All response is local: The advisory panel to assess domestic response capabilities for terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction

Kristina A. Tanasichuk
Senior Manager of Government Relations
APWA Washington office

Back in 1998, Congress established an advisory panel to assess domestic response capabilities for terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Commission has released numerous recommendations as their impressive panel worked through the challenges of preparing our nation for a new type of threat. One of their most important conclusions for public works, and other local responders, is that all response is local. And we must be vigilant and diligent that those assisting us at the federal level never lose sight of that.

"The challenge of terrorism demands that we vigorously and continuously analyze and assess our federal, state and local response mechanisms," said then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen. "As part of this ongoing effort, Congress has called for a panel of experts to review our current and future needs."

Virginia Governor James Gilmore was selected to lead the effort, tasked with producing four reports during its tenure: an interim report within six months after the date of the first meeting, and three annual reports due in December, starting in 1999.

"It's an honor to lead this national study," Gilmore said. "The threat of terrorism is an evolving national and global issue that also has implications at the state and local levels. The nation as well as our states and communities must be better prepared to deter, respond to, and recover from an act of terrorism."

Specifically, the panel was charged with five responsibilities:

  • Assess federal agency efforts to enhance domestic preparedness for terrorism incidents involving WMD.
  • Assess the progress of federal training programs for local emergency responses to WMD incidents.
  • Assess deficiencies in programs for response to WMD incidents, including a review of unfunded communications, equipment, and planning requirements, and the need of maritime regions.
  • Recommend strategies for ensuring fully effective local response capabilities for WMD incidents.
  • Assess the appropriate roles of state and local governments in funding effective local response capabilities.

The Commission focused on its charter—to assess the capabilities for responding to terrorist incidents in the U.S.—and released several reports and recommendations.

All of the Commission's products can be viewed at http://www.rand.org/nsrd/terrpanel/ so I will not bore you here with a repeat of everything they concluded. I would simply like to draw your attention to a conclusion the Commission came to, repeatedly, and one that may be getting lost as the Department of Homeland Security and its departments begin to grow and consume more and more responsibilities and offices in our federal response system. All response is local.

As the Commission issued its reports, Governor Gilmore stressed to Congress that they were working from several important assumptions: First, "all terrorism is 'local' or at least will start locally." The Commission found that this assumption has everything to do "with the emphasis, the priorities and the allocation of resources to address requirements." Second, that a major attack will overwhelm a local jurisdiction and that it will require outside help.

From this very welcome "local" perspective, the Commission made recommendations on how to combat terrorism from the "bottoms up—with the requirements of state and local response entities foremost in mind."

It seems, much to APWA's dismay, that this focus is being lost as the Department of Homeland Security expands. We are currently involved in many of DHS' initiatives: the development of a Universal Task List; reviewing the National Response Plan; contributing to the Resource Typing Initiative; participating in Integrated Concept teams tasked with making all the policy into reality; and numerous other projects.

The input from locals, however, still seems an afterthought, and suggestions to integrate the local perspective more fully are being heard only sporadically. To their credit, DHS' Office of State and Local Coordination has made significant efforts to include APWA perspectives on some of their workgroups. We of course want more, but understand that there are many players vying for a position to assure that their needs are represented and addressed.

We must continue this struggle and push from the "bottoms up." We have many allies in the fight. Our mayors, local officials and even local police and fire, all face the same dilemma. As the documents coming out of DHS become more "federal" and less "national," we must demand a seat at the table and assure that the local perspective, the perspective of those responding, is not lost.

Kristina A. Tanasichuk can be reached at (202) 408-9541 or at ktanasichuk@apwa.net.