Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 5, 2015

Carolina flooding and exceedance probabilities

Filed under: Catastrophes,Recovery,Resilience,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on October 5, 2015

Sunday the Governor of South Carolina explained that the state has not seen the current level of flooding in 1000 years.  I doubt that was what she was told.  But I understand how she might have heard it.

Monday morning’s headline in USA Today was 1,000-YEAR STORM SLAMS S.C.  The millennial reference was not explained.

‘1,000-year’ rain floods South Carolina, and it’s not over yet is how the CNN website headlined their video-and-text reporting.  The text-based version includes, “A “1,000-year rainfall” means that the amount of rainfall in South Carolina has a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening in any given year, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said.”

A thousand-year-flood or a hundred-year-flood are shorthand descriptions for the annual exceedance probability for such a flood-event. Too often this is heard, as by the governor, as suggesting it has been a very long time since such an event and — of even more concern from a public understanding and public policy perspective — it will be a very long time until such an event recurs.

Here’s how the U.S. Geological Survey explains exceedance probabilities:

In the 1960’s, the United States government decided to use the 1-percent annual exceedance probability (AEP) flood as the basis for the National Flood Insurance Program. The 1-percent AEP flood was thought to be a fair balance between protecting the public and overly stringent regulation. Because the 1-percent AEP flood has a 1 in 100 chance of being equaled or exceeded in any 1 year, and it has an average recurrence interval of 100 years, it often is referred to as the “100-year flood”. Scientists and engineers frequently use statistical probability (chance) to put a context to floods and their occurrence. If the probability of a particular flood magnitude being equaled or exceeded is known, then risk can be assessed. To determine these probabilities all the annual peak streamflow values measured at a streamgage are examined. A streamgage is a location on a river where the height of the water and the quantity of flow (streamflow) are recorded. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operates more than 7,500 streamgages nationwide (see map) that allow for assessment of the probability of floods. Examining all the annual peak streamflow values that occurred at a streamgage with time allows us to estimate the AEP for various flood magnitudes. For example, we can say there is a 1 in 100 chance that next year’s flood will equal or exceed the 1-percent AEP flood. More recently, people talk about larger floods, such as the “500- year flood,” as tolerance for risk is reduced and increased protection from flooding is desired. The “500-year flood” corresponds to an AEP of 0.2 percent, which means a flood of that size or greater has a 0.2-percent chance (or 1 in 500 chance) of occurring in a given year.

I have done some modest work with the Charleston, South Carolina region on community resilience.  They have been concerned about flooding and especially the potential impact of a strong hurricane.  The current storm has been “just” a rain event, but it has exposed — again — many of the vulnerabilities of concern to the community.  Even without strong winds and storm surge, massive volume and high tides have been destructive enough.

The greatest challenge in Charleston — and everywhere else I have ever worked — is a strong tendency to diminish attention to what are perceived as rare risks.  Too often I have seen individuals and organizations decide that since they just experienced something exceedingly rare they have essentially been indemnified from future losses.

Rather, at least in many coastal communities, there is good cause — data-driven and statistically sound — to reasonably assume that this weekend’s extremes will recur with increasing frequency in the next hundred years.  Instead of indemnifying, it is just a down payment.

Late Monday USA Today reported:

The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.

So many “1-in-1,000 year” rainfalls is unprecedented, said meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm. “We have certainly had our fair share in the United States in recent years, and any increasing trend in these type of rainfall events is highly concerning,” Bowen said.


Yikes!  Here are the two opening sentences and the closing sentence of the lead editorial in the October 6 Charleston Post and Courier:

Catastrophic rainstorms like this one happen only every thousand years, climate and weather experts explained as unprecedented flooding forced people out of their homes, closed roads and submerged stalled vehicles. One can only hope that assessment holds true… We must work to prepare for the next disaster, even if it doesn’t happen for a thousand years.

The P&C is a much better than average daily newspaper.  When they get this so very wrong, we can be sure most other folks will too.

September 10, 2015

September 10 Thinking

Filed under: Resilience,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 10, 2015

When someone is accused of “September 10 thinking” it is usually meant to suggest attitudes that under-estimate the terrorist threat. Before September 11 we understood terrorism mostly as a matter of criminal investigation and prosecution.  After September 11, the critique strongly implies, any clear-thinking person must recognize that terrorism requires waging war to make peace.

On this tenth day of September we have experienced fourteen years of war. Thousands have been killed in the crossfire. Millions have been displaced.  There has been a militarization of domestic governance fraught with unintended consequences. Has there been a coarsening of American culture?  Perpetual war has a reputation for producing this outcome.  But Americans can be proudly rough-hewn.  Perhaps this is an effect with deeper cause.

In any case, I perceive very little prospect for peace.  If anything the terrorist threat to the United States – and many others – seems more pronounced, even more complicated than fourteen years ago.

Since 9-11 there has not been a successful “strategic” attack on the United States. Several attempts have been preempted by a combination of effective intelligence, policing, criminal prosecution, and military operations. Several mostly free-lance terrorist operations have been carried out, but the damage done pales in contrast to US mass-murders perpetrated by non-terrorists.

This is not to deny the continuing – perhaps increasing – terrorist threat.  We have seen in London, Madrid, Paris, and elsewhere what is possible.  Those we call terrorists do not obscure their ambitions.

The cause of current threats is complicated. It is not a straight line from American military operations to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But this is one of several converging lines. Our failure to shape a more inclusive and stable post-occupation in Iraq is another of these lines.  We share with many others the failure to avert Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe. There are even more twists and knots and weird webs, not all of which can be traced to an American source. It is, however, often impossible to distinguish our lines from these others.

It was never a binary: war-fighting or policing. It has always been much more complicated.  Most police officers and military personnel are quick to agree that deadly force is best-used only when better options have proven ineffective.

But we have given the vast majority of our attention and resources to these two counter-terrorism tools.  While we can commend certain CT competencies, our current strategic situation suggests other investments are needed.

If you are expecting a comprehensive answer from me, don’t hold your breath.  But I will highlight three issues beyond fighting and prosecuting which I perceive need sustained attention if we are to be in a better place fourteen years from now.

Demographic density – There are twice as many of us as in 1965. There will be even more of us.  We are coming together closer in cities.  We are interacting more and more through communications, commerce, and culture.  The simple mathematical likelihood of conflict increases as our interactions proliferate.  If predicted shortages of water and food unfold, it could be an especially ugly century.

Proximate diversity – Conflict often arises over real or perceived differences.  What is interesting at a distance may be irritating close at hand.  What seems reasonable to me, strikes you as crazy. Economic inequality, while perpetual, was once less obvious. Until 200 years ago many of our cultural differences were buffered by various sorts of distance. Many physical, temporal, and cultural aspects of distance are experiencing compression (see supra).  This compression can encourage intentional expressions of differentiation. Such expressions escalate proximate differences that might be insignificant at a distance. One person’s creative cosmopolitanism is another’s satanic confusion.

Interdependent networks—I most often use these words to reference the electrical grids, telecommunications networks, and supply chains that facilitate and sustain the two prior issues.  If these fail, preexisting tensions may escalate. But in this context the challenge – and opportunities – of interdependence also extend to social, economic, and political networks.  Separation is increasingly difficult and usually delusional.  Relationships across various divides are real and can be constructive, even affectionate. But whatever the affect, the connections are increasingly fundamental, spreading good and bad with equal alacrity.

These are issues that seem innately to prompt either-or, yes-no, right-wrong reactions. But I worry it is precisely this analytic predisposition that threatens mutual annihilation.

Hegel used a German word that Marx allowed to be translated into English as suggesting the old way is destroyed to make way for the new. But the original word — Aufheben — can, depending on context, mean destroy or transcend or retrieve or renew. The implication, at least for me, is how prior meaning can be constructively adapted to present reality. Or how contending worldviews can be resolved. Or how thesis and antithesis might constructively coexist. Can we develop the interpersonal skills and social systems to deploy contending energies for the common good?


A program that has roots in traditional counter-terrorism, but is trying to stretch into the issues noted above is outlined in a September 9 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

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

“Devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue”

Filed under: Biosecurity,Catastrophes,Climate Change,Futures,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 1, 2015

Thanks to the Alaska Dispatch News, here’s a transcript of the speech President Obama gave Monday evening (9PM Eastern) in Alaska.

The phrase “homeland security” was never uttered.  But I perceive a considerable connection.  One excerpt:

We also know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue.  That is not deniable.  And we are going to have to do some adaptation, and we are going to have to help communities be resilient, because of these trend lines we are not going to be able to stop on a dime.  We’re not going to be able to stop tomorrow. 

But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively.  People will suffer.  Economies will suffer.  Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems.  More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict. 

That’s one path we can take.  The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it.  This is within our power.  This is a solvable problem if we start now. 


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.

May 28, 2015

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.

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 11, 2014

Resilience by Design

On Monday the Mayor of Los Angeles released a report entitled Resilience by Design.  It gives particular attention to how Los Angeles can take steps now to mitigate the consequences of major risks, especially an earthquake.

This is the kind of document that — too often — only appears after a major event.  It is significant that one of the first steps Mayor Garcetti took upon his election was appointment of a Science Advisor for Seismic Safety and tasking her to undertake this analysis.

The report gives particular attention to:

  • Resilience of building stock — It is interesting that this is treated as a matter of economic resilience as well as public safety.
  • Resilience of the water system — This is what worries me most regarding the vulnerability of the Los Angeles basin.
  • Resilience of the telecommunications systems — This is a key interdependency that can divide or multiply every other response and recovery capability.

There are, obviously, other crucial problems.  But too many of these kind of studies try to take-on too much.  If everything is a priority, really nothing is a priority.

These are three strategic elements within the ability of city government to seriously engage.  Enhancing the resilience of these three elements will improve the ability of the city and the whole community to address other challenges.

See the full report here.

November 5, 2014

RIP Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino: The Public Health Mayor

This week Boston laid to rest it’s longest serving mayor, Thomas Menino.  He served as mayor in Boston for 20 years.  Yes. That’s right.  Twenty years.

To his admirers he was known as the “Urban Mechanic,” as the Boston Globe describes, “leaving to others the lofty rhetoric of Boston as the Athens of America, he took a decidedly ground-level view of the city on a hill, earning himself a nickname for his intense focus on the nuts and bolts of everyday life.” To some of his detractors (and even his supporters) he was referred to as “Mumbles,” for his less than soaring rhetorical skills.

This humble man from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston rose to national prominence, with former President Bill Clinton paying his respects before the funeral procession and Vice President Joe Biden attending the ceremony. Impressive for a politician recognized to have no political ambition beyond running his city.

What does this have to do with homeland security? For some time I’ve heard from various colleagues that preparedness, particularly health-related preparedness, had an unusual amount of political support in Boston. Public health and EMS were not simply the minor leagues to law enforcement and fire service major league players. But it became vivid when I read the following description from a food-orientated homage to Mayor Menino from The Atlantic food critic Corby Kummer:

But aside from the coddling and special treatment any mayor who shows up gets, Menino cared about food for exactly the reasons today’s food-movement activists do, and long before it was fashionable to embrace what food can and should mean: access to fresh produce for everyone of every income level; gardens as ways to unite and repair communities; and, most importantly, fresh food as a route to better health. The mayor told everyone, including his biographer, longtime Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, that he wanted to be remembered as “the public-health mayor.” That made him work particularly closely with my spouse, John Auerbach, who served 10 years as Boston’s health commissioner. 

So….apparently I missed this self-appointment.  After the fact it was easy to find further evidence of Menino’s interest in public health.  See the videos I’ve posted below.

Again, how is this related to homeland security? Two points that at least I think of are interest. 


A lot, if not the majority, of public health work does not seem to fall into the category of homeland security. Expanding access to fresh produce in low income communities, anti-smoking efforts, childhood vaccination campaigns, etc.  It’s not always about responding to the next Ebola outbreak.  Yet when taken as a whole, improving the health of the community in general improves overall resilience.  Healthy people fare better during and following disasters than unhealthy ones.  People with access to health insurance are more likely to visit a primary care doctor than the emergency room for common maladies, thereby not taking up vital resources during events like the Boston Marathon bombing. A healthier community is a more resilient community.

Menino’s attention to public health underscores the importance of political leaders in homeland security. I have often heard professionals complain about meddling politicians (along with the annoying press) and how events can be run more smoothly when they are absent.  Yet not only do they play an important role in communicating with the public during and following disasters, they make or influence the choices made in a community before there is a bad day.  Menino’s focus on public health not only improved the overall health of Bostonians, but contributed to the competence exhibited during the response to the Marathon bombing, from the existence of a Medical Intelligence Center to the cooperation between city agencies such as Boston EMS and Public Health with the private hospital systems.

It is comparing apples and oranges, but in thinking about this I could not help but contrast Boston’s situation with that of New York City.  Size and resource issues aside, NYC has spent the most energy on security instead of general preparedness since 9/11.  I am not arguing that there has not been a lot of resources directed towards preparedness and response activities and organizations, only that it is lacking when compared with the radical changes enacted in the NYPD and other agencies charged with preventing a terrorist attack. I think I could make the case that Boston, under Menino’s leadership, took a more all hazards approach while NYC, under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, remained primarily focused on terrorism. That is not a value judgement, but simply an observation.

If you are interested, the following video highlights many of Mayor Menino’s accomplishments in public health.  From the Boston Public Health Commission (which Menino created in 1996):


If you have a little more time, here is a longer discussion held at Harvard’s School of Public Health with Menino shortly after he left the Mayor’s office.  For those more security minded, at the beginning of the discussion he is asked and replies with a lengthy description of his point of view about the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing.




October 16, 2014

Adjusting our signal to noise ratio

I am currently involved in planning three different tabletop exercises.  Each are efforts to enhance “whole community” involvement.  My particular role is to enhance private sector involvement.  Currently the news media is not targeted for participation in any of these exercises.  In my several years of being involved with various homeland security training and exercises I can only recall two occasions when news media have been involved as participants.

There are several impediments to involving news media in these sort of activities, including:

  • Effective exercises are designed to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to improve preparedness.  News media are inclined to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to increase readership/listeners/viewers.
  • Many public sector participants tend to be “authoritative” or “officious” or “control-freaks”.  This is troublesome enough with other private sector participants.  With members of the media it can be explosive.
  • News media participation can discourage the involvement of other private sector parties due to fear of exposure (see first bullet).

But it seems to me increasingly clear we must find a way to involve news media in preparedness activities or continue — and deepen — the risk of serious mis-communication and public mistrust on the very worst days.  While major media are no longer the only or even primary sources of information, they are a significant source of amplification and confirmation.  Too often they are amplifying and confirming misleading information.  An ongoing example:

The media’s attention to symptoms can obscure attention to the source of problems.  I am astonished by the extraordinary attention given to a few instances of Ebola in the United States in contrast with lack of attention to sources of the problem in West Africa… despite clear and consistent and, at least to me, very reasonable analysis that until the source of the problem is better managed the risk to the United States will only grow.

On Tuesday afternoon the United Nations coordinator for Ebola response told the Security Council that the world basically has sixty days to contain the virus or face a serious risk of pandemic.  In much of the world, this was the Wednesday morning headline.  Not in the United States.

Below are two screenshots.  The first is for the Google News US edition.  The second is for the UK edition.  According to Google, “articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online.”  The source stories can be found in US media, but too often buried beneath the symptoms.

Google US edition

UK edition

In my judgment a similar symptom vs. source issue is endemic to most US media coverage of terrorism, urban wildfire, flooding, and many aspects of border security.  It even erupts in how longer-term electrical outages are reported.

I am not arguing against news coverage of symptoms.  The attention given to the series of false steps in Dallas has clearly facilitated enhanced readiness across the US health System. But these are tactical –symptomatic — issues, not strategic issues addressing the problem at its source.

When novel and especially deadly threats emerge, the failure to distinguish between symptom and source is at least distracting and too often misleading… in a manner that can undermine public health and safety and, certainly, competence.  Sources can be even more complicated to understand than symptoms, but this further underlines the need for insightful media coverage.

There are very few editors, producers, or reporters who can afford to specialize in any of the so-called “low-probability, high-consequence” risks that confront us.  That’s a problem for most of the private sector and across the public sector as well.  We all need help adjusting our standard-operating-procedures to these non-standard events.  We should start to do so in workshops and exercises before the symptoms explode.

Some possible discussion topics and exercise issues:

In dealing with “high-intensity-risk-environments” (HIRE), do not mistake ambiguity for inattention.  Recognizing ambiguity may be evidence of close attention.

In engaging a HIRE, do not confuse uncertainty with incompetence. The compulsion to sound certain in the midst of complexity is, in my opinion, a principal cause of incompetence.

In the midst of a HIRE, complexity and lack of control does not necessarily signal lack of organization or progress.  Efforts to control can escalate complexity and suppress resilient self-organization.

In a few months I should be able to let you know if I am successful in involving media in any of the exercises currently being planned.


And since I’m writing about attention to sources as well as symptoms, in regard to Ebola here are some potentially helpful sources on sources:

FrontPageAfrica – A Liberia based newspaper. (BTW, this is not the largest circulation Liberian newspaper, but some of its competitors have, in my opinion, their own serious noise-vs-signal problems.)

The Concord Times – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

The Telegraph – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

Doctors Without Borders Guinea News

Guinea (Conakry) Guinee Focus (French)

World Health Organization Africa Regional Office

US Department of Defense Africa Command

CDC Ebola Hub

Resources from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine here and here and here  (and it’s worth looking for more)


Thursday evening NPR broadcast an interview with Dr. Lewis Rubinson.  An intensive care physician with the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Rubinson spent three weeks in September serving Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.  The full interview (with transcript) is, I suggest, a good example of well-informed, realistic thinking about dealing with symptoms.  Following is an excerpt:

RUBINSON: There are nearly 6,000 hospitals in the U.S. It wouldn’t have made sense to me that every single facility would have the ability to be honestly prepared. It doesn’t mean that there doesn’t need to be an appropriate level of the ability to identify patients and provide early treatment and keep staff safe. I think that’s really on every institution because we can’t control where patients present. But I think out in West Africa, we got very, very good at being 100 percent all of the time. You had to. In the U.S. there’s no technological fix for this. We can’t buy a widget and just solve it and give it to the hospital and say, you’re prepared right now. Most of this is about diligence, it’s about discipline and it’s about 100 percent adherence. And I think, again, that’s very hard to imagine that every facility could do that. Not because they aren’t good facilities, it’s just there are other priorities that they need to be taking on at the same time. Again, every facility needs to be able to identify the patient, take care of the patient early, keep the staff safe, but I think it’s very hard to imagine that every facility would be good at managing a patient throughout their course of the disease, especially if they get very sick, like had happened in Dallas.



In regard to sources rather than symptoms, here’s “top of the fold” attention being given British operations in West Africa.  According to Friday’s Telegraph,

Ebola is the “biggest health problem facing our world in a generation”, David Cameron has said, as he urged foreign leaders to “step forward” with more resources to fight the crisis.

The Prime Minister urged other leaders to “look to their responsibilities” to help tackle the Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa… 

He said: “Britain, in my view, has been leading the way. The action we are taking in Sierra Leone where we are committing well over £100 million, 750 troops, training 800 members of health staff, providing 700 beds; we are doing a huge amount.

“I think it is time for other countries to look at their responsibilities and their resources and act in a similar way to what Britain is doing in Sierra Leone, America is doing in Liberia, France is doing in Guinea.

“Other countries now need to step forward with resources and action because taking action at source in West Africa is the best way to protect all of us here in Europe.”


October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

August 20, 2014

William Cumming on emergency management as an organizational process in governance

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Organizational Issues,Resilience — by Arnold Bogis on August 20, 2014

Long time (perhaps the longest?) HLSWatch commentator William Cumming has a guest blog up on Eric Holdeman’s Disaster Zone blog. And he doesn’t nibble around the edges:

Increasingly, I am supportive of the notion that emergency management is not a contrived subject or profession but in fact underlies much of organizational process that leads to various forms of governance.

I’m not sure if I accept this notion, but it is a big idea. However, I do think his opinion on the use of the military in most other nations for emergency management responsibilities is an important insight.

Well in my opinion, emergency management is the worst form of organizational response to crisis management and resilience (that includes elements of preparedness, planning, prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery) except all others. What alternative choices are there?

One big one is a military command and control system that actually can prevent effective collaboration and cooperation, whether among individuals, NGOs, governments or other spontaneously developing post-disaster organizations. Since more than 90 percent of the nation-states have vested their EM function in their military, organizationally designed to inflict maximum organized violence on some other group or nation-state, I find that this approach is largely vested in a leadership’s desire for control and resurrecting the status quo ante. These factors are not absent from emergency management but seem more likely not to dominate when the civil sector is dominate.

He goes on to provide five building blocks for emergency management going forward.  Please see Holdeman’s blog for the full text as it is well worth your time to read. It is also worth pointing out here his summary:

In summary, perhaps the system of emergency management must promote collaboration and cooperation so that the system is supportive of the best resilience. And while individual brilliance will from time to time appear and needs to be utilized, systems and processes must reflect the collective wisdom of those involved with the emergency management process in any crisis or disaster.

What I like here is the focus on process and system.  Often, at least it seems to me, leadership development and education is held up as the holy grail of homeland security development.  I believe Bill is pointing out that while when you get exceptional, or even adequate, leadership good things follow but the most important thing is to develop an overall system within which best practices are developed, shared, and implemented.

August 14, 2014

Resisting soccer-moms, embracing black swans, and expecting the unexpected

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2014

Last week a regular reader and thoughtful commentator observed:

Black Swans are better ignored until their arrival – cynically, it reduces expectations for preparedness, responsibility and accountability if you do not acknowledge the possible threat.

Given the context of this individual’s commentary over the years I do not take this as cynical. At least in the modern use of cynic: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

Rather, I hear irony: “the mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.” I hear an encouragement to greater preparedness, responsibility and accountability.

If I have misheard, s/he — probably he — will correct me.

By definition Black Swans cannot be accurately predicted.  As a result they are not well-suited to tactical planning.  At least not if plan-execution is your goal. But assiduously working through strategic scenarios with tactical details can be helpful to expose preparedness issues. This is especially the case if tactical planning is consistently framed and facilitated to achieve strategic purposes.

Too often organizations are tempted to treat planning documents as operational algorithms, something that — with enough resources and training  — will unfold per specifications and achieve each outcome.

In disaster preparedness, involving black or white swans, this is self-deluding.

Lee Clarke has famously and persuasively called such plans: “Fantasy Documents.” He writes, “When uncertainty about key aspects of a task is high, rationalistic plans and rational-looking planning processes become rationality badges, labels proclaiming that organizations and experts can control things that are, most likely, outside the range of their expertise.”

This is hubris: “an excess of ambition, pride, etc, ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.”

Bill, Claire, others: Are there longitudinal studies of the personality types attracted to Emergency Management?  Especially planning folks?  I am familiar with a study of the Clark County (Las Vegas, NV) Fire Department that I tend to project on the homeland security professions.  It found more than three-quarters of CCFD personnel testing with a strong SJ temperament on a Myers-Briggs type instrument.

Those with SJ temperaments are often called “Guardians” or “Protectors”.  According to Dr. David Keirsey: “Practical and down-to-earth, Guardians believe in following the rules and cooperating with others. They are not very comfortable winging it or blazing new trails; working steadily within the system is the Guardian way, for in the long run loyalty, discipline, and teamwork get the job done right. Guardians are meticulous about schedules and have a sharp eye for proper procedures. They are cautious about change, even though they know that change can be healthy for an institution. Better to go slowly, they say, and look before you leap.”

This personality type is especially well-suited for many aspects of public safety and disaster response.  But Black Swans are seldom tamed by following the rules and working steadily within the system.

Unless — I suggest — the rules and system are developed to anticipate Black Swans, to expect the unexpected and to develop the cognitive and organizational capabilities to critically and creatively engage the unexpected.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb drew on David Hume to popularize our current notion of Black Swans.  In his 2012 book Antifragile Taleb tells us:

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom… Soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds–that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning… Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.

Rigorous random near-traumatic episodes sound like the sort of “content” that many of the personality types drawn to public safety and emergency management would welcome.  This is the kind of learning that encourages us to expect the unexpected and develop the skills to engage the unexpected.

When was the last time you participated in a table-top or exercise that you would describe as rigorous random near-traumatic?  Have you ever participated in a planning process that could be described with these terms?  Too many planners and trainers and, increasingly, managers (self-styled leaders) are really just soccer-moms in disguise.

June 26, 2014

QHSR: Translating the archetypes (especially anima/animus)

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 26, 2014

FRIDAY, JUNE 27 EDITORIAL NOTE:  The Friday Free Forum is on vacation this week, luxuriating in the quiet of a cool mountain glade beneath a sweep of stars, seeking to reclaim social and spiritual equanimity.  You are invited to join the QHSR discussion that is already underway below.



How do we anticipate what we cannot predict?  That question animates the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. Strategy generates benefits to the extent it accurately anticipates.  An effective strategy generates an initial — sometimes persisting — advantage in dealing with whatever specific challenges unfold unpredictably.

The QHSR is a bureaucratic document. This description is not meant as pejorative.  There are various DHS components, other national security agencies, White House and Congressional concerns, and many other stakeholders.  While the QHSR wants to accurately anticipate, it is not a prophetic text.  Rather than speaking truth to power, this is power in search of truth.  It can be cumbersome.

Meaningful interpretation recognizes the limitations — and opportunities — of the bureaucratic genre.  Much must be said. Where have the authors moved beyond the minimum requirements? Bureaucracies tend toward girth, but are sensitive to hierarchy.  What or who is given more attention?

The QHSR reviews previous challenges and outlines what it considers important shifts in the risk environment.  It gives particular priority to the following (page 28):

  • The terrorist threat is evolving and, while changing in shape, remains significant as attack planning and operations become more decentralized. The United States and its interests, particularly in the transportation sector, remain persistent targets.
  • Growing cyber threats are significantly increasing risk to critical infrastructure and to the greater U.S. economy.
  • Biological concerns as a whole, including bioterrorism, pandemics, foreign animal diseases, and other agricultural concerns, endure as a top homeland security risk because of both potential likelihood and impacts.
  • Nuclear terrorism through the introduction and use of an improvised nuclear device, while unlikely, remains an enduring risk because of its potential consequences.
  • Transnational criminal organizations are increasing in strength and capability, driving risk in counterfeit goods, human trafficking, illicit drugs, and other illegal flows of people and goods.
  • Natural hazards are becoming more costly to address, with increasingly variable consequences due in part to drivers such as climate change and interdependent and aging infrastructure.

Lots on the plate even here.  But these six risks are segregated from the rest. There is also a full page text-box highlighting Black Swans.  Words are carefully chosen to avoid accusations of being alarmist, but the visual rhetoric is emphatic. When push comes to shove, here are the risks  that this QHSR seems intent to especially engage.  How?

At different places in the document (especially page 16 and again in the conclusion) the following “cross-cutting” strategic priorities are articulated:

  • An updated posture to address the increasingly decentralized terrorist threat; 
  • A strengthened path forward for cybersecurity that acknowledges the increasing interdependencies among critical systems and networks; 
  • A homeland security strategy to manage the urgent and growing risk of biological threats and hazards; 
  • A risk segmentation approach to securing and managing flows of people and goods; and 
  • A new framework for strengthening mission execution through public-private partnerships.

What does “updated posture” mean?  Read pages 33-38. Compare and contrast with QHSR vers. 1.0 and your own counter-terrorism experience.  There are others better able to read-between-these-particular-lines.  I hope you will do so in the comments.

The attention to biological threats is not new, but concerns related to pandemic are even more acute. (“Of the naturally occurring events, a devastating pandemic remains the highest homeland security risk.”)  Urgent and growing are almost prophetic terms.  But once again, others are better prepared to give you the close-reading of how we are to be biologically battle-ready.

In my reading the most notable shift in this QHSR, and on which the rest of this post will concentrate, is the priority given so-called public-private partnerships (which I strongly recommended be amended to “private-public relationships”).

I perceive this enhanced priority emerges from a confluence of cyber-threats, disaster-management, and catastrophe preparedness.  In each of these domains the public good largely depends on private sector capacities and potential collaboration between private and public.

Flows of people and goods are given significant analytic attention. Flow-of-goods is treated mostly as a matter of economic security.  In time of significant crisis this is also the source-of-life.  The capacity to maintain a sufficient flow resides almost entirely with the private sector. In case of crisis, the public sector may be able to lead.  But in many cases the public sector will do better to follow and support.  Sometimes the best possible is for the public sector to get out of the way.  The latter alternative is most likely when there has been minimal private-public efforts in joint preparedness.  Leading or supporting require much more joint engagement than currently anticipated.

Being strategically prepared to — depending on context — lead, follow or get out of the way does not come easily.  Even the insight is atypical.  In advancing this insight the QHSR is making a potentially major contribution to safety, security and resilience.

Here is how the QHSR frames the issue (page 60):

At a time when we must do more with less, two guiding principles help public-private partnerships maximize the investment by each partner and the success of the partnership: (1) aligning interests and (2) identifying shared outcomes.

By focusing on how interests align, we can provide alternatives to costly incentives or regulations and help ensure a partnership is based on a solid foundation of mutual interest and benefit. There are many examples of public and private sector interests aligning in homeland security. Common interests include the safety and security of people and property, the protection of sensitive information, effective risk management, the development of new technology, reputation enhancement, and improved business processes. New ways of thinking about corporate social responsibility—in which societal issues are held to be core business interests rather than traditional philanthropy—also present an opportunity to identify shared interests.

Where interests do not directly align, potential partners can often be motivated by shared desired outcomes, such as enhanced resilience; effective disaster response and recovery; and greater certainty in emerging domains, such as cyberspace and the Arctic.

Aligning interests and identifying shared outcomes are absolutely a big part of effective collaboration.  But behind this reasonable rhetoric is a complicated, often treacherous cross-cultural tension.  I once spent a few years brokering decision-making between Japanese and Americans.  The intra-American — and perhaps global — private-public cultural divide is at least as profound.

The QHSR helpfully identifies five “archetypes” for framing relationships between private and public (see page 60-61).  A “Partnerships Toolkit” has also been developed.  All of this is potentially constructive.  When DHS folks started talking to me about archetypes I immediately thought of Jungian archetypes.  This matches my sense that to really work together private and public will usually require the institutional equivalent of long-term joint counseling.  But this analogous leap seemed to make some of my DHS colleagues uncomfortable.

Some were even more uncomfortable when I suggested private/public is the equivalent of the anima/animus archetype. C.G. Jung wrote, “The anima gives rise to illogical outbursts of temper; the animus produces irritating commonplaces.”  I’ll let you guess which I associate with private and which with public.

But C.G.’s most important insight regarding these contending archetypes is that each depends on each, each is fulfilled in relationship with the other, and robust elements of both are required for ongoing creativity and growth.  The recurring clinical problem is an inclination to diminish, suppress or oppress one or the other.

In the life of an individual failure to meaningfully engage both anima and animus is self-subverting and can become tragic.  Our current failure to effectively engage private and public presents a similar social threat.  To suggest why — in less than another thousand words — here’s yet another analogy:

I happened to be reading about the Battle of Austerlitz when the QHSR was released last week.  In the summer of 1804 the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, accurately anticipated Napoleon’s expansionist ambitions.  He effectively forged a strategic alliance with Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Sweden. In October 1805 the British Fleet soundly defeated a combined French and Spanish naval force at Trafalgar.  It was the right strategy and the strategy was proving effective. But then in early December on a cold fog-drenched Moravian bottom-land the entire strategy unraveled.  Europe was, once again, transformed.

There are many reasons for the Third Coalition’s failure at Austerlitz. My particular author focuses on a clique of over-confident young nobles around the Russian Czar who seriously underestimated the practical requirements of deploying two emperors and their very different armies into actual battle.  The practical requirements of a national capacity for effective private-public collaboration in crisis are much more complicated.

The QHSR has articulated the right strategy.  We will undermine the strategy by minimizing challenges involved in making the collaboration operational.

On July 16 there will be an early signal of our operational readiness and sophistication.  That’s when new applications for the Homeland Security National Training Program: Continuing Training Grants are due.  This includes Focus Area 4: Maturing Public-Private Partnerships.  Will be interesting to see what’s submitted.

Brian, please be very cautious of any proposals received from twenty-something Russian princes.

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