New Jersey Terrorism Threat Assessment – A Model for the Nation

Earlier in the month, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness released their 2018 Terrorism Threat Assessment.  This unclassified document gives an outstanding review of matters of interest to the State of New Jersey, with relevant information no matter where you are in the US, or any other nation.  While the focus early in the document is specifically relevant to New Jersey and surrounding states, much of the document provides outstanding information and brief case studies on groups such as homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), domestic terror groups, international terror groups, and more.

Terrorism rarely pays attention to borders, especially those within the nation.  While some areas, particularly those with higher populations and higher value targets, have a greater risk profile than others, we’ve seen that terrorists, in the broadest definitions, can live, train, and execute attacks anywhere in the nation – from unincorporated lands, to small towns, to major metropolitan areas.

The document highlights the threat of HVEs, traditionally inspired, but not directly supported by larger terror groups or movements.  These tend to be lone wolves or small cells, having such a small footprint, they often leave intelligence for law enforcement to trace.  The document also mentions a changing trend in militia groups.  Several groups have been seen to change behaviors, seemingly to align with the government or law enforcement, but in actuality chasing their own vigilante agendas.

I encourage everyone who is interested to review this document.  The content is current, relevant, and informative.  I think it’s a model for states and communities around the nation, providing an excellent snapshot of the current landscape of terrorism.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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Guidance for Operational Security and Access

Operational security can be a big issue, especially on prolonged incidents.  An incident occurs.  Evacuations have to take place.  A scene has to be secured.  Issues like safety and evidence preservation are priorities.  Inevitably someone says they ‘need access’.  Who are they?  Do they really need access?   Are they an evacuee?  A responder?  Media?  A government official?  A critical infrastructure operator?  When is it OK to allow someone access and under what circumstances?

While NIMS has been advocating for credentialing as an effort to identify responders and their qualifications, along with ensuring that they have appropriate identification to grant them access to an incident scene and to utilize them to the best ability, there is still a lot of work to do, and little has been done beyond first responders.  I’ve been on incidents where the perimeter was not well established and anyone could stroll in to an incident site or a command post.  I’ve been on incidents where the flash of a badge or ID was good enough to get through, even though the person at the perimeter didn’t actually examine it, much less verify it.  I’ve also been on incidents where no entry was allowed with a badge, official ID, and a marked car – even though entry was necessary and appropriate. Thankfully, I’ve also been on some incidents where identification is examined, and the access request is matched to a list or radioed in for verification.  This is how it should work.

While credentialing and access control are two separate topics, they do have a degree of overlap.  Like so many aspects in incident management, little ground has been gained on more complex matters such as these because there is little to no need for them on the smaller (type 4 and 5) incidents.  Type three (intermediary) incidents generally use an ad-hoc, mismanaged, band-aid approach to these issues (or completely ignore them), while larger (type 1 and 2) incidents eventually establish systems to address them once a need (or usually a problem) is recognized.  While every incident is unique and will require an-incident specific plan to address access control and re-entry, we can map out the primary concerns, responsibilities, and resources in a pre-incident plan – just like we do with so many of our other operational needs in an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP).  Also, like most of what we do in the development of an EOP, access control and re-entry is a community-wide issue.  It’s not just about first responders.

Here’s an example of why this is important.  A number of years ago I ran a tabletop exercise for the chief information officer (CIO) agency of a state government.  The primary purpose was to address matters of operational continuity.  I used the scenario of a heavy snow storm which directly or indirectly disabled their systems.  We talked about things like notification and warning, remote systems access (the state didn’t have a remote work policy at the time), redundant infrastructure, and gaining physical access to servers and other essential systems.  Without gaining physical access, some of their systems would shut down, meaning that many state agencies would have limited information technology access.  Closed roads and perimeter controls, established with the best of intentions, can keep critical infrastructure operators from accessing their systems.  The CIO employees carried nothing but a state agency identification, which local police wouldn’t give a damn about.  Absent a couple hours of navigating state politics to get a state police escort, these personnel would have been stuck and unable to access their critical systems.  Based upon this, one of the recommendations was to establish an access control agreement with all relevant agencies where their infrastructure was located.

Consider this similar situation with someone else.  Perhaps the manager of a local grocer after a flood.  They should be able to get access to their property as soon as possible to assess the damage and get the ball rolling on restoration.  Delays in that grocer getting back in business can delay the community getting back on their feet and add to your work load as you need to continue distributing commodities.

There are a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and other considerations when it comes to access control, though.  There aren’t easy answers.  That’s why a pre-plan is necessary.  Like many things we do in emergency management and homeland security, there is guidance available.  The Crisis Event Response and Recovery Access (CERRA) Framework was recently published by DHS.  It provides a lot of information on this matter.  I strongly suggest you check it out and start bringing the right people to the table to start developing your own plan.

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Ignored

FEMA recently released their 2018-2022 Strategic Plan.  While organizational strategic plans are generally internal documents, the strategic plans of certain organizations, such as FEMA, have a significant link to a broader array of stakeholders.  The community of emergency management in the United States is so closely linked, that FEMA, through policy, funding, or practice, has a heavy influence on emergency management at the state and local levels.  Here are my impressions of the 38-page document.

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Right from the beginning, this document continues to reinforce the system of emergency management and the involvement of the whole community. I’m glad these concepts have been carried forward from earlier administrations.  Far too often have we seen new administrations trash the concepts of the previous for reasons none other than politics.  Things often take time in emergency management, and it sometimes seems that just as we are getting a grasp on a good concept or program, it’s stripped away in favor of something new which has yet to be proven.

The foreword of the document, as expected, lays out the overall focus of the strategic plan.  What I’m really turned off by here is the mention, not once but twice, of ‘professionalizing’ emergency management.  Use of this phrase is an unfortunate trend and a continued disappointment.  We are our own worst enemy when statements like this are made.  It seems that some in emergency management lack the confidence in our profession.  While I’m certainly critical of certain aspects of it, there is no doubt in my mind that emergency management is a profession.  I wish people, like Administrator Long, would stop doubting that.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard him recently interviewed on an emergency management podcast where he stressed the same point.  It’s getting old and is honestly insulting to those of us who have been engaged in it as a career.

The strategic goals put forward in this plan make sense.

  1. Build a culture of preparedness
  2. Ready the nation for catastrophic disasters
  3. Reduce the complexity of FEMA

These are all attainable goals that belong in this strategic plan.  They stand to benefit FEMA as an organization, emergency management as a whole, and the nation.  The objectives within these goals make sense and address gaps we continue to deal with across the profession.

A quote on page 8 really stands out… The most effective strategies for emergency management are those that are Federally supported, state managed, and locally executed.  With the system of emergency management in the US and the structure of federalism, this statement makes a lot of sense and I like it.

Based on objective 1.2 – closing the insurance gap – FEMA is standing behind the national flood insurance program.  It’s an important program, to be sure, but it needs to be better managed, better promoted, and possibly restructured.  There is a big red flag planted in this program and it needs some serious attention before it collapses.

Here’s the big one… It’s no secret that morale at FEMA has been a big issue for years.  The third strategic goal includes an objective that relates to employee morale, but unfortunately employee morale itself is not an objective.  Here’s where I think the strategic plan misses the mark.  While several objectives directly reference improving systems and processes at FEMA, none really focus on the employees.  Most mentions of employees in the document really reference them as tools, not as people.  Dancing around this issue is not going to get it resolved.  I’m disappointed for my friends and colleagues at FEMA.  While I applaud the strategic plan for realizing the scope of external stakeholders it influences, they seem to have forgotten their most important ones – their employees.  This is pretty dissatisfying and, ultimately, is an indicator of how poorly this strategic plan will perform, since it’s the employees that are counted on to support every one of these initiatives.  You can make all the policy you want, but if you don’t have a motivated and satisfied work force, change will be elusive.

Overall, I’d give this strategic plan a C.  While it addresses some important goals and objectives and recognizes pertinent performance measures, it still seems to lack a lot of substance.  External stakeholders are pandered to when internal stakeholders don’t seem to get a lot of attention.  While, as mentioned earlier, FEMA has a lot of influence across all of emergency management, they need to be functioning well internally if they are to successful externally.  Employee morale is a big issue that’s not going to go away, and it seems to be largely ignored in this document.  I absolutely want FEMA to be successful, but it looks like leadership lacks the proper focus and perspective.

What thoughts do you have on FEMA’s new strategic plan?

© 2018 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC SM

 

Active Shooter Drills with Students – Good Idea or Bad?

While school shootings, unfortunately, are nothing new, we are seeing them occur with greater frequency.  Without getting into my thoughts on firearms, I will say that preparedness, prevention, and mitigation for mass shooting incidents in schools and other soft targets of opportunity, are multi-faceted.  Shooters are just as much of a persistent threat as hurricanes, tornadoes, or flooding; amplified by the will of the shooter(s) to do harm and their ability to reason through paths of deterrence.  While a number of measures can and should continue to be implemented to prevent and protect soft targets, just as we do with natural hazards, we must continue to prepare for an attack that slips past or through our preventative measures.

Readers will know that I’m a huge advocate of exercises in the emergency management/public safety/homeland security space.  While the primary purpose of exercises is to validate plans, policies, and procedures; we also use them to practice and reinforce activities.  Certainly every school, college, shopping mall, office building, and other mass gathering space should hold active shooter drills.  Many of these facilities already conduct regular fire evacuation drills, and shooter drills should also be added to the mix.

Where to start?  First of all, you need a plan.  ALL EXERCISES START WITH A PLAN.  The sheer number of exercises I’ve seen conducted with no plan or a knowingly poor plan in place is staggering.  If people don’t know what to do or how to do it, the value of the exercise is greatly diminished.  If you are a responsible party for any of these spaces, reach out to your local law enforcement and emergency management office for assistance in developing an active shooter protection plan.  If you are a regulated facility, such as a school or hospital, the state offices that provide your oversight are also a resource.  You can find some planning guidance here and here.   While your focus with this activity is an active shooter protection plan, recognize that you will also need to re-visit the public information component of your emergency operations plan (you have one, right?) and your business continuity plan, as I guarantee you will need to reference these in the event of a shooting incident.  A final note on planning… don’t do it in a vacuum!  It should be a collaborative effort with all relevant stakeholders.

As for exercises, consider what you want to accomplish and who needs to be involved.  In a mall, it’s not wise to include shoppers in exercises since they are a transient audience and forcing their involvement will very likely be some bad PR and impact stores financially.  That said, you need to anticipate that mall shoppers won’t know what to do or how to react to a shooter, therefore mall staff need to be very forceful and persistent in how they deal with patrons in such an incident.  Therefore, involving mall staff along with law enforcement and other stakeholders in an off-hours exercise is a great idea.

Schools, however, are a different situation, as their populations are static for an extended period of time.  While school faculty and staff should exercise with law enforcement, there are different thoughts on how and when to involve kids in these exercises.  There are some that advocate their involvement, while there are some who are adamantly opposed.  I reflect back on fire evacuation drills, which occur with regularity in schools. These drills reinforce procedure and behavior with students.  They know they need to line up and proceed calmly and well behaved along a designated path to exit the building, proceeding to a meeting spot where teachers maintain order and accountability.  These are behaviors that stick with many into adulthood if they find themselves in a fire evacuation (drill or otherwise) – so it’s also a learning experience.  The same holds for tornado and earthquake drills, which are held regularly in many areas around the country.  Fundamentally, for a shooter situation, we also need to reinforce procedure and behavior with students.  They need to know what to do in lockdown, lockout, and evacuation.

The prospect of a shooter is a horrible thing for anyone to deal with, much less a child.  I’ve spoken to parents who, themselves, are horrified about the prospect of speaking to their children about a shooter in their school.  In every occasion, I’ve said this: You damn well better talk to them about it.  This is a discussion with perhaps greater importance than talks about strangers, drugs, alcohol, or sex; and it needs to begin with children from kindergarten on up.  Schools need to teach students what to do when the alert occurs for an active shooter – typically this involves getting them safely out of view from someone who might be in the hallway while teachers lock or barricade the door and turn off lights.  Students need to understand the gravity of the situation and remain still and quiet.  Evacuation will generally only occur under someone’s direction.  There will be loud noises and it’s likely the police won’t speak kindly as they are clearing rooms, looking for a shooter and potential devices.  To be certain, it’s scary for adults and I wish our children didn’t have to endure such a thing, but practicing and reinforcing procedures and behavior will save lives.  I’ll offer this article, that discusses some of the potential psychological impacts of shooter drills on kids.  These impacts are a reality we also need to deal with, but I think the benefits of the drills far outweigh the costs.

Mass shootings, like most aspects of public safety, underscore the need for us to do better not only in public safety response, but also as a society.  The answers aren’t easy and there is no magic pill that will provide a solution to it all.  It requires a multifaceted approach on the part of multiple stakeholders, sadly even those as young as four years old, to prepare, prevent, and protect.

© 2018 – Timothy M. Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC