Jerry Hauer is director of the Response to Emergencies and Disasters Institute (READI) program at George Washington University, which trains law enforcement, EMS, fire, public health and medical personnel in disaster preparedness and response. He served as an adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and as director of Emergency Management for New York City and Indiana.
He is recognized worldwide for his expertise on biological and chemical terrorism, and consults regularly with Scotland Yard and the Israeli military. He worked with the Australian government to prepare for the 2000 Summer Olympics and was one of six scientists to brief former President Clinton on biological terrorism. In this interview with Government Technology magazine, he fields a few questions about disaster preparedness.
State and local first responders expressed frustration at the federal government's color-coded homeland security warning system. You've echoed those sentiments. What should be done to fix it?
The color-coded alert system was a knee-jerk reaction to put something out quickly to express the level of threat. It was basically painting a broad stroke when it needed finer strokes.
The color-code system is not a good system. You need to have levels of preparation. When you have a specific threat focused on a city, you go to that city and say, "Here's what we've got. Here's what we know. Here's what we think the targets are, and we've got to take the appropriate actions."
The problem now is people have become almost tone deaf to some of these announcements.
There is really nobody to blame but the administration, and there are two reasons: One is that all these warnings have looked hollow. Everybody knows we're in a heightened threat environment. The purpose of [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and [Director of Homeland Security Tom] Ridge doing those press conferences was questionable at best -- other than to tell people to build more skepticism in the general public. It hurt rather than helped.
You don't tell Houston, Texas, to focus on the Citibank building, which is in Manhattan. You don't bring the whole country to orange. It's an evolving process. They've learned from a lot of the feedback they've gotten, and they're trying to refine the system. But there's a lot of complacency out there right now.
But when Tom Ridge came out with the series of specific threats in July, he got it right because he focused one, on a city, and two, on a specific sector. He didn't say, "We're bringing the whole country to orange." He focused appropriately. But then he went on to focus on all the wonderful things the administration has done. At that point again, it made it look political.
The unfortunate thing is there is a real struggle in trying to determine how best to communicate the current threat and spikes in the threat. So when you get a spike in the threat, how do you appropriately communicate that so it doesn't look like it's one, political, or two, you're covering your butt.
You like to talk about the myths and reality of the most likely threats, which are guns and bombs. Nuclear weapons and bio-terrorism are at the bottom of the most likely threats, but top the most dangerous, which means we should be prepared for all of them. Are we?
We are completely unprepared to deal with nuclear terrorism. We are better prepared to deal with bio-terrorism than we were, but we still have enormous holes.
The issue of whether it's a bomb, a chemical that causes 10,000 casualties, a dirty bomb or a biological incident -- if we have massive numbers of casualties, our health-care system is simply not prepared at this time.
I fail to understand why the White