Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 17, 2012

Highlights from “The Future of Homeland Security: Evolving and Emerging Threats”

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on July 17, 2012

Last week, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held the first in a series of hearings about the future of homeland security. Wednesday’s hearing focused on evolving and emerging threats.

You can watch and read the hearing transcripts here.

I gleaned a few excerpts from the speakers prepared remarks. I encourage those with an interest in homeland security rhetoric, thought, analysis, fact, social construction, discourse, comity and history to download and read the full statements.

—————————————-

First, my favorite part of all the testimony, from Brian Jenkins.

The sentiments are not new; they appear in his Unconquerable Nation. But neither are they old.

Common Will and Common Purpose

Terror is just as much an enemy as the terrorists who try to create it. Our reactions to terrorism are part of any assessment. America has come through the dark shadow of 9/11, but as a nation, are we stronger?

Individual acts of courage inspire us, but Americans remain anxious rather than confident in the country’s ability to survive the threats we face. Fear-mongers and doomsayers still find a receptive audience.

Instead of our traditional self-reliance, Americans look too much to government to protect them, in part the reflection of rhetoric that, rather than involving us in a national effort, tells us that as individuals we can do nothing beyond remaining vigilant.

Americans have come to hold unrealistic expectations about security, believing that risk can be abolished. We are too ready to seek someone to blame when security fails.

Instead of the stoicism needed for a long fight, Americans remain vulnerable to overreaction. A terrorist attack of even modest scale could provoke paroxysms of panic.

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom, or the folly, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sacrifices of war have been borne unequally. Our sense of community has eroded.

Terrorists did not create America’s anxieties. Terrorism acted as their condenser. Nor will America’s homeland be secured in the mountain passes of Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, or the sands of the Sahara. Our commonwealth, our common defense, will come only from the recovery our own sense of common will and common purpose.

—————————————-

Joseph I. Lieberman

This coming November will mark the tenth anniversary of the signing into law of the Homeland Security Act legislation created in this Committee in the aftermath of al Qaeda’s attack on 9-11. Given this coming milestone, it seems appropriate not only to reflect on the major homeland security developments of the last decade but also to look ahead to the next ten years, and examine whether we are adequately prepared to address them.

The preeminent threat to our homeland security today remains the threat of terrorism….

The cyber threat is the second most significant threat to the United States….

The violence in Mexico by drug trafficking organizations has reached the level where it is now a direct threat to our national security….

Transnational organized criminal groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are engaged in a wide variety of activities, from human smuggling to Medicare fraud….

…[While] our threats are becoming increasingly interrelated, we continue to address them in a fragmented way, with different agencies responsible for different threats.

—————————————-

Susan M. Collins

In an understatement, the [9/11] Commission’s report observed that, “[i]magination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.” Yet, imagination is precisely what is needed to address emerging threats. We must persistently ask: Where are the future threats? What technology could be used? Do we have the intelligence that we need? Are we prepared to thwart novel plans of attack? What will our enemy look like in two, five, or even ten years?

—————————————-

Michael V. Hayden

Because of globalization, the international structure that was created by the Treaty of Westphalia more than five centuries ago is no longer dominant. …. most of the attributes of the age of industrialization made the state stronger and more relevant. Most of the effects of today’s globalization make the state weaker and less relevant…. But here we sit with institutions optimized and practiced for the earlier age: methodical, thorough, stable….

We all agreed in the 9-11 Commission Report that we needed a domestic intelligence service and it would be best to house it in the FBI. But look at the reaction even today when the bureau tries to collect information without a criminal predicate, in that area we called “spaces between cases.”

And heaven save us from the Associated Press if the New York City Police Department tries to do the same thing….

This committee knows more than most how many of our secrets (state and industrial) are being stolen by foreign governments; how much of our wealth is being pilfered by criminal gangs; and how much of our infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber enabled anarchists and malcontents….

I should add that cyber, terrorist and criminal threats today all merge in a witches’ brew of danger.

—————————————-

Brian Michael Jenkins

The United States confronts a more diverse terrorist threat in 2012 than it has in the past. Al Qaeda, still our principal concern, has exploited the turmoil created by the Arab uprisings to make tactical advances and open new fronts. In addition, several incidents in the past year suggest a resurgence of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Mexico faces what some analysts have called a “criminal insurgency” by the country’s drug cartels, which could expose the United States to the kind of savagery seen in that country. The global economic crisis has spawned mass protests.

These are legitimate expressions of popular discontent, but they attract violence-prone anarchists and may generate their own violent fringe groups. Anti-federal-government sentiments, a continuing current in American history, have become more virulent, fueled in part by economic dislocation that transcends the current economic crisis, deep national divisions, and the rancorous partisanship that characterizes contemporary political debate.

—————————————-

Frank J. Cilluffo

… [At] the level of principle, we need to be as flexible and adaptive as our adversaries, who are nothing if not creative and ever-thinking. A static posture is an ineffective one. After all, each time we raise the security bar (often at great cost to the U.S. Treasury) our adversaries devote themselves determinedly to crafting a reasonably inexpensive and clever way around the latest security measure(s). Their ingenuity and inventions are often vivid, and include body and “booty” bombs. Now is not the time to ease off the gas pedal. Rather we should and must keep up the pressure and exploit this unique window of counterterrorism opportunity by maintaining, if not accelerating, the operational tempo. The threat would look and be markedly different otherwise….

To my mind, the cybersecurity community’s state of development is akin to that of the counterterrorism community as it stood shortly after 9/11….

Now is the time to act. For too long, we have been far too long on nouns, and far too short on verbs.

—————————————-

Stephen E. Flynn

In response to the attacks on 9/11, the Bush Administration mobilized U.S. national security capabilities to go after al Qaeda and those within the international community who supported them. To an overwhelming extent, the strategy was one of prevention by way of military force supported by stepped-up intelligence. … The hoped for outcome of engaging the threat in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world… was “so we do not have to face them here at home.”

This strategy has involved a considerable amount of national treasure…. That amount translates into a burn-rate of $350 million for each and every day for ten years.

By contrast, the cost of one-hour of these war operations—$15 million—has been the most that has been invested in the entire annual budget for the Citizens Corps Program which was initiated after 9/11 to engage citizens in the homeland security mission by volunteering to support emergency responders….

… [The] total amount of containers inspected overseas in 2011 was just 45,500. This represents 0.5% of the 9.5 million manifests that CBP … reviewed overseas in advance of loading. If the 45,500 number is divided by the 58 … ports and 365 days per year, the result is [security] inspectors are examining with their foreign counterparts on average, 2.15 containers per day per overseas port before they are loaded on carriers bound for the US–two containers each day.

This does not represent much of a deterrent.

…In addition to the ongoing risk associated with terrorism, there is an even more clear and present danger to the safety of Americans that should animate the homeland security mission: natural disasters. It turns out that 91 percent of Americans live in places at a moderate risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high wind damage….

[The] investment Washington makes in homeland security remains a fraction of the resources devoted to traditional national security. At times, this can have the perverse outcome of actually making civilian targets potentially more attractive to our adversaries. For instance, the U.S. Navy has invested more in protecting the single port of San Diego that is home to the Pacific Fleet, than the Department of Homeland Security has invested in the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Tacoma combined, upon which the bulk of the U.S. economy relies….

…Everyday civilians, supported by state and local officials, will need to be better informed and empowered to play a meaningful role. This role includes not only preventing acts of terrorism, but making investments that mitigate the risk of disruption to our communities and critical infrastructure. This will require a homeland security enterprise centered around three efforts: (1) setting appropriate expectations, (2) increasing transparency, and (3) building community and infrastructure resilience.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 16, 2012

Scanning Cargo Containers: A Sticky Issue

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 16, 2012

On July 1st:

The Obama administration has failed to meet a legal deadline for scanning all shipping containers for radioactive material before they reach the United States, a requirement aimed at strengthening maritime security and preventing terrorists from smuggling a nuclear device into any of the nation’s 300 sea and river ports.

The Department of Homeland Security was given until this month to ensure that 100 percent of inbound shipping containers are screened at foreign ports.

Since this requirement was passed into law, the Secretary of Homeland Security (irrespective of political party) has given it a pass:

But the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano, informed Congress in May that she was extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome. She said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.

This has been the general response to this mandate by Chertoff and Ridge before Napolitano.  Paul Rozenzweig, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in DHS, captures the essence of the issue in a blog post at Lawfare:

The delay of the scanning requirement is, frankly, a good thing.  It is another example of the inability of our system to effectively communicate and manage risk.   The right answer to multiple threats has to be the risk based allocation of resources.  We can’t protect against all things at all times — the costs, in resources and lost liberties would simply be too high.  Instead, DHS allocates its inspection resources based on a judgment about risk.  Dollars spent on 100% scanning are dollars NOT spent on some other threat (cyber?  bio?).

What he doesn’t address is that if the concern is the possibility of a nuclear weapon being smuggled into the country in a shipping container, the better use of resources would be to lock down the limited amount of fissile material required to construct a bomb at the source.  The Washington Post article I cited in the beginning of this post is likely cherry-picking the interview of one of the leading proponents of this approach when it states:

Graham Allison, a Harvard University political scientist and author of a best-selling book on nuclear terrorism, said that a nuclear device is more likely to arrive in a shipping container than on a missile. But he acknowledged that preventing such an attack is expensive and that there is no guarantee prevention measures will work.

“The game between hiders and seekers is dynamic, and there is no 100 percent solution,” Allison said in an e-mail interview. “The cost-benefit trade-off is the toughest issue.”

What Graham is saying is that with the Cold War over, the greatest nuclear threats we face are asymmetric in nature. Nation states with the capability to field nuclear-armed ICBMs would be deterred by our own nuclear force.  It is terrorists and perhaps “rogue” regimes (but only those that fail or are pushed up against the wall) that might attempt to smuggle in a nuclear weapon.  Yet I’d bet that his email correspondence likely pointed out that if a terrorist group were to acquire a nuclear weapon, they would be pretty reluctant to stick it in a shipping container out of their control and pray that it reached the intended target.

Instead, I imagine he’d argue that the resources proponents of 100% cargo screening wish to expend on the issue would be better spent on locking down highly enriched uranium and plutonium, as well as the nuclear weapons in fragile states (*cough* Pakistan *cough).

A sticky issue that just won’t go away.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

Drones: A Moral Question?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 16, 2012

Was the Godfather a moral actor?  Truth be told, I really don’t know.  Though I’d wager there is an undergraduate philosophy class somewhere that has addressed this issue.

Are drones a moral weapon of war?  This is a bit more pertinent to homeland security.  It is a question addressed in a New York Times article this past weekend.  The takeaway:

So it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.

As technology allows for ever more precise military strikes, the call for limiting to eliminating civilian casualties grows louder. This is not a bad thing–but within a generation or two it has escalated to a constant, underlying condition of carrying out military operations.  Again–not a bad thing.  But an unusual thing when one considers the “strategic” bombing campaigns of WWII, plans for thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union, and B-52 strikes during the Vietnam War.

AVERY PLAW, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, put the C.I.A. drone record in Pakistan up against the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths in other settings. Mr. Plaw considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.

In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.

The ever-increasing accuracy and ever-decreasing number of civilian deaths raises another question:

The drone’s promise of precision killing and perfect safety for operators is so seductive, in fact, that some scholars have raised a different moral question: Do drones threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence?

As a personal opinion and not a moral judgment or philosophical conclusion, I have no problems with the use of drone strikes in our current effort against Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.  What does trouble me, along with many others who have given far greater consideration to this issue, is what comes next.  Other nations are already developing their own drones.  There is no doubt that they will soon be used for targeted killings.  But instead of aiming at those we consider national security threats, the point-of-view might be different and a political dissident or controversial opposition figure could be the target.

Given the standards we are setting today, with what arguments will we argue against these strikes in the future?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 13, 2012

Can you envision a “successful failure”?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 13, 2012

In the movie Apollo 13 — recounting the nearly deadly 1970 moon mission —  the heroic NASA mission director says, “Failure is not an option.”

The real hero — Gene Kranz — never said this.   It’s a scriptwriter’s creation.   After the movie’s success, Mr. Kranz did use the phrase as the title of his memoir.

Failure is always an option.  We recently received several reminders of this reality:

The final report on Air France Flight 447 found that “the crew was in a state of near-total loss of control” because of inconsistent data reports.

A  Japanese parliamentary commission found the Fukushima nuclear emergency was a “profoundly man-made disaster.” (See a good summary from the BBC.)

Last week from Columbus, Ohio to Charleston, West Virginia to Washington DC the best laid plans of intelligent people and competent organizations unraveled before an unexpected strong storm.

There was failure.   There was passivity, fear, denial, selfishness and greed.

At Fukushima and in response to the derecho there was also creativity, courage, patience,  generosity, self-sacrifice and resilience.  We don’t know enough about what happened over the South Atlantic to be sure, but I expect even in those horrific 3 minutes, 30 seconds the full range of humanity could be found.

Across all these situations there was uncertainty.   Some uncertainty is innate to nearly every context.  But we are increasingly adept at self-creating even more.

Responding to the Air France Final Report, William Voss, President of the Flight Safety Foundation, told The Guardian, “Pilots a generation ago would have… understood what was going on, but [the AF447 pilots] were so conditioned to rely on the automation that they were unable to do this,” he said. “This is a problem not just limited to Air France or Airbus, it’s a problem we’re seeing around the world because pilots are being conditioned to treat automated processed data as truth, and not compare it with the raw information that lies underneath.”

It’s a problem well-beyond commercial aviation.  We organize much of our lives around the assumption that automated processes will persist and critical information will be available.  We expect to be warned of a threat, about the location and condition of our family and friends,  and about when a crisis will be over.  We expect to be able to access our credit and cash accounts. We expect to be able to travel from here to there to purchase what we need and reunite with those we love.   If necessary, we expect to be able to call 911 and quickly get professional help.  Over the last two or three generations everyday life has — increasingly — demonstrated these are reasonable expectations.

We are habituated to success.

But like the Air France pilots, when our information habit is not being fed our response can be self-destructive.   In the absence of information we tend to continue as usual or focus on restoring access to information. Both behaviors can significantly increase our risk by ignoring rapidly changing conditions and/or delaying thoughtful engagement with changed conditions.

The Apollo 13 Review Board found the accident, “…resulted from an unusual combination of mistakes, coupled with a somewhat deficient and unforgiving design.”

The deficient and unforgiving design that many of us — private citizens as well as public safety agencies — have adopted is dependence on just-in-time information.

My twenty-something children  seldom pre-plan in any significant way. They expect cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, and email to allow them to seize the best opportunities that unfold.   It works and I envy them.  Except when it does not work.  Except when these digital networks fail.

Much of our consumer culture is built around the same approach. We have become an economy, a society optimized for just-in-time. It can be a beautiful dance of  wonderful possibilities emerging in a moment and rapidly synchronized across time and space.  Until the music stops.

In the three examples above (not all catastrophic) there is a shared over-confidence in the fail-safe capabilities of protective design and effective communications.   In each of these cases the design bias increased risk exposure, communications was confusing or worse,  and both the design and the communications protocols complicated effective human response once risk was experienced.

There are several contending definitions of resilience.  Something that all the definitions I have encountered share is an expectation of failure.  Resilience is in many cases the learned-response to failure.  If it doesn’t kill you, you can learn from it.   The good news — and the bad news — is that catastrophes are sufficiently rare that we don’t get many opportunities to learn about catastrophic resilience.  What is a “forgiving design” for encountering catastrophe?

In April 2010 Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, called the mission a “successful failure.” Lovell explained that while Apollo 13 never reached the moon, there was  ”a great success in the ability of people to take an almost certain catastrophe and turn it into a successful recovery.”

Envision a complete blackout of telecommunications (voice and data) across a region, say, extending from the mouth of the Susquehanna River south to the Potomac River and from about the Bull Run Mountains in the West to the Chesapeake Bay in the East.  This encompasses roughly 5 million residents.

Such a blackout for any sustained period  is an “an almost certain catastrophe”.   Can we envision how to “turn it into a successful recovery?”  What could be done?  What should be done?  What does the mental exercise (more?) tell us about our dependencies, our operational options, mitigation opportunities, and creativity?

I know, I know… such an event is wildly unlikely… nearly unimaginable.  Just about as silly as a bad thermostat undoing a mission to the moon.

–+–

This is part of a series examining potential relationships between catastrophe, resilience, and civil liberties.  We have spent the last several Friday’s looking mostly at catastrophe.  With this post we are pivoting toward resilience.   There have been a couple of great conversations.   Please contribute to the conversation by selecting the comment function immediately below.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 12, 2012

All Star play-by-play

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 12, 2012

The Homeland Security All Star games (aka the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearings) on Wednesday and Thursday gave us examples of two very different kinds of major league play.

The National League came out strong with Mike Hayden at the top of the batting order, followed by Brian Jenkins and Frank Cilluffo.  These long-time pros demonstrated how counter-terrorism remains the bread-and-butter of the game.  Cybersecurity gets a lot of smart talk, but mostly as  another place to protect from bad guys.

Last up Wednesday was Steve Flynn,  the first American League (aka  Coastie League) batter at plate.   American League players are usually more eclectic than their  National League peers and Flynn did not disappoint, making a couple of big hits that rallied the whole community.

Thursday morning opened with Jane Harman in the batter’s box.   While “Darlin’ Jane” has played in both leagues, she showed her National League origins by focusing on enhancing intelligence operations.

Up next was the American League heavy-hitter Thad “Big Boy” Allen claiming that the key to homeland security success is, “Confronting Complexity and Leading Unity of Effort.”   Those old terrorist fast balls ain’t nothin’ compared to the complexity knuckle balls.

Richard Skinner was last up to bat.  I think he was actually playing Cricket.

–+–

Here’s the prepared testimony and video for Wednesday.

Here’s the prepared testimony and video for Thursday.

Just like ESPN already TIVOed.  Enjoy.

HSToday has a piece summarizing the Wednesday testimony.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

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.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 10, 2012

Homeland security’s all star old timers’ game

Filed under: Congress and HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on July 10, 2012

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold two hearings this week about The Future of Homeland Security.

July 11th features a session on “Evolving and Emerging Threats.” On July 12th, the topic is the “Evolution of the Homeland Security Department’s Roles and Missions.”

Based on the list of witnesses, homeland security’s future looks a lot like its past.

The lineup is only two people short of an all star team:

  • Michael Hayden
  • Brian Jenkins
  • Frank Cilluffo
  • Stephen Flynn
  • Jane Harman
  • Thad Allen
  • Richard Skinner

I wonder what these first rate intellects will say. I wonder what they will say that is new or substantially different from what they’ve said and written before.

I wonder where homeland security’s all stars get their new ideas from.

Or maybe their ideas about homeland security’s future won’t be new. Maybe these dedicated, proven and honorable leaders will make the same points about homeland security they frequently make when they write or talk.

Maybe — like major league baseball’s all stars — they are not expected to do anything new. Perhaps it’s enough simply to watch them do again what they do often and well.

Maybe they are all stars because their ideas need to be restated, motivated by the eternal hope that words will lead to behaviors that might influence how homeland security evolves.

I wonder if anyone will actually listen to what these people say.

——————————-

Baseball’s all star game matters because the league that wins (tonight, 5 pm Pacific time, Fox TV and radio) gets home field advantage for the world series.

Home field advantage matters. It certainly helped St. Louis in 2011 (that, plus the baseball gods smiling on David Freese)

I would like to believe senate hearings matter.

I recall from the “How a bill becomes law” chapter in my 9th grade civics book that congress holds hearings to discover what the problems are, and then writes laws to solve those problems.

I don’t know the political science literature well enough to know how accurately that chapter describes reality.

But, I have my beliefs.

——————————-

Speaking of beliefs about homeland security, Jonathan Haidt — in his wonderfully written, cognitively disruptive book, The Righteous Mind — cites the work of Tim Gilovich, a social psychologist (p. 84):

His [Gilovich's] simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then … we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of psuedo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks.

In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.”

The best part about the Can I and the Must I reactions is they often happen below the level of conscious awareness.

I’m looking forward to this week’s hearings so I can test myself.

What will I hear that triggers my “Can I believe it” reflex?

What will I hear that triggers my “Must I believe it” reflex?

——————————-

I wonder what would happen if the Senate held a homeland security hearing and no one listened, because they didn’t know how?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 9, 2012

What do radiation and strong winds have in common?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 9, 2012

To be honest, the following reports/articles/information strike me as interesting and worth sharing.  Have I read them at this point?  Nope.  Can I recommend any summaries?  Nope.  Do I have lessons to draw from this collected wisdom?  Nope.

Just hoping you find these as potentially interesting, informative, and enlightening as I hope they just may be…

A panel of “independent” experts has recently released a review of the underlying causes and effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident.  The executive summary is 88 pages long.  This is a serious report.  I’m going to work my way through it and I would hazard a guess that it would be worth the time of many of you to do the same.  As reporting describes it:

Last year’s nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant was a “profoundly man-made disaster,” the result of poor earthquake-safety planning and faulty post-tsunami communication, a report from an independent parliamentary panel said Thursday.

The sharp criticism of the Japanese government and the nuclear operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) provided an alternative narrative to an earlier investigation by Tepco, whose in-house panel concluded that the disaster was unforeseeable, spurred by a “giant tsunami beyond our imagination.”

In contrast, the report released Thursday suggested that the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunami may have caused critical damage that led to the series of meltdowns. It argued that the nuclear power plants should have been made more quake-proof, and blamed lax safety measures on what it called the country’s powerful and “collusive” decision-makers and on a conformist culture that allowed them to operate with little scrutiny.

The “strong winds” reporting has to do with UMass students’ efforts to document recovery in Western Massachusetts following last year’s tornadoes.  The articles seem to be behind relatively new Boston Globe firewall, but I’m sure if you search hard enough you will find copies

One year ago, students in a UMass investigative journalism class began looking into the aftermath of the tornadoes that devastated parts of Western Massachusetts last June 1. Today, their work appeared in The Boston Globe newspaper, its website and on Boston.com. The project is part of an ongoing partnership between The Globe and the UMass Journalism program. Students owe a special thanks to The Globe’s Scott Allen and Matt Carroll, who played large roles in guiding this project

Additionally, students produced several written sidebars and several video narratives. All the content can be found here:

* “Springfield neighborhood still reels a year after deadly tornado,” by Rachel Roberts, Julie Varney, and Matt McCarron and Matt Carroll. Interactive graphic | Photos.

* “Family touched by Massachusetts tornado tragedy uses faith to carry on,” By Amy Chaunt and Anna Meiler.

* Video: Juan Guerrero talks about wife’s death, by Amy Chaunt and Anna Meiler.

* “Flashbacks and fears a year after the tornado,” by Kim Kern and Noelle Richard.

* Video: “Children of the Storm,” By Kim Kern and Noelle Richard.

* “Monson ‘volunteers’ face controversy over getting paid,” by Amy Chaunt

* “One year after tornado, Livchin family struggles with loss,” by Rachel Roberts and Dean Curran.

* “Reliving the tornado: ‘I thought my family was dead,’” By Amy Chaunt and Rachel Roberts.

* “Springfield plan provides hope for future after tornado,” By T.J. Houpes

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

Biowatch: A Homeland Security Nightmare?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 9, 2012

This past weekend the LA Times published a scathing story on the Biowatch program.  A few select quotes from former federal, state, and local public health leaders:

“I can’t find anyone in my peer group who believes in BioWatch,” said Dr. Ned Calonge, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment from 2002 to 2010.

 

“The only times it goes off, it’s wrong. I just think it’s a colossal waste of money. It’s a stupid program.”

 

“It is not realistic to undertake a nationwide, blanket deployment of biosensors,” the advisory panel, named the JASON group, concluded.

 

“In the senior-level discussions, the issue of efficacy really wasn’t on the table,” recalled Reeves, who has since retired from the Army. “It was get it done, tell the president we did good, tell the nation that they’re protected.… I thought at the time this was good PR, to calm the nation down. But an effective system? Not a chance.”

 

“The idea behind BioWatch — that you could put out these ambient air filters and they would provide you with the information to save people exposed to a biological attack — it’s a concept that you could only put together in theory,” Calonge said in an interview. “It’s a poorly conceived strategy for doing early detection that is inherently going to pick up false positives.”

 

Biologist David M. Engelthaler, who led responses to several BioWatch false positives while serving as Arizona’s bioterrorism coordinator, is one of the many public health officials who see it differently.

“A Homeland Security or national security pipe dream,” he said, “became our nightmare.”

 

(By the way, when your comic-book sounding, super-smart advisory panel called the “JASONS” doesn’t think its a good idea, maybe….it’s not a good idea…just sayin’.)

The failing of the system, if one can call it that, is two fold:

Detecting an attack requires a system that is not only discriminating but also highly sensitive — to guarantee that it won’t miss traces of deadly germs that might have been dispersed over a large area.

BioWatch is neither discriminating enough for the one task nor sensitive enough for the other.

And before he brings this up in the comments, longtime commenter and sometime blogger Alan Wolfe (and others) has commented that this program was destined to fail as it aimed to apply a military battlefield detection mindset to the civilian realm.  Doesn’t appear he (and they) were so far off:

The system’s inherent flaws and the missing scientific work did not slow its deployment. After Bush’s speech, the White House assigned Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Reeves, whose office was responsible for developing defenses against chemical and biological attacks, to get BioWatch up and running.

Over the previous year, Reeves had overseen placement of units similar to the BioWatch samplers throughout the Washington area, including the Pentagon, where several false alarms for anthrax and plague later occurred.

Based on that work and computer modeling of the technology’s capabilities, Reeves did not see how BioWatch could reliably detect attacks smaller than, for example, a mass-volume spraying from a crop duster.

Nevertheless, the priority was to carry out Bush’s directive, swiftly.

I could keep quoting from this extensively investigated article.  It is definitely worth your time reading.

What is disturbing is that there is an effort in Congress to combine the office responsible for Bioshield, the DHS Office of Health Affairs, with the people responsible for paying for radiation detectors that don’t work, DNDO.  No, really:

In a little-noticed section of the legislative report that accompanies the fiscal 2013 homeland security spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee calls on DHS officials to develop a plan to consolidate the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Office of Health Affairs.

So what’s a few million dollars among federal agency programs designed to detect threats that don’t actually detect any threats?

What’s really wrong with this picture is that it detracts from efforts that truly decrease honest-to-goodness bio, rad, and nuclear threats.  Preparedness, response, and recovery should be emphasized for the bio and rad threat, while securing fissile material should be the main goal in defeating the nuclear threat.  These are real risks and threats that will outlive the current and near-future iterations of Al Qaeda.  Yet the solutions aren’t that expensive or difficult to implement.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 6, 2012

Resilience = (Strength * Flexibility) / (Impact * Frequency)… maybe?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on July 6, 2012

One week after the derecho’s destruction, roughly one-third of West Virginians do not have electric power.  Yesterday afternoon (Thursday) a strong storm hit the Charleston area with wind gusts recorded up to 59 miles per hour.  Another 20,000 electric customers were knocked off the grid (again?).

The lack of power has complicated communications (including credit/debit card verification), pumping of fuel, access to cash (ATMs out of service), availability of ice, safe storage of food and pharma, and a host of other daily needs.  Given the extraordinary heat the lack of air conditioning has in several cases been life-threatening.

Above is the three day weather forecast for the state capital.

Last evening a West Virginia friend wrote, “As they usually do, people are showing amazing resiliency.  However, the longer this goes it is clear there is considerable strain.  The financial impact of replacing lost food and the money spent on fuel for generators is creating a significant group of people who were financially stable but now have moved into a situation where they need help.”

The uncommon, no-notice, hard-hitting June 29 derecho was — despite widespread use of the term — not a catastrophic event.   No fundamental, irreversible shift in economic, political, or cultural behavior would unfold from this single experience of risks exposed.

But if a sequence of non-catastrophic events are experienced in a particular place over a compressed period of time, when does the sum of non-catastrophic outcomes become a catastrophe?

MONDAY UPDATE

Strong storms did move through West Virginia on Sunday.  Roughly 20,000 customers who had power, lost power.   This brought the total number of homes and apartments off-the-grid to over 60,000.  The number of people directly affected is estimated at about 120,000.

This was the second strong storm to hit West Virginia since the June 29 derecho.

In response to the struggles of the last week, there is some talk of West Virginia following Florida and Louisiana in requiring a portion of gasoline stations to have emergency generators to support pumping when the grid goes down.

Probably a final comment on the derecho:  Tracking media coverage by the Washington Post, Columbus (OH) Dispatch, and the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail, the differences have been stunning.  The Post has torn into the alleged incompetence (or worse) of the electric and telecommunications companies.  Meanwhile the Daily Mail has highlighted how so many of the repair crews traveled great distances and are working long hours to restore service.   The Dispatch has leaned toward Post-like criticism, but not quite as far. (About 47,000 Ohio customers are still without power.)

The Daily Mail  – and West Virginia political leaders — have mostly focused on heroic stories of neighbors serving neighbors, the kindness of strangers, and individual resilience.  The Post — and mid-Atlantic political leaders — have focused much more on situating blame.  All have reported similar facts and statistics.  But the context for the facts has reflected two very different worldviews.

Today’s Charleston Daily Mail has a front-page story that begins, “Kanawha County’s director of emergency management hopes the recent storm will persuade people they need to be better prepared when disaster strikes. ”People need to be prepared to take care of themselves for at least 72 hours,” said Dale Petry, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency.”

I do not want to minimize issues of systemic vulnerability for which large providers should be held accountable.  But I am struck by the role of media and political leadership in determining whether a population responds as victims or survivors.   A victim can blame others.  A survivor is focused on more productive tasks.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 5, 2012

Derecho decouples dependencies: Who or what is responsible for the results?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 5, 2012

Derecho forming in Midwest and barreling to the Mid-Atlantic

The implications of last week’s derecho are a matter of some debate. Please contribute to the debate through the comment function at the close of this post.

TIME: Friday. June 29, 2012.  Minimal notice.  Emerged in Southern Great Lakes during  mid-afternoon, hit National Capital Region between 10:30PM to 11:30PM.  (By statute the National Capital Region consists of the District of Columbia, 2 Maryland counties, 4 Virginia counties, and the City of Alexandria.)

SPACE: 650 miles deep (Northern Indiana to Atlantic seaboard), 270 miles wide (roughly Norfolk VA to Philadelphia PA).

CHARACTERISTICS: Fast-moving, averaging 60 miles per hour.  Hard hitting with sustained winds ranging between 60 to 90 miles-per-hour, very strong downbursts (and even stronger microbursts, producing tornado-like outcomes), widespread lightning strikes, and hail.  Wind-gusts of over 80 miles per hour were reported along an arc extending from Baltimore (MD) in the north to Richmond (VA) in the south.

Derecho’s are difficult to predict.  Most meteorologists are surprised the June 29 squall line survived its transit of the Appalachians.   Descending toward the coastal plain the derecho was quickly strengthened by the hot, humid atmospheric instability spawned by a record-breaking hot day.  The June 29 temperature in Washington DC had reached 104 degrees.

Again and again the June 29 derecho has been described as a “no-notice hurricane.”

FREQUENCY: Uncommon.  Usually less than one per year anywhere in North America.  Typically no more than one every four years in the mid-Atlantic.

CONSEQUENCES: Twenty-six deaths,  over 5 million without electricity for up to one week, widespread telecommunications outages (including 911 system failures), water quality concerns in West Virginia, suburban Maryland and other locations, transportation system stress due to reduced fuel pumping capabilities, traffic signal failures, and increased traffic, as a result of both the storm and Independence Day holiday.  Economic impact — from both physical destruction and loss-of-trade — not yet calculable.

ANALYSIS: Following is a Washington Post editorial that was written about 72 hours after the event.  It is, I suppose, a kind of consensus analysis.  I am concerned this consensus gives insufficient attention to several strategic realities.  The Post editorial board’s original analysis is in italics.  My counter-argument is indented non-italic.

Powerful storm exposes lack of disaster preparedness

THE FREAK SUMMER STORM that laid waste to much of the mid-Atlantic on Friday night left chaos in its howling wake — and a mess of questions about the region’s capacity to cope with the unexpected.

The issue is framed as the “capacity to cope”.  In this framing and throughout the editorial’s  analysis there is a predisposition to an effective response that will quickly and fully restore the prior condition.  This response-orientation is too narrow.

In Northern Virginia, where Verizon handles most 911 calls, emergency phone service simply did not exist for much of the weekend, even as residents scrambled to absorb a surge of bona fide emergencies. Suburban Maryland’s main power provider, Pepco, once again scrambled to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers who have come almost to expect wildly inconvenient outages in extreme temperatures.

What these — and many other — examples point to is the increasingly interdependent character of the technological webs on which we have built our daily lives.  On most days these interdependencies generate substantial benefits.  But on bad days the same connections can be a collection of cascading vulnerabilities.   The rush-to-blame service providers is too easy and — more importantly — obscures fundamental issues of real risk readiness.

In both cases, residents of the national capital region could only wince as they imagined what might befall them in more cataclysmic circumstances — a terrorist attack targeting not just population centers but critical infrastructure, for instance — and pondered the painfully evident lack of disaster preparedness.

I agree this was not a cataclysm.  As bad as it was (still is for many), this was far short of a catastrophe.  I agree there is good cause for the National Capital Region to anticipate a real catastrophe.

But what sort of “preparedness” is  envisioned?  Is it preparedness to put Humpty-Dumpty together again?  The nursery rhyme  has already warned us in this regard.

Malicious intent — criminal, terrorist or otherwise — brings with it a psycho-social multiplier effect that deserves our attention.  But intentional threats often pale beside natural and accidental threats.  Consider the potential implications of a New Madrid seismic event or an accidental collapse of the regional grid.

“We have emergencies,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. “Especially in the national capital region, we are susceptible to things happening, having public safety compromised.”

How, then, can the region be so ill-prepared?

I don’t expect to convince anyone who has been sweating out the power outage since Friday night, but the pace of restoration has seemed to me reasonably rapid.

When a hurricane or blizzard is forecast, the owners/operators of critical infrastructure have a day or more to prepare.  This event-specific preparation often involves pre-deploying and enhancing response assets.  If at all possible, additional electrical and telecommunications repair crews will be brought in from other regions outside the cone-of-uncertainty. The general population, famously, stocks up in advance and — in the case of hurricanes — may move out of the way.

On June 29, even if someone had gone to red alert as the derecho crossed the Ohio River, the realities of time and space eliminated this kind of preparation.  That’s why no-notice — or minimum notice — events are so fundamentally different than hurricanes or blizzards or — with recent advances in weather prediction — even tornadoes.

That’s the question for leaders to contemplate as the cleanup continues. And not just elected leaders, but corporate ones too: Verizon and Pepco both owe the public a much more thorough accounting and, more to the point, explanation of why it is taking so long to set things right again.

It will always take “so long to set things right again” if we persist in the illusion that we can wait to respond or that our preparedness is mostly a matter of being ready to respond.  Given the nature of our interdependent systems and their shared vulnerability to non-typical events, we are much better served to focus on prevention, mitigation, and resilience.  We also ought to be more creative in conceiving and executing recovery operations.  Failures will recur.  Catastrophic failures of distributed interdependent engineered systems are  infrequent… but practically inevitable.

Verizon, for its part, has been opaque about the 911 service crash in Northern Virginia, furnishing only vague answers to questions about why its primary and backup power sources were vulnerable and what can be done to avoid a repetition.

Then there’s Pepco. In the annals of corporate spin control, the company’s unabashed announcement Monday that it planned to restore electricity to 90 percent of its Maryland and District customers by late in the evening of July 6 — seven days after the storm — must qualify for a special mention in the Lowered Bar Category.

Or are these examples of honest uncertainty and worst-case realism? One self-described  weather nerd told me, “A derecho is a 240-plus mile front of 80-plus simultaneous F-1 tornadoes.”   Yet by Tuesday midnight telecommunications systems were — if still a bit unstable — mostly working.  Electric utilities were reporting restoration of the network’s backbone and were turning to the very time  consuming process of reconnecting individual customers.  The number of National Capital Region outages had been reduced from about 1.5 million to less than 110,000 in less than four days for an uncommon, no-notice, very hard-hitting event.  Despite extraordinary heat the public health consequences have been modest.  The celebration of Independence Day on the National Mall proceeded.  (Contrast this with the situation in West Virginia where late Wednesday 280,000 remained without power, down roughly 50 percent from the peak on Friday night.)

Should customers for whom power comes back midweek really be impressed that they suffered for just four or five days instead of for seven? And what of the 10 percent of customers whose service will still not be back by Friday night? Are they condemned to a second weekend with no air conditioning or refrigeration?

All of us might take a few moments to consider the connections — technological and human — on which we depend.  What is the nature of these dependencies?  What is the consequence of — unexpectedly — losing these connections?  Is there anything we can do — now, today — to mitigate these consequences?

Consciously or not we typically make one of four choices regarding risk: 1) we transfer the risk to someone else, 2) we accept the risk, 3) we reduce the risk, or 4) we avoid the risk.  The Washington Post editors seem to be trying to transfer all the risk responsibility to Verizon, Pepco, and other providers.  Certainly these owners/operators should be held to high standards.

But any attempt to transfer all risk will only hide a high level of accepted risk.  The level of risk accepted will be even higher because it is hidden.

It is delusional and dangerous if we — each and all of us — do not accept at least equal responsibility for the kinds of risk outlined above.  What can each of us do to reduce the risk associated with the consequences of the most hard-hitting events?

It’s little consolation to imagine that some things might have been worse. Pepco, despite leaving hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses in the lurch, did manage to prioritize restoration of service to hospitals, nursing homes and, critically, Metro. Dominion Virginia Power was also able to restore electricity relatively quickly to hospitals in Northern Virginia as well as to the main jail in Fairfax County.

Damn with faint praise?  Might this just be an indication of planning, preparedness, and a mitigation strategy in action?

The storm gave rise to massive inconveniences and discomforts across the Washington area. Usefully, it also exposed the region’s absence of reliable fail-safes, spotty preparedness and sluggish response times in the face of emergencies. Now it’s up to leaders to identify and act on those shortcomings.

Yes.  We should treat this as a near-miss and learn every lesson possible.

But inconvenience and discomfort are the least of my concerns.  Someday a no-notice, potentially catastrophic disaster will keep power off for more than a week. Telecommunications will be similarly disrupted.  Fuel will be in short-supply.  Delivery of water, food, and pharma will be uncertain.  Our response may be further complicated by concern over biological, radiological, or some other potential contamination: natural, accidental, or intentional.

Leaders do have an important role to play.  Part of that role is attending carefully to improving response capabilities.  But even more important — and too often ignored — is identifying opportunities to prevent, mitigate, and improve resilience.

And it is not only a matter for political and corporate leaders.   Organizing our economy and much of our lives around various interdependent distributed networks involves both risks and rewards.  We tend to take the rewards for granted and deny the risks.  This is irresponsible.  It is unrealistic.  It is a recipe for catastrophe.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 4, 2012

Democratic Vistas: As fuel to flame

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 4, 2012

Above: Walt Whitman about age 50 (The Walt Whitman Archives)

On this anniversary of the nation’s birth, a few excerpts from Democratic Vistas by Walt Whitman.  This was written in 1870, though you might have guessed yesterday.

The full essay is available online from the University of Virginia.  Especially on this day, I encourage you to find the time to read Whitman’s complete consideration.

When we call for resilience it begs the question, what is our essential nature?  If we are to bounce back under stress, what appearance or character or function is to be reclaimed?

–+–

Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk’d much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.

…..

The purpose of democracy — supplanting old belief in the necessary absoluteness of establish’d dynastic rulership, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic, as furnishing the only security against chaos, crime, and ignorance — is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the State; and that, while other theories, as in the past histories of nations, have proved wise enough, and indispensable perhaps for their conditions, this, as matters now stand in our civilized world, is the only scheme worth working from, as warranting results like those of Nature’s laws, reliable, when once establish’d, to carry on themselves.

…..

Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training-school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes, fills these arenas, and fully satisfies, out of the action in them, irrespective of success. Whatever we do not attain, we at any rate attain the experiences of the fight, the hardening of the strong campaign, and throb with currents of attempt at least. Time is ample. Let the victors come after us. Not for nothing does evil play its part among us. Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of their protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not. The clouds break a little, and the sun shines out — but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again, as if to last forever. Yet is there an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances, capitulate. Vive, the attack — the perennial assault! Vive, the unpopular cause — the spirit that audaciously aims — the never-abandon’d efforts, pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents.

…..

To practically enter into politics is an important part of American personalism. To every young man, north and south, earnestly studying these things, I should here, as an offset to what I have said in former pages, now also say, that may-be to views of very largest scope, after all, perhaps the political, (perhaps the literary and sociological,) America goes best about its development its own way — sometimes, to temporary sight, appaling enough. It is the fashion among dillettants and fops (perhaps I myself am not guiltless,) to decry the whole formulation of the active politics of America, as beyond redemption, and to be carefully kept away from. See you that you do not fall into this error. America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dillettants, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well. As for you, I advise you to enter more strongly yet into politics. I advise every young man to do so. Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote. Disengage yourself from parties. They have been useful, and to some extent remain so; but the floating, uncommitted electors, farmers, clerks, mechanics, the masters of parties — watching aloof, inclining victory this side or that side — such are the ones most needed, present and future. For America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.

…..

I can conceive a community, to-day and here, in which, on a sufficient scale, the perfect personalities, without noise meet; say in some pleasant western settlement or town, where a couple of hundred best men and women, of ordinary worldly status, have by luck been drawn together, with nothing extra of genius or wealth, but virtuous, chaste, industrious, cheerful, resolute, friendly and devout. I can conceive such a community organized in running order, powers judiciously delegated — farming, building, trade, courts, mails, schools, elections, all attended to; and then the rest of life, the main thing, freely branching and blossoming in each individual, and bearing golden fruit. I can see there, in every young and old man, after his kind, and in every woman after hers, a true personality, develop’d, exercised proportionately in body, mind, and spirit. I can imagine this case as one not necessarily rare or difficult, but in buoyant accordance with the municipal and general requirements of our times. And I can realize in it the culmination of something better than any stereotyped eclat of history or poems. Perhaps, unsung, undramatized, unput in essays or biographies — perhaps even some such community already exists, in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, or somewhere, practically fulfilling itself, and thus outvying, in cheapest vulgar life, all that has been hitherto shown in best ideal pictures.

…..

As fuel to flame, and flame to the heavens, so must wealth, science, materialism — even this democracy of which we make so much — unerringly feed the highest mind, the soul. Infinitude the flight: fathomless the mystery. Man, so diminutive, dilates beyond the sensible universe, competes with, outcopes space and time, meditating even one great idea. Thus, and thus only, does a human being, his spirit, ascend above, and justify, objective Nature, which, probably nothing in itself, is incredibly and divinely serviceable, indispensable, real, here. And as the purport of objective Nature is doubtless folded, hidden, somewhere here — as somewhere here is what this globe and its manifold forms, and the light of day, and night’s darkness, and life itself, with all its experiences, are for — it is here the great literature, especially verse, must get its inspiration and throbbing blood. Then may we attain to a poetry worthy the immortal soul of man, and which, while absorbing materials, and, in their own sense, the shows of Nature, will, above all, have, both directly and indirectly, a freeing, fluidizing, expanding, religious character, exulting with science, fructifying the moral elements, and stimulating aspirations, and meditations on the unknown.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 3, 2012

Call Congresswoman Sanchez maybe, and have a happy 4th while you’re at it

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on July 3, 2012

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez … represent California’s 47th Congressional District, which includes the cities of Anaheim, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Fullerton in Orange County.

She was first elected to Congress in 1997. She serves as Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and is the senior female member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

(It’s the last point that gives me an opening to include this on Homeland Security Watch)

Congresswoman Sanchez (at the 1:04 mark) would like everyone to have a “safe and happy 4th of July.”

We join her in that wish. For you and for the nation.

No maybes.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

July 1, 2012

Cascading consequences case-study (not catastrophic, so far)

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on July 1, 2012

The aftermath of the Derecho storm that exploded across the upper midwest to mid-Atlantic on Friday has exposed a series of cascading dependencies.  None of these dependencies are surprising.  But the scope and scale of the event offers a very public case-study for what is usually obscured in the rapid response to smaller events.

I will focus mostly on the National Capital Region, because that’s where I experienced the event.

Friday’s record-breaking heat in the Washington DC area reached 104 degrees. An unexpected late afternoon meeting kept me in the capital until rush-hour.  The air-conditioning in my car failed.  I bailed off I-395 and got a hotel room.  I was given a room on the top — eleventh — floor.  The room’s AC was struggling.  No doubt the roof-top temperature was much higher than 104.

At about 10:45 I was awakened by a high pitched squeal.   My room faced West-Southwest.  Straightline winds — estimated at 60 to 90 miles-per-hour — were pushing against the window and whistling through its frame.

A tall wall of lighting filled the far Western horizon.  It rolled toward me, swamping the glittering urban landscape.  As the strobe dance of lightening  approached, it was as if a black wave covered the ground.   A mile away a blazing bright tower suddenly disappeared.  I was next.  No lights. No air air conditioning.  No way to open the windows.

Roughly 1.3 million people in the National Capital Region lost power on Friday night.  On Sunday morning the Washington Post’s lead story reports, “As the region suffered through a second day of 100-degree-plus heatpower companies said it could take up to a week before everyone has electricity again.”

Because of the loss of power, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, serving much of the Maryland suburbs, was unable to refill its water system over-night.  With another record-breaking hot day on Saturday, there was the threat of the system being sufficiently drained to lose system integrity.  Mandatory water restrictions were put in place.  (Once a water system experiences negative-pressure it can take weeks to clean and recover system integrity.)  Other water utilities were also calling for reduced usage and issuing boil orders.

Because of the loss of power, many service stations were unable to pump gas.  My wife was unable to fill up in Charlottesville (VA), found an open station in the Shenandoah Valley, needed gas again in Charleston (WV) and after passing closed station after closed station, sat in a line for nearly an hour with her gauge on E.  The station was only taking cash because their credit-card verification connection was offline.

When my wife called me  she was about to leave the gas line, frustrated and angry with all the “cheaters.”  I was able to tell her the utility map showed severe outages extending West to Huntington and into Kentucky.  Later she called to confirm she would have been stranded if she had not gotten gas when she did.  She also reported periodic traffic congestion much greater (and weirder) than the typical start of the Independence Day weekend.  Her speculation was that a lot of people were out looking for functioning grocery stores, gas stations, and such.

I returned to our Blue Ridge mountain-top very early Saturday morning and while I am, obviously, online and was able to use my smartphone at the height of the storm, there are increasing reports of communications problems.  According to the Washington Post:

Cellular and Internet services were down after Friday night’s storm (http://wapo.st/KSPWn8 ), as reports of slow or intermittent service came in from Virginia, Maryland and the District. A Verizon representative confirmed that there had been “voice outage and no signal” in parts of Virginia, including Herndon, Manassas and Woodbridge. In a statement, Verizon said that as commercial power was being restored, some services would come back and that they were working to fix service.

AT&T is also reporting outages, including to some land-line phones. Several 911 centers  were blacked out or had functional problems as a result of electrical failures.  Even redundant systems, with emergency power back-ups, in some cases failed.  There has not yet been time to determine the full cause.

This was a high-impact event doing direct damage to a variety of infrastructures.  The scale of destruction and disruption was considerable.  The geographic scope of the event was much greater than typical.  This scope-and-scale is straining recovery capabilities.   Electric utilities are, for example, needing to call on mutual aid from much farther away than usual.

We all know, but do not always acknowledge, our dependence on the grid, on the water system, on the fuel distribution network, on the credit-and-debit card verification system, et cetera, et cetera.  Events like this force us to recognize our reality. Will this event encourage more attention to systemic mitigation?  Probably not in a sustainable or systematic way.

Even with the death, destruction, and discomfort this is far from a catastrophe.

But… on Sunday morning the Weather.com forecast is headlined: Hot, Humid and Hellish.  Clearly public safety agencies and the population have been proactive in minimizing day-after effects.  How about three days after… five days after?   What if the response-and-recovery period is punctuated by another hard hit?

Speaking Saturday to news media at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center, Governor Bob McDonnell said, “This is a very dangerous situation… It will take several days to restore all power, so Virginians should plan accordingly. This is not a one-day situation; it is a multiday challenge.”  The same could be said for a wide region extending back to the Great Lakes.

A potential catastrophe unfolds over time and space, cascading across an ever-expanding landscape, exposing and uncoupling dependencies as it goes.  The potential for catastrophe increases as the cascades recur in the same space with increasing frequency.   So far this is just another tough time that we will, probably, treat as a rare event rather than a leading indicator.

MONDAY MORNING UPDATE:

More than 600,000 electric utility customers in the National Capital Region continue without power.  Some of the utilities in the mid-Atlantic do not expect to achieve the 90 percent restoration benchmark before Friday.

The same storm that hit the DC metro area pummeled Ohio with even more force.  Initially 1 million Ohioans were without power, as of Monday morning 200,000 remain in the dark.  In West Virginia 500,000 remain power-less and the Governor ordered non-essential state workers to stay home today.

Public transit in the National Capital Region is mostly operating at full capacity.

The Federal government and most private employers will open for business-as-usual in Washington.

The weather forecast for the Washington DC area is for a high of 95 degrees.  Similar highs are predicted for the remainder of the week.

The following is excerpted from the Sunday Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail:

The storm, which swept from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay, devastated parts of Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and the District of Columbia. But West Virginia took the biggest hit, according to FirstEnergy.

“It affected it fairly catastrophically,” company spokesman Todd Meyers said Sunday.

“Parkersburg took the brunt of the storm, with 90-plus mile-per-hour winds.”

Forecasters on Friday predicted a number of storm cells, but no one expected a continuous line stretching from the Northern Panhandle to south of Huntington, Meyers said. “It blew across the entire state.

“In Ellenboro, a 500-kilovolt transmission line — it crunched three towers. That’s part of the interstate transmission grid, and it’s out.” Repair crews were at the scene Sunday, he said.

“They’ll build temporary structures and get that line back up by midweek, hopefully. Then in the fall, when you have less load, that’s when you’ll go back in and do permanent repairs.

“Our problem, why so many customers are out, this one damaged over 50 large transmission lines and 70 substations.”

Other details on this region-wide no-notice (little notice) event from The Baltimore Sun and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn

June 29, 2012

Learning and doing are too often different

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on June 29, 2012

Earlier today the President signed a Major Disaster Declaration for El Paso and Larimer counties in Colorado.

During his afternoon visit (seen above) to the fire ravaged western edge of Colorado Springs, the President remarked:

In the meantime, some lessons are being learned about how we can mitigate some of these fires in the future, and I know that the Mayor and Governor, and other local officials are already in those conversations.  It means that hopefully, out of this tragedy, some long-term planning occurs, and it may be that we can curb some of the damage that happens the next time, even though you obviously can’t fully control fires that are starting up in these mountains.

Some of these mitigation lessons had already been “learned” but not applied.  This is a recurring issue in risk-readiness.  We know more than we choose to recognize or implement.  A few examples of extant lessons:

Development at the wildland–urban interface and the mitigation of forest-fire risk (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) 2007

Specific to Colorado Springs:

Wildfire Risk and the Housing Market (2007)  Fascinating findings.  The Firewise website mentioned in the study is available at http://csfd.springsgov.com/ Basically, the Colorado Springs Fire Department provides parcel-by-parcel risk ratings for all houses in the wildland urban interface through a website.  One finding:

… some home buyers prefer a densely wooded lot or a house on a ridge. The results… suggest that pre-Web site, these positive amenity values outweighed the negative effect of wildfire risk on housing price… However post-Web site, the coefficients on the overall risk rating variables were no longer significant. This result suggests that post Web site, the positive amenity effects were offset by the increased wildfire risk associated with such parcels.

For even more please see a whole collection of prior findings from the USDA Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Lots of implications for recovery planning, future mitigation, and risk-awareness.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn
« Previous PageNext Page »