Let's Reexamine Emergency
Preparedness Needs

By Terrell E. Arnold

Recent media reports suggest that the new Department of Homeland Security got off on the wrong foot with promises of funding support for state and local preparedness. Not only is the Department hardly organized, but so far the Federal budget has not included enough money to get Secretary Ridge's new organization off the ground, much less meet the expectations of state and local authorities. Bush is blaming his Republican Congress for this, but it seems clear now that additional funding for state and local emergency preparedness activities may be both slow in coming and sparse on arrival. Before the Congress and Homeland Security move on from this point, it is worth examining with some care just what should be going on here, and what needs to be done.
The critical starting point is that the events of 9-11 did not alter the long-term spectrum of potential emergencies. Those attacks added a new example to the growing list of large explosive events and delivery devices, but it is worth remembering that the Kamikazi (the aircraft missile) was invented more than half a century ago during World War II. The new dimensions presented by 9-11 were (1) the largest casualty list in any recorded terrorist attack, and (2) the most difficult and expensive cleanup from any attack so far. Those dimensions appear to have bogged us down in the psychology of terrorist attacks and to have deflected us from serious focus on what realistically can be done about them.
What Has Changed?
As they so often do, media searched for ways to describe 9-11 that would make it different or unique, i.e., would sell the story, and they settled on the "first" and the "worst" of its kind, along with "the future will be radically different from the past". People forget. The worst air attacks we know about were on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were meant to terrorize the Japanese people, and they did. The 9-11 attacks were meant to terrorize our people, and they did. All are properly defined as acts of war, but 9-11 was delivered with conventional explosive materials.
Many decades ago someone commented, quite rightly for the time, "war is hell." But he could not have had any idea how much like hell modern war can be. With all the experimental weapons we may use on them, including MOAB, the rudely called 21,000-pound mother of all bombs, the Iraqi people may be the first to know. But the point here is that the extremes of mayhem that people can inflict on each other were demonstrated at Hiroshima more than 57 years ago.
The modern risk is that private parties or non-state actors might attack us with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. That is what 9-11 caused us really to worry about, but in reality that risk has been with us for quite a while, and little else in our risk environment has changed.
What Is The Pattern of Risks?
How did we define the risk environment up to 9-11? We worked with a fairly clear range of crisis events from high probability or frequent events with usually manageable consequences to low probability or infrequent events with potentially high, even unmanageable consequences. Loosely put that range covers anything from home or highway accidents to earthquakes high on the > Richter scale and, more recently, chemical, biological and nuclear, collectively, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attacks. That spectrum amply describes what Murphy's Law, nature, and human intemperance can do to us.
What Then Is New?
The basic and probably enduring problem is not new. It is simply that our planning, preparation and training, as well as our experience, are best for the low end and worst for the high-end calamities. We have always been most exposed at the high end of disaster. Generally nobody at the state and > local levels is either ready or equipped to cope with the big ones.
The definition of "big one" is not necessarily changed by WMDs, because at times nature can be as nasty as any WMD. The new element is recognition that somebody other than a government could do this to us, because at least a few governments have been capable of such mayhem for more than half a century. In that sense, the new element may be a fear of the randomness and uncertainty that is suggested by terrorism.
That new dimension centers on how much access to WMDs by terrorists has changed the risk/threat spectrum. No one really knows how much that spectrum has shifted, and 9-11 was no help on this point, because, as noted earlier, the tools used by the 9-11 attackers were gross but conventional. With such devices as the MOAB, we have hardly exhausted the mayhem conventional weapons can unleash.
The new challenge is how do we prepare for a non-quantified risk of a WMD attack by some person or group other than a government at war with us. This is a real enough risk, but it is not a threat until someone has a WMD, is capable of using it, and actually threatens to do so.
What Is The Funding Problem?
The complaints about funding, or lack of it, are based on a number of assumptions. First, as Homeland Security seems to be saying, the threat of terrorism means everybody has to be ready for everything. Second, terrorist attacks on the scale of 9-11 can happen anywhere. Third, when the terrorism balloon goes up you are on your own. Fourth, we face large new needs for emergency funding that did not exist before 9-11. All four assumptions are seriously flawed. Let's look at them in order.
1. Everybody has to be ready for everything. At the high probability, usually manageable consequences end of the spectrum that is not only true, it is what emergency managers are skilled to do. But even there from time to time an emergency exceeds capacity, and outside help is needed. That happens often with such cases as multi-jurisdictional fires and transport accidents involving toxic substances. From such experiences protocols have developed for equipment and personnel sharing. However, virtually no jurisdiction maintains every capability needed to handle a serious earthquake, or even a large and prolonged fire.
In such cases as the Loma Prieta earthquake or the Oakland, California firestorm, many different jurisdictions provide equipment and capabilities. This occurs according to reasonably well-established incident command practices. On average, response times for both primary and enhancement responders have been shrinking toward a practical minimum that is often measured in minutes.
There are also regional variations in probability. A severe earthquake is more likely in California than in North Carolina. The reverse is likely for force 5 hurricanes.
There are some well-defined problems. Due to habits, acquisition dates, and budgets, communications systems and practices may not be compatible. That was a major source of confusion during the Oakland firestorm. Homeland Security has those problems high on its fix list.
There are also problems of training and skill level. Increasingly rigorous standards are fixing part of those problems, but many first responder teams are volunteers and budget constraints are probably larger obstacles than standards.
2. Attacks on the scale of 9-11 can happen anywhere. In the abstract, that is true, but the probability of such an attack on Wichita, Kansas is remarkably lower than on Washington, DC. Debate about the recent "Orange" alert has already fingered that problem, but the point should be clear: It would be foolish as well as horribly expensive for the whole country to maintain a high state of readiness to deal with any one expected terrorist attack. A better strategy would be to place the FEMA regions on alert and selectively alert state systems when the alerts are specific enough to > identify regions or locales.
3. When the balloon goes up you are on your own. Every first responder knows that for some period, depending on where they are and what goes wrong, the first people on the scene are it. Within a circle of time and distance, they do what they can with what they've got. But first responders know how and when to ask for help. That is well established, and it works, even in rural areas where distances between response units tend to be greater than in urban areas.
4. We face large new needs for emergency preparedness funding. That is simply not so. Such a need may have been used to justify creation of the Homeland Security Department, but all of the security and emergency preparedness needs we now face existed well before 9-11. We were by and large responding to them, but not in a systematic, nationwide manner. Everything that needed to be done could have been done without creating a new cabinet level department. There is that classic law school classroom maxim that "bad cases make bad law". 9-11 was such a bad case and putting 170,000 people on it in a new and untried department will not turn it into a good case for modeling policy. The main outcome may well be that funds will not go where they are needed.
What can be done?
The first step is to abandon the slipshod notion of trickle-down funding, and establish a national level disaster funding system that is at least as reliable and specifically targeted as flood relief. We already have an established and experienced system of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its ten Regional Offices that provide a wide range of support services to the state and local response systems in their regions. This system has been incorporated into the new Homeland Security Department. Under present law, the states are responsible for managing emergencies within their territory. The FEMA regional system can provide immediate and effective support to state and local systems dealing with emergencies that exceed local capabilities.
The second step is to position the WMD problem. Rather than go for countrywide high order preparedness, what we need in order to deal with terrorist use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction is a reliable system for beefing up the existing FEMA structure to support and augment state and local response systems. For the contiguous 48 states, this could be done with a limited number of special WMD teams located where they will be within no more than two to three hours of any US emergency. Those special teams stationed somewhere such as Illinois, Kansas and Texas should be maintained, trained, supported and equipped by Homeland Security. Each of those teams could consist of trainers and responders who maintain a network with FEMA, state and local emergency response organizations and incident related counterparts throughout the country. Call-up and deployment of these teams should be based on standard nationwide protocols. If the threat became severe enough, such teams could be attached to all FEMA regions, thereby reducing average response times.
These teams could take the extreme emergency readiness cost burden off state and local response organizations, while providing a focal point for updates on training, technology, risks, and threats. These teams could also be equipped with high tech, high value items that would be cost prohibitive to position all over the country.
Local first responders would do pretty much what they do now plus > maintaining reliable links with potential sources of emergency augmentation, mainly through the FEMA regional offices. They need more and better protective gear and diagnostic/incident management equipment for the situations they are now expected to handle. Homeland Security could complete this coordinated response system by being regularly funded and prepared to cover the exceptional costs of the large emergencies plus the big ticket readiness items. Between the large emergencies, the special teams could be fully employed in training, system analysis and development, and risk assessment activities designed to support the regional offices and their clients in maintaining readiness.
The communications problem
The first priority, as Homeland Security already has indicated, is solving the communications problems. WMD events and many natural disasters require special, top down command and control that cannot be provided by state or local organizations. But the national system must be made compatible with state and local ones, and/or the latter need to be upgraded so that in large emergencies the various systems do not create a Tower of Babel.
How To Call For Help
Part of the communications need, especially in large, high profile emergencies such as 9-11, may well be creation of at least statewide Homeland Security equipped and standardized clearinghouses for augmentation call-ups, although the FEMA regions can handle this task, especially once the communications compatibility problems are resolved. Unless specifically requested by on scene incident managers, all potential augmentation units would call the designated clearinghouse to determine what might be needed when and where. That procedure would prevent the onrush of unsolicited responders that sometimes develops.
Be prepared to be wrong.
To be reasonable about this, we must live with the probability of being wrong. Until our intelligence is good enough-which may be never--to answer who, when, where, how, and why questions precisely, we are very likely to be wrong. We need a first responder system that quickly and accurately telegraphs the need for help. This system must be supported by a national system that quickly responds with necessary augmentation. For the really bad cases, getting the right people, providing information and equipment, enhancing facilities, and supporting operations and activities around an event will probably be the best we can do.
Such a rapid augmentation system can certainly give us effective incident management at least national cost. Moreover, it will relieve state and local jurisdictions of costs they are unlikely to be able to handle anyway.
Homeland Security must pull it together.
Homeland Security already has in FEMA a national structure for pulling this basic system together, augmenting it with the resources for meeting big emergencies, and taking the lead on such system needs as communications compatibility and effectiveness. FEMA recognized those needs before 9-11, but was not getting much budget or other support for fixing them. 9-11 certainly provided an impetus to start. Whether it will impel sustained development of a full up nationwide system remains to be seen.
One of the first things to fix is the notion that all jurisdictions must be able on their own to handle such exceptional emergencies as terrorism with WMDs, and must bear the costs of that preparedness. This notion causes a random event, the possibility of a major terrorist attack somewhere, sometime, by somebody, somehow, to warp us all around a false preparedness concept. That strategy is enormously wasteful, as well as so costly that it is unlikely ever to see the light of day.
In short, if we continue on the present path we will assuredly not be ready for the next one. It will likely go down both when and where we have not planned or prepared to have it happen.
The writer is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He welcomes your comments at .



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