Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 4, 2011

Tic toc, tic toc, time’s a-wasting, where’s your BOC?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on November 4, 2011

In a soon-to-be-published paper a multinational academic team that was in Japan at the time of the earthquake-and-tsunami credits “a handful of trucking/distribution companies” for saving thousands of lives.  “Without their timely intervention, the situation in Tohoku would have taken the path of Haiti, where the lack of help from the local business class contributed to a crisis of huge proportions.”

Pause over this finding for just a moment: Without action by five or six key players in the supply chain, a major swath of the third largest economy in the world would have “taken the path of Haiti.”

The academic specialists in transportation, urban management, and civil engineering conclude the Japanese firms took the initiative because they “were in a position to know that the private sector supply chains had been severely disrupted, and that that the public sector was not ready to fill the gap.” (my italics)

Based on my own observations, in the first week after the earthquake-and-tsunami the Japanese government was not fully aware of its incapacity to fill the gap.  During the first five to six days, the government’s perimeter control was actually suppressing supply chain resilience.  A first step in restoring essential services to survivors was persuading the government they were incapable of doing so and to get out of the way.

This week Tesco,  the British — but international — grocery opened a new distribution center in Bangkok supplementing two existing DCs that have been impacted by the massive and ongoing floods.  This new site will focus on necessities such as water, instant noodles, and canned fish, importing these and other commodities from Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere.   Since the flooding began Tesco has increased its distribution capacity in Thailand by about 40 percent.

Friends in Thailand complain the government’s response to the epic flooding has been totally incompetent.  A Bangkok expat who happened to be Japan during the earthquake-and-tsunami adds, “But the incompetence is so complete the government at least does not get in the way.”

Last week I was in a meeting with a senior officer of a major US food distribution company.   He shared one story after another from the Northridge earthquake, to wildfires in Southern California, to Katrina and more where grocery wholesalers and retailers were ready with product and transport, but were kept away… just as in Japan.

A factoid: the tonnage of food shipped into the typical US metropolitan census area each week exceeds what the US military shipped into Afghanistan during the first year of the war.  The US military’s effort is considered a marvel of modern logistics.  But even the US military does not have the logistics capability to fill the food, pharma, and other essential needs of a major urban area in case of a catastrophe.

Recognizing the challenge there are increasing efforts to facilitate private-public collaboration in advance of a catastrophe.  The FEMA Private Sector Office is hosting meetings, brokering relationships and pushing each state to establish effective public-private partnerships.  So far twenty-two states are in the process of doing so.

Over the last few years several cities (such as Los Angeles)  regions (such as the Bay Area) or states (such as New Jersey) have established Business Operations Centers (BOCs) or Business Emergency Operations Centers (BEOCs) or even Virtual Business Operations Center (VBOCs) to facilitate collaboration during emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes.

In some places a BOC is little more than some business seats in the government’s  Emergency Operations Center.  Several BOCs involve exchanging information and  facilitating resource management. Only a few seem to include common risk assessments, joint training and private-public exercises.

Yesterday (and continuing today) I am at a national conference focusing on the private-public interface in emergencies and establishing BOCs.  Some fly-on-the-wall impressions:

  • Lots of good will all around, reflecting a very practical sense of private-public mutual dependence.
  • Everyone recognizes that personal trust-building is essential and — given American mobility — not entirely sufficient.
  • The common value proposition seems to be information sharing for situational awareness and, if possible, situational analysis.
  • Lots of different technological approaches to achieving information sharing, situational awareness, and more.  Reminds me of the online learning market before BlackBoard emerged as the dominant player.  At some point there will be — needs to be — convergence.
  • Most innovative, forward-leaning solutions seem to involve some sort of mediator between public and private sectors, such as an educational institution or a not-for-profit operating as host, active party, or actual entity.  This seems to defuse a variety of legal, political, and perhaps command-and-control issues.
  • There is an implicit expectation by the public sector involved that when push comes to shove they are in charge.  This is unchallenged by private sector because they know when push comes to shove they will do (or not do) what seems best to them at the time.

In many respects it is amazing this kind of explicit and sustained private-public collaboration is such a recent phenomenon.

A leader of one the BOC’s reported that in his major city the private sector has welcomed the invitation to be involved and quickly taken the initiative to be more involved.

“They seem to think disasters are recurring faster and faster and getting bigger and bad-er.  They are trying to get ahead of the wave,” he explained.

November 2, 2011

Standards of Service

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Mark Chubb on November 2, 2011

Last week, I attended the Northeast Conference on Public Administration. The conference focused on efforts to build trust and confidence in public service. In principle, I have nothing against trust and confidence, but as last week’s post probably made clear, I think these feelings only get you so far.

Several theorists suggest that trust and confidence is an important prerequisite of democracy legitimacy. But practitioners know the absence of trust is often a prime mover among the disaffected who show up at public meetings to influence officials. It should come as no surprise then that the more involved someone is in the political and administrative processes of government, the more likely they are to have trust and confidence in the outcome of public processes and those who make them.

Most of the distrust in government and public officials stems from the sense that these individuals and institutions are increasingly removed from the experiences of those they serve and the effects of the decisions they make. Firefighters, teachers, nurses, and cops often enjoy public approval ratings far higher than politicians because they have intimate contact with people, and those with whom they come into contact have little or no understanding of what they actually do or how they do it. As such, routine exposure to the good works of public officials does not necessarily translate into public support much less political power.

This begs the question then, what is public trust and confidence good for and how can public officials, especially homeland security practitioners, build it and use it to achieve important public purposes? For starters, we should recognize that what people say they want and what these desires mean often requires clarification.

I work in the fire service, where people often express their expectations of us as follows:

Speedget there quickly.

Relevancedo the right thing.

Accuracydo things right.

I imagine that these same expectations apply to many other aspects of the homeland security enterprise. Who wouldn’t like to get through passenger screening at the airport quickly, while knowing that the screening procedures were both the minimum necessary as well as sufficient to prevent any acts of terrorism from occurring?

When questions or controversies arise surrounding our service, however, it become clearer that people understand that these expectations come at a cost, and their desire for each is more or less elastic depending upon their situation and the circumstances attending their need for service. Over the years, it has become clearer to me that people assess our performance and detect deviations from their expectations a little differently than they usually express them:

Speed –> consistency, dependabilityshowing up at all is just as important as getting there quickly.

Relevance –> coherence, qualityactions other than the expected are acceptable when they are based on sound reasoning.

Accuracy –> compassionwhether a decision or action is acceptable depends upon how it makes people feel.

These days people are increasingly surprised to get any response at all, much less a quick one. Knowing that someone will show up every time they need help has become every bit as important as knowing that such help will come quickly. People need to know they can depend upon government to try, even if it comes up short sometimes. Inconsistency lends itself to the impression of undependability, even when the lack of responsiveness in some circumstances leads to faster responses in others.

When performance deviates from expectations, people look to experts for understanding. They need to know that the actions fit the circumstances, and they often judge this in one of two ways: 1) by how hard people are trying and 2) by whether things get better or at the very least stop getting worse. It matters very little to those watching whether the actions they observe have a direct effect on the outcome so long as they can see people making an effort. If things get better or stop getting worse, they naturally assume that the result arises from the actions undertaken.

Even if things end badly, people often judge the quality of the outcome and its appropriateness by how those engaged in the effort made them feel. People understand implicitly that when things start badly they often end badly. But they also appreciate it when those who respond to remedy the effects of their errors avoid the temptation to find fault, allocate blame or pass judgment, especially without learning all the facts first.

I have translated these observations about public expectations into three fairly simple and straightforward statements to guide operations where I work:

We always show up! We are there for each other and our community when they need us.

We take decisive action to make things better. We are neither spectators nor observers. We take reasonable risks to achieve appropriate results and accept responsibility for all of our actions.

We engage everyone with compassion and respect. We treat people they way we want to be treated. We seek understanding by looking at ourselves and the situations we face the way others see us.

I cannot tell you that this approach will transform public opinion or translate into broad public approval or political support for our agency or its actions. But I  can say with confidence that taking this approach makes me feel better about what we do and how we do it. More importantly, it speaks to why wo do what we do: We serve the public for their sake not our own.

Impressive reporting from the Port of Oakland

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on November 2, 2011

The Guardian (UK) is reporting live from Oakland:


Wednesday a crowd estimated at between 5000 to 7000 shut down the Port of Oakland.  During most of the day no violence was reported.  But overnight some isolated vandalism prompted a strong police response.

Several days before Occupy Wall Street was mentioned anywhere (that I noticed) in US media.  The Guardian was giving the then small group of protesters front-page treatment.

Last week The Guardian’s US coverage of the Occupy movement shifted from a New York focus to an Oakland focus, just in time for a series of major events in Oakland.

The live blog being used in Oakland is a form The Guardian has also used effectively in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere.  Note that times reported are Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

November 1, 2011

Listening to a deaf falcon – homeland security in transition

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 1, 2011

I returned recently from almost two months of seminars and conferences about homeland security. During that time I spoke with close to 150 people, all of whom have some involvement with the homeland security enterprise. Here are some random, unscientific observations I took away from those conversations. They all lead me to the conclusion that homeland security could use some new DNA.

1. Homeland security does not have a center of gravity. I think it once did, back in the day when the prime directive was prevent another terrorist attack.

On the other hand, I did find one person who could cite — almost verbatim — the 32 words in the new national preparedness goal. That should count for something.

2. The parts of the homeland security enterprise focus on too many different and important things. Can whole of community move beyond FEMA’s nouvelle idée? How great would that be,TSA, CPB, ICE, USSS, S&T, DNO, I&A, USCIS, USCG, states, territories, and tribes?

What would it even look like?

3. The overall feeling about homeland security I came away with reminds me of the first part of a Yeats poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But that was just a feeling.

4. The money’s just about gone. And what’s left is going to get smaller. This may have been the primary theme over the past 2 months.

There were two general reactions to that reality: “What a waste” and “Deal with it.”

The what a waste voices complained about the inevitable deterioration of the capabilities that have been built over the past decade. The deal with it voices said we’re going to have to suck it up and find new ways of working — like regionalization and sharing things — so the capabilities do not deteriorate.

The deal with it sounds gave me confidence that grownups continue to hold homeland security together.

5. Doing less with less. Government should be run more like a business, people often say.  Excluding, of course, those who say government is run by business.

Let’s try running homeland security — across the country — like Jack Welch used to run GE. Put programs in three categories: good (20%), average (70%), and poor (10%) performers. Each year, terminate the poor performing programs.

How to measure performance? Let the programs decide, in public.

No, it’s not perfect, and the 20/70/10 approach has significant disadvantages.  But combine that with the process Tim Harford describes in his book “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure” — try new things; know some will fail; make failure survivable; make sure you know when you’ve failed — and see what happens.

6. The threat is (still) overblown, I heard a few speakers suggest.  Maybe a few years ago the threat was significant — let’s just say it was. Now, not so much. Two out of our three wars are sort of over. (Even that sentence canot be expressed directly.) Al Qaeda is as gasping as Gaddafi’s final “Do you know right from wrong?” question.

There will always be natural disasters.  Not much prevention there.  What about “mitigation?” the emergency managers in the groups always brought up. Don’t forget pandemics, whispered the unceasingly quiet public health voice.

There is a non-zero probability of a biological attack, a dirty bomb, a domestic nuclear detonation, a chemical attack — you know the list. But the probability/possibility/plausibility of one of those events is too small to justify spending much money building prevention or response programs. The money could be better used elsewhere.

That message was never well received. Much of the time the listeners attacked the claim before allowing the speaker to finish constructing the argument. It was almost as if there were an incentive in the homeland security enterprise to amplify the threat.

There was one threat no one — speaker or listener — argued against: IEDs and small arms tactics.

7. In spite of the almost knee jerk defense of remaining alert to the conventional unconventional threats, there was a sense among the people I spoke with and listened to that these traditional threats are moving into the “Tired” category.

Several groups said focusing on Islam, al Qaeda, and typical terrorism was getting dull. Not because the issues were unimportant or uninteresting — “eternal vigiliance” and all that.  But because the topics focus too much on the past. They wanted homeland security to pay more attention to the future: cyber, synthetic biology, and slow moving threats like climate change and planetary resource depletion. Even Occupy Whatever came up as something worthy of homeland security concern — not the people bringing the message, but the message they bring.

8. There is a well known paper in the public safety community by Dave Grossman called “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.” Sheep (most Americans) live in denial that evil exists in the world; “that is what makes them sheep.” But there are wolves (the evil guys) who “feed on the sheep without mercy.” Then there are sheepdogs (the good guys) who “live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.”

Where, asked a friend who works in the Enterprise and who spends a lot of time thinking about doing the right thing, are the shepherds in this tactical metaphor?

9. There were numerous discussions about rights and duties, and about the need for some serious civic lessons throughout the country.

Occupy Wall Street — is that an example of people meeting their civic responsibility to remedy ineffective national governance and cororate greed? Are privacy objections to the new TSA “chat up” procedures — and there are objectors in the first responder community — examples of neglecting one’s civic duty to support legitimate authority?

The Constitution mentions rights over a dozen times. Duty shows up thrice, and in each case it refers to a financial charge not a responsibility.

What duties do Americans have in the homeland security enterprise? The QHSR says people have the responsibility to

“take the basic steps to prepare themselves for emergencies … reducing hazards in and around their homes… monitoring emergency communications carefully, volunteering with established organizations, mobilizing or helping to ensure community preparedness, enrolling in training courses, and practicing what to do in an emergency…. In addition, individual vigilance and awareness can help communities remain safer and bolster prevention efforts.”

These duties will not stir Tea Party or Occupy Party convictions.

10. To mashup Anne-Marie Slaughter’s introduction to the “National Strategic Narrative,”

The United States needs a homeland security narrative. We have a national security strategy [and a National Preparedness Goal],… but those are documents written by specialists for specialists. They do not answer a fundamental question that more and more Americans [should be] asking. Where is [homeland security] going? How can we get there? What are the guiding stars that will illuminate the path along the way? We need a story with a beginning, middle, and projected happy ending that will transcend our political divisions, orient us as a [people], and give us both a common direction and the confidence and commitment to get to our destination.


Yeats ends his poem with a question:

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Maybe Steve Jobs spoke an answer with his final words: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

That’s a feeling that might guide even a deaf falcon toward an evolutionary reconstruction of homeland security.



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