Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 11, 2015

Boston snowstorms an emergent crisis



Claire Rubin, the Recovery Diva herself, made a very insightful observation regarding the string of snowstorms that have hit the Boston area:

I guess you could consider three major snowstorms in three weeks a slow onset disaster for Boston at the present time.

I must have been too busy shoveling snow and catching up on “House of Cards” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes (no, seriously…that show had very good writing) not to have seen this myself.

Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.

This is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.”  They explain:

But some forms of crisis do not arrive suddenly. They fester and grow, arising from more ordinary circumstances that often mask their appearance. We term such situations emergent crises – a special and especially difficult category.

What makes emergent crises problematic? First, they arise from normally variable operating conditions, making emerging problems difficult to spot as a break from typical operating and response patterns.

When and if the problem is spotted, an individual or group with technical expertise in the issue (as it is understood at the time) is generally assigned to address it.

But what if the diagnosis is not entirely correct? If the standard approach doesn’t work? If the response is too small or too late? A second major challenge of coping with emerging crisis situations is that the initial responder(s), if not immediately successful, either fail to diagnose their inadequacies or resist calling for additional help. Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation. Moreover, they may resist seeking help.

The third reason that emergent crises are challenging is that they present crisis managers with all of the standard challenges of managing true crisis emergencies—the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress, the painful realities of the errors and rough edges that arise when executing new and untested  routines. But these standard challenges now arise in the context of organizations and teams that are already deployed and working on the situation

It sounds like this is what is happening, at least in part, in Boston due to the almost unprecedented buildup of snow.  Specifically in regards to the transportation infrastructure, both for cars and all forms of public transportation.

Confronted with at first just one large storm, city and Commonwealth agencies followed SOP to clear roads and train tracks of snow.  Normally, this is more than adequate to return some semblance of normal life back to the area. Unfortunately, one big storm was followed by another and another (and potentially another again this weekend). Standard plowing and snow removal procedures could not keep up with the amounts, streets became clogged with snow piles, and the aging and underfunded public transportation system (locals refer to it as the “T”) began to break down under the combination of snow and cold.

Five hundred members of the Massachusetts National Guard were activated Tuesday to help with snow removal.

“These men and women will deploy across Eastern Massachusetts today,” Gov. Charlie Baker said, adding MEMA will determine which towns help is most needed.

Baker said the state has purchased two additional snow melters that can process about 25 truckloads of snow every hour.

“We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances here,” Baker said.

Boston-area subways, trolleys and commuter rail trains shut down remained idle Tuesday, with only limited bus service running. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said it needed the break to clear snow and ice from tracks and to assess equipment damaged by the spate of storms.

“The accumulating snow is making it virtually impossible to keep rail lines operational,” the transit agency said.

Boston’s transit system, the nation’s oldest, has been particularly hard hit this winter. The buildup of snow and ice on trolley tracks combined with aging equipment has stalled trains, delaying and angering commuters.

That would be 78.5 inches of snow, so far, in Boston itself.

Buffalo got more than that in just a few days this past November.  Issues of snow removal were more difficult at first, but the impact was very localized and the area benefited from a lot more space where to put the snow.  Once cars were unburied and major roads cleared, a region where almost everyone is dependent on cars for travel began to get back to normal.

Boston is an urban area, densely populated and highly dependent on the public transportation system. There are few places to put snow, and when the T isn’t running it is hard for a large portion of the Boston area workforce to actually get to work.  People don’t get to work, work doesn’t happen.  Work doesn’t happen, the customers of those businesses face difficulties.  When the customers of those businesses are healthcare organizations, than a large part of the population faces difficulties. As the Boston Globe reports:

One Boston hospital administrator called it a crisis: Surgeries canceled because there weren’t enough beds, taxis hired to ferry patients who had no other way home.

At another hospital, stockpiles of linens were running so perilously low that staff began rationing them.

Meanwhile, still other hospitals were forced to rely on the generosity of Boston police officers to deliver essential staff members to work.

With snow piled up to historic levels, and the region’s subways and commuter rail systems halted Tuesday, administrators labored to keep their hospital doors open, hobbled by a stranded workforce and patients unable to get home.

“This has put us in a capacity crisis situation,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, Massachusetts General Hospital’s medical director for preparedness.

The commuting concerns at South Shore Hospital were not as much about hospital staff members — most don’t rely on trains — but on the workers at a Somerville company that cleans the facility’s linens. So many of the linen company’s employees didn’t make it to work that South Shore was worried about running out of clean sheets and towels.

“We have had to conserve linen,” Darcy said. That doesn’t mean the hospital is reusing linens, she was quick to add, but rather that it was keeping a “close eye on the supplies.”

Back in Boston, hospitals in the cramped Longwood Medical Area grappled with a cornucopia of issues.

Several surgical practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center canceled sessions for patients who need to be evaluated before and after surgery because staff members simply couldn’t get in. Other employees at Beth Israel Deaconess who had to get to work arrived via sport utility vehicles rented by the hospital, while some others relied on the Boston Police Department to drive them, hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said.

With even more snow on the way, I’m hoping that the experts have realized their standard operating procedures haven’t been up to the task.

February 8, 2012

Supply chain testimony

Yesterday several DHS officials and others were on the Hill giving testimony related to the new National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security.  Please see: http://homeland.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-hearing-balancing-maritime-security-and-trade-facilitation-protecting-our-ports

Three quick impressions:

1. Constructive example of “stovepipes” being brought together around a supposedly stovepipe-busting strategy.

2. The tension between security and resilience is real, persistent, and difficult to effectively engage.   Security is tough enough.  Resilience requires even more creativity.

3. It is striking to have a hearing on this topic without hearing directly from the private sector as well.

This is an early step in rolling-out the new strategy.  Much more to come.

April 3, 2010

TSA: Turning to Mass Transit & Passenger Rail

Filed under: Ground Transport Security,Mass Transit & Rail Security,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 3, 2010

Monday’s suicide bombing in Moscow’s subway system reminded us of the threat to subway and train systems.  While much of our attention has focused on aviation security in recent months, the bombing reminds us that rail systems remain an easy target for terrorists and militant groups hoping to cause damage. While the U.S. has avoided such an attack, the last fifteen years have seen several attacks carried out around the world against such systems, as well as one thwarted attack here in the U.S., including the following incidents:

  • 1995: Sarin gas is released by members of Aum Shinrkyo on several lines of the Tokyo Metro that were passing through key areas of the Japanese government, killing 13 people and injuring countless others.
  • 1995: Over a period of four months, several gas bottles exploded on the RER and the Metro in Paris, killing  8 and wounding more than 100 people. The attacks were attributed to the Armed Islamic Group.
  • 2004: In February, a suicide bomber killed 41 people and injured more than 120 in an explosion on the Moscow metro system.   Individuals linked to the militant Nikolai Kipkeyev were found guilty.  In August, Kipkeyev died when a female suicide bomber he was escorting into a Moscow subway panicked upon seeing a police officer and detonated her bomb, killing 8 people and wounding 50 others.
  • 2004: A series of coordinated bombings take place on Madrid’s Cercanias commuter train, killing 191 people and wounding 1800 others.  A direct connection to Al Qaeda is not found, though Spanish authorities determine that the attacks were done by by an Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell.
  • 2005: A series of coordinated suicide attacks occur on London’s mass transit system, carried out by four British Muslim men, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700.
  • 2006:  Seven bombs explode on the Suburban Railway in Mumbai, killing 209 and injuring more than 700.  The bombings were believed to be carried out by Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Students Islamic Movement of India.
  • 2009: Najibullah Zazi is arrested in Denver for planning suicide bombings on the New York City subway system.  On February 22, 2010 he pled guilty and admitted that he was recruited by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan to blow up the New York City subway.

So who is responsible for coordinating the U.S. rail and subway security systems here in the U.S.?  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Not only must TSA focus on aviation security (without an Administrator in place), it must also focus on mass transit and passenger rail security.  According to the TSA’s website, it does so by seeking to:

advance mass transit and passenger rail security through a comprehensive strategic approach that enhances capabilities to detect, deter, and prevent terrorist attacks and respond to and recover from attacks and security incidents, should they occur. TSA’s strategic priorities for mass transit and passenger rail security are:

* Focus efforts to mitigate high consequence risk to transit assets and systems, particularly underwater and underground infrastructure;

* Expand employment of random, unpredictable deterrence; and

* Build security force multipliers with training, drills and exercises, and public awareness

According to the FY 2011 DHS Budget Request, TSA is undertaking the following activities to secure mass transit, passenger rail, and bus:

  • shareholder collaboration with key stakeholders through its Regional Transit Security Working Group, which identifies regional priorities and resolves security needs.  Much of TSA’s regional work is focused on Tier 1 Transit Security Grant Program cities, including New York City, Boston, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
  • working with the American Public Transportation Association to develop consensus-based security standards for mass transit.
  • engaging in its “layered security operational test bed” to test operational and technological solutions for mass transit and passenger rail facilities.

In FY 2011, TSA requested $97.6 million to support its Surface Transportation Inspection Program and explosive detection canine program, a $29.4 million increase from FY 2010.

In terms of funding support for local mass transit areas, the Transportation Security Grant Program has requested $300 million for FY 2011. This money is allocated on a risk-based approach to eligible mass transit and bus systems, as well as to Amtrak, to enhance security measures on critical transit infrastructure.  Guidelines for the distribution of these funds are given in the DHS Appropriations bills, as well as in the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.

So how well is TSA doing on its efforts to better secure rail and and subway systems?  In a report entitled Transportation Security: Key Actions Have Been Taken to Enhance Mass Transit and Passenger Rail Security, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Federal Strategy and Programs released last June, the Government Accountability Office commended TSA for taking key steps to strengthen the systems.  At the same time, it noted that TSA faced a number of challenges hindering its success. Specifically, GAO found that TSA had not fully combined its assessments of threat, vulnerability, and consequence to conduct its risk assessments.  The GAO also noted that TSA faced a number of coordination challenges- both with industry and other agencies at the state, local, and federal levels.  Information sharing of security information remained a challenge, as did concerns regarding “potential costs and the feasibility of implementing pending employee security training requirements.”

The need to strengthen the federal relationships with transit agency officials across the country is one that also appeared in another June 2009 GAO report entitled, Transit Security Grant Program: DHS Allocates Grants Based on Risk, but Its Risk Methodology, Management Controls, and Grant Oversight Can Be Strengthened. In the report, the GAO noted that management and resource issues have resulted in delays in approving projects and distributing funds. According to the report, as of February 2009, transit agencies having spent only $21 million of the $755 million that had been awarded between 2006 and 2008.  To correct the shortcomings, GAO recommended that DHS strengthen its methodology for determining risk by developing a “cost-effective method for incorporating vulnerability information into future iterations of the” Transportation Security Grant Program.

It is safe to say that like much of TSA’s efforts on aviation security, its mass transit and passenger rail efforts remain a work in progress – showing some movement forward and continually evolving but in need of improvement.  Unfortunately, like our efforts in aviation security, many efforts remain reactionary in nature.  After the bombing in Moscow, a number of transit agencies across the nation beefed up their security, assigning more police, increasing K-9 teams, and conducting random station sweeps.  During those efforts, vulnerabilities were uncovered. For example, in New York City, the Associated Press reported that more than 4,000 security cameras in its subways were not working and that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had cut the number of police patrols throughout its systems.

While the U.S. has been fortunate to not have seen a successful attack carried out on a domestic mass transit and passenger rail system, its efforts to secure such systems should be prioritized and expanded.  In particular, an increased focus on risk-based grants, information sharing of key intelligence with relevant stakeholders, and identifying and deploying preventive technologies are key to strengthening our mass transit and passenger rail systems.