Washington Post hasn’t done an article on how Health and Human Services shuttered the regional National Medical Response Team, the metro-wide, cross disciplinary and cross-jurisdictional CBRNE response unit. HHS cut the money and closed it down, a decade of investment in training and equipping personnel gone overnight, as if the threat has gone away.

Yes, I’ve sat around all the tables for a decade and watched the dance about funds. Kudos to the DC counsel and Mayor Grey who have finally discovered the need to think beyond the districts borders. Time will tell though if its just lip-service or whether it will translate into more collaborative efforts across the region, regional approaches to planning, operations, and decision-making.

And Phil, the dissertations are already out there… a few at least.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 17, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

Phil, thanks for responding as I have to admit this was a bit of “Palin bait” (different from my usual “Wolfe” bait…). And as I agree with your dissertation/book comment, I don’t feel as if I treated the issue as much as just raised it yet again. As to your other comments, my gut feeling was that the planning had not yet reached the point of worrying about the particulars of exercising–but I have none of the hands on experience in the NCR to take it beyond a gut feeling (maybe my curry last night was a little too spicy instead?).

Ms. Rubin, as to your comments–right!?! Absolutely agree and that was what prompted my post in the first place.

Local NCR, thank you so much for all the granular detail. Very helpful and much appreciated. So if I understand you correctly, would your characterize the primary problem as political (in the broad/competition between different interest groups sense and not the partisan sense)? And if so, do you see less of such competition for resources and authority between different response organizations than political entities?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 18, 2011 @ 6:32 am

Arnold, I should have resisted the bait until I had more time. Local NCR gave the response you — and the issue — deserve.

I will, however, persist in pushing my mostly instrumental point about the planning-exercising-operating continuum. There is a very robust planning process in the NCR and other regions. Critiques can — should — be made regarding the planning process, but the intent, intelligence, effort invested and (as Claire mentions) money spent is pretty impressive (at least to me).

In my experience, the opportunity to exercise the plans is much less robust. So… there is not much opportunity to adapt the plans to lessons-learned from exercising. So… the operations managers don’t have confidence in the plans (may not even know about the plans). So… when something novel happens (even if a plan may have anticipated the novelty) the planning does not influence operations.

The more important issues raised by Local NCR set the stage for these problems and are more difficult to solve. But since you asked specifically about “planning”, it seems to me this is a problem specific to planning.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

October 18, 2011 @ 7:05 am

NCR did a great job explaining the problems. Thanks for that information.

Comment by All Politics Is Local....A Failing First Response

October 18, 2011 @ 7:40 am

As good intentioned as so many are….the ongoing and serious problem of special interest groups and local politics will Not be overcome and while all of us so embracing of better training and preparation in first response, the devisive nature of local politics and the self-serving ways of the politicians from city and town, county to state and on the floor of Congress will continue to waste the declining dollars available and We will never be prepared as We expect and should expect for anything more than a few multiple calls…

Doom and gloom is the reality of the day and the clock has been ticking and ticking and knowing local politics quite well and an individual who stood in one man protest holding sign and standing for 1,491 hours in three very cold winters against the local pols appalled at the local politicians who chose to close a much needed fire station knowing full well that a local citizen(s) may perish in fire even admitting such, only politics mattered and the money….oh, the money and lust for power…

It has been quite obvious in the little respect I have for “Mr. Barney” a local elected representative and the local Boston pols and as our economy and the global economic scenario worsens and less and less funding available, city, town and/or regional planners throughout the nation will never get through the hoops for far too many care less than you really believe unless it is they that are dialing 911 in desperate call –

By the way, let me take this opportunity to sincerely “thank” each and every first responder, firefighter, EMT and police officer for You are all We have to depend on when in time of calamity and even when you are understaffed as many of your departments are…We very much appreciate your professionbal commitment and listen attentively to the siren in the distance growing louder and louder affording us Hope when we are in such despair.

Austerity, We are at a new high in gvernment spending and a worst ever scenario in debt crisis and too big government and too much spending will be our demise….While this administration and these “beltway bandits” as “entrusted” Congressional elected officials spend and spend, unless we cut this bureaucracy and We cut this overseas spending, We will continue to place stress on essential training and appropriate first response….

Look at the DC schools, they get so much cash and their performance so poor…term limits from local to state to federal level….trust in government cannot be restored until we cut and we prioritize w/first responders very much requiring funding and better training. The symptom of too much spending has caused those of us so very much concerned w/our local responders to run through the streets informing the more and more enlightened fellow neighbors that the lobbyists in the beltway and locally are jeopardizing local first response planning, training and implementation….

We have lost the game in preparedness here on “Main Street USA” as in most communities the preparedness we expect is very evidently lacking…We will be more and more dependent on first response as our economy worsens and the partisan leadership We seek simply lost to the bankers and the politiians who easily forget their pledge in oath to serve the public, yet choose to self-serving agenda.

Christopher Tingus
“Main Street USA”
MUA Urban Affairs/City Planning
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645 USA

*breaking news: September Producer Price Index up and while we may not just have to get the paddles out to revive a nation whose leadership seeks to spend and spend, we are inching our way to compromising even more fellow citizens and even our first responders who are placed in danger when not affOrding proper training and keeping at least the minimum in acceptable personnel roster levels….stay tuned!

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 18, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

Has the NCR ever addressed special populations, including K-12 and HIGHER ED and the other Transportation Dependent population within the beltway?

Not to my knowledge!

Comment by Local NCR

October 19, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

@ Arnold, that was my observation, more competition between the states (political/jurisdictional) than between the responder disciplines. Metro Washington Council of Governments (a quasi-governmental local collaborative body that’s been around for decades in the NCR) has a long-history that has created pretty decent relations among most of the first responder disciplines. These lessons go back the crash of Air Florida… Its more a matter that for every dollar that goes to response or emergency management priorities, there’s probably $2-3 that goes to somebody politician’s pet rock project. It would be better if control of the funds was wholly turned over to the first responder leadership, emergency mangers, and health folks.

@ Claire, you are welcome. Glad to contribute.

@ Phil, the NCR does fall victim to plans written by 3rd party contractors, thus divorced from realty. Its a national problem, may the PPD8 National Planning System may address in some way. Eisenhower anyone?

@ William, yes, kind of. Maryland has a plan, DC has a plan, Northern Virginia has plans… mainly for some special needs shelters, pets, etc. One issue that came up post-Katrina when everyone was forced to do the evacuation planning was that the move to urbanize and get people out of using cars has been so successful, resulting in a large percentage of the population that would need transportation assistance. Fortunately, the need to evacuate the city is really a remote probability based on this area’s hazards and threats, short of a known IND threat. Mostly its shelter in place. As has been said, the NCR evacuates itself every night at rush hour, poorly (for anyone who has ever been stuck in the worst traffic in the country).

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