Thinking about the unthinkable: Terrorism in the hinterlands

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

When was the last time you seriously considered 9/11 happening in your city? Never? That was what I was afraid of. As the issue of homeland security reaches the boiling point here in Washington, it's becoming increasingly apparent that many public works departments are not demanding their rightful place at the local "homeland security" table.

The "we're not included" syndrome is quite pervasive. And APWA is working diligently to assure that at the national level, the needs and concerns of public works are heard and addressed. However, as many of you know, homeland security funds are being funneled through the traditional channels: from the Department of Homeland Security to the states, from the states to the locals, through an elaborate grant process.

Show me the money!!
Have you received any homeland security money? Some of you say yes, others say no. Some of you are at the table, and some are not. There are numerous reasons for this. As a matter of fact, the Department of Homeland Security recently established a task force of elected officials to look into the quagmire holding up rapid disbursement of homeland security funds. In their report, they found that the reimbursement requirement was too onerous for many, that ordinary procurement processes cannot be relied upon in extraordinary times and that the lack of national standards contributes to the delay in disbursement.

Additionally, the DHS Inspector General also launched an investigation and released "An Audit of Distributing and Spending 'First Responder' Grant Funds" in March. The review found that while a majority of the awarded funds had not yet been received by the recipients, much of this delay was due to a lack of clear spending plans by the recipients, as well as the fact that the programs are all run on a reimbursable basis, and many of the recipients do not have available funds to make the initial outlay. However, the Inspector General did report a number of management delays in approval of expenditures at the federal level, but that these problems were mostly due to the volume of funds at issue, and the newness of the program.

So there are many external reasons why local communities are not seeing the homeland security dollars. But what are our internal hurdles to securing those funds? As I've mentioned in other Washington Insight articles, I love APWA members because you are problem solvers. In that vein, one DPW I know, when asked what they needed for "homeland security related preparedness," asked for a couple thousand dollars to change the locks on city hall.

This is not a criticism. I sleep well at night knowing that when I advocate for our needs no one is padding or scamming anyone. I know that we actually need what we ask for! But practically speaking, what if 9/11 happened in your city? Have you asked for what you need? Do your departments have the protective gear and training necessary to respond alongside fire and police? Do other departments, particularly fire and police, know what you do and what you need? Do they know that public works departments are the "wind beneath their wings"?

What's our mission?
In late June, Brian Usher, chair of APWA's Emergency Management Committee, attended a Senior Leaders' Seminar with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss how different levels of government would interact if the coast of Virginia were hit by a level 5 hurricane and the Federal Reserve building in Richmond was destroyed by a "dirty" bomb (a bomb that would emit a radioactive cloud).

Who would be involved in recovering from such an onslaught—public works? You bet. Debris management, infrastructure restoration, debris removal, decontamination, the list goes on and on. Are you sitting in the road and bridges division thinking that your involvement would be minimal? In the scenario the main arteries to the damaged region were clogged with people trying to get out and resources trying to get in. Who would be on the streets helping manage that congestion? Who's providing signage? Are you sitting back in the wastewater division thinking that you would not be involved? What about decontamination of the sewer system and management of the decontaminated water? Do you have personal protective gear for that?

I've said in the past that convincing people of the critical role of public works in a terrorist response is not difficult. Now it's my job to convince the skeptics among us. If an event hits your city, public works will be called upon to do everything from clear debris to create a makeshift morgue.

Realistically, this threat is not something only New York and Washington, D.C. face. Recently, a suspected terrorist was captured and charged with conspiring with al-Qaeda to blow up an Ohio area shopping mall. The particular mall was not identified. But does it matter? Are you ready for it to be your shopping mall? Because as the more high-profile targets of New York and D.C. harden their defenses, the terrorists will move their targets to our "soft underbelly." And that means you.

I could go on and on with examples of how the DPWs in Oklahoma City and New York were called upon to do all kinds of nontraditional activities. Instead, I will ask you all to consider with your department what types of things we are called to do in the event of our worst natural disasters. Then add to that thinking that the terrorists' ultimate goal is to cause as much fear, death and destruction as possible. That they have no respect for civilian versus noncivilian targets. That they don't care if children die. That perhaps they would choose a site that houses children purposefully—just as Timothy McVeigh did.

When you can even begin to think as they do, you will understand that the threat is real and the need for us to be prepared is even more so.

National Politics: The debate over all-hazards and terrorism-only
At the national level, any organization that has responded to a natural disaster knows and respects the role of public works. We will be similarly called upon in the event of a terrorist attack. To address this, APWA has advocated at the national level for the "all-hazards approach" to disaster response, and by extension, to terrorist response. We understand that statistically speaking, it is much more likely that you will see your normal spate of natural disasters than a terrorist attack in your city. So we work to assure that the "all-hazards" approach is not lost.

Although that approach has also been embraced by the Administration and the Department of Homeland Security (see sidebar), some in Congress have different ideas—even going so far as to suggest taking money away from disaster response in favor of terrorist response. The controversy has been termed by the media as a "clash between urban and rural" lawmakers, but APWA posits that it is much more than that. The issue of whether or not each state should receive a minimum amount of homeland security dollars to secure their cities has an obvious link to the all-hazards approach for several reasons.

First, terrorism is a moving target. The "threat" is never static. Proponents of funneling all homeland security funds to communities based solely on "threat-based analysis" somehow miss that our open society is vulnerable in so many ways. The exact arrogance that convinced us that no attack could occur "on the mainland" is the same arrogance that says an attack could not or would not occur in areas other than large metropolitan communities. We must make all of our communities prepared for the unthinkable, because it may be just around the corner.

Second, APWA advocates that legislation in Congress must assure that all communities must have a minimum level of preparedness for another important reason: The all-hazards approach encourages mutual aid. The headlines from the latest revelations from the 9/11 Commission say that New York was "overwhelmed" by the magnitude of the attacks on the Twin Towers. And when New York was overwhelmed, they called in reinforcements from not just neighboring cities, but from neighboring states. Suddenly, responders from towns all around the region were smack in the middle of our nation's most horrific and destructive attack in history.

The response became regional. And that was entirely appropriate. Surrounding communities, trained and prepared for all types of disasters, were called upon to assist New York with the catastrophe. And they were ready. Why? Because most are prepared to manage and address "all hazards."

Finally, APWA supports an all-hazards approach because it shores up our communities' response to any type of disaster. Although APWA by no means argues against funding and training for the prevention and response to a terrorist attack, we do argue that it is important and appropriate for communities to have the resources and the capabilities to respond to any incident that would kill people and destroy property.

While all of this seems obvious, in addition to efforts that funnel homeland security dollars only to a select few cities, there have also been efforts in Congress to take money away from funding for natural disasters in favor of terrorist response. APWA strongly opposes such shifts. Funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund or any other fund designed to mitigate or respond to a natural disaster must be maintained and protected. To raid these programs to increase resources for terrorist response is simply wrong and leaves communities vulnerable and unprepared. APWA recognizes that you must have the resources to respond to all the hazards you face.

What do we do?
The good news is that we are making substantial progress at the national level to assure that the needs of public works are addressed. The news that affects each and every one of you is that we need more help from the grass roots. We need to push from both ends: APWA National from the top, and APWA chapters from the ground up. We will be called upon to meet the needs of our citizens and our communities when struck by a terrorist attack—we must make sure that we are ready.

APWA staff is here to help in that effort. Please never hesitate to call and ask how to pursue an agenda with your local officials, or to get help determining an agenda in the first place. That is what we are here for. And, as mentioned several months ago, APWA has convened a special working group on homeland security needs to develop a detailed picture of what public works does and what public works needs, scheduled for release this fall. It will be a useful tool for your efforts at the grassroots level and for us here fighting the good fight in the nation's capitol.

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

Department of Homeland Security Directives and Initiatives

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 - Management of Domestic Incidents
Released by the White House on February 28, 2003, the primary purpose of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD-5) is to, "...establish a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management." The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is intended to, "provide a consistent nationwide approach for Federal, State, and local governments to work effectively and efficiently together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of cause, size, or complexity." It is the expectation of DHS that the NIMS will eventually become the adopted standard for preparedness nationwide.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 - National Preparedness
The purpose of HSPD-8 is to establish, "...policies to strengthen the preparedness of the United States to prevent and respond to threatened or actual domestic terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies by requiring a national domestic all-hazards preparedness goal, establishing mechanisms for improved delivery of Federal preparedness assistance to State and local governments, and outlining actions to strengthen preparedness capabilities of Federal, State, and local entities." The directive also explicitly defines public works as a "first responder" in the event of a terrorist event: "(d) The term "first responder" refers to those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers as defined in section 2 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. 101), as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel (such as equipment operators) that provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations.

National Response Plan
HSPD-5 requires the National Response Plan to, "integrate Federal Government domestic prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery plans into one all-discipline, all-hazards plan." The NRP incorporates and replaces the Federal Response Plan, Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan, Interim National Response Plan, Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan, the Spills Concept of Operations Plan, as well as several other lesser-known plans. The NRP is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004.