Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 24, 2014

AmeriCorps: “When did you serve?”

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on September 24, 2014

This past weekend as I sat on the T (that’s shorthand for the subway in Boston) three young ladies sporting City Year jackets took seats across from me. From the snippets of conversation I could hear it was easy to tell they were excited about some ceremony they took part in earlier that day.

All of a sudden a voice was raised from the end of the subway car, “Congratulations girls.  How big was your class?” A little surprised by the question, one of them slowly answered “270.”  Picking up on the situation rather quickly, another of the City Year participants asked the woman who questioned them, “when did you serve?”

That struck me. Throughout my life, and especially since 9/11, that particular question has always been wrapped up with military service.  Not to take anything from those who serve in that capacity, but I was moved to consider that perhaps AmeriCorps/City Year participants deserve some of that same respect. These young people are serving our country in their communities, strengthening our collective resilience everyday from the ground up.

So don’t stop saying thanks or buying a round for the men and women who serve(d) in the armed forces.  Perhaps just consider doing the same for AmeriCorps members too.

Some background on AmeriCorps:

AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country.

Since the program’s founding in 1994, more than 900,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours in service across America while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing millions of volunteers for the organizations they serve.

AmeriCorps Programs

AmeriCorps programs do more than move communities forward; they serve their members by creating jobs and providing pathways to opportunity for young people entering the workforce. AmeriCorps places thousands of young adults into intensive service positions where they learn valuable work skills, earn money for education, and develop an appreciation for citizenship.

This is the broadest network of AmeriCorps programs. These groups recruit, train, and place AmeriCorps members to meet critical community needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment.
VISTA provides full-time members to nonprofit, faith-based and other community organizations, and public agencies to create and expand programs that bring low-income individuals and communities out of poverty.
AmeriCorps NCCC is a full-time, team-based, residential program for men and women ages 18-24. Its mission is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct, team-based national and community service.

A little bit of information on City Year:

At City Year, we’re working to bridge the gap in high-poverty communities between the support the students in the communities actually need, and what their schools are designed to provide. In doing so, our model is designed to support students as they progress from elementary through high school in order to continue to build the nation’s urban graduation pipeline.

Our progress can be attributed to a unique, holistic approach, which we call Whole School Whole Child. It’s based around a group of carefully selected, highly trained young adults—our corps members—who provide individualized support to at-risk students, while also establishing an overall positive learning environment in the schools throughout America that need us the most. It’s their dedication and hard work that’s helping students reach their full potential, while also having a positive effect on the community as a whole.

If you haven’t had enough yet, I’ve embedded a couple of videos below.  Former Presidents Clinton and Bush taped videos in celebrations of the program’s 20th anniversary this year, and President Obama spoke at this year’s swearing in ceremony in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 28, 2014

Should first responder drills include ice cream socials?

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on May 28, 2014

Perhaps ice cream socials aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think about a first responder drill. But it’s something that journalist Chris Faraone thought of during the recent “Urban Shield” exercises in Boston. He writes in a recent article in the Weekly Dig:

I arrived at the presser in time to hear Mayor Marty Walsh welcome delegates from the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region–a network that includes the Hub and eight surrounding municipalities–plus emergency medical and fire personnel. In his comments, Walsh extolled the spirit of collaboration, while Office of Emergency Management Director Rene Fielding touted the relationships built through two prior Urban Shield runs.

Wondering if organizers added anything to this year’s schedule to bolster inter-agency communication, I asked Fielding and the uniforms beside her if they’d planned any meet-and-greet activities besides the mock trainings. “Something like an ice cream social,” I queried (they hadn’t). I was serious. Officials said that people “shouldn’t be alarmed” about the presence of 2,000 first responders in helmets and riot gear. That’s not possible–those visuals are inevitably frightening–but it might be reassuring if their interpersonal relationships were more than merely militant.

Mr. Faraone is what one would call a progressive journalist — my father might lean toward the term “leftist commie” — and the article generally addresses the militarization of law enforcement. I share some of the same concerns that he and those quoted in the piece have on this issue, though unfortunately while aiming at the right target he hit this exercise instead.  While the natural tendency to see every problem as a nail when you’re only holding a hammer is real enough, the scenarios included in the Urban Shield exercise are not driven solely by the desire to pull out the guns.

That criticism aside, what Faraone suggests in terms of an ice cream social points to an underlying truth.  As he put it:

As for first responders intermingling … for logistical purposes, they were mostly clustered with their own–transit fuzz with transit fuzz, triage officers with triage officers, and so forth.

I’ve noticed the same behavior in the few exercises I’ve observed.  Am I missing something?  Or are the participants basically all playing their assigned departmental roles with little to no overlap at the levels under leadership positions? While the higher ranks are “swapping business cards before game day,” i.e. leadership planning and responding together, are the rank-and-file actually getting the opportunity to meet and understand the roles of their opposites in the other responder disciplines?

This was an issue identified by a recent Harvard Kennedy School of Government report, “Why Was Boston Strong:”

Public safety organizations should develop improved doctrine, better training, and practice through exercises to ensure effective “micro-command” in crises. While officers typically look for command authority when operating at a scene with groups from their own agencies, they are less likely to do so when they have deployed as individuals and arrive at an emergency site on their own. Except for situations when near-instantaneous action is required to preserve life, doctrine should be developed and officers should be trained to look for authority at a scene of mass action, even if command is taken by someone from another organization.

One of report’s authors, Dutch Leonard, referred to this in Congressional testimony where he broke down the different experiences of responders:

By virtue of doctrine and years of joint planning and practice and work on multiagency events, the senior leaders of the relevant organizations for the most part knew one another personally and had knowledge of and confidence in each other’s capabilities – and they were able rapidly to form unified commands, both on Monday afternoon and again in Watertown in the early hours of Friday morning.  Individual police officers arriving from other jurisdictions at the scene of the gunfight at Dexter and Laurel Streets Watertown had none of those advantages to help them form a coordinating structure.  We need better doctrine, procedures, training, and practice to aid in the more rapid development of a command structure among people from different agencies arriving more or less independently and not under a preexisting overarching command structure.  We refer to this as the problem of establishing “microcommand,” and dealing with this requires that the doctrine that is now working well to coordinate agencies at the senior level needs to be cascaded downward so that it functions at any level where the agencies may encounter one another.

It is this problem where Faraone’s ice cream socials, or some other equivalent, might actually help.  The issue isn’t one of militarism, but understanding and recognition among tactical-level operators. Not just of mission, but role and structure.

On a final note, though I may disagree with the sentiments of some quoted in Faraone’s article about the nature of the Urban Shield exercises, I have to admit that criticism of terrorism preparedness drills so soon after an actual terrorist attack in the same city strengthens my admiration of our system of democracy. Always question – never simply accept.  Even when it seems to fly in the face of those protecting the public, this sentiment helps preserve our underlying freedoms.

March 20, 2014

A Catastrophic Failure

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2014

Last Friday I finished about four years of work.  I won’t identify the specific work, but it is homeland security-related.

Mostly I failed.

Yes, progress was made:

  • We have a much better understanding of the problem; among other things we recognize a problem that previously was not widely recognized.
  • We have identified most of the key players who are needed to effectively engage the problem.
  • We have established some meaningful relationships among several of the key players.

But the actual problem is as threatening and complicated as it was four years ago.  Maybe more threatening.

After four years of serious, ongoing, and mostly well-received work, I failed to practically advance our security.

I advocate for a distinction between national security and homeland security. But as a wannabe classicist, I embrace “security” derived from the Latin se-curus, se: free from, cura: care.  If anything, today we are less-carefree than four years ago.

Greater knowledge has, if anything, increased our concern:

  • We now recognize there are substantive differences between catastrophic and non-catastrophic.  Enhanced effectiveness dealing with the non-catastrophic has in some cases increased our catastrophic risk.
  • We now recognize the larger an impact area the more likely a catastrophe, even if the “first impact” is less than catastrophic.
  • We now recognize the more interdependencies (power, transport, fuel, supplies, etc.) the more likely a catastrophe
  • We now recognize that self-made vulnerabilities are at least as important — often more important — than external threats.

These aspects of the strategic landscape may seem obvious to you, but four years ago they were anything but.  Even today these findings are taken by some as fightin’ words.

While we now have a much better view of reality, we have not substantively reduced vulnerabilities. An analogy: The thick flat jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan is periodically punctuated by a rise.  Most of these exclamation marks are the overgrown ruins of ancient Mayan structures.  As the vines and trees are cleared from the stonework the threat of erosion — and trampling by tourists — actually increase the likelihood of collapse.

In clearing our problem’s landscape we have also experienced the cultural differences that complicate potential collaboration between the private and public sectors.

In this particular problem-set the private sector tended to recognize the risk earlier than the public sector.   So unlike some homeland security problems, the private and public sectors are in rough strategic alignment.

But to actually do anything together to mitigate risk has been problematic.  A forensic analysis of the multiple problems is not appropriate for a blog.  But at the highest level I think it is fair to say there has been a persistent disconnect between private and public regarding the fundamentals of time and space.

The dimensions of space important to the private sector are usually determined by markets that extend for hundreds, even thousands of miles in every direction.  One private sector participant said, “For our daily operations states are legal fictions.”  Yet on very bad days those fictional creatures become very real… with both good and bad consequences.

Dimensions of time can be even more complicated.  Everyone is busy. Everyone is mostly focused on meeting the calendar for some specific deliverable or set of deliverables.   Private sector success or failure is measured at least once a day and the measures arrive from multiple  players (dozens to tens-of-thousands) across diverse markets.  The public sector calendar tends to be more extended even while the measures-that-matter emerge from a much smaller set of observers/consumers/commanders.

As the private sector experience of time encounters the public sector experience of time reality can be contorted in weird ways.

Over the last four years I failed to practically accommodate these differences of space and time. I am sure private and public share the same reality.  I am sure they depend on one another.   But as I finish this work they remain trapped at different points on a very Newtonian plane.

–+–

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein, Letter to Robert S. Marcus, February 12, 1950

February 13, 2014

NSS becomes NSC (again) and why it matters to HS and homeland security

Filed under: Homeland Defense,Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS — by Philip J. Palin on February 13, 2014

From the White House website, February 10, 2014:

EXECUTIVE ORDER

- – - – - – -

CHANGING THE NAME OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY STAFF
TO THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL STAFF

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to reflect my decision to change the name of the National Security Staff to the National Security Council staff, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Name Change. All references to the National Security Staff or Homeland Security Council Staff in any Executive Order or Presidential directive shall be understood to refer to the staff of the National Security Council…

And it continues briefly bureaucratic.  See it all here if you wish.

–+–

Monday’s Executive Order undoes the never-really-accepted early administration decision to call the newly combined NSC staff and HSC (Homeland Security Council) staff the National Security Staff.

This NSS fig leaf was mostly an awkward reminder of a brief dalliance with a sort of security separate from the defense-foreign policy-intelligence community condominium.  Rather as if someone from the Upper East Side had married into a family with a double-wide.

Finally we can put that foolishness aside.  Rather than silly fig-leafs, the virility and fertility of the National Security state can be proudly displayed.  The executive order merely confirming continuing practice and the strong preference of staffers.

–+–

As someone who abides in that homeland security double-wide all I can really say is that the national security types are smart, capable, and know how to play the policy and power game better than me.  They are tougher than I am and much better networked.  They won this battle — well, for them barely a skirmish — hands-down.  If they had the time or inclination to notice, I would offer my hand in congratulation.

This may strike some as passive-aggressive.  I hope instead it reflects a balance of realism and pride that persists even in losing an important contest.

I still believe what I told the House Homeland Security Committee back in April 2009.  Here’s an excerpt of my testimony:

For more than fifty years, the National Security Council has ably served the Commander-in-Chief. Every element of the NSC’s organizational DNA reflects the responsibilities and power of the Commander-in-Chief. In foreign and defense policy –and the intelligence agencies supporting foreign and defense policy – the President’s authority is preeminent. The NSC has been a creature of that preeminence. Even with the legal, budgetary, and direct command-and-control authority of the President, the NSC can have difficulty doing what is needed to coordinate defense, foreign affairs, and intelligence policy. But after fifty years there is an authoritative NSC institutional ethos that well serves the President and the nation.

This same ethos will often be counter-productive in solving Homeland Security problems… For the purposes of domestic counter-terrorism and prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery the authority of the Commander-in-Chief is not what matters. Most of the Governors will not respond positively to a command and control approach.  Neither will the Adjutants General, nor County Sheriffs, nor most Mayors, nor police chiefs, nor emergency managers, and then there is the private sector that actually owns most of our critical infrastructure. These are partners who must be cultivated.

Some have argued that more of a command-and-control culture is needed to motivate sufficient attention to domestic counterterrorism. It is true that many local jurisdictions across the United States do not give sufficient priority to counterterrorism. But we cannot command them to do otherwise. We cannot even pay them enough to do otherwise. If we are serious about preventing latter day Beslans or Mumbais – or worse, we must do the hard work of communicating, cooperating, building relationships, developing trust, and engaging together in meaningful local and regional risk analysis. Only when state and local authorities are ready – of their own volition – to invest time, energy, and their own dollars into consistent counterterrorism work will we be closer to real defense-in-depth regarding the terrorist threat.

Local authorities are – not unreasonably – actively engaged with disasters that threaten with some regularity: floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes… each place and each region is different. They are not inclined to give sufficient attention to threats that are outside the pattern. They tend to undervalue a whole continuum of catastrophic possibilities: intentional, accidental, and natural. Given limited financial and human resources this tendency is understandable. Given recent financial extremities the tendency has been exacerbated.

The Federal government can and should play a role in helping ensure reasonable local attention to catastrophic possibilities – including terrorism. The federal government can play this role through consulting, educating, training, making grants, and through a variety of other mechanisms. When the federal government engages state and local authorities –and private sector — as peers and fellow professionals, the response will usually be productive. Ordering or even paying state and local professionals to do something they don’t believe in tends to produce very creative avoidance behavior.

These practical issues reflect in a wonderful way our constitutional system. We are dramatically reminded that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, not the nation. We are forced to recall that we are – even now – a federal union of sovereign states… and a robust society of free peoples who do not salute any master.

Re-reading this testimony five years later I am a bit embarrassed by the prose, but the experience of these years have further reinforced my judgment regarding the substance.

The contentious issue at hand is not a matter of intention or capability, but culture. I love the Upper East Side. I spend all the time I can at the Met, Guggenheim, elsewhere near-by. And at my home in the mountains our nearest neighbor does, indeed, live in a double-wide. Each of these worlds is real. Each is vitally important to our common future. Each tends to disdain each and in the process our shared strength is diminished.

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

January 29, 2014

Atlanta: a little bit of snow and ice, a whole lot of cars

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Media,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on January 29, 2014

Georgia is closed

 

Now that the political Oscars are over, CNN decided to spend much of their coverage today on the situation in Atlanta (Fox News noticeably less).  It mostly focused on individual stories of hardship: 12 hours or more spent in cars stuck on highways, sleeping in gas stations and convenience stores, children kept at school overnight, etc.

Significant airtime was also given to the Atlanta metro region’s lack of snow removal and salting equipment and inexperienced drivers. There also seems to be a developing political story, as the mayor is under fire while some point to the decentralized nature of governance in the greater Atlanta region.  For example, the mayor has no say as to whether the schools are closed due to inclement weather.

I was heartened to see that a little attention was given to the fact that the entire region’s commuters were dumped on the roads at the same time.  It is likely this fact, more than the road conditions or experience driving in winter weather, that contributed to the horrific traffic conditions.  It happened in Washington, DC a couple of years ago (the decisions made or not made analyzed by Phil here) and in Boston a few years earlier.

In each case snow and ice make driving difficult, but the larger impact is the entire commuting population being told to essentially evacuate the urban core all at the same time.  This in cities that have traffic issues during rush hour even on the best of days, with a normal staggered exit. This was (eventually) learned in the case of hurricanes.  It seems to have penetrated into the city leadership in Atlanta, where they are talking about a wave approach to closings in the future: first the schools, then private business, then government offices (though I wonder if all the working parents will sit on their hands while their children are headed toward empty homes).  Hopefully other metro regions will take note.

I suspect the professionals understand the issues involved: closing before the day begins, shelter-in-place, or closing late (essentially evacuation).  Is it too much to ask for the media to pay more attention?

October 17, 2013

Polycentric Resilience

Filed under: Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 17, 2013

Reflections on resilience emerging from the shutdown:

You probably saw the story where the State of Arizona did a deal to reopen the Grand Canyon to tourists.  New York and South Dakota made similar arrangements for the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.

In Utah and Wyoming visits to state parks exploded after nearby national parks were closed.

Over the last two weeks I have been busy working with state and local homeland security officials preparing for a big regional exercise in late October.  (Admittedly important federal funds had already been transferred.)

According to the Global Post, some Chinese envy the resilience of American society in the midst of the federal government shutdown:

Since the shutdown began nine days ago, Chinese social media have been full of wistful, almost admiring remarks about how the shutdown could only happen in a democratic country with a resilient economy and responsive political representation… 

Many posts discussed how such a shutdown could never happen in China, because the country would immediately be plunged into chaos. The fact that many state and local government functions have continued despite the shutdown was a particular object of marvel. One Chinese author who resides in the US expressed wonder that “in the days since the government closed, everybody is unconcerned.” 

“The reason is simple,” he continued. “Just because the federal government shut down, that doesn’t mean the local government is shut down. The various levels of government do not depend on each other.” Alluding to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” he concluded that “by understanding local autonomy, you understand America.” 

Some see federalism as an inefficient way to govern a modern nation.  But as seen during the shutdown,  diversity of jurisdictions can be a source of resilience.  Moreover, several studies have found that “polycentric” political structures are often more efficient than most centralized systems.

In her 2009 Nobel Lecture, the late Elinor Ostrom reported:

The most efficient producers supply more output for given inputs in high multiplicity metropolitan areas than do the efficient producers in metropolitan areas with fewer producers… Metropolitan areas with large numbers of autonomous direct service producers achieved higher levels of technical efficiency… We demonstrated that complexity is not the same as chaos in regard to metropolitan governance.  That lesson has carried forth as we have undertaken further empirical studies of polycentric governance of resource and infrastructure systems across the world. (Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems)

Part of what’s happening here, it seems to me (but I have never read Dr. Ostrom suggesting anything similar), is an echo of the Jeffersonian notion that government closest to the governed is the most  efficacious government.  What has surely been found is that governance does not always involve government.

Elinor Ostrom and colleagues have found — and confirmed again and again — that communications, trust, and mutual monitoring are crucial in sustaining any resilient system. From the same Nobel Lecture:

Where individuals do not know one another, cannot communicate effectively, and thus cannot develop agreements, norms and sanctions, aggregate predictions derived from models of rational individuals in a  non-cooperative game receive substantial support… On the other hand, the capacity to overcome dilemmas and create effective governance occurred far more frequently than expected.

In particular cooperation and shared compliance with self-generated boundaries and rules increase when six specific conditions are achieved.  (See page 433 of the lecture text and my final paragraph below.)  Having observed these outcomes in a wide-range of different contexts and cultures, Dr. Ostrom concludes her lecture with:

A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.  We need to ask how diverse polycentric  institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.

More resilience emerges from more communication — especially face-to-face communications — with people who know each other or are at least familiar with each other’s backgrounds, where each person’s contribution can be significant and each can come and go without much risk, yet where long-term engagement has a reasonable opportunity for generating greater value than disengagement (regardless of how value is defined), and those involved can largely self-sustain a sanctioning system for boundaries and norms mutually accepted.

What does the evidence of the last three weeks tell us regarding the state of polycentric resilience in the United States?

May 22, 2013

Even in our grief, applying the algorithm

Filed under: Disaster,Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 22, 2013

Plaza Tower Elementary Before After

Plaza Towers Elementary School, Moore, Oklahoma. Before and after

My mother’s family mostly live around Oklahoma City.  As far as I know all my cousins are okay.  But it is a huge clan, much more prolific than my father’s.  I have not met most of the youngest generation.

Even without a personal connection — including childhood memories of  my grandpa’s storm cellar — the outcome of what happened in Moore and nearby prompts many of us to quietly, respectfully ask some questions; and listen patiently and non-judgmentally for answers at the right time.

Threat 

Is the frequency of the threat increasing?

Is the innate energy of the threat increasing?

Can we do anything to reduce the threat?

Vulnerability

Since the 1999 tornado has new construction reasonably reflected the nature of the threat? (For example, safe-rooms, basements, other “protective action”)

Since the 1999 tornado has there been any retrofitting to reflect the nature of the threat? (For example, construction/designation of safe-rooms)

What is the nature of public training, exercising, messaging and other aspects of threat preparedness?

Consequences

Does this event — and similar events — have implications for residential density?

Does this event — and similar events — have implications for preventive actions? (For example, there was at least some talk late Sunday and early Monday — before the tornado struck — of canceling schools across a wide area of Central Oklahoma.  Those involved in snow-closings will recognize the treacherous nature of such decisions.)

How do we best mitigate the worst risks?

Or as a friend wrote yesterday how do we — allow ourselves, discipline ourselves, empower ourselves — to “think-differently” about such risks?

December 7, 2012

New York City is where the future comes to audition

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 7, 2012

Thursday morning Mayor Bloomberg gave a speech on post-Sandy recovery.  It is important to New York.  Some of the principles articulated are, I suggest, important for the nation.  You can read the entire speech here. Below I have excerpted several paragraphs worth your particular consideration

–+–

We may or may not see another storm like Sandy in our lifetimes,but I don’t think it’s fair to say that we should leave it to our children to prepare for the possibility. We are a coastal city, a harbor city, surprise, surprise. And sea levels are expected to rise by another two and a half feet by the time a child born today reaches 40 years old, and that’s going to make surges even more powerful and dangerous. And intense storms are likely to increase as the ocean’s temperatures continue to rise…

You can argue about what caused the weather to change, but there is no question – you can measure the temperatures of the ocean, you can measure the amount of moisture in the air, and that just leads to the kind of aberrations that we’re seeing: snowstorms where we didn’t have them before, droughts where we didn’t have them before, hurricanes that take different paths, go in different directions and have different strengths.

We cannot solve the problems associated with climate change on our own here in New York City, but I think it’s fair to say we can lead the way. We have been, both locally and globally. New York City has always been a leader. As Ed Koch once said: ‘New York City is where the future comes to audition,’ and we have a responsibility I’ve always thought to help the rest of the world…

We don’t know whether the next emergency will be a storm, a drought, a tornado or a blizzard, but we do know that we have to be better prepared for all of them.

And we also know that every one of those events is not going to come exactly the way that we had prepared for. We need to make sure that we have people who are well-trained, well-equipped, and able to react in an emergency and to deal with whatever nature throws at us, even if we hadn’t predicted it…

We have to reexamine all of our major infrastructure in light of Sandy – and how we can adapt and modernize it in order to protect it.

So today, I have directed someone with extensive experience in both infrastructure development and community revitalization, Seth Pinsky, the President of the Economic Development Corporation, to develop concrete recovery plans for the communities Sandy hit hardest as well as a specific and comprehensive action plan to prepare our city for the climate risks we face. Deputy Mayors Cas Holloway and Bob Steel will directly oversee this work – and our entire City Hall team, especially our Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability – will be deeply involved…

This is not work that can be done overnight, but it is work that must begin immediately where the need is greatest. So in each of the hardest-hit areas, Seth and our team will work with local leaders to develop and implement comprehensive Community Recovery and Rebuilding plans.

The plans will cover everything from public and private housing, to hospitals and schools, to transportation and parks, to businesses and nonprofits, including cultural institutions like the New York Aquarium. To succeed, the plans must include the input of the people who live and work in these communities – and they will. Members of the community will assist in shaping and implementing each community plan – and that will be just the beginning of our work.

The biggest challenge that we face is adapting our city to risks associated with climate change. And meeting that challenge will require us to take a leap into the future. But I think, as Al pointed out, the good news is, compared to any other American city, we’ve got a running head start…

For major developments in vulnerable areas, we now require a climate risk assessment. That’s why the developers of Willets Point – and those building the new recycling facility in Red Hook – are required to elevate development out of the flood plain. It’s why the park being built on Governors Island is being elevated by four feet, and I’m happy to say it sustained no major structural damage in the storm, nor did Brooklyn Bridge Park, which we designed specifically to withstand major storms – and I’m happy to say that it did…

New York City has 520 miles of shoreline – and it is some of the most beautiful, dynamic shoreline in the world, with the most beautiful views. Robert Moses built the roads along our coastline, separating us from this natural resource and we have worked very hard to try reconnect back to the most wonderful asset that we have. It’s why people have chosen to live at the coastline for centuries. And it’s why the question I have gotten most often since the storm is not about the damage Sandy caused, but about whether people can rebuild their homes in places like Breezy Point and Midland Beach.

Let me be clear: We are not going to abandon the waterfront.

We are not going to leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island’s South Shore. But we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best. We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably. And Seth and his team will be working with all of our City agencies, and lots of outside experts, to determine exactly what that means.

For instance: even though the City has already revised the building code to strengthen standards for flood protection, we will now do it again. The fact is: two-thirds of all the homes damaged by Sandy are outside of FEMA’s existing 100-year flood maps…

No matter how much we do to make homes and businesses more resilient, the fact of the matter is we live next to the ocean, and the ocean comes with risks that we just cannot eliminate. Over the past month, there has been a lot of discussion about sea walls. It would be nice if we could stop the tides from coming in, but King Canute couldn’t do it – and neither can we, especially if, as many scientists project, sea levels continue rising. However, there may be some coastline protections that we can build that will mitigate the impact of a storm surge – from berms and dunes, to jetties and levees.

On October 23rd, one week before Sandy hit, you should know that our Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability initiated a formal request to the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate additional ways that we could reduce the impact of coastal storms. A full Army Corps study will take three to five years to complete – and that does not include the required engineering analysis, which also can take years. And I’ve said we just cannot wait that long. So we will launch an expedited engineering analysis of coastal protection strategies to ensure we pursue the ones that are right for our city.

But remember: there are no panaceas or magic bullets. No matter what we do: the tides will continue to come in – and so we have to make our city more resilient in other ways, especially when it comes to our critical infrastructure.

During Hurricane Sandy, all of our major infrastructure networks failed and they have all taken just too long to come back on line. Our Long Term Planning and Sustainability Team have been working with many of these network operators to assess their vulnerabilities.

We know, for example, that a substantial proportion of the City’s critical electrical infrastructure is in the 100 year flood plain, so I have directed Seth to work with Sergej Mahnovski and our sustainability team to assess what it takes to make every essential network that supports our city capable of withstanding a Category 2 hurricane, or a record-breaking heat wave, or other natural disaster. That includes our transportation network, our power network, our gas network, our telecommunications network and our hospital network.

What will it take to ensure that even in a Category 2 hurricane, orif a record heat wave comes, what will each of these networks be required to remain operational? How much will it cost? And what standards should be set for bringing networks back quickly so that residents and businesses can have reasonable expectations about how long they may be out of service? In addition, how can we ensure continuity of operations, not just of our critical infrastructure, but of critical industries?

Many businesses – including the New York Stock Exchange – remained closed for days because not enough people could get to work. In all fairness, the New York Stock Exchange did have generators, they were perfectly capable of opening, but they can’t open without their employees. In a wireless world, we have to do a better job, not only keeping our networks up, but keeping our markets and businesses open, come hell or high water.

Many of our key infrastructure networks are run by private companies as you know, but they have contracts, franchises, and licenses to provide public services – and the public does has a right to establish clear benchmarks for their performance in a disaster. That’s why we’ve reached out to the CEOs of Con Ed, National Grid, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Hess and others and asked them to work with us on this effort. All have pledged their unqualified support…

I had a long conversation last night with Lowell McAdam, who is the CEO of Verizon. Their schedule right now says that Lower Manhattan’s night going to be back up until May, and I pointed out that is just not acceptable. And together we’ve worked out a plan where the City can help them get access into buildings and other things that you wouldn’t think about so that Verizon can accelerate that. Those buildings in downtown that lost electricity and heat should be back up by the end of this month, but they can’t be occupied unless we have telephone service, and that’s going to be our number one priority for downtown.

Even today, five weeks after the storm, there are just too many people who cannot come back to work here. We don’t want them moving any place else, and they need to earn a living and we need their service. And a growing number of New Yorkers, as we all know, today are relying on wireless networks and abandoning land-line telephones. We cannot, in the future, have cell towers that have only eight hours of back-up battery power. That is just not acceptable in the world that we live today. The telephone is our lifeline, the telephone is a lifeline not just to business, but to our own physical security. It has to keep working.

We’ll take on all of these efforts, but we also have to be mindful not to fight the last war and miss the new one ahead.

–+–

The actual speech is about twice as long and worth the read.    Reading Mayor Bloomberg is much better than listening to him.

December 6, 2012

Senator Coburn gives a second warning to homeland security

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,State and Local HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on December 6, 2012

Senator Tom Coburn fired another warning shot over the bow of the USS Homeland Security Enterprise.

On December 4th, the man likely to become ranking minority member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee released “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in US Cities.” The 54 page report — well worth reading — “exposes misguided and wasteful spending” in the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant programs.

As if to emphasize “misguided and wasteful,” the cover features a toy truck, a toy 4 wheeler, a toy police helicopter, and a small R2D2 robot.

Coburn uasi report

The toys are immediately outside the US Capitol building. I’m not sure what that image is supposed to symbolize. It could mean somebody’s been playing around with Congress. Or maybe it is supposed to be a metaphor for the way Congress treats homeland security.

—————————————

The UASI report is the senator’s second recent warning to the homeland security enterprise.

Last October, he released “Federal Support For And Involvement In State And Local Fusion Centers.” That report questioned federal funding for fusion centers and concluded, among other things, that fusion centers do not contribute much to federal counterterrorism effectiveness, and DHS does not know how much it spent on fusion center support. (Spending estimates ranged — if “ranged” is the correct word here — from $289 million to $1.4 billion.)

The Fusion Center report hit a nerve. Within a week of its release, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriffs Association, Major Cities Chiefs, Major County Sheriffs, National Governors Association Homeland Security Advisers Counsel, National Narcotics Officers Coalition Association, National Fusion Center Association, and the Association Of State Criminal Investigative Agencies issued a “joint statement” disagreeing with the report. (Eight public safety associations agreeing on anything in less than a week must be a world record.)

Their statement said, in part, “Simply put, the report displays a fundamental disconnect and severe misunderstanding of the federal government’s role in supporting state and locally owned and operated fusion centers and the critical role that fusion centers play in the national counterterrorism effort.”

Media attention to the Fusion Center report lasted about a week. I wonder how long interest in the UASI report will last.

—————————————

The UASI report has lots of material to provoke media outrage.

Some of the stories of questionable UASI expenditures are old news – for example the one about 13 sno-cone machines (p. 31). Other “questionable projects” were new – at least to me.

One city produced a series of videos titled “A Tale of Disaster and Preparedness.” The UASI report complains the “little more than common sense suggestions” in the video are “presented as a steady stream of jokes….” (p. 32).

I thought the preparedness videos were innocently compelling – sort of like Apple versus PC commercials. But as Will Rogers might have said, one person’s joke is another person’s misused taxpayer funds.

There was a somewhat too long description of a $1000, UASI allowable expense, entrance fee for a five day counterterrorism summit held on an island near San Diego. The Summit featured “40 actors dressed as zombies getting gunned down by a military tactical unit.” (p. 25)

The report even found some UASI money was apparently spent on “a true pork project – a hog catcher in Liberty County [Texas],” used (according to another source) to aid in catching and controlling unruly swine at holding sites. (p. 24)

—————————————

There are many other examples of UASI spending for things and activities that at a minimum activate a reader’s WTF response. But beyond the sometimes surreal stories, the report – addressed to “Dear Taxpayer” – is a serious critique of the $7 billion spent on the UASI programs over the past decade.

Part 2 of the report: “The Politics of Risk” discusses the role of political influence in determining how homeland security money is allocated.

Tom Ridge is quoted as saying he was looking for a grant formula that gets “218 votes in the House or 51 votes Senate….”  Anyone still operating under the assumption that grant awards are – or ever were – based on objective measures of threat or vulnerability or consequence can benefit from spending time with Part 2.

Part 3 asks whether UASI grants have made the nation safer.

This chapter is the latest cover of the “Nobody Knows Whether Homeland Security Spending Is A Worthwhile Investment” song. The report (later) even brings up the Mueller and Stewart critique about acceptable and unacceptable risk. I thought their analysis was anathema in DHS and in Congress. Maybe not everywhere.

Part 3 also describes how homeland security money expands the militarization of state and local law enforcement, including the use of drones and “Long-Range Acoustic Devices” (i.e., sound cannons) in urban areas.

Part 4 was a bit disappointing. It offered a recycled critique that FEMA ineffectively manages grant programs, and shows a surprisingly naïve understanding of how measuring homeland security preparedness is different from measuring risk in the finance and insurance industries. The report avoids trying to explain the causes of this “mismanagement;” saying instead, “It is unclear why FEMA continues to have difficulties in [measuring the effectiveness of its grant programs] considering the experience and expertise of the private sector that is available to inform FEMA’s own efforts.”

How about “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted?”

I thought the report all but gave up in Part 5: “Conclusions and Recommendations.” I did not see anything new here in the slightly more than one page final section.

DHS needs to address A, B, C…
DHS needs to demand Q, R & S from local and state partners…
DHS needs to implement a systematic approach to X, Y & Z…

Yes, DHS ought to do all those things.

But what is that old saying about insanity? About doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results? Those recommendations are not new insights.

—————————————

The UASI report missed an opportunity to break new ground in the decade long search for ways to bring more rigor, order, rationality, and common sense to the homeland security grant process.

On page 5, one finds this nugget of realpolitik:

“Any blame for problems in the UASI program, however, also falls on Congress, which is often more preoccupied with the amount of money sent to its cities than with how the money is spent, or whether it was ever needed in the first place. With so few accountability measures in place, there is almost no way to ensure taxpayers are getting value for their money, and more importantly, whether they are safer.”

The report blames the members of Congress for being more interested in sending money to constituents than figuring out the usefulness of those expenditures.

So what does the report recommend Congress should do to fix this primal cause of the UASI allocation problem?

The only recommendation I could find was in the last sentence of the report: Congress needs to … “demand answers.”

—————————————

Lorelei Kelly describes in another document  called  “Congress’ Wicked Problems,” — also released on December 4th – how and why Congress has become incapacitated, despised and obsolete.   She argues in its present state, Congress “cannot serve the needs of American democracy in the 21st Century.”

Kelly’s essay is especially worth reading in conjunction with the UASI report.

Someone who is sick probably can’t get better by demanding that other people get healthy.

Maybe the next step Congress could take to remedy the significant issues raised in the UASI report is to heal itself first.

I wonder if that healing will be on the agenda of the new ranking minority member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

November 9, 2012

NDRF: Weekend Reading

Filed under: Catastrophes,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 9, 2012

While not exactly scintillating, a very timely read might be the National Disaster Recovery Framework (September 2011).

From the document’s Executive Summary:

Experience with recent disaster recovery efforts highlights the need for additional guidance, structure and support to improve how we as a Nation address recovery challenges. This experience prompts us to better understand the obstacles to disaster recovery and the challenges faced by communities that seek disaster assistance.The National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF)is a guide to promote effective recovery, particularly for those incidents that are large scale or catastrophic.The NDRF provides guidance that enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted States, Tribes and local jurisdictions. It provides a flexible structure that enables disaster recovery managers to operate in a unified and collaborative manner. It also focuses on how best to restore, redevelop and revitalize the health,social, economic, natural and environmental fabric of the community and build a more resilient Nation. The NDRF defines:

• Core recovery principles

• Roles and responsibilities of recoverycoordinators and other stakeholders

• A coordinating structure that facilitates communication and collaboration among all stakeholders

• Guidance for pre- and post-disaster recovery planning

• The overall process by which communities can capitalize on opportunities to rebuild stronger, smarter and safer

These elements improve recovery support and expedite recovery of disaster-impacted individuals, families, businesses and communities. While the NDRF speaks to all who are impacted or otherwise involved in disaster recovery, it concentrates on support to individuals and communities.

July 25, 2012

Ungrateful, Unfeeling or Just Numb

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on July 25, 2012

When Vice President Joe Biden addressed a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia this afternoon, he probably expected the blue-collar throng to be a friendly crowd. After all, firefighters have few friends in Washington, DC more loyal or admiring than he’s been. Few politicians appreciate the influence wielded by firefighters better than Mr. Biden, who once referred to them as Delaware’s third major political party.

As you might expect, the Vice President set a complimentary tone in his remarks, assuring firefighters that he and the President see them as the key to protecting America’s middle class. It was unclear whether he meant this literally or metaphorically. Perhaps it was both.

For the most part, the Vice President’s remarks suggested he was aiming to evoke the sort of mutual adulation that firefighters and politicians routinely share with one another in public. GIven the political season, Mr. Biden did not shy away from taking shots at the other side by suggesting the Obama Administration supports firefighters and their brothers and sisters in blue, the police, but those other guys, represented by Mr. Romney, do not.

Not long after he finished speaking, the reviews were in. Most firefighters were glad to see the second-highest ranking elected Democrat reaching out to the party’s traditional base at a union convention. But some expected more.

One of those who was not exactly thrilled with Mr. Biden’s remarks was the president of the Philadelphia local of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who expressed dismay bordering on disgust because the Vice President had not explicitly cited and endorsed the union’s victory in an arbitration case that awarded Pennsylvania firefighters protection against furloughs and a pay raise. City officials in Philadelphia, like those in Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which recently implemented unilateral cuts to all city workers’ pay in a desperate bid to avoid bankruptcy, are appealing that decision.

These are tough times for cities. And that’s because times have been tough for city-dwellers. Not only have many Americans seen the value of their homes plummet, but many have seen real wages shrink even as their workplace tenure has become more tenuous.

Firefighters face few of these problems. For the most part, their pay has been stable or increasing since the recession started . Their benefits remain far more generous than those available to comparably trained workers in similar occupations. (I know, firefighters think no one has a job like theirs. They are right about that, many far riskier jobs provide far less secure employment and much poorer pay and benefits. Take fishing for instance. Or driving a taxi.) And until recently, they could be reasonably confident that they would continue being employed.

Now that the recession has lingered far longer than anyone expected, many firefighters are finding themselves in much the same position as those they protect. And that doesn’t sit well with a group that sees themselves as different, even special.

Firefighters have a difficult time relating to the plight of cities. Perhaps this is because so few of them live there. In most urban communities the days when fire departments were composed of neighbors stepping up to help one another is long gone. Today, the fire department is just another municipal service we pay others to provide.

Mr. Biden suggested that firefighters are the very soul of their communities. I am sure he meant to imply this was true of the communities where firefighters work, not the ones where they live, since these are rarely the same place anymore. I’m not sure he didn’t get this the wrong way around though.

Like Mr. Biden, though, I still admire firefighters. After all, it’s hard not to like anyone who enjoys his or her job as much as firefighters do, especially when they take so much pride in doing it well. But this does not make firefighters special. Neither do the risks they take. Although firefighting has its dangers, firefighters succumb to these far less often than one might imagine. The same things that kill other workers in far less dangerous occupations claim firefighters lives too, and take many more of them than fires do.

What makes firefighters special in my book is the peculiar compassion they show for others in their times of greatest need. Mr. Biden recognized this when he spoke of the selfless actions of responders to the Aurora theater massacre. Sure, these men and women faced perils in responding to an active shooter call. But the actions they took caring for the wounded was not simply about confronting risks or the skillful performance of well-practiced routines. It was also about the concern they showed not just for the physical wellbeing of those involved, but for their emotional and psychological welfare as well.

You can’t really train people to do this. They either feel empathy or they do not. The fact most of them do feel empathy means that the mere act of showing up when needed is the point at which they add the most value.

This value can easily get lost in debates about what the work people do is really worth. It can also get lost in the heat of a political fight for the heart and soul of a great nation whose public servants like her people have started to become just a little too numb to the pain most of us share.

 

July 18, 2012

Half-Full, Half-Empty or Too Big

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on July 18, 2012

I had lunch with an old friend on Tuesday. Like me, he was trained first as an engineer then as a public administrator, and spent most of his career working for the fire service in local government. He recently retired to accept a new position with a Fortune 100 company.

Over a very nice lunch, we discussed our common interests and experiences of feeling more than a bit disillusioned of late with the career we had chosen. Still passionate about public service, my friend noted that few of our colleagues seemed to be aware that the situation in which they find themselves these days is very much of their own making.

By the end of our conversation, the topic had shifted from work to life in general. My friend is Iranian. His parents sent him to the U.S. as a boy of sixteen to study out of fear for his safety if he stayed in his homeland after the Shah was deposed. (My friend, like me, tends to be more than a little outspoken, a trait his father feared would mark him with the authorities.) When he finished college, he helped his parents emigrate to the U.S. to join him.

His observations about the state of affairs in the Middle East and the U.S. role shaping the changes in his native land intrigued me. We agreed that the situation in which the U.S. finds itself with Iran and so many other hostile states in the region is largely of our own making.

It occurred to me later that the U.S. and firefighters have a lot in common this way. They both think pretty highly of themselves. They both know they have flaws, but do not seem to see them reflected when they look at themselves in a mirror. Many firefighters and many U.S. leaders alike take their influence for granted. They presume they deserve the respect and admiration of others to such an extent that they have difficulty understanding why anyone does not revere them, much less give them everything for which they ask.

As the U.S. looks upon the situation in the Middle East, what they see situations adapting according to their own rules and needs, not our national will. To be certain, people in many Arab nations are embracing democratic principles, pluralism and tolerance, values we purport to cherish. But not universally.

In many of these nations, democracy is not simply a question of individual liberty and respect for human rights. Achieving a balance of power means something much more difficult and delicate there than it does here. Balance must be achieved not only among co-equal branches of government or between the government, civil society and corporate interests or between secular civil society and competing or conflicting religious traditions and their peculiar institutional strictures and structures, but among all of these, all at once.

Our society can trace its democratic traditions back more than 200 years. Persian society, as just one example, can trace the emergence of democratic ideals in its literature, culture and customs back more than two thousand years. Clearly, we do not have that market cornered.

Whether we are wondering about the future of democracy in the Middle East or the sustainability of local and state government finances in the United States, we have to ask ourselves not only what we see but what perspective gives us the impression we perceive as reality. Not long ago, someone told me an old joke with a slightly new twist: “An optimist looks at the glass and says, ‘It’s half-full!’ A pessimist looks at the same glass and says, ‘It’s half-empty.’ An engineer looks at the glass as well and says, ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’”

As engineers, my friend and I agree about quite a lot, both in respect of the situation in our chosen profession and our view of world affairs. In both cases, we feel obliged to help others see these problems differently. Engineering is not just a way of evaluating alternative solutions to problems, it’s also about the ways we define the problems themselves.

As we parted after our meal, we both left feeling satisfied not only with the quality of the meal we enjoyed, but also with the quality of the company and conversation we shared. Perhaps more importantly, we left one another confident that we just might avoid making matters worse if we’re willing to be patient enough and astute enough and open enough to our own faults to accept the things we cannot change by ourselves.

July 11, 2012

Fiscal Cliff and Slippery Slope

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

In Washington, D.C., a great deal of discussion surrounds competing conceptions of the fiscal cliff and what, if anything, the government should do to avoid going over it. As I have mentioned repeatedly in recent weeks, many cities around the nation find themselves on a slippery slope toward bankruptcy (or its equivalent) as they confront the lingering effects of the economic crisis and past political decisions by their elected officials.

This week another two California cities sought bankruptcy protection. San Bernardino and Mammoth Lakes join the likes of Stockton and Vallejo.

Such dire fiscal situations are  not limited to California. Public employees in Scranton, Pennsylvania received unwelcome news with their pay packets this week when city leaders kept their promise to unilaterally cut pay to the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour in a desperate bid to meet payroll. This confrontation with public employees unions and among elected officials at city hall follows an arbitrator’s ruling that awarded public safety employees significant compensation increases.

As I read news of these developments, I wondered why these experiences do not seem more salient to others and what, if any, effect they have on the debate in Washington, D.C.

Evidence that they are beginning to influence the policy debate beyond the Beltway is abundant. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was quoted recently as pleading with Capitol Hill to stop sending him federal assistance to pay employees he cannot afford to retain and will have to layoff. At the same time, others around the country are clambering for still more aid in any form they can get it.

Grants to help communities hire law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMTs have existed for a long time, in many different forms. They did not suddenly appear with the fiscal crisis. But what did change was the requirement for local communities to come up with plans to match a portion of the aid they received by sustaining these positions over time. Likewise, grant applications that help jurisdictions avoid layoffs receive priority consideration in making awards without regard for circumstances contributing to these sitiations.

In many instances, this approach creates the same kind of moral hazard that the European Union’s effort to help Greece avoid default. Bailing out a government that made bad decisions and citizens who stand complicit (or in most cases simply sat by and watched) does nothing to correct the situation or prevent it from occurring again. Moreover, it may present an incentive to continue making the sort of bad decisions that led to the crisis in the first place.

Normally, I find little to agree with Gov. Christie and his party about. But from where I sit, he’s right to question whether the federal government is doing anything particularly helpful by sending grant monies to local and state governments for police officers and firefighters they cannot afford.

Interestingly enough, I have seen at least one proposal floated recently to expand AmeriCorps to serve rural communities’ public safety needs. Some local officials rebelled against this notion suggesting without irony that it amounted to little more than socialism in the form of a federal takeover of local service delivery. This criticism, however, ignores the fact that many communities simply cannot attract or retain enough volunteers to meet their own needs even if they can afford to train and equip them. I know many of these same officials would hold their noses and accept money, not people, if they were offered it even though they oppose the taxes used to collect and disburse it.

I am intrigued by the suggestion of an AmericCorps expansion. It appeals to me on several levels. First, it encourages national service without requiring it. Second, it rewards community service by offering educational assistance to young people who commit to a period of national service in an underserved community besides their own. Third, it transforms what might otherwise be a deadweight economic loss into a positive externality by providing kids who are finding themselves priced out of the market for education with an opportunity to earn the money required to earn their degrees. It also manages to do this without forcing kids to compromise by dividing their time and attention between the two tasks — working and studying — at once. By reducing the future debt burden on these young people, it also reduces economic uncertainty and accompanying long-term risk associated with burgeoning student debt.

The idea of offering students education or housing incentives to volunteer as firefighters has long proven successful. It has also proven antithetical to the labor movement who see students stealing living wage jobs from people who neither need nor desire a college education. I might find it easier to accept this argument if I thought communities could afford to hire firefighters on the same terms as current employees but simply chose not to. IT might also be easier to swallow if firefighters in so many communities were not overcompensated for their labor compared to similarly skilled workers, including those engaged in risky occupations.

Many, if not most, other countries employ a two-tiered hiring system for firefighters. In some cases, the entry level positions are held by a combination of working class recuits and conscripts, much like our own military has operated in times past. The officer corps, on the other hand, tends to be stocked with managerial and technical professionals recruited from post-secondary educational institutions, which is most certainly not true of our own local fire service leadership. Many foreign fire service officers possess professional qualifications in engineering or scientific disciplines, which is rarely true here.

If every jurisdiction that enters bankruptcy exits in a fashion similar to Vallejo, such a course of action may not end up being such a bad thing. Somehow, though, I doubt this will be the case. Recent grand jury findings concerning the Orange County Fire Authority’s employee compensation arrangements and operational inefficiencies delivering emergency medical services suggest that particular community did not learn such lessons from their dance-with-economic-death in mid-1990s. (To be fair, their fiscal disaster arose from different circumstances entirely. Nevertheless, they formed the fire authority for the ostensible purpose of avoiding unsustainable fiscal circumstances that already affected many municipalities that depended upon the county for support if not service.)

If federal officials really want to help local communities, creating a win-win like the suggested AmeriCorps expansion just might work. But for that to be the case, local and state officials of both left and right political persuasions will have to lose their fear of their own public employees, abandon ideological posturing about for purely political purposes, and lose their learned  indifference to accepting help that comes with strings attached. Here’s hoping more wake-up before hitting bottom.

June 27, 2012

Coming Soon to a City Near You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 10, 2012

Setting Our Sights Higher: On a Secure and Sustainable Recovery

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

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

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

Sadly but not surprisingly, both men missed the mark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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