Are We Ready?

Jerry Hauer shares his concerns about the nation's disaster preparedness.

by / November 1, 2004 0
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 House is cutting back on funding to hospitals. The one area in terrorism preparedness where you have to bolster things is in dealing with patients. You can have all the detectors and all the level-A suits, and get all these people out of hot zones that you want, but if you don't have any place to bring them, you've got a problem.

We're going to put billions of dollars into first responders and they need it. But you have to focus on the health-care system, which is ultimately going to receive all these casualties.

Are first responders getting the resources they need?
I think they are getting some of what they need, but I don't think they are getting enough, and I don't think they are getting enough guidance. Some guidance is coming out, but not enough.

I am constantly getting calls on what bio-detector to buy. They say they're not getting the guidance they need. They don't know who to call, and they're getting conflicting information from federal agencies. They're getting more information from sales people than from the federal government. Well, that's not a good place to get your information.

The handheld bio-detectors -- they bought a lot of those and didn't realize how many of them don't work that well. There's technology coming out that will do field sampling.

There are a couple of companies working on it. It's great to have all these level-A suits and the de-con equipment, but once you're done de-conning the patients, if you don't have a process in place to [care for the injured], you're going to have a huge problem on your hands.

The first responders are getting a lot of money. There are a lot of complaints that the money isn't trickling down from the states, but there's an ongoing need for new and better training, for updated training. They're hungry for training. That's one of the things we're trying to do here.

What would you suggest for first responders unsure of what to buy and where to get training?
They really need to do their homework. There are some good training programs out there. The ODP [Office for Domestic Preparedness] training is pretty good. We use it here. They need to continue to update it, and they are trying to do that. The ODP is trying to bring the level of training up and standardize the training, which is exactly the thing that needs to be done.

We need more medical, public health and emergency medical services training. There's a vacuum there. The bigger question is where do you go to get the expertise when you want to buy equipment?

There is still confusion about that. I always recommend people call the DHS and either talk to somebody in one of the technical arenas -- Science and Technology, or State and Local [Government Coordination]. The Interagency Equipment Board comes out with lists every year.

The other good place to go is [the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] NIOSH. Look at what NIOSH has approved. There's a lot of junk that comes out and makes claims about being able to do this or that [in terms of] respiratory protection. I've got masks in my office that people sell -- escape masks and things like that. Some are outstanding and some of them, when you look at them, you don't know whether to wear them or put flowers in them.

The State Department has been criticized for deciding to use the relatively immature facial recognition technology, which still has a high error rate, instead of fingerprints in electronic identification chips in new U.S. passports. Is that an example of what you've called "driving the technology" instead of "letting technology drive the process?"
There is a real desire to show you're doing something. The problem is that in the desire to put programs in place, you sometimes put the cart before the horse and put a technology out that is full of problems. You create more problems than you're solving.

Part of it is just assessing the technology and saying, "With this we'll have a 2 percent error rate. With this we'll have a 20 percent error rate." With the handheld bio-detection [devices], some had 50 percent false positives when they did testing. That's unacceptable.

People can live with a certain level of error. The problem is you've got to ensure that the technology you put out is mature enough to actually solve the problem instead of creating more problems for you. The minute you start pulling people over because they've been recognized as being on a watch list and it turns out the technology was at fault -- it was somebody who looked like him but it wasn't him -- first of all you open yourself up to enormous liability. Secondly, you're going to run into problems with the credibility of the equipment.

You put something out. Then you pull it back because it's not working. Then you reintroduce it. People have done that with technology. You put it out prematurely, then you have to pull it and it never is really well accepted again.

We're under enormous pressure to get a lot done quickly, but you can't compromise the quality just to try and get it out. That's a big mistake. I'd rather see them ensure and validate technology, then put it out, rather than put it out and constantly have to fix it in the field. That doesn't work.

How are we doing in terms of interoperability?
We're making some progress, but it's painfully slow. There are two issues: One is the technology itself -- getting all these different radio systems, frequencies and companies to talk to one another. We fought for years to try and get General Electric and Motorola to allow their 800 MHz radios to talk. Never got it done. Motorola had a black box technology in their system they didn't want to share with GE. We couldn't get the two systems talking.

Because of the proprietary nature of communications equipment, some of it is just trying to figure out who you want talking to each other. What is it you want to do on an interoperable system? And it's expensive.

This is something we started looking at in New York 1996 and 1997. We looked at a black box in around 1998 or so, and they said you could take this box and UHF talking to VHF and talking to 800 MHz, and it would work. It was quite some time before that came about. There is technology out there. It's just not ready yet.

It's not just voice, it's data. Here in the National Capital Region, it's being able to get the departments -- there are some on 800 MHz, some on VHF, some on UHF -- it's getting them all to talk when you need to.

In some places, I think it's cultural. In northern Virginia, they've been able to get through most of that. In New York, it's been cultural. They're trying to get through that now.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor