Sometimes it seems more like September the 10th than September the 12th.
For preparedness professionals, who put their lives on the line every day, it will always seem like September the 12th. They will never forget the taste of the terrorists’ dust. However, to many other elements of American society – including the political leaders who set policy and control the funding provided to those professionals, the bureaucracies at all levels of government who should be serving them, and the media that should be supporting them – it may be, for all practical purposes, September the 10th all over again.
To validate that statement, one needs only take a close look at three “events” of various types that occurred during the past few weeks: the annual dinner of The Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI); the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference (FDIC); and the 10th of April 2005 edition of 60 Minutes, the popular Sunday night CBS news magazine.
Those attending the CFSI dinner in Washington or the FDIC meeting in Indianapolis – and/or viewing the 60 Minutes program – found their knowledge of homeland-security to have been pushed up another notch, so their time was well spent. Each of the two meetings, and the TV program, appealed to its own audience, and each set its own agenda. More important, though, is that, although they represented different points of view, all reached the same conclusion – namely, that well-trained, well-equipped, and well-prepared first responders mean a safer America.
Regrettably, there is much less unanimity in the answers to two of the most important questions facing the nation’s decision makers today: How does the United States attain a comfortable level of safety? And, unless there is another attack, how does this nation maintain vigilance and zeal, and not slip back to the traditional American complacency exhibited for so many days, months, and years up to and including the 10th of September?
A Welcome Message for the Right Audience At the CFSI dinner, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff was the keynote speaker. The principal thrust of his message was that DHS has heard the first responders’ call for the HAZMAT placard system to stay as it is. For those not familiar with the subject, there had been a long-running debate about the system in which placards are prominently displayed toentify, by a coded number system, hazardous materials that are shipped in containers, trains, and trucks. Those who wanted to change the system said that it gives the terrorists readilyentifiable targets to hit. Representatives of the HAZMAT community replied, though, that the system not only is workable as is but also gives them the information needed to properly, and safely, respond to emergencies of any type, not just terrorist attacks. Chertoff shrewdly chose the CFSI venue to announce, to the applause of the crowd, that DHS accepts that point of view and the placards will remain.
Chertoff also touched on the $715 million DHS Firefighters Grant program for operations and safety equipment, and briefly discussed both the National Incident Management System and the National Response Plan. These remarks also received polite applause from the CFSI attendees. In addition, he mentioned the DHS Risk Assessment program, but without providing any substantive information on what that program will mean to the many fire officials in attendance, especially those who come from so-called “low-priority communities” that may be in danger of losing their Homeland grant funding. It seems safe to suggest that, if Chertoff had elaborated on the plan in any detail, the most likely reaction would have been a thunderous sound of silence.
Homeland Waste Spelled Out for the Masses The producers of 60 Minutes also like applause, and they know that presenting “evidence” of government waste always has appeal. Featured on the 10th of April 2005 show was U.S. Representative Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and an ardent advocate of the DHS Risk Assessment program. Establishing a list of the most likely target priorities of would-be terrorists, and allocating the funds to be used to defend those targets, is one of the cornerstones of his personal homeland-grant philosophy.
To provide some visual zing to Cox’s Risk Assessment message, viewers of 60 Minutes were shown air-conditioned garbage trucks and bulletproof vests for canines, with a segment on rap songs (focused on emergency preparedness, of course) thrown in for good measure – all of which were funded by homeland-security grants. To many viewers these apparent misuses of taxpayer dollars were distressingly reminiscent of the Defense Department’s notorious purchases of $600 hammers and $1,500 toilet seats. Despite some allegations that were quickly disputed by DHS officials, the show underscored the need for a responsible DHS grant program based primarily on Risk Assessment and the allocation of funds to meet clearlyentifiable homeland-security needs. The show’s clear message – with which no one in Congress or at DHS would disagree – is that Congressional pork programs, no matter how articulately “justified,” ultimately hurt the very citizens they pretend to help.
Professionals Roll Up Their Sleeves More than 27,000 firefighters and concerned citizens traveled to Indianapolis last week to attend the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference, participate in one or more of the over 150 FDIC training es available, and view the 800-plus exhibits at the huge annual show. The attendees also took advantage of the many valuable networking opportunities available, often enjoyed over good Midwestern food and beverages. Unlike those at the CFSI dinner and the 60 Minutes viewers, the FDIC attendees know the importance of preparedness from their own first-hand experience. Political speeches, Congressional pork programs, and self-righteous diatribes are not the most judicious subjects to discuss with this audience. In short, these are preparedness professionals who put their lives on the line every day, so they are looking for straightforward and easy-to-implement solutions.
Many private-sector homeland-defense companies were represented in Indianapolis, exhibiting a dazzling array of state-of-the-art equipment and providing some truly innovative technology solutions. Like many other industries geared to specific industries, the companies that support firefighters employ personnel trained in that profession to help potential customers make the right purchasing decision.
Not surprisingly, the message at FDIC differed in various particulars from that delivered at CFSI and viewed on 60 Minutes. At CFSI the Congressional message was “Help is on the way – just keep pressuring your local Congressman for more money.” The 60 Minutes show presented a story of waste, greed, misuse, and non-use of taxpayer funds. At FDIC, the message was much more practical in nature. Attendees learned, for example, that the supply chain has certain kinks in it. One, a very big kink, is that orders for necessary breathing devices, decontamination systems, protective garments, detection devices, and other essential equipment items needed by first responders are not being processed quickly enough. Bureaucratic red tape is blamed for the slow deliveries, and suppliers are being told that their orders are “in the mail” or “waiting for processing.”
There is another problem: When the equipment finally is delivered, it usually comes without a training component. One can only imagine the uproar that would ensue – appropriately – if the nation’s armed services were found to be buying airplanes without providing training to the pilots who must fly them!
The same principle applies here: When high-tech systems, devices, or other equipment items of various types arrive at the fire hall and those who risk their lives to fight fires have not been given the training needed to properly operate this new and presumably safer and more effective equipment, the equipment cannot, and should not, be used, and the taxpayers’ money has been wasted. (There is yet another difficulty worth mentioning: In those rare instances when adequate training is provided, there is usually no redundancy considered. It is clear, though, that if only one responder learns how to operate a particular device - and if that person is taken out of action for any reason – the device is useless.)
How does all the preceding relate to the 10th of September 2001? To this observer the answer is clear: Guardians of the homeland-security management system must be diligent in carrying out all of their important responsibilities: fighting complacency; investing homeland-defense funds when and where it makes the most sense; supporting the National Response Plan; and building a meaningful, effective, and cost-effective, risk-assessment program.
The American people should not have to be reminded that they are living at a very dangerous time in their nation’s history. The United States cannot afford another Pearl Harbor wake-up call similar to the one that was delivered on the 11th of September 2001.