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Size Doesn’t Matter

December 15, 2010

In a Saturday post to his Disaster Zone blog, Eric Holdeman questioned why the United States had entered into a bilateral agreement with New Zealand to share lessons learned from emergency management activities and cooperate with one another in response and recovery operations when necessary. The not so subtle subtext of Eric’s post was “what does tiny, remote NZ have to offer the U.S.?” As someone with a foot in both the Yankee and Kiwi camps, I am happy to repsond, “Quite a lot, really.”

To be fair, Eric supported the ideal of collaboration as a general principle of emergency management and had nothing bad to say about entering into such a partnership in this instance. He simply wondered whether other agreements existed, and, if so, where this initiative fits in FEMA’s overall approach to collaboration.

I doubt Eric knows that the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have a longstanding mutual assistance agreement in the wildfire arena. ANZAC firefighters routinely come to the assistance of beleaguered U.S. colleagues during North America’s increasingly protracted and difficult Western fire seasons. The ANZACs’ level of skill and professionalism are highly regarded by their peers in U.S. federal fire agencies. It’s interesting to note that New Zealand has never requested U.S. assistance in return, although it has been offered a couple of times.

The benefits to New Zealand from such an arrangement are clear. Their officers and firefighters get experience that would be difficult to obtain back on their home turf. In exchange, the U.S. gets experienced fire officers who know and use the same incident command system they do. The helps comes at a time when U.S. incident managers need relief after going nonstop for extended periods of time.

When it comes to other kinds of disasters, we could expect the same sorts of benefits, especially in the United States’ sprawling Pacific territories and protectorates. New Zealand sees a direct national interest in the welfare of Pacific island states, and already engages in extensive humanitarian relief work in these and other areas around the globe, a fact recently recognized the DARA International Humanitarian Response Index.

This agreement goes beyond traditional mutual aid agreements. It includes provisions for sharing information about mitigation and recovery, areas of great interest to both countries but areas in which New Zealand might have a distinct advantage because of its less cumbersome governmental structure, which places intergovernmental cooperation at the core of its planning efforts.

New Zealand is positioned slightly ahead of the United States in the way it engages the public in mitigation and preparedness programs by linking emergency planning with broader community outcomes and the local government strategic planning process. This framework seeks to encourage transparent alignment of budgets and regulatory priorities with desired outcomes.

Having faced a much more dire economic situation in the mid-1980s than we face now, the Kiwis overhauled the public sector and consolidated local government. As a result, officials in local, regional and national levels of government find it easier to get the right people in the room and get people on the same page when critical decisions are required. This is an impressive feat even in a country with a population comparable to a U.S. state, especially in light of the widely dispersed geography and the challenging natural hazards environment to which they must respond.

Having national police and fire services helps too. Because these agencies see local government bodies and their constituencies as important stakeholders rather than masters, they do not regard themselves as being in either a subservient or competitive position relative to other programs and policy priorities. Seeing one another as partners enables them to seek opportunities for shared success.

I will be very interested to see what initiatives arise out of this agreement, and think it more likely than not that the U.S. will benefit more from the partnership than the Kiwis will.

Having made it clear that I see no relationship between New Zealand’s small size and the quality of the big ideas her government has put in place, I was chuffed to read David Brooks’s op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times, which sought to reassure anxious Americans that our national identity and importance is not a function of where we rank in GDP league tables, debt-to-GDP ratios, longevity statistics or other measures of individual or social welfare but in the strength, stability and enduring appeal of our values and ideals. The measures that preoccupy our national discourse simply don’t tell the whole story. Other countries are not so much overtaking us as catching up, which, of course, actually benefits us both.

The importance of ideals like openness and tolerance distinguished Sweden as well as the United States. The weekend’s apparent suicide bombing has caused some Swedes to question whether this is the right course, to which their prime minister boldly responded: “Yes!” I wonder how many Americans would agree with him? The New York Times editorial board clearly wondered too, as it published an editorial Tuesday morning endorsing this action and underscoring its significance and importance to global efforts to end extremism.

Finally, I was saddened to see an article by Star-Ledger reporter Amy Brittain reporting that some of my public safety colleagues in New Jersey had succumbed to the bigger-is-better mentality in a way that is particularly difficult to understand. The newspaper identified at least 248 police, corrections officers, and firefighters who had received prescriptions for anabolic steroids, human growth hormone or both from a now-deceased physician (whose demise appears to have resulted at lest in part from his own use of these controlled substances) and paid for these so-called performance-enhancing drugs with their employer-paid prescription drug benefits. In some cases, this amounted to costs to taxpayers in the thousands of dollars.

In homeland security, size doesn’t matter. Our adversaries understand this principle explicitly and use it to exploit our inability to adapt quickly because of our condition, whether it manifests itself as a bloated bureaucracy, a muscle-bound officer or an obese citizen too disillusioned with government to exercise the privileges of liberty. The evidence of this cognitive dissonance is evident across our institutions and in our society as a whole.

At its heart, homeland security is shaped not by our ability to project power but rather by our ability to organize and mobilize collective efforts to support, defend and extend the ideal of liberty. If bigness matters at all, then the big idea may be the one instance where size make a difference.

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