Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 10, 2015

Critical and creative as complementary

Filed under: Biosecurity,Border Security,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on November 10, 2015

Last week the Secretary of Homeland Secretary presented awards recognizing, “the work, sacrifice, and professional excellence of employees from components all across the Department of Homeland Security.  [Individuals who] performed above and beyond the call of duty, responding in extraordinary ways to the challenges of protecting the homeland.”

The DHS website provides quick profiles of several team-based and a few individual awards.

Most of the awards focus on success addressing a specific problem and most of the problems are component-specific (i.e. involving only one agency).  But of eight award categories, one addresses “unity of effort“.

Three of the awards given in this category relate to a National Special Security Event (e.g. papal visit), one on a public-private effort at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, one on Southern border operations, and one on Ebola response.

The Ebola team honored especially caught my attention:

Aaron Firoved, Ph.D., Office of Health Affairs
Captain David Lau, ICE
Mallory Lowe, FEMA
Jamie Johnson, FEMA
Elizabeth Harman, FEMA
Jeremy Guthrie, FEMA
Mike Turner, OIA
Pedro Bordatto, TSA

Last year most of the Ebola related news focused on actions by the Centers for Disease Control or Department of Defense.  But behind the scenes even more was happening.  CBP developed new policies for enhanced airport screening.  Several DHS components were involved in responding or preparing to respond.

The team honored last week was involved in policy/strategy development. But as important they were charged with a proactive, coordinated reach-out across DHS and with state, local, tribal and private sector colleagues to communicate the situation, problems, and opportunities.  I am told this group became a trusted go-to source within the Department for timely and accurate information, especially when the immediate answer was the dreaded, “I don’t know.”

This is a communications role seldom sought out within the public sector and like-wise across the culture.  There is often an expectation for expert and authoritative information, even–especially–in the midst of an emerging crisis.  The messenger can be damned regardless of what s/he does or doesn’t. (If you need to be reminded of the epidemic potential for paranoid criticism just google “fema ebola”.)

A friend who came to depend on the team told me, “It really was less about what they communicated and more how they communicated. Often they had bad news or no news, but they were receptive, responsive, and proactive in trying to trace what they did not know and getting back with whatever they had.  This encouraged ongoing exchange and increased institutional confidence. It may have even increased competence.”

(But even this good example and the award does not allow my friend to feel sufficiently empowered to be named as a source. She admits trust-building takes two and she is not–yet–ready to do her part.)

Critical thinking is usually a very productive skill.  A great deal of critical thinking was applied to last year’s Ebola crisis.  What I perceive this task-team was able to do is complement the critical thinking with creative thinking.  They generated new capacity by using the questions they received to “learn-from-artful-searching”, “give particular attention to strengths” that could be found within DHS or across the whole-of-government, while inviting DHS personnel to “create new ways to pursue… a positive future.”  (The quotes are from Appreciative Inquiry by Frank Barrett and Ronald Fry.)

The Secretary expressed his appreciation for their appreciative approach.

October 27, 2015

Strategic whiplash: fire to flood

Filed under: Climate Change,Futures,Mitigation,Preparedness and Response,Recovery,Resilience — by Philip J. Palin on October 27, 2015

California is now in its fourth year of drought. In a state this big precipitation varies widely, but for example, in Bakersfield the average annual precipitation is 6.4 inches and through the end of September roughly 4.5 inches.  This year’s total at the end of September was 2.8 inches. The winter snowpack was almost non-existent this year.  The lowest in 500 years according to some.

The State of California reports reservoir levels as of October 15 are roughly two-thirds below capacity and less than half historic averages. Some examples: Castaic Lake 31% of capacity (40% of year to date average); Don Pedro 31% of capacity (47% of average); Exchequer 8% of capacity (18% of average); Folsom Lake 17% of capacity (31% of average); Lake Oroville 29% of capacity (48% of average); Lake Perris 36% (47% of average); Millerton Lake 35% of capacity (90% of average); New Melones 11% of capacity (20% of average); Pine Flat 12% of capacity (34% of average); San Luis 18% of capacity (35% of average); Lake Shasta 33% of capacity (56% of average); and Trinity Lake 21% of capacity (32% of average).

Since early this year Californians have cut their total water usage. For June, July, and August the cumulative statewide savings rate was 28.7% equal to 611,566 acre-feet of water saved. The Governor’s office has set a goal of saving 1.2 million acre-feet of water by February 2016. Some are seeing signs of a long-term shift in cultural attitudes toward water use.  Last week the LA Times advocated public shaming of Southern California water hogs.

Since January 1 there have been 5942 wildfires in California, consuming 307,335 acres, almost triple a five year average.

All of which further complicates the already tough job of selling flood insurance in California.

Yet last week Accuweather reported accumulating evidence for a powerful 2015-2016 El Nino, beginning to impact California in late November into December.

The most likely, and most impactful, scenario during this winter is that California will get significant precipitation in the form of both rain and snow.

“California will be much more active weather-wise this winter than last winter,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Ben Noll said.

Copious amounts of rain from systems over the same area, a theme which occurs often during this type of weather pattern, can lead to problems for California.

Locals may be faced with flooding and mudslides, which could prove devastating for home and property owners. This will be especially problematic over recent burn scar areas, where rampant wildfires have charred millions of acres.

According to the Census Bureau there are 12,542,460 households in California.  According to FEMA there are 229,538 flood insurance policies in force.  Hmmm?

Last week NOAA and FEMA made a concerted effort across California to raise-the-warning and encourage preparations, including purchasing flood insurance.  I happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time.  City, county, and state officials are taking the flood risk very seriously.  But it does require a particular exercise of the will to prepare for floods in the midst of drought.

And selling flood insurance in these conditions: How about ice to Eskimos or sand in Timbuktu or coal to Newcastle?  There must be a better way to recognize and mitigate the risk.

October 15, 2015

Sausage-making, delivery, consumption

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Recovery,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 15, 2015


Presidential Policy Directive 8 is one of several tools designed to actuate the President’s constitutional authority under Article II.

PPD-8 sets-up the National Preparedness Goal, a second edition of which was released last week.  Acts of Congress might have been used to justify the Goal.  From PPD-8: “The national preparedness goal shall reflect the policy direction outlined in the National Security Strategy… applicable Presidential Policy Directives, Homeland Security Presidential Directives, National Security Presidential Directives, and national strategies, as well as guidance from the Interagency Policy Committee process. The goal shall be reviewed regularly to evaluate consistency with these policies, evolving conditions, and the National Incident Management System.” Absence is often meaningful.  The Goal, for better or worse, is a creature of the Executive.

Whether the legislature, executive, or both are involved, the creation of of such products is aptly called sausage-making: usually involving left-over scraps and fat, ground together, combined with spices and herbs, packed into something that tastes much better together than apart.

But making is only the first step.  An example:  In the 2011 first edition of the National Preparedness Goal there is one mention of supply chains:

Supply Chain Integrity and Security: Strengthen the security and resilience of the supply chain. 1. Secure and make resilient key nodes, methods of transport between nodes, and materials in transit.

This was one of many core capabilities listed.  This particular core capability was situated under the so-called “Protection Mission”. Protecting supply chains tends to invoke a security-orientation much more than a resilience-orientation.  It was a struggle to insert “and make resilient”.  Over the last four years I have applied these few words like a beachhead at Normandy (it sometimes felt like Gallipoli).

Later in the same 2011 document, under the Response Mission, is another core capability worded as:

Public and Private Services and Resources: Provide essential public and private services and resources to the affected population and surrounding communities, to include emergency power to critical facilities, fuel support for emergency responders, and access to community staples (e.g., grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks) and fire and other first response services. 1. Mobilize and deliver governmental, nongovernmental, and private sector resources within and outside of the affected area to save lives, sustain lives, meet basic human needs, stabilize the incident, and transition to recovery, to include moving and delivering resources and services to meet the needs of disaster survivors. 2. Enhance public and private resource and services support for an affected area.

Supply chain resilience has become the weird personal mission of my sundown career. The words immediately above, despite their likely intent, complicated mission achievement.  When combined with the Protection mission language, the Response mission language could even encourage non-resilient choices.

In the second edition of the National Preparedness Goal released last week the capability under Protection remains the same.  The capability under Response now reads:

Logistics and Supply Chain Management: Deliver essential commodities, equipment, and services in support of impacted communities and survivors, to include emergency power and fuel support, as well as the coordination of access to community staples. Synchronize logistics capabilities and enable the restoration of impacted supply chains. 1. Mobilize and deliver governmental, nongovernmental, and private sector resources to save lives, sustain lives, meet basic human needs, stabilize the incident, and transition to recovery, to include moving and delivering resources and services to meet the needs of disaster survivors. 2. Enhance public and private resource and services support for an affected area.

My professional menu just evolved from boiled hot dogs to grilled kielbasa. And I will spend the next months, even years, trying to deliver this kielbasa as widely as possible.  Making is only worthwhile when a product is delivered and consumed.

The 2011 hot dogs were better than nothing.  But there is now a substance and flavor better matched to market realities and consumer needs.  I expect this kielbasa will be consumed much more widely and enthusiastically than those hot dogs.

Supply chain issues are equally important to mitigation. Plenty of sausage-making still ahead. I am a great fan of Merguez sausage (especially made with lamb).  It is a bloody, sticky, messy process.  But results can fill and satisfy.

September 3, 2015

Homeland Security: Top Issue or Other?

Filed under: Disaster,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 3, 2015

In a speech last week to note the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast, President Obama said:

Here in New Orleans, a city that embodies a celebration of life, suddenly seemed devoid of life.  A place once defined by color and sound — the second line down the street, the crawfish boils in backyards, the music always in the air — suddenly it was dark and silent.  And the world watched in horror.  We saw those rising waters drown the iconic streets of New Orleans.  Families stranded on rooftops.  Bodies in the streets.  Children crying, crowded in the Superdome.  An American city dark and under water.  

And this was something that was supposed to never happen here — maybe somewhere else.  But not here, not in America.  And we came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster — a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.  And the storm laid bare a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades because we came to understand that New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country, had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing.  Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty.  And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit, there was no resources to fall back on.

In the podcast with Thad Allen that Arnold Bogis highlighted on Tuesday, the former Coast Guard Commandant remarked, “The event does not create the preconditions, and to the extent that preconditions exist, that erodes resiliency and your ability to deal with the problem, you’re going have the consequences of greater effect and greater magnitude.”

In addition to the preconditions noted by the President and the Admiral, I would highlight the structure of the electrical grid, fuel distribution systems, supply chains for food, pharmaceuticals, medical goods, and more.  The lower ninth ward did not have a functioning public water system for fourteen months after Katrina. What would be the situation in post-earthquake Los Angeles?  In the New Orleans region, as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and in myriad locations along most major US waterways, dikes, levees, dams and other engineered structures have incrementally accumulated without much attention to potential interdependencies.  Dozens of dams my grandfather was instrumental in building more than sixty years ago have not been maintained and are an increasing hazard.

As the President suggests, many of our most troublesome preconditions are the result of neglect.  But others — even some referenced by Mr. Obama — are as likely to emerge from proactive and purposeful choices intended to enhance efficiency, economic productivity, and other generally perceived positives.

Does the Homeland Security mission include addressing preconditions?

Glance at the screen capture below.  This is from the White House website.  Click on ISSUES and this is what is displayed.  Does the distinction between “Top Issues” and “More” strike you as meaningful?

White House Website_Issues

I suspect the headings were organized by a web-master rather than senior policy staff. But like an innocent (Freudian?) slip of the tongue, it’s interesting to consider.  I may even agree with the distinctions.  The “Top Issues” listed above have the potential to shape the strategic landscape.  Those listed under the first set of “More”, as usually conceived, are much more responses to problems that resist strategic shaping.

Much of my work tries to get Homeland Security more effectively engaged in preconditions.  Presidential Policy Directive 21 indicates:

The Federal Government shall work with critical infrastructure owners and operators and SLTT entities to take proactive steps to manage risk and strengthen the security and resilience of the Nation’s critical infrastructure, considering all hazards that could have a debilitating impact on national security, economic stability, public health and safety, or any combination thereof. These efforts shall seek to reduce vulnerabilities, minimize consequences, identify and disrupt threats, and hasten response and recovery efforts related to critical infrastructure.

Later in the same PPD, we read:

The Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide strategic guidance, promote a national unity of effort, and coordinate the overall Federal effort to promote the security and resilience of the Nation’s critical infrastructure. In carrying out the responsibilities assigned in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as amended, the Secretary of Homeland Security evaluates national capabilities, opportunities, and challenges in protecting critical infrastructure; analyzes threats to, vulnerabilities of, and potential consequences from all hazards on critical infrastructure; identifies security and resilience functions that are necessary for effective public-private engagement with all critical infrastructure sectors; develops a national plan and metrics, in coordination with SSAs and other critical infrastructure partners; integrates and coordinates Federal cross-sector security and resilience activities; identifies and analyzes key interdependencies among critical infrastructure sectors; and reports on the effectiveness of national efforts to strengthen the Nation’s security and resilience posture for critical infrastructure.

Several additional DHS roles are then listed.  Similar proactive language — authorities, as they are called — can be found in other statutes and executive actions. But whatever the authorities and occasional exception, the culture of Homeland Security remains more defensive…threat-oriented…reactive.

Preconditions persist and multiply.

September 1, 2015

Thad Allen: “The real problem in New Orleans was they experienced the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect. And they lost continuity of government.”

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on September 1, 2015

Former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is fond of using that description of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.  Often he adds, “without the criminality.”

That is an important distinction.  It means that because it was a natural disaster rather than a terrorist attack, the federal government could not simply take control of the response.  Instead, there was an intricate dance of competing political pressures, interpretations, and interests at all levels of government.  Depending on one’s political leanings, it is easy now to lame blame on particular people over others.  What I think should be understood by all is that communication between the local, state, and federal governments fell apart at the very moment it was most needed.

I bring this up because Allen was interviewed on Juliette Kayyem’s latest podcast.  It is an interesting conversation on his recollections about the response to that catastrophe.

You can listen to it here: http://wgbhnews.org/post/thad-allen-hurricane-katrina-10-years-later


August 27, 2015

New Orleans and the Gulf at Ten

Above, Weather Channel coverage of Katrina on August 27, 2005

On Saturday, August 27 ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina was a CAT-3 still in the Gulf, but projected to hit along the Mississippi delta. The state of Louisiana requested and received a Stafford Act declaration of a major disaster in anticipation of the hurricane’s impact. Late Saturday afternoon the mayor of New Orleans (finally) encouraged voluntary evacuation of the city.

That weekend I was conducting counter-terrorism training in a windowless, Strangelovian room far from the Gulf. But we had the storm track and continuous news coverage displayed on several giant monitors.

I perceive that over the next week Homeland Security morphed from being mostly threat-oriented toward much more engagement with vulnerability. This very nascent field began shifting from a focus on “stopping bad guys” to assessing risk and cultivating resilience.

Media and scholarly attention to the Tenth Anniversary of Katrina started in early August and has been surprisingly substantive. Here at HLSWatch, Bill Cumming has offered several notes and links on the anniversary, see recent Friday Free Forums. Following are five more links I hope you find worth your time.

  • The Data Center –  Fantastic resources on demographics, economics, and other quantitative measures related to the region’s recovery.
  • Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) – This is an ongoing longitudinal study of several angles on several sub-populations.  Focus is on psycho-social outcomes.
  • Catastrophes are Different from Disasters – The now classic essay by E.L. Quarantelli.  Also check out other excellent essays in this 2006 special report by the Social Science Research Council.
  • Recovery Diva – Claire Rubin has posted at least twenty thoughtful updates with multiple links.
  • REVERB – An exhibition (through November 1) at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans.

Threats continue to challenge and tempt us.  Vulnerabilities can be difficult to acknowledge. Meaningful mitigation often requires sustained collaboration. Resilience is complicated. We continue to learn from Katrina.

August 20, 2015

Conflicting or complementary?

Filed under: Biosecurity,Climate Change,Futures,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 20, 2015

Each month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a review of weather data.  What the accumulating data demonstrates are increasing departures from historic means, much more extreme weather of every sort.

While some continue to argue the cause for this shift, there is more and more consensus that the data confirms an emerging climate much different than that experienced by recent generations. (Monday I received a briefing on the so-called Kankakee Torrent of 14,000 to 19,000 years ago.  This suggests that even extremes are relative).

So far the impact of the extended California drought on agricultural production — and prices — has been modest.  According to a late-June analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service,

The current outlook for 2015 is for slightly lower than average retail food price inflation, with supermarket prices expected to rise 1.75 to 2.75 percent over 2014 levels. Despite drought conditions in California, the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower oil prices could have a mitigating effect on fresh fruit and vegetable prices in 2015. As of June, ERS predicts fresh fruit prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent and fresh vegetable prices 2.0 to 3.0 percent in 2015, close to the 20-year historical average. 

But if the current drought would extend for another several years, and especially if drought in one agricultural region is combined with destructive extreme weather in other agricultural regions (e.g. the 2010 drought in Ukraine, Russia, China, and Argentina), the combined consequence can be dire.

While an understanding of cause is usually crucial to prevention and many kinds of mitigation, it is possible to disagree as to cause and develop plausible projections of consequence. In most of life there is a “cone of uncertainty” of some sort, but even when we cannot precisely predict, we may be able to reasonably anticipate.

Over the last several months a UK-US team has attempted to anticipate the impact of extreme weather on global agricultural capacity.  They recently released a report, concluding:

... the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and… this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. Additionally, recent studies suggest that our reliance on increasing volumes of global trade, whilst having many benefits, also creates structural vulnerability via a liability to amplify production shocks in some circumstances. Action is therefore needed to improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks, to mitigate their impact on people.

I find the binational report especially interesting for reasons that go beyond the explicit factual analysis.  The organization and rhetoric of the report seems a bit bipolar… unable to resolve a persistent tension between two policy/strategy perceptions.  One angle tends toward greater redundancy and centralization.  The other tends toward greater diversity and decentralization.  The authors do not seem self-aware of the tension.  It would be interesting, at least to me, to see a principled strategic process for engaging these two alternatives… or possibly complementary approaches.

July 21, 2015

HHS emPOWER Map – how many rely on electric powered medical equipment in your community?

HHS has developed an online tool that maps the number of people using electric powered equipment for their health down to the zip code level. This could include things such as ventilators, wheelchairs, and other devices required by some individuals to live independent lives but which also puts them at risk when the electricity goes out.

Kristen Finne, a Senior Policy Analyst with ASPR at HHS, explains in a blog post:

As many of the people who use electricity-dependent equipment are Medicare beneficiaries, the HHS emPOWER Map provides the total number of Medicare beneficiary claims for certain electricity-dependent medical and assistive equipment down to the zip-code level. It also provides National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “real-time” severe weather tracking to assist community members in identifying areas that may be at risk for weather-related power outages.

What is this information good for?  Back to Finne:

Beyond the total number of people who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment, health officials also can collaborate with ASPR to obtain additional de-identified data that provides the totals for each type of equipment in their community. By working with health officials and using this important tool:

  • Emergency managers can determine whether emergency shelters need a larger generator to accommodate an influx of electricity-dependent residents.
  • Community organizations and businesses can plan with emergency managers and health departments and offer a place for some residents to plug in and recharge the batteries.
  • Electric companies could prioritize power restoration based on the concentration of electricity-dependent residents in given areas.
  • Hospitals could better anticipate local medical needs and be better prepared to handle a potential surge of patients in an emergency.

Basically, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) provides data without any personal identifying stuff about how many people down to the zip code get reimbursed for this equipment. ASPR then took this data and combined it with a zoomable map where one can search for these numbers for any community, and included a weather app as well.  So good work by HHS, in general, and ASPR, in particular.

You can access this tool here: http://www.phe.gov/empowermap/Pages/default.aspx

June 3, 2015

Community Policing at Work in Boston

Obviously, there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the Boston Police and FBI shooting of a suspected ISIS sympathizer. Recent reporting indicates he and co-conspirators were planning on attacking Boston police personnel, after discarding an earlier plot to behead anti-Islam political activist Pamela Geller.

Putting aside the details of a quickly evolving case (the specifics of which will likely take some time to become clear and final), what I found interesting about today’s development’s was the vivid dividends of Boston Police’s community outreach efforts.

Police showed a surveillance video of the shooting to Boston-area religious leaders Wednesday. They said in a news conference that they did not see Rahim shot in the back or talking on the phone.

“What the video does reveal to us very clearly is that the individual was not on a cell phone, was not shot in the back, and that the information presented by others not on the case was not accurate,” Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts said.

Other faith leaders said the video was not high quality, but that they could tell Rahim was pursuing the Boston police officer and FBI agent who had approached him.

Imam Abdullah Faaruuq of the Mosque for the Praising of Allah called the video “vague,” but said that at least part of the investigators’ account was supported.

This outcome is not a happy coincidence or random gathering of community leaders.  Instead it is the result of years of engagement by the Boston Police with various communities.  It is work that takes time, leads to little immediate results, but is vitally important in the long run for situations such as this.  A video of a portion of this press conference:


You can watch more of Boston Police Commissioner William Evans in the following talk on “Latest Trends in Big City Policing,” recently given at a conference hosted by Rave Mobile Safety. While I should warn you it is not the most succinct presentation, it manages to be both informative and funny.  Commissioner Evans talks a lot about community policing, sharing stories about Occupy Boston, the Marathon Bombings, and sharing his opinion on issues such as the use of body cameras.  He also might mention casing Patriot owner Robert Kraft’s house with the current Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh…


May 28, 2015

2015 National Preparedness Report

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on May 28, 2015

The 4th edition of the National Preparedness Report was released on May 28th.  The Report is available at this link: https://www.fema.gov/national-preparedness-report.

Major findings include:

· Recent events, including the epidemic of Ebola virus disease, have highlighted challenges with coordinating the response to and recovery from complex incidents that do not receive Stafford Act declarations.

· Businesses and public-private partnerships are increasingly incorporating emergency preparedness into technology platforms, such as Internet and social media tools and services.

· Environmental Response/Health and Safety, Intelligence and Information Sharing, and Operational Coordination are additional core capabilities to sustain, which are capabilities in which the Nation has developed acceptable levels of performance for critical tasks, but which face potential performance declines if not maintained and updated to address new challenges.

· Cybersecurity, Housing, Infrastructure Systems, and Long-term Vulnerability Reduction remained national areas for improvement, and Economic Recovery re-emerged as an area for improvement from 2012 and 2013. Access Control and Identity Verification is a newly identified national area for improvement.

· Perspectives from states and territories on their current levels of preparedness were similar to previous years. All 10 core capabilities with the highest self-assessment results in 2012 and 2013 remained in the top-10 for 2014; Cybersecurity continues to be the lowest-rated core capability in state and territory self-assessments.

· While Federal departments and agencies individually assess progress for corrective actions identified during national-level exercises and real-world incidents, challenges remain to comprehensively assess corrective actions with broad implications across the Federal Government.

Exploring a possible strategic analogy: Density = Mass/Volume

Over the last many days an extraordinary volume of water has encountered the structural and human density of the fourth largest city in the United States.  The Greater Houston metropolitan region has a population of 6.22 million and a population density of 630.3 persons per square mile.

During the month of May over twenty inches of rain has fallen across much of East Texas.  In the Houston area on Monday night over ten inches fell in a period of only six hours. Rain continued to fall on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This quantity of rain in a comparatively contained space over such a short period of time would profoundly challenge the equilibrium of most natural environments.  The built environment on which humans depend is seldom as resilient. Pack millions of humans into a dense urban environment and whatever our individual resilience, there will be a range of interdependencies that increase everyone’s risk. We can be surprised.

Extraordinary external volume can seldom be entirely avoided.   This is true for potential threats  beyond precipitation. Denial of service attacks, mass suicide bombings, and uncontrolled oil spills are other examples. Unusual volume, concentrated in time and/or repeating time after time, disrupts and destroys.

Urban population density is a choice, but for the last two centuries it has also been a persistent — and accelerating — choice.  There are real benefits.  Density is likely to increase in the years ahead.

Given the loss of life, destruction of property, and the extent of human misery caused, I am sure some will be appalled at my lack of apparent empathy, but the floods in Texas and Oklahoma have — among other things — reminded me of some junior high physics problems.

Density Volume Mass

If density and volume are each highly elastic and mostly beyond our control, we seem to be left with mass as the input with which we might still hope to influence outcomes.

In seventh grade I was taught that mass is the property of a body which determines the strength of its mutual gravitational attraction to other bodies and its resistance to being accelerated by a force, such as a volume of water. Generally we protect populations and the built environment by increasing the size and weight of dams, walls, and other “resistance” structures that retain, divert, disperse or otherwise reduce the force of any threatening volume.

At least here on earth, we don’t always give much attention to gravity because there’s not much we can do about it.

Mrs. Holman taught me that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental interactions of nature, the others being electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear.  Yet despite its comparative weakness, gravity is absolutely necessary to the universe as we know it.  Both gravitation and electromagnetism act over infinite distance to mediate diverse actions.

Both as a matter of physics and as a metaphor for broader application, gravity determines mass through interactions and relationships among multiple bodies.  In addition to adding size and weight to strengthen the built environment, what ought we do in regard to interactions and relationships to reduce the risk of volume and density converging?

In the midst of the flooding in Oklahoma and Texas, as in the recent earthquake in Nepal, as in the aftermath of Sandy and Katrina, and in the ongoing recovery from the Triple Disaster in Japan, there has been a tendency to emphasize “weighty” engineering solutions. Good. Great.

But interactions and relationships are also an important part of the formula.

April 30, 2015

Homeland security: YES or NO?

On Monday night someone torched the Youth Empowered Society (YES) drop-in center in a tough section of Baltimore.  According to Kevin Rector, writing in the Baltimore Sun,

The clashes that left at least 144 vehicles and 15 structures on fire also claimed much of the center’s space, sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. in the 2300 block of North Charles, Law said. Video surveillance showed no one entering the building, so Law believes someone “threw something burning through the front windows.” Firefighters who responded had to hack down the front door with an ax to gain entry. On Tuesday, the drop-in center – a safe space for homeless youth during the day and a hub of information for them to connect with other service providers – was a sad sight. It’s front office space had a layer of thick black sludge from ash and water to smother the flames.

YES is a youth-led, organization being incubated by the not-for-profit Fusion Partnership.  YES describes itself as follows:

YES Drop-In Center is Baltimore City’s first and only drop-in center for homeless youth. YES Drop-In Center is a safe space for youth who are homeless and between the ages of 14-25, to get basic needs met and establish supportive relationships with peer staff  and allies that help them make and sustain connections to long-term resources and opportunities… YES develops the leadership and workforce skills of homeless and formerly homeless youth through our peer-to-peer model: providing training, coaching, and employment so youth staff can effectively serve their peers and achieve meaningful, livable-wage employment after their time with YES. YES employs seven homeless and formerly homeless youth (three who serve full-time, and four part-time) and four staff who are allies…

Statistics on homelessness are unreliable, but on any single day it is estimated at least 600 Baltimore youth are homeless.  In any one year more than 2000 students enrolled in Baltimore City schools experience some period of homelessness.  Last year YES claimed to have served about one-third of this population.

Is any of this a homeland security issue?

If an emergency management agency was trying to serve “vulnerable populations” or enhance the resilience of the “whole community”, I expect YES would be a meaningful organization to engage.

If YES was serving a mostly Somali, Yemeni, or several other immigrant communities, would it be on some sort of intelligence scan?  If it was serving the educational and employment needs of undocumented immigrants to the United States, would a couple of DHS components be interested in YES?

I think reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the issue of youth homelessness is a homeland security issue.  There is an even stronger case, at least in my mind, for it not being a Homeland Security issue.

But I also suggest that what we have seen happen in Baltimore — and in Minneapolis, Paris, Birmingham (UK and US), Hamburg, and elsewhere — provides plenty of evidence that these social issues are not unrelated to Homeland Security.

This evidence also points to the role that civic enterprises — such as YES — can perform at the seams between individuals, communities, and the public sector. Boundaries are important in the public sector.  Carefully observed — and enforced — limits are especially important in a field like counter-terrorism.  For a whole host of reasons from fiscal to constitutional, we don’t want public sector agencies blithely stepping outside their statutory roles.

But there are also profound problems that messily spill over these important boundaries.

For too long, it seems to me, we have viewed smaller civic enterprises as peripheral, charitable, one-offs.  The evidence is accumulating that they are, instead, crucially important contributors to any systemic and sustainable strategy for engaging a wide-range of social challenges… including several regularly featured at this blog.

April 23, 2015

Gulf oil spill: Lessons still to be learned

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 23, 2015

It has been five years since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed eleven and initiated several weeks of an uncontrolled release of oil from the well-head.  Over 200 million gallons of oil are thought to have escaped into the Gulf of Mexico.

I perceive the lessons-learned — or what might still be learned — from responding to the Gulf oil spill are at least as important as those we have tried to learn from 9/11 and Katrina.

What can and should be done, and sometimes not done, when dealing with big footprint, multi-consequence disasters that unfold over an extended period of time?  How is such an event to be engaged when the technical, experiential, and even intellectual resources needed are in short supply?  How does leadership and management operate when authority and competence and capability are scattered across various public and private entities? What can the lessons-learned from five years ago tell us regarding drought, sea-level rise, pandemics, and other disasters that are as much cumulative as acute?

Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard Commandant who was pulled out of retirement to serve as the National Incident Commander for the Gulf oil spill has tried to help us learn these lessons.  Here is some of what he said back in September 2010.

When I was designated as the national incident commander, I sat down with a small group of folks who became my cadre and senior staff. I wanted to focus on what needed to be done about the universe — above the unified level that had been established. I wanted to focus on those things that were distracting unified area command from doing their job: working inter agency issues in Washington and dealing with the governmental structures, Congress and so forth…

I was a 39-year veteran of the coast guard. The last thing we want is the 3,000 mile screwdriver. We would leave tactical control as close to the problem as we could… I would like to characterize the national incident command as a thin client. To use a software term. Necessary to integrate but no more than what is necessary and without adding layers of bureaucracy.

The Incident Command System that was established in New Orleans was the basis for… the coordination of command. That is a sound system. Incident command is one of the ways to approach these spills…

If we look at what transpired, we need to know what the basic doctrine says against the reality of what we found on the ground… We did not have a large, monolithic oil spill. We had hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that moved in different directions over time that moved beyond the geographical area that was contemplated in any response plan, putting the entire coast at risk. That required resources above the plan. It required coordination across state boundaries and federal regional boundaries for the team…

We have worked on smaller spills with state and local governments with smaller responsible parties. Some of the anomalies associated with this spill that challenged the doctrine need to be looked at in detail for constructive changes to the contingency plan which should remain in place, and how we need to manage large, and, as evidence in the future that defy the traditional parameters of the incident command system…

First, I think we need greater clarity moving forward on what the responsible parties, who they are, what they do, and how they interact with the contingency plan. We have worked with the responsible parties for over 20 years, very effectively managing oil spills…There were two basic issues that were not well understood by most of the people of the US and political leaders: There would be a constructive role for the entity that was attributed to causing the event. That created concern that could not be explained away. Even though we had worked effectively in that construct in responding to oil spills. The second is the fiduciary link between the representative of the responsible party and unified command and their shareholders. There are legal requirements for documenting costs which you have to carry on a balance sheet that they cannot sever.

The second notion was difficult for the people of this country to understand and our political leaders was ultimately, there is a fiduciary link between the responsible party and shareholders which would bring into question whether or not a decision should have been made based on the environment and the response itself. As stated in the national contingency plan and by statute, the responsible party is to resource the response and the federal government is to oversee their response…That is what occurred, but as you look at the enormity of this response, and the local implications, the isolated geographical areas where access is an issue, where logistical support for this type of response is an issue, a lot of the details that are carried out by those contractors that are brought to the scene are done in a contractual obligation basis with the responsible party under the general supervision of the federal government…

There is a discussion about what constitutes an authority to take action, the day-to-day supervision of workers. How this gets interpreted in terms of feedback and the effects you are trying to achieve. There is a couple of things we need to do. We need to look at the contingency plan and think about what we need by the concept of responsible party and how we want that to look in the future…

Admiral Allen is one of those rare people who somehow speak more clearly than the transcript can sometimes capture.  Thanks to C-Span, you can see and hear his extended remarks here.

As time and space expand, typically so does the number and diversity of those involved in engagement. Allen sometimes refers to the difference between theater command and incident command.  I wonder if just using the word “command” may be misleading.

March 14, 2015

Watch carefully, explain frequently

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 14, 2015

According to the World Health Organization, deaths from the year-plus outbreak of Ebola now exceed 10,000.  But as of Friday, March 13 it has been three weeks since a new transmission was confirmed in Liberia.

A team of Reuters reporters — or their headline editor — summarize Liberia’s key lessons-learned as watch carefully and explain frequently.  Both depending on (and potentially contributing to) trust-building community engagement.

Liberia was hit hard and, the nation’s President admits, slow to react.  But what seems to now differentiate Liberia’s — tentative — eradication from continuing (if much slowed) transmission in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea has been the accuracy of “contact-tracing” — essentially a mapping of personal relationships and movement related to any confirmed transmission.

This is classic public health practice. But to actually do it depends on a shared sense of solidarity… community… common cause… and community-oriented organization that cannot be taken for granted.

The recent measles outbreak in the United States demonstrates the epidemiological challenges that can emerge from a break-down of trust in communities.  I am intrigued (tempted?) with analogies to public safety and counter-terrorism challenges. Many historians of community policing trace its origins to public health models.  But I will not go there today.

It is worth noting that in this week’s Nature, respected scientists warn that the H7N9 flu virus is rapidly mutating.  The Los Angeles Times reports,

Overall, this second wave of H7N9 influenza viruses represents “a major increase in genetic diversity” compared with the viruses in the first wave, the study authors wrote. Unless live poultry markets are permanently closed, merchants stop transporting chickens from region to region, and other control measures are put in place, the virus will “persist and cause a substantial number of severe human infections.” So far, most people were sickened by handling infected chickens; cases of the virus spreading directly from person to person have been limited. That might change if the virus mutates, as happened with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic that began 2009. 

In any case, Ebola is not the only potential epidemic (upon, on, among the people) to present a risk.

This may only be a projection of preconceived bias, but in trying to discern what is different in the experience of Liberia and Sierra Leone, I perceive a bottom-up strategy in Liberia and a top-down strategy in Sierra Leone.  Trust-building has been a challenge in both countries.  But the bottom-up strategy (or emergence?) in Liberia has been much more effective.  As a hypothesis to be tested, I would suggest the top-down strategy in Sierra Leone has potentially been as “effective” in suppressing a more sustainable bottom-up approach.

And I surmise this could have implications far-beyond Ebola.

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.

December 18, 2014

Ebola update

Filed under: Biosecurity,Preparedness and Response,Public Health & Medical Care — by Philip J. Palin on December 18, 2014

The December 17, WHO situation update is available here.  According to this report, some progress is being made in Sierra Leone, which has replaced Liberia as the nation reporting the most incidents of transmission.

EVD transmission remains intense in Sierra Leone, with 327 new confirmed cases reported in the week to 14 December. While there are signs from the country situation reports that the increase in incidence has slowed and the incidence may no longer be increasing, the country reported the highest number of confirmed cases in epidemiological week 50. 

A major effort was undertaken this week in Sierra Leone to alter population behaviors that are contributing to continued transmission of the disease.  The Guardian (London) reports on some of the strategies being employed.

Reuters has an update on operations as of Wednesday.


On Friday the Washington Post — which has done distinguished reporting on  the Ebola outbreak in West Africa — published a big front page feature on the situation in Sierra Leone.

Also on Friday NPR interviewed the CDC Director who is the midst of a site visit to West Africa.  Dr. Thomas Frieden warns of the risk that the virus might become endemic and therefore a perpetual source of recurring spikes in transmission.

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