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Preparedness: The Missing Link

April 13, 2010

Last week Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the appointment of 35 individuals to a newly formed task force on preparedness. The panel was appointed pursuant to provisions of the 2010 DHS Appropriations Act, which called for its creation to make, “recommendations for all levels of government regarding: disaster and emergency guidance and policy; federal grants; and federal requirements.” The announcement indicated that the task force would conduct its business with an “emphasis on identifying preparedness policies, guidelines and grant programs that should be updated and recommending paths forward to improve the nation’s collective capabilities for preparing for disasters.”

After reviewing the list of appointees and their affiliations, all I can say is hold onto your wallets folks.

If anything has distinguished the allocation of grant funds for homeland security and emergency preparedness more than the ad hoc nature of the enterprise as a whole, it has been the tendency of grant recipients to spend vast sums on seldom-used, specialized hardware and highly-paid consultants with very little evidence of progress building capacity or engaging communities in collaborative efforts to improve resilience.

Four separate Government Accountability Office reports issued since December 2008 highlight just a few of the issues to which the task force should devote some of its attention:

Fire Grants: FEMA Has Met Most Requirements for Awarding Fire Grants, but Additional Actions Would Improve Its Grant Process, GAO-10-64, Cotober 30, 2009.

Urban Area Security Initiative: FEMA Lacks Measures to Assess How Regional Collaboration Efforts Build Preparedness Capabilities, GAO-09-651, July 2, 2009.

Transit Security Grants: DHS Allocates Grants Based on Risk, but Its Risk Methodology, Management Controls, and Grant Oversight Can Be Strengthened, GAO-09-491, June 8, 2009.

Homeland Security Grant Program Risk-Based Distribution Methods: Presentation to Congressional Committees – November 14, 2008 and December 15, 2008, GAO-09-168R, December 23, 2008.

These are only the most recent but certainly not the only GAO reports that offer a critical perspective on DHS grant-making activities. Others focus on the evolving understanding of the role of risk assessment and risk management principles in prioritizing these programs.

The individuals appointed to the task force reflect a diverse cross-section of public officials from state, county, local, and tribal governments across the United States. I am familiar with many of those appointed, and can say with certainty that they seem well-qualified.

Nevertheless, a couple of things stand out upon scrutinizing the list further, which trouble me more than a little. First, officials with affiliations to the fire-rescue and law enforcement communities seem particularly well-represented, perhaps too much so. Second, rust-belt states and communities in the Midwest and Great Plains are under-represented. And, third, the private, community, and voluntary sectors, upon which any successful response and recovery operation ultimately depends, are essentially unrepresented.

If, as it seems, questions persist concerning what sort of bang we are managing to get for the many bucks spent since 2001 on preparedness, one might reasonably consider it worthwhile to appoint someone other than representatives of recipients to investigate what all this money has bought us. Instead, if the secretary really intents to implement the task force recommendations rather than simply going through the exercise for purely political purposes, she would do well to share the terms of reference they will operate under so we can be sure the kids have not just been put in charge of the candy store.

It has been my experience that no fire service or law enforcement chief executive will ever tell you his or her budget is adequate. Everyone wants more. And with few exceptions, everyone will happily accept someone else’s money if they can get it.

When I served as the executive director of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs in the early 1990s, the association and its regional peers were actively advocating for federal grants that would eventually take the form of the Assistant to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and the SAFER grants. Their argument went something like this, “Our cities and their citizens are strapped for cash. We are finding it harder to deliver service while competing with other programs that must fulfill federal mandates. At the same time, we are falling under new and increasing pressures from regulators to provide personnel protective equipment and training. Besides, law enforcement receives about $11 billion a year in federal assistance, and we get none.” This argument when examined closely amounted to little more than, “They got theirs, we want ours.”

Law enforcement has since the 1970s (at least) received federal assistance to foster interstate cooperation. The logic seems sound enough, criminals do not respect state and local boundaries even though cops must. If we want to help cops cope with wandering criminals, we need to help them cooperate across these imaginary lines at least as well as the criminals tend to do. Most of these investments recognize the importance of collecting, analyzing and sharing information about criminals and crime-fighting strategies.

Fire, unlike crime, does not tend to wander across jurisdictional boundaries, and even when it does, it tends not to travel very far. (When fire does cross such lines and travel far and fast, it tends to be on federal lands or under federal jurisdiction for other reasons already.) Until 9/11 firefighters had no sound interstate nexus argument to bolster their claims for federal support. Indeed, even the argument that national standards were impacting their cost of doing business failed under close scrutiny. The standards to which they referred (especially those applicable to staffing and response times) were often applicable only when adopted by individual states or localities, and were often drafted by the firefighters’ unions and their bosses through so-called consensus standards bodies in an effort to circumvent the local democratic process. In other words, before we needed to equip firefighters to help protect us from terrorists, we really did not have much of an argument to spend federal dollars on their needs.

As we like to say in homeland security circles, 9/11 changed everything. With the threat of attack by foreign extremists on American soil a proven fact, no community could be expected to shoulder the burden alone. Protecting everyone meant protecting anyone. For local communities, who had largely shouldered the preparedness burden alone, this was a windfall. And nobody benefited more from it than those who were already best organized: cops and firefighters.

But disasters, like terrorists, rarely target firefighters and cops, at least not to the exclusion of everyone else. Rather, they tend to operate indiscriminately or with the intention of causing the greatest damage and disruption possible to the community as a whole or at least something very important to it.

This suggests that any effort to assess the state of our preparedness should probably ask not what we have managed to achieve already, but rather what readiness would look like if we actually achieved it. I use the term readiness, rather than preparedness, advisedly. The concept of readiness raises, at least for me, questions about the condition of my resources and what I can do with them, rather than focusing primarily on their availability, which has regretfully become the all-t00-common custom when assessing preparedness in this country.

Any assessment of readiness should begin by asking not simply what fiscal resources and policies are in place, how they are performing, and how we might improve their allocation to satisfy the common good, but should also question how our communities’ stocks of human, social, natural, and political capital informs those decisions. I find it hard to believe we can have that sort of conversation with the people the secretary has assembled around the table to advise her on this issue.

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