Friday, February 15, 2008

College Disaster Response

The shooting at Northern Illinois University is the latest shooting to occur on an American college campus. Despite a rapid response from university police, five people were shot and killed. Colleges are an especially challenging environment in which to create a safe and secure environment as campuses are by designed to have an open architecture, encouraging the college populace as well as visitors to come and go as they please. High schools and elementary schools by comparison routinely lock the doors after the school day begins and strictly control entry of individuals into the school. Many elementary schools have enclosed playgrounds to prevent strangers from coming on to school grounds during recess. College campuses by comparison are unable to implement such security measures.

The Northern Illinois University Police had revamped their security plans in light of the shootings last year at Virginia Tech yet the shooter was still able to come on to campus and commit murder. The nature of colleges, with students and faculty coming and going at all hours, makes it impossible to establish any type of entry control procedures. Most universities and colleges have numerous research facilities that are used by college students as well as local industrial and scientific personnel. Ordinary citizens may use college libraries. Faculty on sabbatical may still come to their offices to conduct research or simply read their mail. College alums come on to campus to visit former professors, conduct research, attend college functions, or simply to visit. A student scene walking around campus could be in any number of different statuses; currently enrolled, co-op, student teaching, on break, dropped out, former student, etc. University and college police do not have the manpower and resources to check on every single person walking around campus.

The shootings at Northern Illinois demonstrates another limitation of university police departments; they can only react AFTER a shooter or other violent criminal has been identified. No one knew the intentions of the shooter at Northern Illinois (other than the shooter himself) until he first opened fire. By then, it was already too late for his victims regardless of the speed with which the university police responded. Once he started shooting, the best the university could do was to mitigate the amount of violence the gunmen would be able to commit. The media has been reporting the shooter has mental health issues and had not been taking his medication over the last several weeks. To the general public, it may seem like someone should have reported this information to the college or local authorities. However, medical conditions are highly protected pieces of information covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Even when severe mental conditions are known, a patient’s condition cannot be shared (even amongst faculty).

The Northern Illinois University case also illustrates another disturbing trait, a person commits murder who did not have a previous history of violence. There was no indication he would be prone to commit violence and he was able to purchase the shotgun and handgun used during the shootings. Colleges and universities need to understand that violence can happen any time, any place with no warning!

If campus police departments are unable to provide protection, as both Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois demonstrates, then to whom does the onus of protection fall on? The first thought may be the faculty teaching the course but this misses the mark for at least two reasons. First, the faculty is busy focusing on the lecture and may be moving around the lecture hall. He or she may not be away from phones or panic buttons to alert the campus police. Second, the faculty may be the target of the attack (as occurred here locally in Portsmouth, Ohio last week). The onus has to fall with the students. Students have to be part of the college’s emergency response plan. Students need to understand how to respond in the event of a hostage or shooting. They need to know how to recognize a potential violent situation and when to take cover. Unlike with elementary or high school students, college students are (for the most part) adults and should have a more active role in insuring their own safety. College students need to know how to contact the campus police, secure their classrooms, respond during a violent confrontation, or who to speak with if they suspect another student of becoming unstable. Students, even more than faculty, are the ones most likely to know of a student (or former student) that has become unstable or expressed an intent to commit violence.

The shootings at both Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois involved former students but this shouldn’t be the only scenario discussed. Angry current or former employees of the college may commit violence. Last week in Portsmouth, Ohio and estranged husband shot his wife in front of her fifth grade class. Details are still coming out about the case but it illustrates that anyone can come on to the grounds of a school or college campus and commit violence. Students, faculty and staff all need to have the training and knowledge on what to do under such circumstances. Think back to grade school and how every month or so there was fire drill just so students would know what to do and not panic during a fire. When was the last time a college practiced an “active shooter” or “hostage situation” drill? Most colleges and universities have revamped their emergency response plans over the last year but when was the last time an actually conducted a drill to evaluate their procedures?

There is no one solution to prevent these type of heinous crimes from happening on our college campuses in the future. The best approach is one of preparedness and training for our students and faculty.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

High-risk Materials

New York City Police conducted an undercover operation to demonstrate the ease with which a terrorist could obtain chlorine gas. The police set-up a fake water-purification company and were able to obtain three 100-pound cylinders of chlorine. The purchase was done without any direct contact and no background checks. Despite the focus on manufacturers of high-risk materials by Homeland Security, the NYPD operation was able to obtain chlorine with very little effort. Chlorine, even in small dosages, effects human respiratory function and is lethal in large doses. Chlorine can’t be filtered by most masks and will deteriorate the latex seals of many chemical masks.

The New York case is an important reminder of how vulnerable small manufacturers and vendors of hazardous materials can be to a terrorist effort. Unfortunately this story occurred in New York which already receives a lion share of attention from the Department of Homeland Security. I firmly believe that the last place a terrorist will try to obtain materials for an attack in such high-profile areas as New York or Los Angeles. Small chemical manufacturers and vendors in less high-profile areas (such as cities like Kansas City or Des Moines) may not have the budget or the impetus to implement the necessary security oversight over the purchase of their products. A terrorist might also try to obtain smaller quantities from multiple vendors. The products could be gathered in one part of the country to be used in an attack in another part of the country. Of course if all else fails, a terrorist could simply steal the materials from a storage area. While this last option would alert authorities, depending on how quickly the material would be used may make it worth the risk. I recall a case in Kentucky back in 1999 where around several thousand pounds of ANFO was stolen from a demolition company. I don’t know if the material was ever recovered but imagine the logistics required to steal and move such a quantity!

Local first responders, healthcare workers, emergency planners and others involved in homeland security need to really look around their own backyard. Too often homeland security becomes an exercise in defeating some external organization from launching and attack on the United States. Communities that aren’t along the coasts are near major metropolitan areas just can’t relate to such scenarios. These communities, however, could be the ideal location for a terrorist to obtain the necessary materials to create a weapon. Chlorine is just one of many different chemicals that are produced in large quantities for commercial use yet are highly poisonous and could be used by a terrorist group to execute an attack. Very often the plants that produce these chemicals are located in remote areas of the country, area from major population areas. The location reduces the possibility of people being injured in the event of an industrial accident but it also makes it easier for terrorists to obtain the materials either through subterfuge or theft.

These remote communities often don’t have a response plan for dealing with a major disaster at such a facility. First responders and medical treatment facilities may be too small to be able to adequately deal with any type of large scale industrial accident. Sometimes very few in the community are even aware what high risk manufacturers may be located in their community. For example, few here in the Cincinnati area are probably aware of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The plant has 23.0 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, which is stored and processed as uranium hexafluoride (UF6), and other compounds including fluorides, and oxides. (Source: DOE). Most of the first responders I’ve spoken to here in the Cincinnati area have protocols to deal with transporting and treating patients with radiological exposure. Most of the hospitals here don’t have the ability to deal with mass casualties with radiation burns much less decontaminating medical personnel who have handled these patients.

The Portsmouth example is a dramatic example but is shows what may literally be right outside the door of a community. A terrorist operation that targets such a facility for either a fake business transaction, theft or outright attack is far more likely for most communities compared to another 9/11 type attack. The real challenge is to be able to protect these smaller facilities and manufacturers while not increasing their operating costs to the point that they are forced out of business. Too often the immediate conclusion is the terrorists are going to launch an attack when their ultimate goal may be much more subtle. Getting communities to spend large sums of money, restrict business practices, and eliminate other business practices altogether could have an even greater impact to our economy than exploding several cylinders of chlorine gas. Think about the impact security screenings at airports have had on our airline industry. Airlines have had to greatly reduce in-flight services to offset the increase in fuel costs making flights rather unpleasant experiences. Compound the poor in-flight experience with the aggravation of long security lines and the result is fewer people willing to fly commercial airlines. Wealthier passengers chose charter aircraft which results in more aircraft in the skies and increasing the incidence of delays. Less affluent passengers look to rental cars or trains as ways of avoiding the hassles of air travel. All of this jeopardizes many of the major carriers (Delta is looking at merging with another legacy carrier). I’m not saying all of this was caused by terrorist attacks but by having to insure in-flight safety we have inadvertently made airline travel even less attractive than normal.

If we over-react to the New York city case, we may also create economic adversity for our smaller businesses. These businesses may not be able to operate due to the increasing costs of doing the necessary security checks on their customers. Customers may resent the additional paperwork and delays in procuring services and products and may turn to vendors from outside the US. As always, security will come down to how much are we willing to pay?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

TSA Blog

Transportation Security Administration has started a blog at

A unique thing about this blog is it gives people the opportunity to correspond directly with TSA. Usually comments are a dialog between the blogger and their audience. In this case, comments are made on a forum where TSA officials can see them and if necessary take action. The premise in a good one and I salute TSA for taking an initiative which givers travelers an opportunity to bring up issues or seek clarification on policies.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Commission Recommends Sweeping Change for Guard, Reserves

The following was released last week but has gotten little coverage due to coverage of the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday.

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2008 - A Congressional commission today recommended sweeping changes to the way U.S. military reserve forces have been structured and have operated for more than a half century.

The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves delivered to Congress and Pentagon officials its final report, which includes 95 recommendations on how to transition the reserves into a feasible and sustainable operational reserve.

Today's reserve components were designed as a strategic reserve during the Cold War era. "The Guard was part of that surge force that would be dusted off once in a lifetime," commission chairman retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro said today. "That is absolutely not the situation we have today." Reserve components (both National Guard and the Reserves) were designed as a way of keeping a larger inventory of forces on-hand at a reduced cost. Keeping costs low is also way older weapon systems were usually found in Guard and Reserve units. Older equipment often created in the minds of active duty personnel that Reserve Component forces were amateurish and unprofessional. After the Cold War, newer weapons systems began to flow into the Reserve Component along with an influx of former active duty personnel involuntarily separated after Desert Storm. These two factors greatly changed to complexion of Reserve Component forces.

Nearly 100,000 reserve troops are on active duty, according to DoD reports.
In 2006, reserves forces provided 61 million "man days," or single days of duty, in support of the Defense Department. The advantage of Reserve Component forces of course is that you only pay for them when you use them. Reserve Component units (at least in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve) were originally designed as a training cadre to keep certain skills available in the event of a major mobilization. After Desert Storm, ANG and USAFR units began sending forces as part of OPERATION NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH which helped reduced the impact of these operations on active duty forces.

It would not be feasible to add an equivalent number of forces to active duty, Punaro said in a news conference at the National Press Club. He called increasing active forces so significantly an "economically unaffordable option" that would cost "a trillion dollars." Reserve Component forces usually have a ratio of full-time to part-time personnel of around 30 percent. The increased OPSTEMPO has had an adverse effect on part-time Reservists who have to continuously leave work (not to mention their families). Active duty can’t meet the requirements without the Reserve Component and the Reserve Component can’t keep providing forces on an indefinite basis.

Right now, for about nine percent of the DoD budget, the National Guard and reserves provide 44 percent of manpower available to the Defense Department, Punaro said. "You've got high quality. You've got great reliability and dependability. You've got significant affordability and availability," he said.

Six conclusions serve as the foundation for the 400-page report, which is based on 163 findings, 17 days of public hearings, testimony of 115 officials witness and 800 interviews and site visits by commission members. It is the most comprehensive, independent review of the Guard and reserves in 60 years, Punaro said.

The commission proposed changes in laws and regulations that govern the reserves, as well as how reserve forces train, equip and approach medical readiness. The commission proposed an "integrated continuum of service" between reserve and active forces, offering the same pay, personnel, promotion and retirement systems.

The changes would allow a seamless transition by servicemembers over the course of a military career to transition from active to reserve, and to even leave the service temporarily for child rearing or to pursue higher education. This is a start but as I stated earlier, the problem is the time a Reservist must spend away from their civilian employers. Companies have been supportive in the past but as combat operations continue, employers can’t be expected to continue their support. Their bottom line is at stake.

Now, when reservists move from one duty status, such as from active duty to state duty, they sometimes face pay problems and delays. The commission recommended moving from the current 29 duty statuses to only two: active duty or not. This is a bad step…for the Reserves they already fall into this category. The Army and Air National Guard, however, fall under Title 32 which places them under the command of the state governor. This proposal could take away the governors primary force for dealing with emergencies (ranging from natural disasters to riots). Constitutional experts would tell you a large standing military was never what the founding fathers envisioned. The National Guard insures states are able to keep the rights articulated in the 2nd, 3rd, and 10th Amendments of the Constitution. In my opinion, the proposed change of statuses may violate the Constitution as well as jeopardize the ability of the governors to respond to emergencies.

For health care, a hot-ticket item for activated reservists, the commission proposed more specific, targeted information geared to reservists and their families. Many of those the commission interviewed expressed frustration with trying to understand the medical healthcare system quickly once their spouses were mobilized, commission members said.

In personnel changes, the commission recommended a competency-based promotion system that recognizes civilian skills and recruits and retains accordingly. However, if Reserve Component members are not going to see a reduction in the number of deployments than their civilian occupations remain at jeopardy.

It is good to finally see the need for a change in the Reserve Component to be articulated. I am just concerned that in the quest to improve the Reserve Component and make it more flexible, the states may lose out.