Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 27, 2012

Coming Soon to a City Near You

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 27, 2012

If all went as expected last night, Stockton, California is now on its way to becoming the latest and largest American city to seek bankruptcy protection. This news comes a little more than a week after North Las Vegas, Nevada declared a state of emergency in a desperate (and some say illegal) attempt to mitigate financial catastrophe by forcing concessions from its unions. Meanwhile, cities across the nation are preparing to layoff firefighters and police officers, including Detroit, which expects to cut 164 fire department positions in the very near future.

To those cops, firefighters and public safety administrators to whom these headlines do not seem all that shocking, they certainly are depressing. I am not, however, among those in either camp. I know that this too shall pass. The sooner we get started, the sooner things will get better.

Here’s a case in point: A few years ago, Vallejo, California declared bankruptcy. Today, citizens and elected officials alike have renewed pride in their community by investing in new ways of doing business and restoring a shared sense of commitment to one another’s welfare and their city’s future. This vision is grounded in the understanding that the obligations of citizenship extend well beyond paying taxes or voting in elections.

My uncle is among the Vallejo residents who pitched-in, spoke up and helped reinvent this solidly blue-collar community. We’ve spoken at length about his experiences, which have also informed his critically-acclaimed novels and short stories.

Like many of his neighbors, my uncle took up residence in Vallejo over fifteen years ago when the cost of housing drove him out of San Francisco where he worked and Berkeley where he lived. Vallejo was affordable and accessible if not upwardly mobile or particularly happening and hip.

The U.S. Navy’s closure of the Mare Island Shipyard a few years earlier meant the city had already seen its salad days. That said, jobs paying a reasonable wage could be found relatively easily. Median salaries covered the mortgage for modest homes that afforded residents a toehold on a middle-class lifestyle.

As home values began appreciating with the loosening of lending practices, city revenues shot up. People were no wealthier than before. Salaries had not increased all that much, but the ability to live beyond one’s means had.

Mandatory collective bargaining and binding-interest arbitration with public safety employees meant civil servants saw regular and healthy pay increases as city coffers remained full. The year before Vallejo entered bankruptcy, the median firefighter salary and wages (with overtime) exceeded $157,000 and the contract awarded employees a nine percent pay increase. (Most cops were doing even better.) Great work if you can get it, eh? But a hard nut to cover if your citizens’ median household income is around $59,000.

In the years since, housing prices and middle-class incomes from employment in the private sector have both collapsed. Unequipped to respond flexibly like their private sector counterparts, public employers trimmed positions and services until they had no easy choices left.

I am neither anti-employee nor anti-union. But I would like to think I am pro-common sense. And my sense of the situation is that too many cities and their public safety employees are on the same slippery slope Vallejo was. If so, this week’s headlines suggest many are now losing their footing.

The problems confronting public safety agencies and their employee unions is simple: Structural deficits are inevitable when contracts award employees wage and benefit packages whose costs exceed the rate of increase in revenues, often by a rate of three, four or five-to-one. The precipitous decline in property values has only exacerbated and sometimes accelerated the inevitable conflict between what was promised and what is possible.

When public entities enter bankruptcy, employees become creditors. The citizen-owners’ ability to pay determines what creditors will get. And citizens’ willingness to do for themselves determines their future — that of the community as a whole and the employees who once assumed the community depended upon their intervention alone.

Communities across the country are rediscovering their ability to do for themselves what they reckon they cannot do without. What most communities discover after entering the bankruptcy process is that they were not nearly as dependent on firefighters or cops as they once thought.

Even in those few instances where time really makes a critical difference to the ultimate outcome, sudden cardiac arrest for instance, communities like San Jose, California are finding ways to mobilize citizens as first responders. CPR-trained citizens can (and do) download a smartphone app that notifies them when a cardiac arrest call is received near them. The app not only alerts them to respond, but also advises the location of the nearest publicly accessible automatic external defibrillator.

The efficacy of this approach is already clear. In a few short months since its release, several citizen “saves” have been documented. Statistical evidence of effectiveness will come in time.

We may not want to encourage people to use this sort of technology to enable them to fight fires or enter dangerous environments to perform rescues without training or protective equipment, but we can take advantage of their proximity and access to technology to inform how public agencies respond.  By doing so, we can clearly achieve improved efficiencies even if we do little to increase effectiveness.

Communities across the country face hard choices. Stockton, Detroit and North Las Vegas share little in common besides their parlous fiscal circumstances. If they are lucky, their citizens will find it increasingly acceptable to reduce their expectations of public servants and increase their expectations of one another.

If public servants want to avoid the inevitable outcome of such a reckoning, their choice is just as clear: Forget about maintaining the status quo and find ways to engage communities, increase efficiency and reduce costs by leveraging not just levying citizens. As more communities confront the harsh realities of their unsustainable fiscal practices and union contracts, it will become clearer to all that communities exist for their own welfare, not that of public employees.

June 10, 2012

Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 10, 2012

Last week, Republicans hounded President Obama unmercifully for a statement he made during a Friday press conference that suggested, “the private sector is doing fine.” The administration’s efforts to recast these remarks in the context of overall employment growth and economic performance since the start of the recession did little good.

Not long after the President made his remarks, Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, rushed to add his two cents’: “[President Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

To be sure, President Obama does have some pretty solid statistics on his side. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more occupations and most private sector industries have seen sharp drops in employment losses over the past year if not some pretty good gains. And the economy is growing at a rate of about two percent per annum. The same cannot be said for public employment, where job cuts in health and social services, education and general government services continue to climb. Were it not for this drag, economic growth might well be a full percentage point higher.

Romney’s reference to last week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin was intended to reignite enthusiasm among the base for a rejection of government as the solution to America’s economic woes. What he didn’t mention though was the votes in California that approved pension benefit cuts for public employees in San Jose and San Diego. The notion that those who receive a public paycheck are getting a pretty good deal is not limited to a few disgruntled rust-belt states, and seems to be focused not so much on how many are employed or even what they do but on how well they are being treated compared to the rest of us.

Both men chose incorrectly to emphasize the impacts of recent job data and elections, for better or worse, on cops and firefighters. Interestingly enough, the data suggests these occupations are indeed doing just fine. But the data show just as convincingly that what can be said for public protective services cannot be said of other segments of the public sector vital to our security and prosperity.

When politicians speak of police officers and firefighters, they almost invariably seek to invoke strong emotions, some good and some bad. Those who feel secure, see cops and firefighters as guardians or warriors standing up for the common good, patriotic exemplars of loyalty and dedication to American values. Those who feel less secure, often fear the consequences of losing the protective influence of these public servants or the opportunities to join the middle-class these solidly blue-collar occupations offer many of the less-skilled in our society.

Interestingly enough, teachers, although capable of evoking similarly strong emotions, strike a different chord with the public. Teaching is clearly a profession not an occupation. It requires education and experience to do well. The best teachers inspire as well as inform. The worst take more interest in their status and their subjects than their students’ success.

Although all public sector unions have aligned themselves historically and financially with the political left, those who work for government in the health, education and social service sectors have aligned themselves philosophically with this end of the political spectrum as well. They believe government can and should be a powerful force for good in our society.

Firefighters and cops are not so certain about this. Their rhetoric, individually if not collectively, is often, if not always, far more consistent with the philosophies espoused by the right: Government should stick to its core functions and let markets and individuals sort out and deal with the rest. In many ways, this is little more than a convenient, simple and very straightforward way of saying they want their slice of the government pie first.

Other state and municipal occupations, like city planners, building inspectors, social workers, public health practitioners, traffic engineers, parks and recreation employees, and utility and sanitation workers, require extensive technical or professional education or oversight. And their roles are often overlooked when it comes to considering the impacts of a failing economy on our security and prosperity. (If not for roads, water, sewers and other services, what business would survive?)

Until very recently, it was not at all unusual to see fire and police chiefs rise through the ranks with little or no formal education. These days, more cops come to the job with education than firefighters, but education, and the critical thinking and curiosity it implies, has little to do with individual advancement in either occupation at the lower levels of most organizations.

The story of public sector job losses is striking and stands in stark contrast to the tale told by private sector employment statistics: Public sector jobs that require professional and technical education or experience are under-valued and unemployment in these fields leaves incumbents with few private sector opportunities of comparable worth. Private sector job losses have been largely, although by no means exclusively, concentrated among those with less education or experience. And the cuts to government employment rolls in the health, education and social sectors leave them with fewer opportunities to acquire or advance the ability to compete for future jobs.

Although it pains me to say so, Romney’s partly right: We don’t need more cops and firefighters. Mr. President, it would do you well to acknowledge this, and demonstrate that your administration’s commitment to a secure and sustainable recovery starts with looking after those who need our help most.

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An interesting postscript: Shortly after posting this, I read a summary of Wisonsin Gov. Scott Walker’s remarks on CBS’ Sunday program Face the Nation. In short, Walker disagreed with Romney’s interpretation of the recall results. He suggested his “reforms” were aimed at protecting core public safety programs like police and fire protection. And it’s true that Walker’s legislation repealing collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers exempted police and fire unions. (Not so in other states, like Indiana, that followed his example.) Is this another example of a politician pandering to public safety unions, or is it genuine reform?

June 8, 2012

House action on DHS appropriations

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on June 8, 2012

Yesterday, June 7, the House approved the fiscal year 2013 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill by a vote of 234-182.  The White House has threatened a veto unless key changes are made in conference with the Senate.

Lots of important details in the bill and related report.  Following, without comment, is a long excerpt from  pages 115-116 of the Committee Report dealing with FEMA programs.

MISSION

State and Local Programs help build and sustain the preparedness and response capabilities of the first responder community. These programs include support for various grant programs andtraining programs.

RECOMMENDATION

The Committee recommends $1,762,589,000 for State and Local Programs, $1,137,623,000 below the amount requested and $412,908,000 above the amount provided in fiscal year 2012.

As part of the budget request, the Administration proposed including the Firefighter Assistance Grants and Emergency Management Performance Grants under this program. The Committee again denies this proposal and recommends funding for both of these grant programs as separate appropriations, consistent with prior years.

In fiscal year 2013, FEMA proposed a new grant program called the National Preparedness Grant Program under State and Local Programs. This proposal is denied due to the lack of Congressional authorization and the lack of the necessary details that are required for the initiation of a new program to include grant guidance and implementation plans.

The Department should work with the appropriate committees of jurisdiction to obtain the necessary authorizing legislation and to clearly define the Federal role and reassess the most effective delivery of support and resources to sustain and improve homeland security capabilities prior to submittinga budget request for such a program. Additionally, the Committee met with and heard testimony from numerous stakeholders that expressed concern not just with the grant proposal but also with the lack of stakeholder outreach prior to the program’s introduction. The Committee considers this lack of outreach concerning and it should be addressed.

Due to these concerns, the Committee continues the grant structure as enacted in fiscal year 2012. The funds provided for State and Local Program grants are to be allocated by the Secretary of Homeland Security according to threat, vulnerability, and consequenceto assist high-risk urban areas, States, local and Tribal governments, and other homeland security partners in preventing, preparing for, protecting against, and responding to acts of terrorism.

May 29, 2012

“… it is not fish they are after.”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Business of HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on May 29, 2012

“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” — John Buchan

Homeland Security Research Corp. (HSRC) describes itself as “a Washington, DC-based international market research and strategic consulting firm serving the homeland security community.”

Two years ago, it projected that

Over the next four years: the U.S. HLS-HLD (i.e. federal, state and local governments, and the private sector) funding will grow from $184 billion in 2011 to $205 billion by 2014. The market will grow from $73 billion in 2011 to $86 billion by 2014.

In another 2010 report– about the private sector’s role in homeland security — HSRC notes:

The private sector procurement of homeland security related products and services represents 15-16% of the total US Homeland Security market. The US private sector HLS market is larger than the combined federal aviation, maritime and land transportation HLS markets. Over the next five years, the US private sector HLS market is forecasted to grow … from $7.7 billion in 2010 to $11.2 billion by 2014.

(To digress, this report contributed to my personal collection of favorite homeland security facts by pointing out The US private sector controls 86% of the nation high-priority infrastructure sites.” The usual estimates typically cite an 85% figure. Since the 85% number has no basis in anything beyond rhetoric, I admire the attention to precision suggested by 86%.  I also respect the creative addition of “high priority” to the otherwise mundane term, “critical infrastructure.”)

A third HSRC 2010 report points out that DHS is just part of the homeland security enterprise:

While the DHS plays a key role in homeland security, it does not dominate the US counter terror … market. The combined state and local markets, which employ more than 2.2 million first responders, totaled $15.8 billion (2009), whereas the DHS HLS market totaled $13.1 billion. …In spite of the fact that nine years passed since 9/11 with no successful terror attack on the continental USA, periodic, multi-year Harris polls, reveal consistent growth of public concern about another major terrorist attack.

That concern suggests opportunity:

Future small scale terror attacks (successful or not) will maintain this trend in the future. [sic] For example, the failed 2009 Christmas attack aboard a flight bound for Detroit and the attempted car-bombing in New York’s Time Square (February 2010) resulted in immediate White House intervention, Congressional hearings and a radical air passengers screening upgrade program costing over $1.6 billion.

But even if the federal budget does not come through, there’s still state and local government.

Most analysts overlook the fact that the OMB federal rules demand that state and local HLS activities must be financed at the state, county and city level. Annually, all the states and over 40,000 counties and cities fund $53-$62 billion of their HLS activities, while the federal government supplements this spending with grants valued at $3-5 billion annually.

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“Fishing is a delusion entirely surrounded by liars in old clothes.” — Don Marquis

A recent two-day Counter Terror Expo was sparsely attended, writes Andrea Stone in Huffington Post.

“This is probably one of the worst I’ve been to in years,” said Jason Henry of Field Forensics, a Florida manufacturer of explosives and hazardous-material-detection devices that was incorporated in September 2001. “Nobody’s walking the show.”

“It was not as well attended as we expected,” said Mark Anderson, a representative of FLIR, which manufactures sophisticated thermal imaging equipment for police and the military and was an event cosponsor. …

“Unless a war pops up somewhere else, the homeland security mission will become much more important [compared with a declining DoD mission],” said John Gritschke, a manager for Laser Shot, a Texas-based maker of training videos.

… Despite the low attendance at the expo, most exhibitors said business was good.

That bothered Benjamin Friedman, a Cato Institute analyst.

“Our panicked response to 9/11 has made a kind of self-licking ice cream that tries to keep us worrying about terrorism and sells us defenses against it,” Friedman stated …. “This conference is a small part of that.”

“The good news is that austerity has meant that there is less money for homeland security, shrinking the homeland security industrial complex and bringing it into increased competition with its far bigger cousin, the military industrial complex,” Friedman added.

But one can always count on human nature’s self destructiveness.

Whether it’s war fighters or cops, Patricia Schmaltz of Virginia-based A-T Solutions sees a vibrant market for her company’s antiterrorism training classes. “I don’t see peace on Earth coming anytime soon,” she said.

“We would definitely support it but we don’t see it,” Schmaltz said. “So long as there are bad guys and nutcakes out there, we’ll be in business.”

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Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated story, Rebecca Shlien reports the third annual Homeland Security Bass Tournament took place on Friday, May 18th in Decatur, Alabama.

… [Roughly] 300 current and retired firefighters, police officers, first responders and military troops came to cast a line—and not only from North Alabama.

[The tournament's founder said] “I know we’ve got one [participant] here from Iowa, we’ve got Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida, so we draw them from quite a ways…. The jobs that these guys have, there’s a lot of tense, a lot of stress involved, and to get out there on the water and go fast in a bass boat, spend a few hours catching some fish, it really helps you unwind.”

If you’re interested, you can watch a video about last year’s Homeland Security Bass Tournament here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtxiA43BrnY

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” — Henry David Thoreau

April 12, 2012

Government of the People: It can be complicated

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on April 12, 2012

Last week FEMA released it’s Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) Guide.  This is a key element in implementation of PPD-8, the achievement of the National Preparedness Goal, and for justifying grant requests under the newly consolidated DHS grant program.

As otherwise explained by FEMA administrators, the THIRA includes a five step process for identifying top priorities:

  • Identify the threats and hazards of concernWhat could happen in my community?
  • Give the threats and hazards contextDescribe how a threat or hazard could happen in my community, and when and where it could happen.
  • Examine the core capabilities using the threats and hazardsHow would each threat or hazard affect the core capabilities identified in the National Preparedness Goal?
  • Set capability targetsUsing the information above, set the level of capability a community needs to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from its risks.
  • Apply the resultsUse the capability targets to decide how to use resources from the Whole Community.

This is a gross simplification, but a jurisdiction — or much better, collaborative jurisdictions — can use the THIRA to identify threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences.  Then using the 31 core capabilities in the National Preparedness Goal, the jurisdictions can think through what they need, what they have, and any capability gaps they want to fill.  Then they make their case for federal funding to preserve current capabilities or fill current gaps.  Presumably they will also decide where to focus priorities with or without federal funding.

Pretty reasonable all-in-all.  But if you are anywhere around this process you already know many are not happy (to be understated).

Unhappiness was probably guaranteed.  There’s a lot less money to distribute.

The Department and OMB amplified the unhappiness by eliminating most of the the individual grant programs (buckets, rice bowls, etc.).  Ever read,  Who Moved My Cheese?

I perceive — on absolutely no authority — that someone decided if the states and locals are going to scream and shout anyway, let’s go ahead and rationalize the process.  Instead of DHS dividing up the cheese, let’s devolve this process to the states so that key strategic decisions are made holistically by those closest to the vulnerabilities, threats, and options.

No one asked my opinion, but I might well have offered such advice.

Glad no one asked for my advice.

On March 20 there was a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications.  It was an old-fashioned sort of hearing. Authentic questions were asked. Complicated answers were accepted without attack.  Democrats and Republicans were civil to each other and often agreed with each other. They especially agreed that consolidation of DHS grant programs was a bad idea.

The strongest testimony of the day was probably that of Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia, following is an excerpt of his prepared testimony, very close to what he said aloud:

We are very concerned about the increased role which states will play in determining where and how funds would be spent:

With increased authority, the Commonwealth will likely augment the already bureaucratic processes required to purchase equipment. Even now, prior to increased oversight and authority, the Commonwealth has added additional layers to the equipment acquisition process thus limiting the ability of local jurisdictions to spend down their grant funds and obtain much needed equipment

Further, the Commonwealth already has a track record of re-distributing funding away from urban areas and re-allocating that funding to other areas of the Commonwealth. For example, in FY2011, PEMA reallocated the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) funding away from the Philadelphia Urban Area to other Task Forces within the Commonwealth.

The SHSGP distribution is historically based on population index, economic index, and critical infrastructure points. Based on this formula alone, the Philadelphia Urban Area was slated to receive the largest award amount. While we were bracing for a 50 percent cut due to an overall decrease in funding, we actually received an 85.46 percent reduction in the SHSGP grant.

There are nine Task Forces in the Commonwealth. One received a 50 percent SHSGP cut and the others received 25 percent reductions. This demonstrates a disproportionate impact on Philadelphia that does not align with the historical grant allocation guidelines.

Subcommittee members seemed unanimous in their concern and amazement at such behavior by Pennsylvania.  Evidently antipathy to the executive branch — either federal or state — can be especially effective at bringing legislators to common cause.

I was reminded of a meeting last month with public safety leaders in a city overlooking the Pacific.  When someone (not me!) suggested seeking State support for a homeland security measure the immediate response was raucous laughter.  It was the sort of laughter that renewed itself, grew stronger, and actually caused one firefighter to laugh himself into tears, which of course prompted even more laughter.

About three months ago I was in an urban county’s Emergency Management Agency listening to one complaint after another aimed at FEMA.  Perhaps sensing some impatience on my part, the Director said, “Oh, don’t think we’re being too tough on FEMA.  They’re our best friends compared to (insert name of state capital).  We actively hate (insert name of state EMA). FEMA wants us to focus where we don’t want to focus, even though we sometimes should (latter phrase probably inserted only for my benefit).  The state is just pure incompetent.”

The picture at the top shows a 30 foot statue that stands in a plaza between Philadelphia  City Hall and the Municipal Services Building. Conceived  in bronze by Jacques Lipchitz,  it shows several human figures entwined in each other, holding each other, perhaps lifting each other up (or is it holding each other down?). It’s convoluted, even confusing.  The statue is called “Government of the People”.

Who says modern art isn’t allegorical.

March 28, 2012

Dedication

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 28, 2012

I once thought dedication to duty was the hallmark of public service. especially among public safety professionals. Dedication seems to have taken on a different connotation though these days.

When people speak of dedication to public safety now, it usually refers to the commitment of resources without the need for justification, evaluation or competition. Dedicated resources are preferred. Competition for resources is not. The only thing worse than having to compete for resources is having to prove the resources allocated were spent well.

Fire services, unlike police, often have the luxury of dedicated funds if only because many of them operate outside county or municipal governance under special purpose districts. Most of these districts are funded by ad valorem taxes on real property. Since the beginning of the Great Recession or Great Reset or Whatever We’re Calling It Today — which led to the collapse of home prices — these special purpose fire districts have found their revenues not only constrained but falling for the first time in decades.

Some of these districts have managed to scrape by on reserves accumulated before the crash. Others have raised incremental tax rates to make up for the shortfall. But the revenues available from such quick-fixes and meagre cost-cutting gestures are running out. Now they are looking for alternatives.

The most popular alternative to the labor unions is amalgamation of fire service agencies. Contracting out administration of a fire district is preferable it seems to contracting out firefighting or ambulance transport services because it doesn’t affect bargaining unit members.

Union advocates of mergers and consolidations tell anyone who will listen that such moves will achieve scope and scale economies for citizens who will benefit from maintenance of existing staffing levels and response times. The experience of jurisdictions that have actually gone through the merger or consolidation process tells a different story.

Most combined fire service agencies achieve little economic benefit in the short-term. In fact, they often see short-term cost increases as the affected organizations struggle with integration (sound familiar, DHS?). Just as the turbulence begins to give way, these organizations often see the increased influence of combined bargaining units and new demands on the organization make it more difficult to settle labor agreements without experiencing increased operating costs. In the end, the best most combined fire agencies can achieve is reducing the rate of growth in their expenditures, which buys them time before the need for another reorganization.

It’s overly simplistic to assume that either the economy or the unions are to blame for this situation. Clearly, both parties played their parts. Elected officials and many administrators acted out supporting roles along the way too.

Cities and counties have been struggling with these problems for a bit longer. The power of the fire department to play on emotions for its share of the budget pie has been consistently and credibly eroded. Fire incidents and deaths are down. But the costs of providing fire service keep going up. Efforts to demonstrate any credible relationship or correlation between fire service inputs and fire outcomes has proven consistently elusive. Paying more for fire service does not generate better outcomes, especially when most of the increased cost goes into pay and benefits for employees who live outside the locales they protect.

In this context, merging municipal fire departments with fire districts often does little to improve the quality of fire service for either entity even when it secures the jobs of firefighters. More often than not, cities use resources from adjacent suburban and ex urban areas to prop up service delivery in the urban core. Competition among municipal departments for scarce city revenues makes it difficult if not impossible to balance the books so both cities and adjacent ex urban areas support their own weight despite any efficiencies achieved through joint oversight.

Scholarly studies of the situation paint conflicting pictures. Two impressive exposés on the effects of fire service cutbacks in New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s do demonstrate, however, what happens when cutbacks send a clear signal to the community that its protection is no longer a priority of government. In The Fires, Joe Flood chronicles the effects of the RAND Fire Project on urban policy. Flood paints a sympathetic picture of firefighters and the victims of urban blight. Although he would have readers believe that the effects of disinvestment in fire services were bad for cities, his analysis suggests a gradual shift in focus from services to outcomes led to better building codes and more attention to land use patterns that produced many other benefits.

An earlier work by Deborah Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses, presents compelling evidence that this withdrawal of urban fire services from the South Bronx and other neighborhoods under Mayor Lindsey sparked an underclass diaspora that spread drug abuse, crime and communicable disease across the city, if not the country. Wallace’s account is grounded not in sociology or urban policy, but rather public health and epidemiology. Clearly, forcibly uprooting and transplanting an entrenched urban underclass proved misguided and disruptive for both communities — those displaced and those receiving them. But the effects of these changes on fire service are less clearcut.

If the case for not cutting fire services seems clear enough — it can produce severe unintended consequences, consider three other scholarly efforts that look more closely at the fire service itself. The first, Crucible of Fire by Bruce Hensler suggests the form and function of today’s urban fire services is more the reflection of firefighters’ influence upon their service than the imprint of the urban environment and its demands upon them. Like their brothers and sisters-in-arms, firefighters it seems are always fighting the last war. In contrast, two other efforts, Eating Smoke by Mark Tebeau, and The Fireproof Building by Sara Wermiel, suggest that most of the credit for improvements in urban fire safety should go to engineers and fire insurance underwriters, not firefighters.

Social and political activism among firefighters is not new. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that accumulating and exercising social and political influence was always one of the primary purposes of these organizations. In Cause for Alarm, Amy Greenberg, follows this thread backwards several decades and illustrates how placing fire services under municipal governance was intended to curb rampant abuses of process and power. Alas, as we see today, these efforts have ultimately proved futile.

As I write this, the International Association of Fire Fighters is holding its legislative action conference in Washington, D.C. At the opening plenary session, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said it as clearly as anyone could. Commenting on the union’s political priorities following last year’s efforts by governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana to repeal collective bargain rights for public employees, “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” He equated the effort to defend public employees from attack by politicians to a fight for the very survival of the middle-class. A parade of speakers, including politicians, political activists and union leaders followed to reinforce the message: Firefighters must be active politically to prevent further erosion of pay and benefits.

If this is the litmus test for fire service political support, then I can see why we have a problem. Looking at the problem critically and considering the evidence for and against continued investments in fire service based upon past precedents is not an option. Firefighters will tell you they already know the right answer, they don’t need more evidence much less debate. (See a recent blog post by former deputy fire chief, lawyer and physician’s assistant John K. Murphy for example.)

These days, it seems, firefighters are dedicated to putting whatever effort is required into protecting their jobs, pay and benefits. We can only hope citizens and elected officials are equally dedicated to constructively shaping public priorities to reflect their interests in efficiency and accountability.

 

March 20, 2012

Worth Another Look: The application of cost management and life cycle cost theory to homeland security national priorities

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on March 20, 2012

I have no idea how many articles, reports, books, opinion pieces, news stories, journal articles, videos, tweets, or other data and information products have been generated during homeland security’s first decade.

Whatever the number, topic or quality, they represent homeland security’s literature.

As a part of my day job, I’m interested in learning what we know about homeland security, and what we don’t know about it that we should know.

Starting a year or so ago, I asked friends and colleagues to tell me about interesting reading and related materials they believe are worth a second look. Thanks to their efforts, I’ve gathered a collection of about 100 brief reviews of items worth another look. And by brief, I mean less than 500 words.

One day I hope to gather the reviews under a single cover (or whatever the eEquivalent of “cover” is) and make them available to people who care about homeland security.

Until (and if) that happens, I plan to post a few of them occasionally on this blog.

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Arnold’s “being sent to the minors” post reminded me of the following article, suggested by Robert Giorgio, the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, fire chief.

The article first appeared in May 2009.  Some of the context and language has been overcome by events.  But Robert and I agree the life cycle cost idea continues to have merit — probably even more than it did 3 long years ago.

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The Application of Cost Management and Life Cycle Cost Theory to Homeland Security National Priorities.

By Robert Hall and Erica Dusenberry Dimitrov

The homeland security enterprise remains unable to identify the total costs to acquire and sustain specific homeland security target capabilities or national priorities over fixed periods of time. This problem has persisted since the start of federally supported DHS grant funded programs.

Homeland security officials realize that initial DHS investments did not consider the cost of wear from use, maintenance expenditures, rehabilitation costs, and replacement funding streams. Many local governments also neglected sustainment costs in their homeland security fiscal planning.

Once the excitement of a new capability has worn off, sustainment issues emerge.  The costs of maintaining new capabilities have to be compared with other core expenditures. Knowing the full cost of a capability provides decision makers and analysts with a more accurate fiscal picture as they debate local policy choices.

Hall and Dimitrov do more than agree it is critically important to determine the costs associated with achieving and sustaining target levels of capability. They suggest how to do it.

They recommend using life cycle cost theory (LCC), a methodology for assessing the total cost of owning an asset. LCC is intended to aid decision makers understand the full costs of obtaining and sustaining preparedness capabilities.

LCC helps quantify the costs of the people, planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise that make up a capability.

The Government Accountability Office supports using LCC to determine what agencies and jurisdictions can afford, to prepare coordinated spending plans, and to develop lifecycle cost practices.

LCC can help local, state, and federal officials forecast annual support and replacement costs for homeland security programs. LCC can also generate data necessary to monitor the cost drivers that waste limited investment funds. The authors claim adopting LCC will assist in maturing cost management practices and help to avoid what they term unprofitable pitfalls.

To illustrate their claim, Hall and Dimitrov apply the LCC methodology to the Explosive Device Response Operations (EDRO) target capability.

The authors conclude the article by identifying next steps needed to develop and apply LCC methods to national preparedness. These actions include:

  1. Focusing on capabilities aligned to the national priorities in the National Preparedness Guidelines.
  2. Conducting a national-level LCC analysis for each national priority capability.
  3. Creating and sharing prototype tools with jurisdictions to facilitate use of this methodology.
  4. Creating a central Web-enabled database to share cost models among jurisdictions.
  5. Incorporating LCC tools into future grant management systems for use by state and local jurisdictions.

The article is three years old.  I wonder what, if any, progress has been made employing LCC or something close to it to homeland security.  If limited progress, why?  If something like this has spread within the homeland security enterprise, I wonder what effect it’s had.

 

March 7, 2012

What’s Good for Us

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 7, 2012

Efforts to improve the efficiency and accountability of government services, as I discussed last week, are more likely to involve questions of quality than quantity. This, of course, presents certain problems, in part because our judgments about such things are influenced not only by different perspectives but also different values.

As the nation’s political discourse has become more hostile and divisive, I have discerned equally clear and consistent calls for consensus. To me, these calls often strike a dissonant chord, that comes across more like, “Be reasonable, do it my way,” than “What can we do that will satisfy everyone.” I chafe at this suggestion not because I dislike agreement (or alternatively, like disagreement), but rather because of the dangers such mindsets pose in monocultures.

Sadly, too many public safety organizations present just such problems. Not long ago, many public safety organizations suffered under the self-imposed oppression of autocratic, top-down management styles. Today, the pendulum has, in too many instances, swung too far the other direction. Some agencies are, in the words of a colleague, in danger of letting “the inmates run the asylum.” (The corollary to this perspective goes something like this: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but you might find it helpful.”)

Recently, some people have tried to convince me that this new cultural orientation reflects a generational shift in the workforce, others argue it is evidence of maturity or even diversity. (“We all agree, so anyone who disagrees with us is not only wrong but self-serving, petty, immature and intolerant.”) Consider me less than convinced.

Instead, what I see is a growing tendency to promote consensus as a way to avoid making decisions. It works this way: If I agree with you or you with me, I will support you and urge others to follow your direction. If what you suggest does not benefit me, even if it might arguably benefit others, I will not only refuse to support you, but I will actively organize others to oppose you. Moreover, if you don’t take the hint and desist from the course of action I dislike, I will attack you personally.

I find some of the most supportive and compliant people in my organization are the youngest and least senior employees. That is not to say, however, that they are the least experienced or mature. Note this distinction: Many of the employees with limited tenure in my organization defer to positional power not only because they lack tenure, but also because they often bring diverse experience outside public safety agencies to their positions. Put simply, they appreciate their positions in the organization and are usually more prepared to play them because they have no expectations of preferential much less deferential treatment. In many cases, they view their jobs as just that: a job, not an entitlement or a calling or a vocation or a profession. They work to live, not live to work.

Much of the conflict I experience in the workplace involves what I term “violent agreement.” Put another way, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” These days, it seems when people get what they want it often comes to them as a surprise. The problems this poses are amplified by the fact that many of their requests come in without goals or priorities attached.

This problem operates at all levels of the homeland security system. When I worked for a regional professional organization of public safety executives in the mid-1990s, I cautioned the board I worked for that their requests of Congress to expand federal grant opportunities would come at significant cost to them in the long run. As more resources became available, I suggested, more people would begin lining up at their desks with their palms extended. And as the line grew, they could expect that it would require them to pile the bills higher and higher to meet any one demand just so they could move on to the next one. And if, heaven forbid, the money stopped flowing, so too would the gratitude and support they received from those lining up to tell them how important and respected they were.

I would like to say I was proved wrong in my prediction, but sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. In addition to what I predicted, we have also experienced something I only feared. Ready access to more resources clearly made many public safety organizations less creative, flexible and responsible. In many ways, this has made them less reasonable as well. Not only are many public safety professionals unprepared to respond to calls for new ways of doing things close to their core business, they are also incredibly incensed that anyone would have the temerity to expect this of them. Two of the many examples of this that have come to my attention in recent weeks involve the cities of San Jose, California and Phoenix, Arizona.

In San Jose, an IBM Global Business Services team has recommended significant changes in the way the city manages fire department resources. For starters, they have openly questioned the practice of allocating firefighting resources to equalize or at least minimize disparities in response times across a geographic area. They have rightly noted that evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy is not only lacking, but that much of the evidence that does exist suggests marginal improvements in response times greater than three minutes and less than ten minutes do not pay in aggregate. In other words, they are inefficient because it costs more to shave a few seconds off average response times than any additional firefighting crew can ever hope to save in fire losses. The same can be said of emergency medical service, where the evidence points to bystander interventions, particularly CPR and automatic external defibrillators as key factors in improving outcomes in cases of witnessed cardiac arrest.

What makes the San Jose case even more interesting is the fact that IBM suggests a risk-based resource allocation as an alternative. This would result in staffing fluctuations based on trends in call volume and severity. It might also result in more units, staffed with fewer people being based in more flexible locations. Which is to say, it sounds an awful lot like the way private-sector ambulance services manage themselves already.

This, of course, not only frightens, but also angers firefighters. You see, EMTs who only ride ambulances get paid far less than firefighters. Using firefighters to perform roles as EMTs may make them more productive, but it does not improve efficiency and is thus steadfastly opposed by most firefighters.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the management consulting firm Management Partners, has recommended replacing many uniformed officers with lower-paid but similarly or better-qualified civilian staff. This and other interventions, including new technology for compiling electronic patient care reports in the field, could save the city as much as $5.1 million per year.

Both cities face some formidable challenges in implementing their consultants’ visions. San Jose has already cut staffing by 18 percent since the recession began. Their firefighters union is openly hostile to absorbing any further cuts.

Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan has defended his department’s performance by arguing that joint labor-management committees have already begun implementing many of the consultant’s recommendations. I suspect this means they are happy to implement the ones they like — those that do not offend anyone, but expect a fight over the rest.

All this leaves me wondering why, in an era when public safety employees like many in the public itself openly question the old saw, “What’s good for GM is good for America,” they still believe that what’s good for them is what the community wants, expects and supports. When job security, pay and benefits trump public safety, I have to wonder. I wonder no less though when these same things (masquerading as public safety) are said to trump efficiency and accountability.

It is not my place to tell the public they cannot have public safety, efficiency and accountability all at once. It is not my responsibility to defend job security, pay and benefits that far exceed the median household incomes of those who pay for these services. And it is not reasonable to assume they – the public – will tolerate public service leaders who will accept or make such arguments for very much longer.

 

February 22, 2012

Disloyal

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 22, 2012

I’ll make this post a short one. (I’d rather be in Christchurch, where today they marked the first anniversary of the devastating February 22 aftershock that claimed 185 lives.) The attention drawn by last week’s post, if not here at least on my personal website, has created quite a stir, at least where I work.

It seems any effort to critically evaluate our current situation is viewed as disloyalty. Tonight, representatives of organized labor appeared in public to make it very clear they do not like being called out for their affiliations. They like even less having their methods of operation, if not motives, called into question.

Homeland security does not need cheerleaders or band leaders or nannies. It needs people willing to ask difficult questions even when the answers prove troubling.

I am convinced that the systems we rely on to maintain secure communities are crumbling. Choices that once seemed easy are now almost impossible even for intelligent men and women of goodwill. Rather than discussing whether we repair a bridge before the next catastrophe, we are forced to invest in the response capability to handle its collapse. Instead of investing in quality public education, we argue about mandatory prison sentences for repeat offenders and lowering the age at which we impose capital punishment.

In many ways, this is the byproduct of a self-fulfilling prophecy that began taking shape when we started to question the very premise of public service in the late 1970s. Today, we have what we should have feared most: Civil servants paralyzed by ambivalence not apathy. When forced to choose between their welfare and that of others, the choice for many is altogether too simple, especially after years of being told to keep their opinions to themselves.

They may not want to make decisions, but they certainly have opinions. Often many different ones about the same subject. And they are all too happy expound them with militant fervor to anyone who will listen and many who would care not to.

Never mind their opinions conflict with one another or with fundamental laws of nature or the universe. But watch out if you dare to disagree with what they have to say!

February 15, 2012

Love Is Not Enough

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 15, 2012

You may have noticed that I have become a bit less regular about posting in my usual Wednesday slot of late. This reflects the combined effect of having too few cogent ideas about what to say and too little spare time to reflect on expanding the list.

The shortage of time arises largely from the demands of my day job as a local fire chief. If you ask the firefighters who work for me, they would probably tell you that the lack of cogent ideas is also closely connected to the job. As they like to tell me, CHAOS stands for Chief Has Arrived On Scene.

I’d like to think I am just as capable of coming up with something insightful and useful to say as I ever was. But that may be less true than I would like to admit.

Lately, the nasty issues swirling around me in my day job have come attached to people with equally nasty attitudes. People in local government are feeling very fearful and stressed about the future of their jobs. Although I would like to reassure them that things will turn out alright, they wouldn’t believe me even if it was true. And it may not be.

The little fire district I work for grew up too quickly. Now a fully-paid, career fire and rescue service employing almost 70 people, it was a volunteer outfit composed of civic-minded citizens for much of its existence. The real change began in the 1980s and 1990s when property values started to climb and development intensified. A municipal incorporation formalized governance of a part of the district, but much of it remains unincorporated even today. As the district took on paid employees, they gradually displaced the volunteers. Union representation of these employees means constant vigilance for evidence of skimming work, which means volunteers will probably never return.

Instead, the represented employees seem most likely to either work themselves out of a job or drive their employer to insolvency. It should be clear enough without much effort or thought that the first option is not terribly likely. The alternative may be on the horizon, but efforts to delay the inevitable reckoning have worked so well so far that few people believe it is actually possible.

A careful examination of how this has come to pass is pretty informative. First, firefighters have been incredibly effective at making themselves look busy, if not useful. An ever decreasing fraction of their work involves fighting or preventing fires. Factors beyond their control or ken have seen to it that this work is less necessary now than ever. Emergency medical calls and a host of other responses have filled the void left by decreasing fire activity, and now occupy 70 to 80 percent of fire service workload. The skills required to perform many of these new roles take hundreds of hours to acquire and maintain even when they are rarely used or tested.

This has made firefighters seem indispensable, which brings me to my second observation. When I was a kid, firefighters were respected, but not really revered. There was rarely a long line of applicants competing for jobs in the fire department. The work was dirty, hard, poorly paid and involved impossibly long hours. (and this remains the case in many other countries.) That changed quickly here starting in the 1970s. Today, firefighters in my community like many others earn salaries far above the median household income. And we work for a reasonably well-off community, so that’s saying something. You don’t have to look hard for evidence of how well-paid our firefighters are. The parking lot tells quite a tale, as my wife’s unemployed city planner friends have remarked on more than one occasion.

Unlike the volunteers they replaced, few of the firefighters in my agency live in the community they protect. A few live more than 100 miles away. The 48-hour work schedule accommodates this, and few demands beyond attending calls, training and performing routine maintenance means such long shifts present few hazards. Despite their unusual work schedules, firefighters in my agency get ample time-off. Our average employee works just a little more than 42 hours per week after vacation, holidays and other time adjustments.

By making themselves available to handle almost anything anyone might think to throw at them, firefighters have managed to do what no other public servants have yet accomplished: While much of the public loathes government, citizens love firefighters and rarely think of them as government employees. In fact, many people have no idea that the people protecting them are paid, much less paid well. Many people seem genuinely surprised when they learn that the firefighters work around the clock.

How could this have escaped their attention? Easily it turns out.

This brings me to my last observation: Firefighters show up. Always.

With all due respect to my friends the police, this is not true even of other emergency services. We have become so accustomed to waiting for service and not getting what we really want when it does arrive that we are genuinely surprised and generally delighted when someone responds at all.

Because firefighters have taken it upon themselves to be indispensable, they almost always look busy. Even when they aren’t particularly effective.

Truth is, we aren’t much more effective at putting out fires than we were right after they replaced the horses with motorized fire engines. Even now, if a fire gets a good enough head-start in any building, we will always play catch-up, which means waiting for the fire to consume enough fuel and get small enough again that we can put it out with the water and personnel available. Sometimes, I think the more overmatched we are, the more overwhelmed we look, the more impressed people are with our performance.

Fires don’t much care whether we have a good attitude or a bad one. When firefighting was all we did, I knew a lot of firefighters you wouldn’t want to take out in public. With the advent of emergency medical service, we have had to emphasize the soft-side. Firefighters these days are experts at displaying empathy. As such, they endear themselves to almost everyone they encounter. In the small number of instances where this does not happen, the other party often comes across worse, so firefighters can get a free pass even when they might not deserve one.

All of this may seem pretty cynical. And it probably is. People may love firefighters, but this economy has meant giving up a lot of other things we love. If firefighters become too expensive, they too shall pass. And their lack of strong connections in the communities they serve will be what decides their fate.

This should concern homeland security professionals if only because they too have come to depend on firefighters’ willingness to take on added jobs. If not firefighters, then to whom shall we turn to protect our communities?

February 13, 2012

First blush look at the DHS budget

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,DHS News — by Philip J. Palin on February 13, 2012

An online version of the full 200 plus page President’s budget proposal is available from the White House.  The Department of Homeland Security budget proposal starts on page 117.   The total DHS budget amount is nearly the same as last year.  There are, however, some important internal shifts.

Homeland Security Funding Highlights per White House and OMB (direct quote from budget proposal):

Provides $39.5 billion,a decrease of 0.5 percent or $191 million,below the 2012 enacted level.The Budget continues strong investments in core homeland security functions such as the prevention of terrorist attacks,border security,aviation security, disaster preparedness, and cybersecurity.

Savings are created through cuts in administrative costs and the elimination of duplicative programs.The Budget also supports disaster relief through a cap adjustment, consistent with the Budget Control Act.

Makes $853 million in cuts to administrative categories including travel, overtime,and fleet management,and eliminates duplicative and low-priority programs.

Maintains frontline homeland security operations, supporting 21,186 Customs and Border Protection officers and 21,370 Border Patrol agents to facilitate legitimate travel and the movement of goods while strengthening border security.

Supports the recovery of States and communities that have been devastated by disasters and emergencies with $6.1 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which includes $5.5 billion in disaster relief cap adjustments pursuant to the designation established in the Budget Control Act.

Strengthens Government cybersecurity by providing $769 million to improve security of Federal civilian information technology networks while enhancing outreach to State and local governments and critical infrastructure sectors.

Promotes innovation and economic growth by providing $650 million to fund important research and development advances in cybersecurity, explosives detection, and chemical/biological response systems.

Eliminates duplicative, stand-alone FEMA grant programs, consolidating them into a new National Preparedness Grant Program to better develop, sustain,and leverage core capabilities across the country while supporting national preparedness and response.

Aligns resources with risk in immigration detention by focusing on criminal aliens, repeat immigration law violators, recent border entrants, immigration fugitives,and other priorities,and expanding resources for electronic monitoring and intensive supervision.

Initiates acquisition of a new polar ice breaker and continues recapitalization of Coast Guard assets, including $658 million to construct the sixth National Security Cutter.

End of quote

–+–

Earlier today, practically simultaneous with the release of the President’s budget,  DHS distributed to many previous grant recipients guidance that will administratively advance the consolidation of FEMA grants referenced above.

January 25, 2012

SOTU: ‘Osama’s dead, GM’s alive’

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Events — by Mark Chubb on January 25, 2012

A short time before President Obama delivered the annual state of the union address to a joint session of Congress, a media outlet I follow Tweeted a summary attributed to Vice President Joe Biden: “Osama bin Laden is dead, GM is alive.” The president spoke for more than an hour this evening, but that just about sums it up from a homeland security perspective.

The elimination of bin Laden and the routing of al-Qaeda’s leadership since President Obama took office is arguably the singular foreign policy accomplishment of his presidency. His administration achieved much of its success on this front by all but ignoring promises it made to its political base and taking actions even his Republican predecessors seemed to shy away from in scale if not necessarily in scope.

It might not be fair to suggest that President Obama’s admiration for the military expanded with his ascendence to the office of commander-in-chief. The two most significant role models in his young life beyond his own mother were his maternal grandparents in Kansas. His grandfather, he reminds us, served in Patton’s army while his grandmother assembled bombers back home. The experiences that shaped them clearly left an indelible impression on him as a young man and inspire his sense of duty even today.

The president’s address tonight made it clear that he sees the armed forces as a model of what America can be when it tries to be its best. In many ways, I agree. The U.S. armed forces are truly a model of diversity, innovation and adaptability. But what can be said of the armed forces cannot necessarily be said of the armed services.

Of those American institutions that did not atrophy from lack of attention or loss of investment, many have become sclerotic as money, influence-peddling and political polarization have conspired to clog the arteries of our democracy. The resulting death spiral threatens the American Dream and has all but snuffed out our faith in a better future. From his opening remarks to his conclusion, the president called upon Americans to see in the can-do example of our fighting forces the inspiration to revive our democracy and the incentive to renew our nation.

As with previous addresses, the president emphasized the need to establish clear priorities and make smarter choices. He called on Congress to work with his administration to create an America “built to last.” To do this, he called for the restoration of an economy “where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules.”

Calls for renewed investments in education, energy innovation and infrastructure took center stage once again this year despite the president’s acceptance of the need to make further spending cuts in other areas, including entitlements. At several points, he noted how government investment had created the very opportunities our men and women under arms have fought to protect and that have benefited the wealthiest among us.

The president’s address not only displayed the rhetorical strengths for which he is rightly admired by supporters and reviled by opponents. His remarks also revealed a growing sense of pragmatism and purpose. The president made it clear that he will meet Congressional obstruction with action. One particularly clear indication of his intentions come from his emphasis on regulatory reforms that will enable some of the savings from defense cuts to be put to work on “nation-building right here at home.”

Before President Obama arrived on Capitol Hill tonight, Speaker of the House John Boehner remarked to the media that the president’s address would amount to little more than a campaign stump speech. Clearly, this president knows the campaign has already begun. And he knows too that re-election is no certainty. But he also seems more committed to reinforcing his accomplishments and taking the fight to his opponents than he did last year.

Something tells me any effort by Republicans to prematurely rewrite Biden’s pre-SOTU summary to serve as an epitaph for this administration — “Obama’s dead, America’a alive” — have another think coming.

January 12, 2012

Potentially “catastrophic wildfire season”

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on January 12, 2012

FROM TODAY’S WALL STREET JOURNAL:

California is gearing up for what officials say could be a catastrophic wildfire season following what so far has been one of the driest winters on record.

Hundreds of wildfires have broken out in what is typically a season with few fires, forcing fire officials to add staff. An unexpectedly busy wildfire season starting in the spring could worsen California’s budget woes, with its deficit for the next fiscal year projected at $9.2 billion.  MORE

January 11, 2012

Disillusioned

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on January 11, 2012

I have wondered before in my posts exactly what it is we suppose we are protecting. And my mind keeps wandering back to this question, especially as the presidential primaries begin.

The Republican candidates have asserted that President Obama is an apologist or worse, and they claim he sees America as a declining or diminished power. They assert that they see America differently. They would have us believe that Americans are innately different from others and somehow special.

They do not agree so much on what it is that makes us different or special though. To some of them we are freer. Others say we have higher morals. Still others say we have a stronger work ethic. If they agree on anything, it is that their leadership — or that of any Republican for that matter — is the key to making us more of these things.

More than one candidate has gone so far as to suggest he or she is running to save the country. They have asserted strongly that President Obama has made us less free, less moral and weaker. The solution, they tell us, is not just to defeat him but to shrink government.

This blog devotes a lot of time to the discussion of what our national security and homeland security investments protect us from, but not so much about what it is that we are protecting. Is that because it doesn’t matter? Or are we of the belief that we really are different and serve something bigger than any candidate or party?

During the Cold War, it was clear to most of us that we were not only protecting the nation from nuclear annihilation but also from the threat of totalitarianism. Our nuclear deterrent capabilities were arrayed against the threat of tyranny, or so we believed.

If that’s true, we could say that we won the battle but lost the war. As communism collapsed we enslaved ourselves to a corporate military-industrial complex that now dominates us in proportion to the extent to which we have allowed it to define, if not dictate, our productive and political potentials.

As a local public safety official, I spend most of my time focused on the homeland defense frontlines. When I look out at my community, I do not see the same thing the candidates do. The people I meet do not talk in terms of the lofty ideals of liberty and free enterprise. They don’t see themselves as all that different from one another or others they do not know.

Instead, they wonder why traffic is so bad or the bus always runs late. They wonder whether their kids are acquiring the skills they need to compete for jobs in the future. They wonder whether they themselves will earn enough to pay the mortgage or tuition bills. They worry incessantly whether they will have enough resources to retire. And they hope like hell that the problem they called us to help them with will not leave them unable to keep on carrying on.

In one way or another, they know that much of what worries them and others arises from anxiety about the future and frustration with the present. They would like to do right. They know they can do better. But they also wonder whether anyone will recognize and whether it will make any difference. Many if not most of them have concluded it will not.

Most of the work done by our frontline first-responders is now about holding a badly broken system together, keeping it from getting worse rather than making it better. We have no confidence that the market will solve these problems. We have little faith that politicians understand the problems, and much less hope that they will give us the resources and support required to address them properly.

That said, many of our first-responders, like the candidates for our nation’s highest office, have a misplaced, if not exaggerated, faith in their own ability to make a difference. They may not trust politicians, but they do believe they are different and special. They have great confidence that they could do better if only they were allowed the resources and opportunity to do so.

I’m not so sure.

Rather than looking for ways to help people avoid trouble and reduce their dependence on our services, we look for ways of getting more resources to expand our services or make better arguments to defend our budgets from those we deem less worthy of public support. The past decade was a Godsend in that respect. But the days of plenty are gone.

Our brute force approach to solving problems only works well when the threat and the capability to effect consequences are tightly coupled. Our contemporary adversaries surprised us with their ability to level the playing field. We managed to counter their threat, but at a cost far out of proportion to any ability they ever had to make us pay.

When it comes to saving lives at the local level, we know that training more people to perform CPR and encouraging healthier lifestyles by promoting development that favors walking and cycling would save more people than reducing EMS response times, but we won’t support the former unless politicians commit to do the latter. The debate at the national level is no more sensible. We are not only told we have to choose between guns and butter, but also that the economic and political system that provides both of them is more essential and therefore more valuable than the people who provide the resources to procure and produce them.

It is still true that Americans as a whole are wealthier than those of most other nations. We have been better endowed with resources and opportunity than most other nations. And we have had the benefit of many great gifts, often as the result of our openness and accessibility to people and ideas from every corner of the world.

Liberty and free-enterprise have played their parts in the American success story. But so too have access to public education and libraries, enforcement of health and sanitation regulations, and investments in water, sewer, public transit and other essential infrastructure. We will only see America become stronger if we place as much or more emphasis on making these investments as we do in protecting them.

Sadly, that seems less and less likely in the near term at both the national and local levels.

January 10, 2012

Words Have Meanings

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on January 10, 2012

The Christian Science Monitor noted the sentencing of 37-year old Kevin Harpham in federal court a few weeks ago.  He was charged with four counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, possession of an unregistered explosive device, and attempt to cause bodily injury with an explosive device because of race issues.

Harpham received a 32-year prison sentence for leaving a pipe bomb in a backpack along the intended route of a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Washington, on January 17, 2011 — a year ago, next week. The pipe bomb held fishing weights coated with an anticoagulant associated with rat poison, which would have been ejected into the crowd by black powder ignited by a model rocket igniter. It didn’t work, fortunately for the march participants.

This story was of interest to me for two reasons. First of all, we have the FBI’s Seattle office describing Harpham as a “prototypical lone wolf;” the challenge being that there was no foreshadowing of a carefully planned attack. He hasn’t been named as a “homegrown terrorist” only because he was not directly or indirectly associated with a transnational terrorist group. While both Harpham and Faisal Shazad could both be appropriately identified as “domestic terrorists,” Harpham avoids the designation of “homegrown” only because he acted on his own.

It’s not that Harpham wasn’t associated with violent extremist groups. After a tour in the U.S. Army, he became an active member of the National Alliance, a white supremacy group. So it appears you get a pass from being called a “homegrown terrorist” if you’re a card-carrying member of a white supremacy group, but not if you’re an American citizen influenced by radical Muslim clerics based overseas.

Are these distinctions helpful? I’m not sure that they are. Both appear to be “lone wolves” in nature; the color of one’s skin and connections to overseas, rather than domestic, radical organizations do not appear to be useful discriminators.

I also have to notice that both Harpham and Shazad were both charged with attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, even though this was only a legal distinction  (Title 18 USC 2332a) and not a “WMD” incident in any sense of reality.

Neither the pipe bomb (Harpham) or an exploding propane tank (Shazad) could in any sense cause a mass casualty event. Neither device could be called equivalent to what the United Nations defines as a WMD – that is to say, a nuclear device or chemical or biological warfare agents.

So why does this bother me so?

In the DHS Quadrennial Homeland Security Report, Secretary Janet Napolitano calls on a “Homeland Security Enterprise” that includes the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and the intelligence community. Only one agency uses the Title 18 definition of WMD – that would be the Department of Justice. So when the Defense Department reviews its “CBRN Enterprise” for homeland security, it uses a different definition, focusing on chemical, biological, and radiological hazards and nuclear devices used within U.S. borders.  The National Guard’s 57 WMD Civil Support Teams (CSTs) and its 17 CBRNE Emergency Response Force Packages (CERFPs) don’t do explosive threats (but the 20th Support Command [CBRNE] does, under specific scenarios). The Marine Corps CBIRF doesn’t do explosive threats, but the Navy EOD does provide experts for that niche. There is no agreement across the federal government on terminology (or perhaps, they agree to disagree).

The reason why this disturbs me is this: As the National Guard fiercely defends the continued deployment and sustainment of its CSTs and CERFPs, it remains a fact that the threat of a domestic – or transnational – terrorist group successfully using CBRN hazards to cause mass casualties is remarkably insignificant, for all practical purposes, zero.

There is no “WMD” threat out there.

There may be limited incidents involving industrial chemicals, attempts to derive ricin from castor beans, dreams of exploding heavy metal radioactive isotopes, but nothing that can be appropriately called a “mass casualty” capability. Nothing that the locals can’t handle.

But as long as the National Guard Bureau can point to the FBI’s documented list of “attempted WMD” cases, someone will claim that this justifies having this huge federal response force around, spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year just to sit and wait for the firehouse bell to ring. Because hey, it’s not as if the U.S. government had any real budget concerns.

I know that Congress will never let the U.S. military get rid of these costly luxuries. They’re show-pieces, political promises that if a WMD incident ever happens, well, by golly, won’t you be glad when the CSTs and CERFPs show up – hours after the state and local emergency responders have done the heavy lifting.

It’s a strategy, I suppose. Just not one I’m willing to endorse.

But at the least, the fact that the U.S. government cannot agree on the definition of “weapons of mass destruction” (or for that matter, consequence management) is glaringly apparent. We ought to at least be able to agree – and codify – one definition that defines a WMD as an incident involving nuclear, biological, or chemical munitions in a situation resulting in a mass casualty event – and then define what a mass casualty event is.

Little things like this keep me up at night.

 

December 6, 2011

Nuclear Apples to Citizen Oranges?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Arnold Bogis on December 6, 2011

While certainly not surprising, the juxtaposition of the following stories concerning the issue of federal funding of particular national/homeland security issues puts into context (for me at least) where the notion of “resilience” lies in our national security hierarchy.

Nuclear apples first: apparently there has been some consternation regarding a Ploughshares report that estimated “$700 billion in spending “on nuclear weapons and related programs during the next ten years.”” The kerfuffle led to opinions from the Washington Post and bloggers (on a side note, one of the commentators on the blog is science historian Alex Wellerstein, who not only makes the great point that the yearly average for maintaining our nuclear arsenal is roughly equivalent to the budget of the Manhattan Project, but posts some incredibly wonky/historically fascinating nuclear tidbits on his own blog: http://nuclearsecrecy.com/blog/). Whether the exact address is closer to $200 billion or $700 billion is not of great importance for my point, rather note the general neighborhood.

Citizen oranges: on a recent “Disaster Zone” post, Eric Holdeman shares an email written by an emergency manager from Alabama who expressed some concern about funding levels for Citizen Corps and related programs.This individual’s comments came after hearing FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino speak at a conference:

The Honorable Richard Serino pointed out that 33 billion was spent to improve infrastructure for search and rescue and communications over the last 10 years.

I do not accept the current financial environment as an excuse to cut Citizens Corps funding; not when FEMA and DHS are adamant about citizen preparedness.

This is a great opportunity for FEMA and DHS to put the money where their mouth is. I can assure each of you citizen preparedness is significantly cheaper than communications infrastructure or search & rescue training, mobilization and equipment.

The argument concerning nuclear weapons is in the neighborhood of hundreds of billions over ten years.  Communication equipment for first responders received tens of billions over ten years (including the flush years following 9/11). For FY 2011, Citizen Corps was allocated just about $10 million dollars.

Is resilience truly considered a priority by the federal government? If so, does the current operating definition include private citizens or is it limited to government programs, critical infrastructure, and other easily quantifiable categories?

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