Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

– + – + – + –

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?

May 23, 2012

Standards of Cover(-up)

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on May 23, 2012

For weeks now, the Los Angeles Fire Department has been under intense scrutiny for errors in its reporting of response time data. Previously reported figures suggested the department was doing pretty well meeting its response-time targets despite budget cutbacks that affected service levels. However, it later came to light that the methodology for calculating response-time data presented to elected officials was flawed. These flaws included a failure to present the results of models as predictions rather than actual response data and errors in the way response times were measured and performance against targets reported.

When it became clear that the fire department’s responses had been affected by changes in staffing and service levels, the media and elected officials began asking some difficult questions. Unfortunately, most of these questions were precisely the wrong ones.

It’s one thing to ask whether the department is meeting response time targets. It’s another thing entirely to ask whether these targets are meaningful indicators of service performance. Errors in reporting could affect the answer in either case, but the effects would be very different.

In Los Angeles, it’s now clear that the fire department does not meet its stated targets. It should be equally clear that these targets are arbitrary and all but meaningless in the vast majority of cases. (In other words, the Los Angeles Fire Department remains a world-class outfit despite the cuts.) Unfortunately, the latter fact has dawned on very few people despite abundant evidence that the unwelcome answer to the first question is due in large measure to the growing dependence of the community on fire department responses to many low-priority and even non-emergency events where time matters very little if at all.

The expectation that fire departments are there to deal with anything unwelcome or untoward that people encounter when no one else is there to help them has not come about by accident. Firefighters love to be loved (and needed) and have been all too willing to answer these calls without regard to the costs. The controversy in Los Angeles suggests these costs are not just fiscal. The opportunity cost of attending so many low-priority and non-emergency calls is clear: The system cannot meet the performance expected when genuine emergencies arise.

For firefighters the answer is simple: expand capacity. For administrators, that’s simply not an option in these austere times. Sadly, elected officials too rarely take responsibility for the fact that you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Nearly everybody these days accepts the adage that when it comes to performance, speed, quality and cost matter, but you can only have two of these. This is especially true when it comes to emergency services. The problem is that our expectation of which two we are willing to accept varies a lot depending upon the circumstances.

When it comes to situations that clearly are not time critical, time should not matter. But it does when you confuse it with an indicator of quality. And almost every fire department does just that because they have no idea how to measure quality but they can measure time.

Fire departments are inherently inefficient operations. They operate on two basic premises: 1) no one should ever have to wait for a response and 2) every response should be treated as an emergency until proven otherwise. These two assumptions combine with pernicious effect when it comes to the way we handle 911 calls. And let’s be clear about this 911 is no longer shorthand for “emergency.” These days, about 40 percent of all calls coming into public safety answering points are misdials and many more involve queries that have nothing whatsoever to do with police, fire or emergency medical services.

Rather than take a few seconds to find out what’s really going on, most agencies insist that dispatching decisions get made within 60 seconds of call receipt regardless of circumstances. This was once a relatively simple affair because it relied on the intuition and judgment of experienced call-takers and dispatchers who made the call based on relatively simple heuristics. When they were equipped with little more than a telephone and a radio console, the required action took little time or effort. Not so today. These days we have two, three or even more layers of technology between call-takers and dispatching decisions. Even after a dispatch is initiated, we have even more layers of technology through which signals alerting stations and conveying information about the call must pass before responders get the message.

These interventions have made it possible to track the most minute details about each and every incident. But they have not made the process of delivering emergency service faster or more efficient. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In many instances we have become unwitting slaves to the planned obsolescence of the technologies themselves and helpless victims of the technological hurdles involved in marrying up diverse platforms supplied by competing vendors procured by different agencies.

When fire departments talk about standards of cover – the five dollar phrase for these response targets – they rarely acknowledge the fatal flaws in the logic (or lack thereof) they apply to deciding what matters. These standards, often derived from flawed analogies to fire growth curves and the onset of brain death following cardiac arrest, were easy to meet using legacy technologies that were far simpler and more efficient. But now we must contend with the expanded and often unrealistic performance expectations arising from our inability or unwillingness to make the simplest distinctions about the services we provide.

Adopting arbitrary standards of cover, like 60 second call processing times and five minute travel times, may allow us to direct the blame at others when we miss the mark overall, but it does almost nothing to solve the problem when performance falls short.

When time matters, it matters a lot and cost is not much of an issue. The good news is that getting these decisions right involves little more than giving people permission and encouragement to treat very different situations differently. The quality of the outcome always depends on how well the people perform, and when the way they use the technology becomes an impediment to what they are trying to accomplish we have the tail wagging the dog.

The single biggest factor affecting our success may well our willingness to recognize that what people experiencing or witnessing an event do before we arrive matters much more than how long it takes us to get there. Sure, response time and the quality of care help, but not if people wait too long to seek help or take no action to mitigate the consequences before we get there.

The best case in point may very well be right in my back yard: King County and Seattle, Washington have managed to achieve a 50 percent survival rate from witnessed cardiac arrest involving shockable arrhythmias (ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia). Sure, we were among the first communities to establish a fire-based advanced life support paramedic program. Yes, we send first-response EMTs on fire-based units to every call, and often as many as 10 responders to confirmed cardiac arrest calls. But the factor that has probably made the most difference has been the frequency and quality of bystander CPR.

Other programs send paramedics on the first due fire engines whenever possible. We do not. Some use dispatchers to give CPR instructions over the phone. We do too. But we do something even more important: We get out in the community and teach everyone willing to give us a few minutes of their time how to save a life.

Don’t get me wrong. People here still worry about response times. But they have a lot less reason to do so because we have nothing to hide: We rely on the public as much as they rely on us, and we’re proud of it.

April 15, 2012

Hot Temperatures: Bad for Runners, Good for Preparedness

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on April 15, 2012

To get the obvious out of the way first, I realize I’m indulging in what has become a nearly annual exercise of self-promotion by pointing out that I once got an op-ed published about how the City of Boston and the surrounding region treats the Boston Marathon every year as a “planned disaster.” Though it really gets me nothing personally by continuing to point it out, I’ll continue to do so since I believe it is a best practice that other regions should emulate.  And perhaps an example of a “Whole of Community” approach to preparedness and response that started before anyone came up with that phrase.

According to BEMS chief Richard Serino, his department considers events like the marathon and the Fourth of July celebration as “planned disasters” – safe, controlled environments that present “an opportunity to test some things you would never want to test in a real disaster.”

Although the principal goal during such events remains the safety of everyone involved, organizers have realized that these annual gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people present the perfect opportunity to evaluate new technologies, exercise disaster plans, and build vital relationships between public safety agencies and the private sector.

[You can tell the piece is a little old…as “BEMS Chief Richard Serino” has been the Deputy Administrator of FEMA since 2009…]

This year it is especially pertinent as temperatures in and around Boston are expected to soar into the eighties, resulting in a heavier than normal workload for medical personnel:

The forecast forced organizers to offer a largely unprecedented deferment to the entire field of 27,000 that had spent the last year qualifying, registering and training for what is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“We’re asking runners who haven’t run previously to think about tomorrow and maybe coming back next year,” Boston Mayor Tom Menino told the attendees at the traditional pre-race pasta dinner on City Hall Plaza on Sunday night. “We don’t want have any accidents out there, or anybody overtaken by the heat.”

While I sincerely hope that the inexperienced runners take advantage of the deferment opportunity and that there are as few heat-related injuries as possible, it is inevitable that this year will be extremely busy for the professional and volunteer medical staff positioned all along the course.  However, the resilience lemonade made from high heat lemons will be a region better prepared for future mass casualty incidents:

Thousands of runners pass through eight different towns on their way to the finish line. Coordinating medical care and security for the runners and spectators strengthens connections that will be relied upon when Boston requires mutual aid to deal with a crisis such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

To successfully manage the marathon, BEMS and other public safety agencies must have relationships not just with the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race, but also with a diverse set of private organizations. These include, but are not limited to, private ambulance services that back up BEMS, and hotels and other businesses along the route that help make the behind-the-scenes operation of the marathon run smoothly. When a real disaster strikes, these contacts can be called upon to lend needed supplies and other assistance.

Along with the large number of volunteers, from the medically trained to those simply handing out water, it is these connections forged in a cooperative year-long planning process and an intense day of “exercising” that pull a community together and prepare it for unforeseen events.

Update: Juliette Kayyem strains to support my argument in her latest Boston Globe article:

Behind those familiar words lies a fundamental tenet of emergency management: Systems to protect the public need to be practiced and validated. As it is, first responders constantly test their response plans. These efforts can be small tabletop exercises, like those performed in the buildup to the Boston Marathon today, or large simulations of catastrophic events with people acting the parts of victims. Some of these exercises are helpful, others a waste of time. But in the end, they don’t fully suffice because everybody knows it is just a test.

Most scholars in disaster management acknowledge that the truest evaluation of any response system is one that gets as close to a catastrophe as real life allows, but falls short of real damage. What can we learn from a bad thing that didn’t happen, but that, for a brief while, everyone thought would?

Okay….I’m stretching it a little bit.  She actually goes on to analyze the response to the most recent Indonesian earthquake and the importance of educating the public about threats.

I was just desperate for affirmation…

April 4, 2012

Political Quake

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on April 4, 2012

This week the Christchurch, New Zealand newspaper The Press featured an op-ed by University of Canterbury political scientist Bronwyn Hayward. Her essay examined the democratic fault lines exposed by the serial natural disasters that struck the city starting in September 2010 and evidenced by growing public disquiet over the government’s efforts to manage the recovery challenges confronting the small island nation’s second largest city.

Dr. Hayward has written and spoken eloquently about the roots of resilient citizenship, which she sees emerging from an individual’s sense of social agency, ecological understanding and embedded citizenship. Together these principles represent the innate capacity of individuals to take responsibility for their own lives, organize and cooperate with one another for the common good and accept a degree of uncertainty as part and parcel of living in the natural world.

In the New Zealand central government’s response to the Canterbury earthquakes, Hayward sees a failure to recognize the importance of these principles in the lives of citizens. The government’s top-down approach to managing recovery efforts, she argues, has done more harm than good and threatens to further render the social fabric.

Local government does not escape criticism either. Dr. Hayward notes the tendency of local officials to exclude the public from their deliberations while displaying an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Sadly, she concludes that central government action and threats of further action inhibit efforts within the community to correct what some now see as an electoral error.

The command and control approach to recovery taken by the New Zealand government comes at a time of growing social and economic inequality that would not seem all that unfamiliar to most Americans. Hayward observes that the young people who mobilized and organized themselves to aid their fellow citizens have been marginalized at just the time when their contributions to the community are both most needed and most vital to the renewal of the community’s stocks of social, economic and political capital:

Bringing the community with you is the only effective way through a disaster long term.

[At] its best democracy is the form of government that most clearly supports the priorities and aspirations of a local community. As Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen reminds us, good democracy delivers great economic and social prosperity, enabling scrutiny, transparency and local voice.

Not all of our young people can be builders, road engineers, painters or architects. To create meaningful long term, local employment and training will require thoughtful, on-going, and public debate.

Only local leadership elected with widespread public support can effectively claim the mandate to lead our community and to implement plans that enable everyone – the young, the old and future generations – to flourish.

FEMA’s rhetorical commitment to a whole of community approach and its emphasis on community recovery give me hope that the United States can avoid the mistakes plaguing Christchurch these days. Nevertheless, it is worth noting as Hayward reminds us in her essay, central government’s most important role in the aftermath of a disaster lies not in how fast they respond or how much aid they give, but in how well they support and encourage local governance and participatory democracy.

March 28, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 14, 2012

Brothers and Others

Filed under: State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 14, 2012

Does anyone else find it ironic that cops and firefighters (but firefighters especially) refer to themselves as “brothers”, when this term connotes something very different and entirely sinister when applied to government and its officials by the general public?

George Orwell’s Big Brother in the dystopian novel 1984 was an intimidating and invasive presence in the lives of people deprived of freewill. Nevertheless, cops and firefighters see brotherhood and its virtues as practically unrivaled. Loyalty to many is the essence of integrity because it defines consistency of action with respect to one’s peers.

Consider this conception of integrity in contrast to the values of equity or justice, which to most of us demands consistency of action with respect to others – in essence requiring us to treat others as we would our brothers. Cops and firefighters use the concept of brotherhood to exclude, not include, others.

The other is humankind’s oldest device for defining and projecting the presence of evil in the world. As Elaine Pagels’ groundbreaking scholarship on The Origin of Satan makes clear, the essence of evil is fear. We see “evil” in others in direct proportion to the “self” we see in others. Evil reflects our fear of embracing, if not becoming, that which destroys our current sense of self.

This is the point at which I find the tendency of cops and firefighters to rely on the notion of brotherhood begins to diverge as well as unravel. In both instances, it is brothers who provide the primary defense against the other. But in the case of cops, it is the very existence of others that defines brotherhood, for we would not need cops if it not for the presence of evil in others. But firefighters oppose a different foe. To be sure, fire can produce evil effects, but it also is a great source of good when properly harnessed. Those affected by fire as well as those who fail to keep its power under proper control are both seen not as villains but rather as victims. Why then should firefighters see a need for protection against those who call upon their services?

Firefighters seem to cling to the concept of brotherhood even more fiercely than most cops. Who then is the other whom firefighters fear? What’s going on here?

Most firefighters I talk with take a paternalistic perspective when referring to their relationship with the public. To many of them, the public is a body of people who want or need services they cannot anticipate, do not fully appreciate and cannot understand, which makes it the responsibility of fire service leaders to inform (read this as “educate” or “convince”) the public about their need for or dependence upon firefighters. A good fire chief, then, is someone who stands up for firefighters against the public, and who convinces them to give firefighters what they want.

This perspective has made me a “bad” fire chief and a traitor akin to Judas Iscariot in the eyes of many firefighters. What I find peculiar is not that they believe this but that they do not see in others, much less me, a figure more like that of the Apostle Thomas.

I have sat through many meetings lately where articles of faith in respect of fire service delivery are defended as reasonable despite the utter lack of objective evidence to support them. I consider myself a skeptic about most things, but most especially about the virtues of a notional brotherhood that conditions acceptance on adherence to articles of faith about things like fire company staffing and response times when reasonable doubt exists as to whether they influence aggregate outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong, faith and reason each have their place. One need not conflict with the other. I believe in many things I cannot possibly prove. But I remain skeptical that they cannot be proven at all, and as such remain unconvinced they are completely much less innately true. Where reason provides me with a portal to understanding, I find it only bolsters my faith.

I believe what we do as public safety professionals makes a great deal of difference to the communities we serve. I think I can prove what makes this difference in some, but not all cases. And where I can prove it, I almost always find that it is what and how we do things rather than how fast, how much, or how many, that makes the biggest difference.

To many firefighters, I am now the other as opposed to their brother. I will not take on the role of father, protector and defender of the faith, largely because I am unprepared to become the Big Brother people fear and despise. I would like to believe that taking the position I am will ultimately help the firefighters I work with see the brothers in others, and adapt to the new realities of our economy that emphasize what and how we do things over how many and how much.

I believe this is what needs to happen. And I accept that it remains to be seen whether I am right or wrong.

March 7, 2012

What’s Good for Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 29, 2012

Mo’ Better Blues

Filed under: Organizational Issues,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 29, 2012

The implicit social contract between government and the governed broke down decades ago for many Americans. As the electorate lost confidence in our political and appointed leaders’ empathy, integrity and wisdom, these leaders starting shifting attention from themselves to government employees.

At first, attention focused on whether government was doing things right. Increasingly, people question whether government is doing the right things. Our preoccupation has shifted from worrying that government was trying to do everything to wondering whether it can do anything. Many now question whether we even need government. And a good many more don’t care much one way or the other.

As we have traveled along this continuum from ambivalence to antipathy (and back), the public has rightly questioned both our purpose and our progress.

Many in power have framed public concerns in terms of two cardinal virtues: efficiency and accountability. And too many leaders have erroneously oversimplified this otherwise accurate prescription by translating it into the management mantra: “Do more with less.”

Anyone who has spent any time at all in public service has heard this mantra repeated often enough. Few find it soothing, even fewer find it inspiring.

The challenge for government is not doing more with less. The challenge for government has always been the same: How do we do better.

Any economist will tell you efficiency has nothing to do with less. It’s about minimizing losses, not inflicting them. An efficient economy maximizes aggregate welfare.

Welfare is far more a question of quality than it is a matter of quantity. Once you have enough, more makes less and less difference. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests more actually is less.

Because efficiency focuses on how much better off everyone is collectively, we need accountability to temper its application. Accountability without a sense of responsibility is retributive and irrational. As such, accountability demands equity, which focuses on increasing individual opportunity even if it means generating a little less welfare for all.

The challenge and opportunity for government is not in producing more for less. It is in maximizing aggregate welfare while promoting or advancing individual opportunity.

This is where things ought to get tricky, and does. Opportunity to do what?

The principal ideological and philosophical difference between those who support government and those who oppose it comes down to a difference of opinion about a single, simple expectation: Whether when given any opportunity people will look after themselves or others first.

This distinction should matter just as much to homeland security professionals as it does to politicians and ideological elites. How we operationalize “do better” depends very much on whether we assume individuals look to maximize their own opportunities or those of others.

When better assumes individuals look after themselves first, we have to worry about how far people will go to get what they want. We also have to worry what people will do to get what they need.

If we look after one another first, we have good cause to believe others will look after us. This eliminates or at least minimizes how much concern we should have about what people will do to meet their basic needs.

This still leaves us with the question of what people will do to get what they want. We cannot eliminate this concern for two reasons: 1) even someone with an altruistic orientation should reasonably strive to maximize gain, especially when the benefits are shared widely, and 2) one’s willingness to share will almost invariably vary depending on whether opportunities are expanding or contracting.

When things are good, people are in a better position to share. But to the surprise of many, they often do not.

As we’ve seen during the latest recession and long recovery, people will share even when (or perhaps especially because) it hurts. This may either be due to empathy or an expectation of future reciprocity. But whatever the reason, such benevolence can neither be overlooked nor taken for granted.

What then can we do to encourage renewed optimism in the capacity of government to promote if not do good by doing better? We can start by raising expectations rather than minimizing them. Instead of explaining what government cannot do, we should emphasize what it does better than the market.

To follow this up, we can show it’s not a question of quantity but quality that makes the difference. At a local level, this means less emphasis on response times and staffing and more on what we do to take care of people when they need help and have nowhere else to turn.

Finally, instead of arguing for employment conditions that give public workers more — more pay, more benefits, more security, we should emphasize the important part collective bargaining plays in ensuring equity and quality. Contracts bind both parties, not just management.

If we want to save the public service ethos, we need to start by sacrificing our egos.

February 22, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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