DHS: what’s the real focus?

Has emergency management improved in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

BY SUSAN KIM | BOULDER, Colo. | July 13, 2004

"Since then we've been driven by a level of intensity and almost insanity."

—Bob Shea

Has emergency management improved in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

Yes - and no, said experts at the 29th Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop on Monday.

"There has never been such a spotlight on an entire emergency management system," pointed out Bob Shea, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official. "We are embarking on areas of collaboration at levels we've never attempted."

"And there is more money flowing to cities and counties," added Frances Edwards, emergency manager for the City of San Jose, Calif., "and there has been an increase in interagency coordination. Agencies that have ignored us before now asked how we can work together."

Edwards is correct, said Jan Benini, who serves on the White House Homeland Security Council; since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has pumped $8 billion into the first responder community.

And working together at federal, state and local levels to spend that money ideally seems like a good endeavor, the experts agreed. "There has been integration of a whole lot of plans and strategies," said Bill Waugh, a Georgia State University researcher.

But unintended consequences have marred visions that seemed ideal in the days when Ground Zero was still filled with toxic dust and weary firefighters.

"When the federal government moved (immediately after the terrorist attacks), it moved on an emotional level and not a rational one," said Shea. "Since then we've been driven by a level of intensity and almost insanity," said Shea.

And the insanity is driving at least some local emergency managers up a wall. "Quite honestly, this is something very difficult for local emergency managers to talk about without losing their tempers," said Edwards.

And what irritates her isn't that the federal government seems to have a "top-down approach."

"I'm not negative about the idea that the federal government comes up with the idea and we will play."

For better or worse, the "idea" - DHS - is a conglomeration of what used to be 22 separate federal agencies.

With a lot of money that has been fed to state and local first responders. "And there has been a tendency to go for big-ticket items with a minimum amount of planning," admitted Waugh. "The amount of money available has had a profound effect."

For starters, it has created what Waugh and others called "a consultant culture" in which, instead of funding existing local emergency management staff, the federal government encourages use of outside contractors. Some local responders have dubbed it "the 9/12 consultant phenomenon" since many contractors appeared to rise out of nowhere the day after the attacks.

"That mentality of being pro-contractor comes from the military," agreed Edwards, "and that's very frustrating for elected officials of cities who can't use funds to get their own staff better trained. It would be so much less expensive."

What's more, some of the contractors are selling fraudulent homeland security products with sales lines that fool even seasoned emergency managers. "I'm making an appeal for universities to evaluate technology. When someone comes forward with this wonderful anthrax detector - does it work? We need to set standards on what's good and useful."

Benini - who admitted these problems indeed existed and also admitted she was too partisan to serve as moderator for these panelists - countered that the goal is to make the country safer - no matter who does the work. "The federal government's role is to help the nation respond to a new range of hazards."

And by distributing funds locally, the Bush Administration has attempted to empower communities, she argued. "That's better than people sitting in Washington and saying what toys you can buy."

But if money has been forthcoming -- how much relevant information from DHS is coming into the hazards community?

Precious little, said Waugh. "It's a source of frustration for the disaster community."

Studies have been done and redone on issues such as evacuation behavior, he pointed out, and in some cases there is vast literature available on topics highly relevant to DHS's goals. "There is a whole lot of indication that in terrorism incidents, the public responds the same way they respond in natural disasters. I'm not sure homeland security people are sharing information they have. Access is not afforded. Processes are not transparent. That information is simply not available. Lack of information has been a source of great frustration.

"We need to change the culture of DHS," he said, "by going with governance models we refer to as modern."

Edwards was no less frustrated. "It's a little discouraging to me that interest in emergency management has not translated into mitigation. Instead the word has become prevention, she said, and those aren't the same thing.

"If the mitigation is to build levies, then that can prevent flooding - but I come from California and earthquakes are not preventable."

But from the DHS perspective, emergency managers need to remember that hazards in the U.S. are not just natural anymore, urged Shea. "My advice is that the world we face doesn't only include natural hazards. We're anxious to figure out what makes sense."

And Belini shook her head and laughed: "I think we get nostalgic about the days we didn't have money."

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