A Revised Definition of Homeland Security

A top-down approach provides guidance and support from federal agencies to local jurisdictions. A bottom-up approach ensures that local needs are being heard at the top. However, when local agencies are tasked with national security efforts, more guidance and support may be needed from above. It is time to prioritize resources, measure preparedness and response capabilities, and build and support national capabilities locally by redefining homeland security in today’s environment.

The U.S. Constitution, seeking to “secure the blessings of liberty,” separates powers between the three branches of the federal government and between the federal government and the states. The states in turn have separations of power within state government and between state and local governments (counties/boroughs/parishes and cities). This structure presumes that these separated powers will work to integrate the separate activities of each branch and level of government to create a functioning governance structure, “separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity” (Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579). Such integration and reciprocity are not always present in practice, however. The conflicts inherent to this arrangement result in differing views of the homeland security role at different levels of government.


Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States has worked to create a homeland security enterprise that spans the federal, state, and local levels. Originating within the federal government and as a result of acts of terror, this enterprise follows a federal-first, top-down method of mandates and funding aimed at terrorism. In an effort to coordinate disparate constitutional responsibilities into a common mission space, the Department of Homeland Security and Congress have promulgated a near-constant stream of federal mandates to the state and local governments – and neglected the probability factor in considering nation-affecting incidents. The homeland security framework now rests on the capabilities and resilience of local governments. It concentrates on law enforcement, yet neglects other critical threats; it trusts that resilient communities will be both less likely to require federal and state aid, and more likely to be in position to offer assistance nationwide.

The reality of politics and government is that the people of a local area pay their local taxes to ensure that they have the local capacity to cope with local impacts of day-to-day and worst-case most-probable threats. The entire homeland security enterprise relies on the capability of local government to provide “hometown” security. However, the federal view of homeland security too often relegates the myriad other hazards the nation faces to a lower priority. The sheer volume of policy, law, hearings, and committee records demonstrate that homeland security guidance has been directed toward federally mandated priorities applied uniformly across all states and localities.

The suite of federal homeland security grants such as the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) generally aim to build local capability and capacity to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorism, with allowances for confronting other hazards added as a virtual afterthought. The UASI program wisely requires that capabilities funded by the grants be able to deploy elsewhere, or at least support the deployment of capability elsewhere in the nation – and locals try to leverage these funds to confront “all hazards.”




Congress and the people demand some assurance that these efforts are “measurable.” Yet, when DHS calculates UASI risk, some of the factors they use are secret. This means locals cannot be certain that their grant investments directly address these federally identified priorities. Further, one cannot measure what does not happen. As a result, many questions are raised, for example:

  • If a law enforcement agency in a small city trains to cope with a situation similar to the terrorist bombing of concert goers on 22 May 2017 in Manchester, England, and such an event does not happen, can one say that the training “prevented” any incident?
  • If that city uses that training to respond to a school shooting, can anyone deny that benefit?
  • If resources are developed to allow the rapid clearing of interstates after a blizzard that has not yet happened, can one measure the fact that this capability is also useful in the aftermath of hurricanes?
  • Although a subjective understanding exists that the billions spent on homeland security since 9/11 have had some a positive effect, how can the United States “measure” this effect?
  • Since “homeland security” is ill-defined, how are metrics best applied?

The study of any endeavor requires that some boundaries be established for the study. However, any web search for “definition of ‘homeland security’” reveals millions of different definitions for the term. Without an agreed-upon definition, the states and locals logically invest in projects that fund statewide and local response teams, equipment, personnel, programs, training, and other resources that meet their particular definition. As referenced above, “state” teams and resources used to provide nationwide responses to affected jurisdictions are made up of local personnel and equipment housed, trained, and maintained locally and coordinated through the states. Despite federal rules and oversight concentrating almost exclusively on terrorism, in reality, homeland security is almost completely dependent on local capacity to provide capabilities useful in all hazards, and state-to-state coordination in time of need. In short, homeland security is not merely an anti-terrorism function of the national security apparatus. It is a bottom-up process building local capacity and resilience to all hazards, so that local communities and states can afford to send aid elsewhere. Without federal funds to develop nationally available local and state capacity, there is no security for the homeland.


Perhaps the best way to measure capability starts with ensuring that every city and county has the capacity to be a part of the larger homeland security enterprise – and not solely anti-terror capability. Raw numbers of persons trained or counts of specific hardware are not sufficient. In the years since 9/11, large cities such as New York have built extensive capabilities and, although it is not possible to determine how many attacks have never taken shape as a result, it is known that some have been prevented. It is also known that New York is equipped to respond rapidly to terrorist and other events. Yet, even with all of those resources on hand, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 still resulted in a need for assistance to be sent to New York from other parts of the nation – national homeland security capability.

Those resources were available because other jurisdictions had built up enough capacity to send some of it to aid their neighbors. Building collapses due to storm or flood require the same types of resources as collapses due to terror or natural gas explosion. Cleanup and recovery requires public works and utilities workers. Coordination, strategic planning, and documentation require emergency managers. Building enough local capacity in all of these fields requires federal programs such as UASI. Identifying and measuring national capability to deal with all of these hazards requires a revised, bottom-up, definition of homeland security.

Judson Freed
Judson Freed

Judson Freed, MA, CEM, has served as director of emergency management and homeland security for Ramsey County, Minnesota, since 2003. He is an adjunct professor in emergency management. For the past seven years, he has served as vice chair of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security subcommittee for the National Association of Counties (NACo). In 2016, he was appointed by former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to the Homeland Security Information Network National Advisory Committee. He holds an MA in Security Studies (Homeland Defense and Security) from the Naval Postgraduate School.



No tags to display


Translate »