State and Local Crisis Response

Stephen DeAngelis

August 16, 2007

Next month will mark the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those attacks prompted renewed interest in drafting contingency plans and improving crisis response capabilities.  Six years on one would think that federal, state, and local governments would be well along the path to having in place the plans and capabilities needed to prevent and/or mitigate crises. Although there has been some progress, big challenges remain. Perhaps the biggest challenge that faced first responders during the 9/11 crisis was communication. That challenge has not yet been solved. Mary Beth Sheridan, writing in the Washington Post, reports that the District of Columbia believes it has found a solution [“District Looks to Lead the Way in Crisis Technology,” 16 August 2007].

“On Sept. 11, 2001, the cellphone network in the Washington area was quickly overloaded as frantic residents dialed relatives and friends. Now, the District is trying to develop a high-tech wireless network for public safety officials, allowing them to talk and send live video and images even if private networks are bogged down. D.C. officials say they hope to speed the system’s development with a new $12 million grant from the federal government to improve emergency communications. … A pilot of the system has been running in the District for two years. Known as the Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN), it was pronounced a success by the U.S. Commerce Department recently, despite a few problems. … Still, the system has been so useful that local and state governments in the Washington area are spending millions of dollars in federal homeland security grants to try to expand it regionally.”

Of course, communications is just one challenging area of crisis response. Experience is a great teacher, which is why the best prepared states and localities are generally those that routinely suffer the effects of hurricanes. Even there, however, connectivity and cooperation remains a challenge. Last May, Brian A. Jackson, the associate director of the Homeland Security Research Program at the RAND Corporation, wrote a column for the Washington Post in which he claimed the U.S. is not as prepared as it should be six years after 9/11 [“Is America Prepared for Disaster?” 30 May 2007].

“How prepared is America for the next terrorist attack or natural disaster? Government and the private sector have spent billions of dollars since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in an effort to make America more secure. The money for this ramped up security has come from all of us, collected in the taxes we pay and in higher prices for the goods we buy. … governments at all levels have prepared new emergency response plans, formed new response teams and outfitted them with equipment. But despite all this, there is no satisfactory answer to a very basic question: are we prepared enough? Simply measuring how much America spends on homeland security won’t answer the question. It’s important to determine if the money is spent wisely and effectively. … When a disaster strikes, the country depends on a national response system made up of organizations at all levels of government, non-governmental groups, the private sector and the public to respond. It is all too obvious when that system cannot respond adequately to meet victims’ needs. Nothing illustrated this more dramatically than the failure to respond quickly and effectively to the tragic suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. While it’s easy to see what happens when things go wrong, it’s hard to know before disaster strikes what needs to be done to make sure things will go right. Indeed, some have argued that because the emergency response system is so complex, there is no way to gauge if we are prepared until after disaster strikes. … What we really need to know is: Will the whole system work when a disaster strikes? … The United States should get beyond just talking about what we are spending for homeland security and learn how we can actually measure the effectiveness of what we are buying. Only at that point can we decide how confident we should be that the national preparedness system will be able to deliver the next time disaster strikes.”

Jackson’s point that “the country depends on a national response system made up of organizations at all levels of government, non-governmental groups, the private sector and the public to respond” is an important one. One would hope that such a complex and interconnected response “system” would have all of its moving parts working together to coordinate actions. Apparently that is not the case. According to Spencer S. Hsu, the federal government has not been as forthcoming and cooperative as state and local governments would have liked [“States Feel Left Out of Disaster Planning,” Washington Post, 8 August 2007].

“A decision by the Bush administration to rewrite in secret the nation’s emergency response blueprint has angered state and local emergency officials, who worry that Washington is repeating a series of mistakes that contributed to its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago. State and local officials in charge of responding to disasters say that their input in shaping the National Response Plan was ignored in recent months by senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials, despite calls by congressional investigators for a shared overhaul of disaster planning in the United States. … The national plan is supposed to guide how federal, state and local governments, along with private and nonprofit groups, work together during emergencies. Critics contend that a unilateral approach by Washington produced an ill-advised response plan at the end of 2004 — an unwieldy, 427-page document that emphasized stopping terrorism at the expense of safeguarding against natural disasters.”

Enterra Solutions is in early talks with several states about how it can apply its rule set automation processes to help them sense, think, and respond more effectively to crises. Data integration and analysis can produce actionable intelligence and, in extreme cases, send out automated alerts to proper authorities so that they can respond as quickly as possible to the developing situation. In the long term, I believe that regional emergency response centers would provide a more effective solution than either a state (too restricted) or federal system (too broad). A southeast regional center, for example, would involve states who routinely must deal with the risk of hurricanes. A mid-America regional center would be more concerned with tornadoes. A western regional center might concentrate on earthquakes and wild fires. Each region would have its own emphasis, but it would still be able to connect with other regional centers in case of a national emergency. That’s the vision, but the current reality is something else. Hsu writes:

“The disagreement over the plan comes at a time of increasing mistrust between Washington and state homeland security officials. In recent months, they have sparred over dwindling federal grants, the adequacy of local intelligence-gathering efforts and what states regard as Washington’s reluctance to share information about potential threats. ‘Coordination between state and local governments and the feds . . . seems to be getting worse rather than better,’ said Timothy Manning, head of emergency management in New Mexico and a member of a DHS-appointed steering committee that initially worked on the emergency plan before being shut out of the deliberations in May. … John R. Harrald, a professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, cautioned that shutting out state and local voices during the plan’s preparation would be ill-advised.”

Enterra Solutions will continue to work with state and regional groups as well as the federal government to help facilitate better planning and coordination. Crises are like subway trains; if you missed the last one, don’t worry — the next one won’t be far behind.