Monday, April 14, 2008

Crisis Counseling

Crisis counseling is sometimes overlooked in all of the talk about emergency preparedness and response. It is far more interesting to speak about preventing terrorists attacks or planning for the next natural disaster versus dealing with the aftermath. Yet more often than not civilian and public sector organizations are left scrambling with organizing the necessary counseling services for the survivors of a crisis. More importantly, it usually takes a loss of life to cause agencies and employers to realize they need to provide some type of counseling to family members. Colerain (a suburb of Cincinnati) just lost two firefighters last week. The out pouring of support from the community and local firefighters has been nothing less then overwhelming. More importantly, specially trained counselors were sent to help the surviving firefighters and their families deal with the loss of their fallen comrades. These counselors are actual firefighters or EMS personnel, people who can relate to the daily grind and stressors associated with the job. Other communities have similar programs and the practice would be applicable in the private sector as well. The military has dealt with the grief and stressed suffered by survivors and their families for several years now. It is not only a debt that is owed to those that have lost loved ones, it is also a debt owed to society in general.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Emergency Sirens

Most of Hamilton county’s 196 emergency sirens lack battery back-ups. It isn’t like Cincinnati doesn’t get its share of tornados and severe storms. Ohio has some of the highest taxes around. Hamilton county also imposes local taxes on its residents. Yet despite the apparent influx of tax revenues, the emergency warning system in is in desperate need of an update. The county has been trying for seven years to buy 100 new sires but so far nothing. Now hopes rest with a $700K Homeland Security grant. Why is this taking so long? The county emergency operations director was quoted as saying sirens can’t tell you what is going on. Agreed, however sirens can be used to get those who may be away from radios to TV to find out or take shelter. Cincinnati’s geography makes it difficult to travel in a latitudinal way. The hills make it difficult for sirens to be heard beyond their immediate vicinity. Keeping the sirens updated is an immediate need and should be addressed quickly. However as long time residents of Cincinnati know, nothing ever happens here quickly. As Mark Twain once said, if he knew the end of the world was coming he would move to Cincinnati since it would happen here ten years later.

Friday, April 11, 2008

FAA and the airlines

American Airlines canceled 1,000 flights on Wednesday, 900 yesterday and now 595 today stranding thousands of passengers throughout the country. Aircraft replace trains as the primary means of cross-country transportation decades ago. Rising fuel costs, non-existent perks in coach class, increased security screenings, and now the FAA attempts at redemption grounding more aircraft it may help drive a push to find a better alternative. Air travel is becoming less pleasant than a trip to your dentist for a root canal. Legacy carriers such as Delta are teetering on the brink of failure. Some of the lower cost airlines are closing as well.

Rather than lament the "good old days" of air travel, we should look to trains as a means of reducing congestion in the skies and airports. Unfortunately, we've allowed our railroads to become second class to the rest of world when it comes to cross-country travel. Getting passenger service re-established between major cities (with connections to light rail systems within those cities) seems worthy of a push similar to getting the first man on the moon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


At last count, 416 children were removed from the YFZ Ranch in San Angelo, Texas. Authorities removed the children and their mothers as the result of a phone call from a 16 year old girl alleging sexual abuse. As of this entry, the girl has yet to be found. Child protective services and other agencies are struggling with the huge number of children that need to be sheltered. Each child is also entitled to legal representation. The costs for this are already above and beyond what the state and county can afford. The lack of preciseness in removing all of the children, versus identifying those who were victims, is going to create serious legal challenges for the prosecutors office. By casting a huge net over everyone, the legal and public opinion backlash may create legislation preventing such draconian measures from being take in the future. Without intending to do so, authorities may have set motions that will make prosecuting child abuse even more difficult. The images from the YFZ ranch are eerily similar to the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 which was also in Texas.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dosage errors

With the news focused on the Presidential candidates, Iraq and terrorism have become almost synonymous despite the bigger story from just a few weeks ago concerning terrorist suspects being arrested in London. The suspects planned to use liquid explosives while on board trans-Atlantic flights. While these are all certainly major issues, a seemingly non-related story is perhaps of much more interest to those in safety and security career fields. It started with the news of actor Dennis Quaid’s child’s health issues caused by a hospital drug error. As this story unfolds on the back pages, it is becoming apparent that this case may not be as rare as parents would hope. Knowing the reaction of most people, parents may be tempted to skip getting vaccinations for their children for fear the risks of catching a diseased are far less than being harmed by the incorrect dosage being administered. The CDC recommends changes in how vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) are administered and this combined with fears of incorrect dosing could lead to an outbreak of measles in the United States. Terrorism remains a concern but the public needs to be reassured of the safety and efficacy of getting their children vaccinated.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Next Step

Reading TSA’s Evolution of Security blog the other day left me feeling like I’d just finished attending a workshop conducted by the latest management guru. Passenger Engagement is somehow or other going to use technology to allow the passenger to take ownership of their check-in experience. I re-read the blog and watched the video but still came away scratching my head. The intent seems to be to relieve stress while still providing appropriate levels of screening to prevent an attack. I’ve questioned here and on the TSA blog if a regression analysis has been conducted on which procedures work and which don’t. Adding management consultant terminology to the mix causes me some concern. It as though TSA is masking shortfalls by claiming a new focus on the customer.

TSA takes shots from an angry public that is in a rush to get to their destination. Tempers flare and as TSA officers attempt to do their jobs, sometimes things go awry with harried passengers trying to get through security with screaming children and way too many carry-on items. The bigger criticism though is TSA screeners are trying to prevent another 9/11 by looking for the same modalities as was used seven years ago. The implication is that TSA bases their procedures assume terrorist tactics remain static. As was seen in Iraq, road-side bombs quickly went from being a hodge-podge of left over ordnance to sophisticated explosives designed to defeat the armor on vehicles. It may be that the core assumption, attack either the aircraft itself or use the aircraft in the attack, misses the next move. What if TSA is, without realizing it, creating a prime target for attack with the huge numbers of people waiting to go through security? Carry-on bags aren’t screened until they are sent through the scanner, a weapon could be detonated in the common area before any TSA personnel would have a chance to notice something unusual.

The obsession with liquids has also left me puzzled. Liquid explosives are tricky to manipulate on the best of circumstances. Mixing the solutions together in a cramp aircraft lavatory has a low probability of success. This is not to say smuggling explosives on-board isn’t a viable plan just the method seems to be wrong. There are many plastic explosives that can be carried in a large enough quantity to create havoc. Detonators could be disguised as personal electronic devices. Explosive sniffing dogs may not always detect the explosives or a new formula may developed that the dog has not be trained to detect. Most of the technology at use in American airports now is geared towards metallic weapons. Ceramic or plastic weapons and components could be smuggled through without detection. All of this though assumes the aircraft is the ultimate target. A car bomb or suitcase explosive detonated outside the security line would create as much chaos and potential casualties as an attack on-board a jet.

Military planners are always admonished in their efforts to not fight the last war (although inevitably their assumptions are based on the past). Basing security procedures on some new management technique isn't the answer either. TSA and others responsible for our security need to constantly think about what the next move may be and not fall into the trap of the preparing for the last attack. We can be sure our adversaries don’t.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

New Blogger

My brother has started a new blog on businesses in the Natick, Massachusets area. Please check him out at Denny Baylor's Blog

Friday, April 4, 2008

Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has started deploying airport behavior screeners as part of the SPOT program. The program made the news this week when SPOT screeners arrested an Army veteran in Orlando who had checked luggage containing pipe-bomb making materials. The program has been in operation for four years but most of the arrests are for individuals carrying fake IDs.

SPOT is shrouded in secrecy and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seems to have problems obtaining details about the program. Therefore, it is hard to make any conclusions about the program other than what has appeared in the press. From what little that has been published, it appears SPOT is analogous to a college football coaching waiting to figure out his opponent’s tactics until during the game. Imagine if a college football coach failed to review game film trying to develop ways to counter his opponent’s strategy. SPOT appears to rely on the “game-day” principle hoping to learn enough about a passenger at the airport getting ready to board a flight to determine if they pose a threat.

SPOT appears to rely heavily on behaviors that could easily misinterpreted even by the most highly trained officer. SPOT could very easily run afoul of the ACLU the minute the wrong passenger is subjected to additional screenings and delays. SPOT sounds like another form of profiling which although extremely useful, ultimately failed in the court of public support.

The reliance on behaviors by SPOT screeners also seems to present an opportunity for terrorists to learn which behaviors trigger additional screening and to avoid them in the future. TSA officials refuse to discuss the trigger behaviors for obvious reasons but this will most likely create backlash in public opinion regarding the agency and the program. TSA agents are legally allowed to thoroughly search someone trying to board a plane and interrogate them at length, even if there is no evidence they have broken any law. Air travelers are already frustrated with higher ticket prices and long check-in lines. The potential for an innocent passenger to exhibit behaviors that trigger additional screening just seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

There are obvious behaviors people exhibit when they are trying to hide something so SPOT is not without merit. But trying to catch someone at the airport does open the possibility of missing the one passenger that gets through. What hopefully is happening behind the scenes is information sharing amongst the various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that may have valuable intelligence and the TSA. SPOT effectiveness would be assured if law enforcement and intelligence agencies were providing assessments to TSA (and for all we know they are, it is just unknown due to the secrecy of TSA regarding this program).

In the end, it appears the SPOT program will add another way of insuring the safety of our passengers and aircrews. The TSA needs to remember though that it is fighting a two-pronged war. The first is against potential terrorists, the other is public opinion that is growing increasingly tired of the hassles associated with air travel.