Local Security: The Forgotten Factor in Relief Operations

The earth shook and tens of thousands of homes, as well as an estimated 30,000 business and office buildings, were shattered. But the buildings were not the only things to collapse in Haiti.  Recognition of the numerous weaknesses in the pre-earthquake Haitian infrastructure would lead the average citizen to expect the need for an extremely complex relief effort.  What made that effort even more difficult is that the epic January 12, 2010, disaster also brought down the Haitian government’s ability to maintain law and order.

For that reason, regional and global disaster relief efforts quickly became a secondary casualty of the ensuing chaos on the ground, especially in the nation’s capital of Port-au- Prince. Only a week after the earthquake, Vincenzo Pugliese, a United Nations spokesman, was quoted in the 19 January Washington Post as saying that, “Security is the key now in order for us to be able to put our feet on the ground.”

The international community’s failure to appreciate the scope of the security challenges facing the relief agencies and organizations that responded so well, and so quickly, was almost as appalling as the earthquake itself.  By the close of the first decade of the 21st century, the security requirements for disaster relief operations should be fully integrated into any and all situational response plans developed.

If nothing else, recognition of the Haitian government’s already limited security and police-service capabilities should have been factored into the equation as a predictor of the extremely weak post-disaster sustainability likely in support of the relief effort.  The rule of thumb should be that the weaker a locale’s steady-state security infrastructure is, the more external security support will have to be embedded into the relief operations.

The First Priority: A Realistic Risk Assessment

The weakness of indigenous security capacity is or should be a critical factor in disaster relief planning.  Judging from the relief operations in Haiti over the past seven weeks, disaster security planning seems to have been an afterthought. There is a more important lesson to be learned, though – namely, that security services should be factored into all disaster planning, ranging from local incidents to those affecting an entire nation or global region.  A thorough risk assessment focused primarily on disaster-relief operations should therefore be a prominent core feature of rapid post-disaster planning and deployment operations.

By their very nature, even relatively “minor” disasters almost always strain the local resources available. It logically follows, therefore, that the weaker the local security structure is, the more likely it will be that external security elements will be needed to protect not only disaster supply stores and distribution chains, but also, and of greater importance, the disaster-relief personnel themselves.

Disaster relief planning, particularly in the 21st century, must also consider the possibility of extreme post-disaster threats. When the international community responds to a disaster, the relief assets provided become potentially accessible targets for transnational terrorists and local insurgents alike.  The disruption of disaster-relief operations is an attractive temptation to malicious groups seeking to propagandize response incompetency and to perpetuate fear in the affected population.  Such attacks, followed by propaganda messages, would rapidly degrade public confidence in government both within the affected area and in the nations involved in the relief operations.

Situational Violence to Compound the Chaos

Criminal and terrorist attacks designed to thwart or disrupt disaster relief efforts undermine the volunteer support for, and capital investment in, disaster relief operations.  An organization or government engaged in relief operations in which its own personnel and/or material resources are jeopardized may lose both its capacity and its willingness to support future operations.  For the United Nations itself to underestimate the number and types of peacekeeping forces needed in Haiti is a disturbing indicator of future potential problems of even greater magnitude.

Disaster relief operations can be effective only if the operations being carried out, and the personnel participating in those operations, are provided a safe environment in which to carry out their mission.  The capacity for local resources and the degree to which augmentation by external security forces will be needed should be standard, high-priority elements in disaster operations planning.  Government and private-sector relief efforts should factor security requirements into the cost and staffing models for all disaster relief operations. 

The degree to which external security assets are needed is always a situational variable.  Any failure to accurately assess and provide for the security needed is therefore unacceptable. The compounded disasters in Darfur and Somalia – to name but two of the most difficult, and better publicized – international problem areas in recent years, illustrate the adverse effects of the secondary disasters that can quickly be created by insufficient security support.  With proper planning, though – in which security requirements are fully and appropriately given very high priority – disaster management can and usually will provide the relief necessary, rather than compounding the original disaster.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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