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Upcoming Changes in the Federal Homeland Security Structure?

September 23, 2010

Within the last two weeks, I’ve come across two articles, both by people who should know about these things, purporting to have heard about changes in two central pieces of what defines homeland security in the US. Both changes sound like efforts to make the federal role in homeland security (and indeed response) more strategic and all-encompassing.

First, the National Response Framework (NRF). Eric Holdeman, writing for Emergency Management Magazine, gives a hint that DHS hopes to have an NRF rewrite in place by this time next year. The really interesting part is this:

Recently I also saw a PowerPoint slide–with no further explanation that [sic] there will be four new National Response Frameworks (I think that includes the current rewrite mentioned above).

That alone is interesting, but when coupled with this article by Philip J. Palin, of Homeland Security Watch, which says that several people have heard that the White House is looking to rewrite, or scrap, the current Homeland Security Presidential Directives (HSPD). We spent a lot of time a couple years ago discussing HSPD-21 here, so this is something that’s relevant to our little corner of the world.

Palin wrote a memo to the Obama transition team on just this subject, and posted it. Below are what Palin identifies as the five sources of the problems with the HSPDs:

1. Many of the HSPDs serve an interagency coordination function that has been superseded by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (e.g. enhanced INS and Customs cooperation).
2. Many of the HSPDs are operational rather than strategic. Moreover, the operational frameworks set-out may not be well-suited to current and emerging conditions and complicate strategic adaptation.
3. Taken together, the HSPDs give much more attention to response than to prevention, preparedness, or recovery. Mitigation is seldom considered.
4. Between the first HSPD in October 2001 to June’s [2008] publication of HSPD 24 there is an increasing attention to threats other than terrorism. Beginning with HSPD 5 (February 2003) a goal is articulated to be prepared for all-hazards (or “terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies”). But there is an ongoing threat-orientation as opposed to a risk-orientation. This is inconsistent with the risk-based foundations of both the existing Homeland Security Strategy and the strategy signaled by President-elect Obama.
5. There is no significant or sustained attention to resilience and the distinction between catastrophic risk and other risk is implicit at best. The current collection of HSPDs offers a broad view of the threat horizon, but very little guidance as to the strategic priorities along that horizon.

In my eyes, the most interesting of these (valid) concerns are the second and the fourth. The first is easily understood as guidance given early in an overhaul process that didn’t stress anticipation (and also demonstrates the operational, as opposed to strategic nature of the HSPDs). The third criticism shows that the HSPDs were written with the help of emergency managers. Mitigation is a blind spot in the field and, I would argue, part of a broader society-wide investment process that might not be best lead by emergency management. This point is echoed in the fifth criticism where it mentions a lack of focus on resilience.

The second one is something, honestly, I wish I could have seen when reviewing HSPD-21. I admit that I was was green at the time and still very much in the weeds. Rereading that HSPD shows how specific it was and completely not strategic. Once the goals set forth were “met,” the HSPD was essentially a useless document.

The fourth I find interesting because of the differentiation between threat-orientation and risk-orientation. I don’t think anyone understands what this looks like on an everyday basis more than public health planners. Ask your local planner what their mass prophy plan looks like, no better yet, ask what their anthrax plan looks like. I’m sure they’ll be very proud of how detailed it is, and what a great score they got on the TAR last time around. Then ask them what their plan for a Hepatitis A outbreak looks like, or their heat emergency plan looks like, or their plan for coordinating alternate care facilities to support overwhelmed hospitals looks like, or special medical needs sheltering, or evacuee triage. The CDC and, by extension (by fiat?), public health departments, have focused almost exclusively on the mythological airborne release of weaponized anthrax spores. I would argue that this laser-like focus on a specific threat has put us at a greater risk of other threats.

I, for one, am excited to see the stamp that this Administration puts on homeland security in the next few months — and not because the previous Administration’s efforts were poor, but instead because we’ve learned so much since then.

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