Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 29, 2012

Learning and doing are too often different

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on June 29, 2012

Earlier today the President signed a Major Disaster Declaration for El Paso and Larimer counties in Colorado.

During his afternoon visit (seen above) to the fire ravaged western edge of Colorado Springs, the President remarked:

In the meantime, some lessons are being learned about how we can mitigate some of these fires in the future, and I know that the Mayor and Governor, and other local officials are already in those conversations.  It means that hopefully, out of this tragedy, some long-term planning occurs, and it may be that we can curb some of the damage that happens the next time, even though you obviously can’t fully control fires that are starting up in these mountains.

Some of these mitigation lessons had already been “learned” but not applied.  This is a recurring issue in risk-readiness.  We know more than we choose to recognize or implement.  A few examples of extant lessons:

Development at the wildland–urban interface and the mitigation of forest-fire risk (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) 2007

Specific to Colorado Springs:

Wildfire Risk and the Housing Market (2007)  Fascinating findings.  The Firewise website mentioned in the study is available at http://csfd.springsgov.com/ Basically, the Colorado Springs Fire Department provides parcel-by-parcel risk ratings for all houses in the wildland urban interface through a website.  One finding:

… some home buyers prefer a densely wooded lot or a house on a ridge. The results… suggest that pre-Web site, these positive amenity values outweighed the negative effect of wildfire risk on housing price… However post-Web site, the coefficients on the overall risk rating variables were no longer significant. This result suggests that post Web site, the positive amenity effects were offset by the increased wildfire risk associated with such parcels.

For even more please see a whole collection of prior findings from the USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Lots of implications for recovery planning, future mitigation, and risk-awareness.

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Comment by John Comiskey

June 30, 2012 @ 9:32 am

Doesn’t educating come before learning?

Shouldn’t homeland security education educate homeland security policy makers and practitioners to secure the homeland?

Shouldn’t we learn the lessons we don’t learn? See: http://www.hsaj.org/?article=2.2.4

Last summer NYC and others did apply some lessons learned.

See: http://www.hlswatch.com/2011/08/29/have-we-cultivated-a-culture-of-preparedness/#comments
Question to HLS blog readers:

How should homeland security higher education educate homeland security policy makers and practitioners to secure the homeland?

Full transparency: My preliminary doctoral dissertation asks this question.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 30, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

John, I think the chicken comes before the egg: learning — or at least a willingness to learn — is a precondition to educating.

But while we may disagree here, I have a sense you and I might both appreciate that educate is derived from e-ducere: to lead out. I know that’s what you do.

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 30, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

The Colorado Springs effort illustrates one of the fundamental problems for local governments in informing risk-based decisions in this way (through information regulation). The housing price feedback loop internalizes the future costs of wildfire risk, but in doing so robs the community of the benefit of property tax revenues required to fight those fires that will still occur.

I applaud Colorado Springs for looking to innovative policy formulations, but question their intervention logic. It seems to me a better way of dealing with this issue would have been to create a tax structure that allocated costs according to risk not exposed value. Without an alignment between costs and benefits, any program to shift externality costs will almost inevitably produce perverse consequences.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 30, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

Mark, Point taken, accepted, and I will even try to apply your insight on another project soon.

I nonetheless find Firewise impressive as a program that provides risk information. Moreover, there is evidence that the “market” actually pays attention and in some ways has changed behavior based on the information. But… the behavioral shift was not sufficient to reduce systemic risk (even as it reduces property tax revenues, which on first blush did not even occur to me). I am still struggling to understand what this says about risk transfer, acceptance, reduction, and avoidance (or denial).

Given what I perceive of the Colorado Springs political context, I doubt there would have been sufficient support for your approach pre-event. Will it be different now?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 1, 2012 @ 11:52 pm


I profess ignorance. Can you flesh out this statement? “but in doing so robs the community of the benefit of property tax revenues required to fight those fires that will still occur.”

Living my whole life on the East Coast, I have no experience with wildfires. But it is my simple understanding that NIMS (and more importantly, ICS)originated from the wildfire fighting experience in California. I perceived that no local jurisdiction could handle such events, so a framework was created to integrate the efforts of mutual aid units coming from all over the state.

Watching cable news for a limited amount of time on this story, it also seems as if the firefighters involved are not all from the area.

If this is all relatively accurate, what fires are you referring to in your statement? “Normal” structure fires but not wildfires? What locality could afford to fund a department to fight wildfires? Do they stop when they beat back the flames to the county line (a la Dukes of Hazzard)?

Pingback by Fires and Urban/Wildlands Interface and Climate Change and * * * « Recovery Diva

July 2, 2012 @ 7:55 am

[…] a great summary of the issues and an excellent listing of research resources, see Phil Palin’s blog in Homeland Security Watch (June […]

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 2, 2012 @ 9:45 am

Arnold, despite appearances from a distance, most wildland fires do not start on public lands. They also do not occur in cities. The point here is that the jurisdictions with initial firefighting responsibilities are usually funded by and dependent upon property tax revenues, which are assessed on an ad valorem basis.

Federal, state and private firefighting resources only become available to fight these fires when a local agency cannot manage a fire on its own. This becomes increasingly likely as the revenues available to fund initial operations becomes increasingly constrained.

Most cities have a wide array of revenues available to them, including property taxes, sales taxes, business and occupation taxes, etc. The federal government, as we know, has no authority toi impose property taxes and receives all of its revenues from other sources.

Special districts and unincorporated areas, on the other hand, usually rely almost entirely on property assessments for revenue. The collapse of housing markets has had a devastating effect on revenues for these jurisdictions. Exacerbating this revenue loss by creating feedback loops that internalize future externality costs without reducing the need for present benefits is a recipe for disasters like the ones we’re now witnessing.

Pingback by Terrorism so easy…even a caveman could do it. | Travels with Shiloh

July 3, 2012 @ 5:16 am

[…] potential even if they have destructive potential. The places most likely to suffer from them are kind of used to dealing with them. We have enough accidents, firebugs and careless campers that it doesn’t really matter if the […]

Comment by Michael Brady

July 3, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

If I may make an observation tangential to the original intent of this post…

How many wildfires have local, county, state, and federal emergency management agencies dealt with in the last ten years? How many hurricanes, floods, landslides, tornados, heat waves, droughts, ice storms, blizzards, and bridge collapses have occurred in the decade since 2001? How many Americans died or were injured? How many Americans were displaced – temporarily or permanently? How many Americans were cared for by their neighbors, communities, and government agencies?

Now contrast that with the number of terror attacks – transnational or domestic – that have been perpetrated against Americans, in America, and that resulted in fatalities, injuries, or even property damage affecting Americans since 9/11?

Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the nationalistic, inflammatory, and jingoistic title – Homeland Security – in favor of the original, more descriptive, and most sensible term Emergency Management?

Think of it as the gift of freedom from fear, just in time for our Independence Day.

May each and every one of you enjoy a pleasant, contemplative, and memorable Independence Day with your family, friends, and community.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 3, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

Michael, I too have found HS more than a tad Orwellian. At the same time, I wish we could persuade the Emergency Management profession to more fully embrace non-response priorities. But a different label is not the problem there.

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