Inching Forward

A few policy changes that should benefit locals have trickled out of the Department of Homeland Security.

by / April 4, 2005
As federal officials work to get their arms around the giant Department of Homeland Security (DHS), state and locals wonder if needed DHS restructuring is imminent, and whether it will result in more and better guidance, including an improved mechanism for alerting states and locals of possible threats.

DHS officials say much has been done since the department's creation two years ago, but acknowledge that there are still huge mountains to climb. They say restructuring is taking place and will continue to occur.

The department made strides by combining the Office of Domestic Preparedness with the Office of State and Local Government Coordination. The new Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness (SLGCP) should simplify the application and award process, and provide more efficient assistance to states by integrating the numerous federal preparedness initiatives and programs into a single source. It is hoped that the SLGCP will help develop a uniform homeland security policy to be carried out by states.

James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs regarding a special report, Rethinking the Department of Homeland Security, in which he and others outline steps that could help the DHS become a more efficient, effective body.

The report urges reform and restructuring within the DHS, saying the organization is tethered by bureaucratic layers and turf warfare, and lacks a structure that yields policy.

The report's recommendations include establishing an undersecretary for protection and preparedness to help coordinate and communicate homeland security policies and strategies with states or regions. Further, the report calls for replacing the national color-coded alert with regional alerts that provide more critical data -- something the DHS is working on in conjunction with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

The regional warnings could be done after comprehensive risk-level rankings of all regions in the country take place. The rankings should address population, threat assessment, number of "important" sites and level of vulnerability. Along with the rankings, the DHS should establish capabilities-based performance standards and response for state and local authorities.

Carafano said there was debate within the DHS about those and other measures, but most are up in the air until the new secretary, Michael Chertoff, takes over. "Once [former DHS Secretary Tom] Ridge announced his resignation, all that was basically put on hold," Carafano said, adding that these issues will have to be confronted by incoming homeland security Secretary Michael Chertoff

Some, like Carafano, fear that time is of the essence, not only because of possible threats to the country, but also because of the belief that once a bureaucracy becomes entrenched, it's difficult to change. The report's message is clear: Fix things now or live with the mistakes for a long time.

National Response Plan
What can't be foreseen is whether the new secretary will have more authority than Ridge and whether existing turf wars can be settled. The report suggests the need for a "policy apparatus," which would include a deputy secretary and a strengthened management directorate. As it stands, the department is but a collection of separate components under one organizational umbrella, according to the report.

A DHS spokesperson said some or all of these considerations are in the works or being reviewed. Valerie Smith, assistant press secretary at the DHS, pointed to the recently unveiled National Response Plan as evidence that the DHS is working on the problems and developing plans that can be used "far into the future."

Smith said the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a set of best practices guidelines developed by the DHS, are a start to the development of standards that many have clamored for. "The National Incident Management System and the National Response Plan create comprehensive frameworks for incident response for all levels of government so that any agency responding to an incident would use the same playbook."

The special report acknowledges those two plans, but indicates that a suitable operational structure to support them is lacking.

Smith said the DHS is designing a timeline for implementing standard procedures for 15 disaster scenarios or incidents regarding biological, chemical and natural disasters, and the use of radiological dispersal devices. "These scenarios can be used by state and locals as templates for practicing or exercising how to respond to incidents," she said, but added, "These things take time."

Future homeland security grants to state and locals will be tied to minimum compliance requirements set forth by NIMS. For fiscal 2005, the DHS created an exemption to a policy that prevented federal grant monies from being disbursed until state and local governments applied for reimbursement. Problems arose because state and local governments didn't have the money in hand to spend on homeland security.

Local officials have also complained that the color-coded alert system is too often vague; that it is unnecessarily expensive because it requires locals to spend overtime on law enforcement to patrol areas where there may be no threat; and that too frequently they first hear of a change in the alert stage on CNN.

Smith said the advisory system accomplishes what it attempts to do, although the public may not be clear on its role, and it is not designed to make Americans feel scared or vulnerable. It's merely a signal to law enforcement to tighten security in vulnerable areas, and the intention is to apply it "surgically" to address specific threats.

That hasn't always been the case, but precision was applied last August when credible intelligence indicated threats to financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. "We were able to apply a much more surgical implementation of the system, thereby lowering costs to law enforcement and first responders who did not need to step up their security," Smith said. "When we have the intelligence to do so, we will always apply it surgically."

Further evolution of the system is expected.

All Alert System
One recommendation from the report, which might put intelligence to better use, is a structured chain of command at the DHS. Another, prescribed by Carafano and promised by the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, is the creation of regional DHS command centers throughout the country.

Smith said creating the regional centers is a good idea and would help information sharing across the board, but that it is, thus far, just an idea.

NASCIO is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a solution called the All Alert System, which builds on the Amber Alert Web portal. It will provide alerts in a common format and push alerts out over dedicated channels through public and private organizations, and some quasi-government organizations. There could be an open source feed, which other organizations could pick up, allowing alerts to be provided from such sources as ATMs and slot machines in casinos.

The All Alert System will be based on the Common Alerting Protocol using an XML framework, according to Chris Dixon, NASCIO digital government coordinator. The system will be managed at the state homeland security/emergency management level. From there, a multitude of alerts could be delivered, depending on the recipient and incident, which could range from an overturned semi truck to chemical or biological warnings.

"The gist is it provides a large trough or hopper for dropping alerts into it and pulling alerts out of it, and still maintaining the necessary level of control and jurisdictional oversight necessary within each state," Dixon said. "And because this thing is entirely open standards-based, it allows any solutions provider an opportunity to build a solution at the back end for use by first responders and other authorized entities."

The initial implementation will be the first of two regional pilot projects. The first pilot will piggyback FEMA's Digital Emergency Alert system pilot in the Washington, D.C., region. The site for the second pilot hasn't been determined.

Implementation could begin this summer. At press time, servers were being evaluated, a Web interface was being built and a requirements definition phase was getting under way. NASCIO is working with DHS Science and Technology personnel on the system's technical aspects. Once implemented, NASCIO will be neutral, and federal, state and local officials would become the stakeholders and manage the system.

FEMA is working on the financial aspects necessary to get the project rolling, Dixon said. NASCIO has been working with FEMA to agree on an estimated cost for the project, he said. "Now FEMA is back doing whatever it is they do to move the money."

The cost hadn't been tallied at press time, but Dixon said states shouldn't suffer sticker shock over the bill. He said the key is setting up major repositories at data centers where Amber Alert is managed, such as highway patrol data centers.

Dixon said implementation should mirror the Amber Alert rollout.