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Mega-disasters: "Are we as prepared as we can or should be, the answer to that is, no." What's FEMA's response?

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Friday, March 18, 2011

As the crisis in Japan continues to worsen, there has been speculation about how prepared the United States is to deal with such a large-scale disaster. Yesterday, retired Department of Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner told a Senate hearing that the U.S. is not adequately prepared for such a "mega-disaster," according to this report.

"If you ask me if we as a nation are better prepared than we were 40 years ago, five years ago, the answer is yes," he said, "But if you ask me are we as prepared as we can or should be, the answer to that is, no, we're not."

Skinner went on to say that the events in Japan should serve as a reminder to the U.S. about the importance of catastrophic preparedness and it's not a matter of if, but more a matter of when. Skinner, in his testimony, was very critical of the general state of preparedness in this country, saying the U.S. should be "much better prepared than we are today" after events like Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks.

I then read this transcript of testimony from Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In it, he discussed how FEMA was continuing to prepare for catastrophic disasters. The key issues, he said, were overall planning, coordination and support, emergency communications, logistics, evacuations, housing, disaster workforce, mission assignments, acquisition management and mitigation.

Among many things, Fugate discussed a new office, called the Office of Response and Recovery, which has a planning division dedicated to national, regional and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive catastrophic planning efforts. He also mentioned how FEMA established a National Credentialing Program in 2010 to coordinate activities, incorporate policies, and recommend guidance and standards for credentialing all FEMA personnel who require access to disaster areas or FEMA facilities during an emergency. That's also important to make sure everyone is properly trained and on the same page during an emergency.

In lieu of the Japanese situation and the fact that there are major fault lines throughout the U.S., Fugate also discussed the nation's earthquake preparedness:

As another example of our federal response efforts, national catastrophic planning also includes developing a Federal Interagency Operations Plan for Earthquakes. This plan is oriented toward response and short-term recovery, and will address federal capabilities supporting response efforts to a catastrophic earthquake occurring anywhere in the United States and its territories. FEMA's regions are also partnering directly with their states on joint planning efforts with a focus on specific fault zones or other hazards present within those regions.

Of course, all these elements are important, but the one that seems so critical (and solvable) is the issue of communication. The biggest lesson from all those catastrophes has been the breakdown in communication. Police, fire, federal and local entities, and first responders all know that the first thing to break down during this kind of catastrophe is the communication channels. But, ensuring that all entities have a means of communication has been a huge challenge and I still hear from many agencies that they're not satisfied with the solutions in place.

Also in his testimony, Fugate mentioned the importance of private sector collaboration:

The private sector is a key partner in our catastrophic planning efforts. Various companies and organizations have worked with FEMA at the state and regional levels to collaborate and help develop catastrophic plans. Key corporate and academic experts have provided essential resources and input, and we have established relationships to facilitate response and recovery in coordination with these entities.

How should FEMA be reaching out to those of you in the private sector to prepare for all levels of emergencies?

Will the government revamp aviation security? Tom Ridge and other experts make recommendations in new report

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Complaints about aviation security will never end. Whether it's pissed off pilots or alleged high-doses of radiation from screening devices (certainly worthy of double-checking, don't get me wrong), there's always some sort of drama unfolding in the aviation security space.

Many security professionals would tell you (and have told me, as a matter of fact) that enhanced security measures in airports was a knee-jerk reaction to the events of 9/11. Was it an overreaction? Yeah, probably. But 9/11 was an event that changed the risk landscape in our country forever and made us all realize our gaping vulnerabilities. There are ongoing accusations that aviation security is just "security theater," but I strongly disagree, as I suspect most security professionals would. No one would ever say the Transportation Security Administration is perfect or that it's capable of stopping every person with ill intent. That's an impossible task. The TSA has admittedly gone through some serious trial and error to make the system work, and fails regularly in a very public way. Heck, the agency was so embattled it took a year and five months just to find someone who was willing to run it.

I just read a very interesting announcement that there could be some HUGE security changes coming down the pike. The U.S. Travel Association just finished up a year-long analysis of ways to improve air travel security and screening procedures. In case you're not familiar with this organization, they're a 2,100-member organization that "leverages the collective strength of those who benefit from travel to grow their business beyond what they can do individually" (which would mean pretty much any company, right?).

Recommendations based on this study were released in a report titled “A Better Way: Building a World Class System for Aviation Security.” An important recommendation to Congress was the need to authorize TSA to implement a new, voluntary, government-run trusted traveler program that utilizes a risk-based approach to checkpoint screening, with the goal of refocusing resources on the highest risk passengers. I think that would be smart and a lot of businesses would support bringing back a trusted traveler program for frequent travelers.

Also, an extremely important measure was in regards to the procurement of technology. With the ongoing debacle of whole-body imaging, the panel suggested that the TSA should develop a comprehensive strategy for implementing necessary checkpoint technology capabilities and that Congress should provide multi-year funding plans for TSA to execute this strategy. This kinda seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it isn't.

I thought the mention of developing risk-management methods and tools, while a very vague statement, could be critical as well. To me, this means adopting more of an Israeli approach to security. Pretty much every aviation security expert I've ever spoken to has acknowledged that the Israeli's have superior security measures, but such a system just isn't feasible due to the amount of air travelers in the U.S., especially if the goal is to IMPROVE efficiency for passengers. I understand and agree with that, but think the TSA could stand to improve its behavior detection training and other methods to identify travelers who may pose a risk (it's not profiling people, so just stop saying it).

Anyway, just to put an exclamation point on the report, here's what former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was also a chair of this panel had to say: “A strong aviation security screening system must feature several characteristics, including efficient methods of deterring and interdicting terrorists and criminals; tailored security based upon risk assessment; frequent, clear communication with the traveling public; and cost-effective use of resources.”

Will anything come from this report? Hard to say not knowing.