Monday, July 21, 2014

Moving Towards Smarter Immigration and Border Control

Significant political debate swirls around the issue of illegal immigration within the United States. Despite the great divergence of opinion regarding immigration policy, one would believe that controlling border entry is an area of consensus. If nothing else, a porous border presents significant risks of importation of disease, criminality and terrorism. One aspect of the border and immigration problem that has been overlooked is the effective use of systematic information gathering and sharing to begin to discover the source, means and methods being used to exploit our borders. Simply stated, a tremendous amount of intelligence with immense value is being left on the table. Whether intentionally or unintentionally so, we are operating with blinders as we play cat and mouse games at the border.

In large measure, the influx of illegal immigrants into the United States is being facilitated by systemic processes fostered by transnational drug cartels and other organized criminal groups that seek to profit from human smuggling. Successful border exploitation is a result of decades of experience through trial and error associated with drug trafficking. In the evolution path to human smuggling, there is the early experience of the “mule”. These are illegal aliens encouraged to cross borders with contraband. Enterprising criminality quickly recognized that humans themselves are merely another form of contraband form which to profit. Human smuggling is simply a natural outgrowth of a matured and operationalized illegal drug trafficking phenomena.

In this regard, Illegal immigration bears the hallmarks of a large scale, organized criminal enterprise with hierarchal command, divisions of labor and functions, specialization, communication and transportation systems and money laundering infrastructure. The picture of a poor immigrant family picking up roots on their own and making their way to a new way of life is outdated. Illegal immigration is big business. Criminal syndicates operate across borders through untold numbers of “street soldiers” recruited through gangs operating in the United States and abroad. Beneath the surface, a highly adaptive and effective system exists consisting of recruiters, safe houses, look-outs and counter intelligence, document forgers, identity thieves, chop shops and auto-body repairers, transporters, enforcers, money facilitators, and guides. Drug trafficking, human smuggling and gun smuggling all share the same ecosystem of illicit activities. When we fail to gather information that helps to define the nature and extent of this far reaching system and how it operates, we limit our understanding and deprive ourselves of the ability to effectively combat and defeat these activities.

In many ways, we are currently hindering our ability to discover essential information. Currently, efforts to police illegal immigration are effectively segregated from other law enforcement activities that focus on criminal activities. This is further compounded by numerous federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have different jurisdictional and enforcement mandates rendering day to day cooperation and information sharing among agencies challenging. Local law enforcement is the most effective day to day information gathering agency because it is embedded in the local community and has a more intimidate understanding of what is happening on the street. Yet, as a matter of federal policy, local law enforcement is unable to enforce illegal immigration laws and detain illegal aliens. The best local law enforcement can do is refer the matter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement which, in turn, is overwhelmed and allows individuals to remain free on their own recognizance except in the most egregious cases. Being by nature transient and wishing to evade enforcement, most illegal aliens never report back and melt into the landscape. On the other side of the coin, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has no idea where most illegal immigrants are located at any point in time and the data that is available is often stale or erroneous.

Despite these problems, illegal aliens have been given access to public educational and health and welfare programs without any form of verification as to their stay status, and in many cases stolen social security numbers and other false documentation is presented. Public welfare institutions and healthcare facilities are blocked from verifying identity or reporting the presence of illegal aliens to law enforcement. So, at all levels, the ability to gather information about the whereabouts of illegal immigrants, is either nonexistent or exists in silos.

Therefore, one of the first steps to beginning to solve illegal immigration problem is knowing the nature and extent of the problem, and beginning to unravel the means, methods, persons and organizations behind this phenomena. This can occur with a combined effort among federal, state and local agencies to actively track and record the presence of illegal aliens. Law enforcement, schools, hospitals, and public benefits programs must be enlisted to report the identity and presence of illegal immigrants. Further, the use of social security numbers should be required to be reported to a national database to begin to ferret out identify fraud. Assuming there will be policy towards allowing illegal immigrants to stay under a documented worker program, there should be a requirement that illegal immigrants provide key information that can assist authorities in developing a better understanding of the system they are fighting. This information would include where illegal immigrants came from, how they were recruited, who recruited them, who helped them and how they made their trip, where did they stop, etc. Just like an employment application, truthfulness and accuracy should be required as a condition to stay and any inaccuracy should be grounds for deportation.

Over time, a reservoir of data and associated trends and correlations will begin to emerge. Americans have an uncanny ability to tackle complex problems when they put their minds to it. Being able to track, quantify and analyze illegal immigration should be something that stands above immigration policy. Information collection will empower policy makers and those with the responsibility of enforcement. When we begin to recognize that the border does not stop at the border, and illegal immigration effects every community, we will recognize that border protection is an internal matter that is best addressed by all communities working together, and it starts with gathering and sharing information.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Global Crime & Sex Syndicates & the Internet

On a recent trip to a foreign country, I had the opportunity to meet with a leading law enforcement official of a major city who provided a glimpse into a typical “global ground zero” problem – a poverty racked slum area where drugs and sex intersect with the vulnerable poor of the world.  This location was one of countless other locations around the globe that are incubators feeding organized crime and terror.   Here, the buildings were ramshackle, itinerant men and woman, mostly young, mingled about in the shadows as drug and sex were sold in a virtual open market environment.    From a security camera we were able to observe in a matter of moments a potentially violent sexual act about to occur in a public area.  Police were called in and the two were arrested.   But this small incident is one of hundreds occurring every day.  Law enforcement can do little but standby and contain the area and address only the most egregious of situations.  In that moment, I had a realization.  These areas of abject poverty are merely a reflection of a greater disturbing global reality.  This city in a far-away place was connected to the US, and we connected to it in profound ways.   It is the money generated from the sale of illicit drugs, human trafficking and pornography that is undoubtedly financing the continuing growth of increasingly complex and interconnected global criminal and terror organizations.  These organizations have worldwide reach and shadow connectivity through the power of the internet.  Perhaps this is not a major revelation given that it has been printed elsewhere, but it takes on a new meaning when directly faced with the reality of poverty from the eyes of law enforcement.   For most, slums are not areas visited by tourists, and in most instances great efforts are made to keep tourists from “unsafe” areas and likewise to keep inhabitants of these from secure tourism areas.  This is done for good reason, but in another way it does a great disservice because it hides from the eyes of the well to do the reality of the rising criminal exploitation of global poverty.  Simply put, whether it is drugs, prostitution or pornography, these seemingly victimless vices are hardly that.  They are fed by the exploitation of the poor at ground zero.
After my visit, I conducted a few simple Google Searches.  The first search was the name of the subject country plus the search term “woman”.  This search returned numerous “dating” and “marriage” sites aimed at foreigners.   It seemed rather obvious that these sites, for the most part, were thin veneers for sex tourism.    Any business man or tourist on a visit could seemingly be easily arranged with a young woman for a “date”.   I next conducted a search with the country name in question coupled with the not overly explicit term for a woman’s chest – a rather basic search that would be performed by any overly inquisitive male youth in Anytown, USA.   Google images returned literally thousands of explicit images most of which were considerably more graphic than the search term implied.    A quick review of the search displayed several disturbing things.  A subjective assessment of the first two pages of Google’s image returns suggested that as many as 20% of the images could contain young woman of questionable age – meaning a reasonable person might question whether the subject’s age is over majority or the images were intended to convey youthfulness.  [Notably, Google has listed several image removals in the return footer, but by clicking on the notice, all were for DCMA copyright violations…from other image owners]. 
Following one Google return image with a young woman and a man in an explicit act, Google forwarded me to a web site which purported to be a blog.  The site titles were explicit and referred to “teens” from the geographic area in question.   I chose not to investigate any further.   Rather, I chose to pursue the underlying blog platform provider.  But as I encountered this, it became clear that young woman throughout the world offer an endless supply of victims for this insidious industry and the poor are incredibly vulnerable.  [Editor Note:  After a lot of researching to find a way to report objectionable material to Google, I found that the Google linked to the National Center for Missing Children (NCMC) -http://www.missingkids.com/home.  I did report my concerns about the site in question.  But, this editor wonders why it is so difficult to report offensive images.  I discuss this further below.]
Beyond the presence of the material on the blog, the blog itself struck me for what is was in relation to the problem at hand.  It is a rapid web page creating, editing and posting technology that provides a means to pump out illicit materials quickly and make them globally available in an instant.   Once out on the internet, images are copied, reposted and linked to in many ways, and automated search engine crawlers quickly find, index and make them available in search returns.  A review of the underlying sex blog platform revealed it was created several years ago, and its express aim is to allow for the rapid creation of sex oriented blog sites which cannot be created or maintained on popular blog sites (A simple footer at the bottom of the blog site contains a button to report complaints, at best a token effort to avoid complicity with those spawning pornography).  This blog platform is likely one of a great number available.  While blogging technology is no longer deemed cutting edge, a glimpse into the power of technology is offered in its ability to enable large scale illicit activities with relative ease.  With new social technologies like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram which allow photos and videos to be posted immediately to the internet and subscribers to view them, the power to proliferate pornography is virtually unlimited and uncontrollable.  In a recent conversation with a board member of a private Christian school and I was shocked to learn that there was a problem with 6th graders and “selfies”.    Apparently, there were a large number of young girls sending out unsuitable photos of themselves to friends using Instagram.    One would expect a Christian private school to be an environment that encourages self-control, moral behavior and boundaries, but the presence of internet connected camera phones makes it so easy to produce explicit photos and share them, there are no longer any barriers and in their absence even those inculcated with morals and ethics feel free and empowered to abandon them.  
It would seem axiomatic that for every woman exploited on the internet, there are equal or greater numbers still that are being abused through local prostitution, sex tourism, and human trafficking.  The presence of drugs serves to addict, undermine and enslave the poor, not only taking what little money they have but serving as vehicle to a criminal lifestyles controlled by their masters in exchange for the next fix.   For other innocents, the entry into this world is not their own doing.  They are forcibly taken or fraudulently induced into captivity through friends and associates working on behalf of local criminals often connect to larger criminal enterprises.   Often, the prospects of apparently legitimate employment opportunities in the hospitality and retail industry are used to attract low skilled workers only to find out later there is no real job and they are to be held against their will and placed into prostitution.   Using the stigma of sex slavery and also illegal immigrant status, these young victims feel trapped in hopelessness, being ashamed to contact family and friends and afraid to contact law enforcement. 
So, what can we make of this?  The notion that pornography and illegal drugs are victimless crimes seems to be fundamentally wrong.  There is a clear nexus between criminal drug activity, sex crimes and pornography.  Where one is, the other is likely to be found.  The sources of these victims are found in places of poverty around the globe.  The victimization is global in nature not only because the internet allows for global distribution, but because internet connectivity and global commerce enables affiliations of criminal and terror groups that can work in concert over large distances.  The means, methods and opportunities are all present with little to no barriers, and detection is difficult.
With respect to the United States, the demand and use of illegal drugs and the unlimited access to pornography and ability to shop for prostitutes via the internet serves to fuel these destructive organizations.    The internet has placed the poor in far-away places in the cross hairs of web sites and search engines and there are plenty of bad actors willing to exploit this at the expense of the ultimate victims - the poor, young and helpless trapped in grinding poverty.   
While efforts have been focused on making voluntary search filters available to users, it seems that the problem is bigger than selective search filters.  For example, Google’s “safe search” can be applied and it will filter out explicit and obscene material with generally good results.  However, it is as simple as changing a setting with one click to remove the protection.   More problematic still is that while we wish to avoid censorship and promote free expression, the ability to embed potentially unlawful images in web sites and return them in searches is a major concern, especially with respect to the exploitation of underage children.  There is simply no means available to validate whether an image is the product of exploitation, whether it involves minors, unlawful imprisonment, coercion or other unlawful conduct.  Thus, as a general question, we must ask ourselves whether the content has any real value or legitimate public interest when weighed against the risks and harms present to victims. 
One possible means of beginning to control this problem is by blocking key words associated with images that are intended to convey or suggest illegal content.  This would require search engines and ISPs to challenge the propriety of content with a presumption that it should not be published if there is a suggestion of illegal content.  Another means of controlling proliferation of illicit content would be for search engines to establish a database of illicit images and video content, and to provide the public with a prominent way to report illicit or suspect content.    
Overall, general awareness is an important aspect of reigning in this global exploitation problem.  While pornography has become increasingly accepted and common place in our society, it has gained acceptance in the absence of awareness of the human toll upon its victims in far-away places.  Perhaps for those search engines that really desire to make a difference, their advertising platforms could be harnessed to provide counter-messages regarding exploitation, missing woman and other compelling social messages that would make viewers think twice.   It would seem that technology has created a supply side problem and it is fueling demand and consumption.   The ability to empower users to turn away by volition (through both blocking and informative technology) will begin to put a dent in the global syndicates that derive financial reward from these activities. Doing so is on our best interest because these global criminal organizations and their increasing association with terror groups are ultimately a threat to our own security.
 
 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kenya Mall Terror Attack Reinforces a Disturbing Pattern


"Mall Security" Photo Attribution: Creative Commons - Share Alike 2.5
By:  Joe Mazzarella, S.V.P. & Chief Counsel

The ongoing terrorist siege of a Kenyan Mall offers another clue in the evolving strategy of radical Islamist terrorists. As I have previously written, the Mumbai Hotel attacks represented an evolutionary step in terror thinking. With the hardening and increased security around air transportation, terrorists have changed tactics and moved to other more vulnerable civilian targets. Generally, places of routine mass public gathering are becoming more alluring targets because of the general ease of access, high concentration of potential victims and relative light security.
 
While different from the multi-pronged coordinated Mumbai attack, the Kenyan Mall attack bears a similar signature because it was a commando style terror operation with reportedly up to fifteen well-armed terrorists. The attackers are members of Al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda. Information is being reported that the attackers are multi-nationals, which includes United States and European persons. At least 62 are confirmed dead, and another 175 injured. As of this writing, Kenyan security forces are entering the fourth day of engagement and have not yet taken full control of the mall. An unknown number of hostages are being held which is undoubtedly complicating matters for security forces.

As this gruesome terror event unfolds, several early key observations can be made. First, the attack carries another commando style signature with a large number of attackers applying overwhelming force to a public place. Any reasonable form of onsite security (whether armed security guards or local police presence) would have been outnumbered and out gunned. Second, the attackers employed a revenge based terror operation where death and mayhem is the aim in itself rather than hostage taking to achieve a worldwide political stage as was the predominant motivation in the last century. Hostage taking in this case, like Mumbai, was a secondary tactic to blunt a security response to the initial attack. Third, security forces again showed themselves unable to muster an effective early tactical response to the attack. The reasons for this remain unknown but we can suspect they are similar to past events where numerous local, regional and federal law enforcement agencies and military and special anti-terror organizations respond en masse but are unable to communicate effectively, lack information and lack command and control to organize and undertake a coordinated response. If anything, it is well understood that in the case of an active shooter scenario, time is of the essence and immediate engagement of attackers is critical to limit loss of life. In the case of active shooters in places of mass public gathering, it is necessary to quickly engage suspects with deadly force to deny freedom of movement and their ability to seek out and target more victims.

In order to maximize quick response tactics, the ability to see and hear inside of the place where the attack is unfolding is crucial.   A lack of information as to what is occurring, where is it occurring, and by whom and how many, creates indecision, delays in response and de-leverages response assets and personnel. In the Kenya Mall attack case, like in the Mumbai terror attacks, real time information from inside the mall was and is available from victims via mobile phones and other recording devices. Also, security surveillance cameras inside the mall can provide critical views of the scene inside.  Being able to share this video on-demand with first responders is a critical tool in enabling a quick assessment of the situation, identifying potential suspects, assessing their weaponry, and locating and tracking their position and movements.   Being able to seamlessly communicate among multiple responding security forces, and also to enabling communications between victims on the inside and first responders on the ground provides invaluable up to the minute intelligence. These capabilities are critical force multipliers and provide security forces with the ability to organize, gain tactical striking advantage and adapt in real time in order to bring maximum force to attackers and quickly size uncontested space and extend protection to those who may come under threat.

The ability to thwart a large scale command style attack on a public space may not always be preventable, but the ability to limit loss of life and subdue attackers more quickly and effectively is achievable. Placing adequate numbers of well-armed security personnel at every public gathering space is neither affordable nor practical. However, ensuring real time interoperable communications and multimedia sharing among security forces, emergency support agencies and critical infrastructure during a crisis can be achieved with minimal cost and can vastly improve response effectiveness. For the United States, we must remain vigilant and prepare for attacks of this nature. It would seem to be only a matter of time before an event similar to the Kenyan Mall attack or Mumbai hotel attack will occur. The ability for a dozen or more foreign terrorists to enter into the country and bring high power, high capacity weapons undetected through our borders remains a serious threat vector. Once inside the country, the ability to plan and organize an attack becomes easier especially in larger metropolitan areas with diverse multi-ethnic and multi-national populations where residents are less likely notice the presence of foreigners as anomalous or unusual. Special attention should be paid to in-door malls and large scale hotels that have limited public access points and create bottleneck environments. One of the surest ways to reduce loss of life is to provide more means of quick egress. This notion is contrary to popular concepts of retail design where physical space and pedestrian flow is designed to keep shoppers inside the shopping space as long as possible before exiting.

Because large scale malls tend to be in suburban metro areas, it is worthy to note that the quick reaction and special tactical units maintained by larger city police forces are not in immediate proximity to the mall and generally lighter armed, local area law enforcement personnel will be the first responders on scene. The ability to quickly gather intelligence from security guards inside the mall and from security cameras will be essential to maximize an effective immediate engagement and also allow for heavier armed and trained anti-terror personnel to respond as soon as they arrive on scene. Coordinating with local hospitals and trauma centers, EMS and emergency transport will also require coordination so that victims are quickly extracted, triaged and moved to the nearest hospitals. Even basic traffic control and securing unimpeded routes becomes a matter of life and death and requires coordination from the mall to medical facilities.

In recalling the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy, it is widely recognized that emergency response was exceptional with marathon route areas quickly secured and bombing victims quickly attended to, stabilized and transported to local trauma facilities. But, we should not be deceived by this extraordinary response. In that case, emergency personnel were pre-deployed for the event. Medical staff was on hand. A large police and fire force was deployed on route, and massive emergency response pre-planning occurred, including event specific communications. The same will not be the case in the event of a large scale attack on a mall or public place of routine mass gathering. There are too many and they are everywhere. In these cases, should an unexpected large scale terror event unfold there will be a massive response that will follow and there will be a need to adapt to the place and events occurring on the ground. Flexible and agile seamless inter-agency communications and information sharing will be essential in organizing an effective response. Effective communications and accurate real time information sharing remains the linchpin to improved safety and security and an enhanced emergency response. The capability exists to enable what is needed to make our communities interoperable. Once again, another tragic incident reinforces the urgency of this need.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Real Time Interoperability for School Safety - Active Shooter Response

School safety remains a nationwide focus after the tragic events at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. Many jurisdictions are actively investigating various ways to improve and prevent similar events. As we all know, school related shootings are becoming an all too familiar event, and can happen in any type of community.
Hartford School Active Shooter Exercise - All rights Reserved. Mutualink, Inc
Mutualink participated in the first post-Sandy Hook active shooter drill, which took place in Hartford, Ct. This exercise involved the Hartford Police, a Hartford school, the Hartford EOC, Saint Francis Hospital and other agencies. Through Mutualink multiple responding agencies' and the school's communications systems were instantly bridged and video from inside the school was shared with both command and ground responders providing real time situational awareness. The exercise demonstrated how real time communications and real time video can be used to more effectively respond to an active shooter crisis. In these types of events, more information and quicker response can save lives. This capability should be an essential part of any modern school safety response framework. An article regarding our School Safety - Active Shooter Exercise was published in Law & Order Magazine and also was submitted before Connecticut's School Safety Committee. Below are links to the article. Law & Order Magazine - School Safety Article link is here: Connecticut School Safety Commission Article link is here: Should any one who is concerned about school safety be interested in learning more, please feel free to contact me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Kabul Hotel Attack Reflects Emerging Terror Strategy

Today’s attack on the Kabul InterContinental Hotel reinforces the assessment that terrorists are embracing Mumbai style commando attacks as an effective strategy. As previously discussed, it seems likely that commando style terror plots targeting hotel facilities in Europe and possibly the United States are on the horizon. See, New Commando Style Terror Plot Predicted in Mumbai Security Briefing – September 2010 , and Lessons Learned from the Mumbai Attacks – April,2010.

As recently as a week ago, Fox News reported that intelligence obtained in Somalia pointed to a potential Mumbai style plot aimed at a luxury hotel in London. Earlier in May, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior Al-Qaeda leader threatened Mumbai style attacks on Europe, as reported by The Sun, a U.K. based newspaper. Overall, the gestalt of the Islamic inspired terror network seems to be shifting towards this style of attack.

As noted in past analysis, hotels, particularly luxury-style international hotels, are attractive targets. This is because of their symbolic representation as centers of western business and commercial interests, more affluent clientele and high value targets are present, and there is a cross section of various nationalities and religions peaceably coexisting in contravention of extremist ideals. Most significantly, hotels are soft targets.

For all intents and purposes, hotels have no effective means of resisting or thwarting an armed assault. Further, hotels can be easily surveilled and penetrated, because they are generally open to the public and there are transient visitors. Militants can pose as guests with a minimum of suspicion, especially in international hotel venues where peoples of diverse origin are present. Finally, smuggling weapons into hotels is a low risk exercise because weapons can be concealed wiithin baggage without arousing suspicion, and groups can quietly build by staggering their check-ins, concealing their association.

In terms of high impact and low personnel requirements, hotels offer themselves up as good targets as well. Hotels house large numbers of guests that are generally confined to floors with a limited numbers of exits and common egress stairwells. By controlling lower level floors, entire facilities can be effectively controlled with a limited number of militant personnel. Effective control can further be projected by detonating bombs or starting fires and maintaining fire zones at main doorways and entrances covered by shooters. Once control of the premises is achieved, members of the terrorist team are set up to sweep from the bottom to the top of the hotel facility executing guests, taking hostages and/or planting explosives.

Once physical control over the facility and hotel guests is established, the terror group has achieved a position of strength. Efforts to dislodge hostile operators by direct assault become a high risk operation due to concerns about potential collateral losses, the use of human shields, and/or triggering a preplanned mass killing event. This psychological advantage is likely to be more effective in Western countries where both real time news coverage and more open government create intense political pressures not to place hostages and victims at further risk. This situation also plays into the hands of the terrorists by providing a global stage for protracted hysteria and attention.

In both the Mumbai attack and Kabul Hotel attacks, the terrorists were wearing suicide vests and were operating to inflict maximum loss of life. Looking at other prototypical terror attacks such as the Beslan School incident and Moscow Theater attack, Islamic militants also intended to ultimately kill as many hostages as possible. Once they consolidated hostage groups, they extensively wired explosives in holding areas and detonated them.

These behaviors speak to the need for Western police and anti-terror units to quickly respond to any attack and actively engage hostile actors to deny them the ability to establish control over the facility and interrupt or delay planned operations that can further entrench their position and/or gain mass killing opportunities. With regard to hotel facilities, it is nearly impossible to adequately secure these venues. Attentiveness on the part of Hotel personnel in identifying suspicious actors is essential. Hotel personnel must be capable of identifying anomalies such as unusual numbers of younger single men originating from suspect destinations checking in with overlapping stay dates. Persons who are overly protective of their baggage and refuse to allow others near it may be a sign of unusual activity. Persons that are evasive as to the purpose of their stay, that are secretive or avoid public interaction may be a sign of suspect activity.

In addition to being alert, hotels must improve response coordination capabilities with law enforcement. In cases of an emergency, a rapid response aided by real time situational information that can assist a quick reaction force in effectively engaging and contesting militants. Allowing police to view the interior of the hotel through the sharing of security camera feeds would provide a tactical edge over the militants by enabling responders to identify militants, their positions and weaponry, command elements and monitor movements. Similarly enabling direct communication between on-scene responders and hotel staff and guests via cell phones, mobile chat, and even streaming video from smart phones, provides additional “eyes on” capability and situational awareness that can provide responders with a lifesaving edge.

The threat posed by this new mode of terror attack is not insignificant and offers many challenges to homeland security and public safety agencies. While we hope plots can continue to be successfully detected and thwarted before they become real operational threats, we must be prepared to handle and respond to a commando style terror attack. Hotels can be better prepared for these security risk scenarios and should invest in concealed video monitoring systems, interoperable communications and video sharing capabilities so they are equipped to give responders the information they need should the quite thinkable occur.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

School Emergency Preparedness Requires More Focus

What would happen if a major catastrophe like the Tsunami in Japan struck during schools hours in your community? Do you know what would happen? Would you know where your children are, how to get them or what their condition is? Is your school really prepared to really take care of your kids?
These questions came to mind when looking at a picture from NBC news showing a mound of several hundred muddied and torn school backpacks collected in a pile in the midst of a devastated landscape. The caption for this picture read:

“Schoolbags are recovered from Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture on March 22. Only 24 of 84 schoolchildren and 13 teachers have been found alive so far. After the earthquake hit, all the schoolchildren and teachers prepared for evacuation in the school yard. Some children left for their homes with family members. While the rest of the children were waiting to be collected, the tsunami hit.”

What struck me was the matter-of-factness of the numbers. Sixty children from an elementary are missing and presumably dead, but nobody can say with certainty. How many other school children suffered similar fates we do not know either.

But as we contemplate the heap of lifeless school backpacks, each one recently attached to a child, I ask again is your school ready? Are we taking this kind of emergency scenario seriously enough? Here are some basic questions:


  • Is your school capable of being an emergency shelter with ample food, water and electricity during a prolonged emergency?

  • Is your school earthquake proof? Is it hurricane proof? Is it in a flood zone?

  • Where do the children go if they must evacuate the school during an emergency and shelter at another location? Do you know where it is? Would you know if they were moved?

  • How will you be able to get information about your children’s location and health status? Is there multiple means of communication and information dissemination set-up? Do you know what they are?

  • Does your school have real interoperable communications with police, fire, ems and emergency management?

  • Who is in charge and what is the chain of command in emergencies? Are they trained to make critical assessments and handle emergencies? Are they certified in NIMS-ICS procedures?

  • Does your school have back-up satellite communications? If not, why not?

  • Is there an emergency store of critical medications that your child may need for prolonged sheltering? If not why not?

  • Is there a full time nurse on staff? If not, why not?

  • Is there family disaster assistance plan for teachers and others who must take care of kids, or will they abandon your children if things really get bad because they must take care of their families?

  • Is there a system that will enable youngsters to communicate with parents during an emergency or while sheltering away from home?

  • Is there a procedure for periodic roll call and status of students? How does the school monitor egress?

  • Is your school staff trained to handle and alleviate the psychological stress that young children will feel during an emergency?

  • If something happens to you in an emergency, does the school have alternate pick-up plans?

  • Can you pick up your children during an emergency or will you be locked out the school and be placed in danger? How does the school communicate that to you?

  • Does the school have a policy making sure siblings are reunited and sheltered together?

  • What plans are in place to deal with genders if sheltering in place is required? Will male teachers be left along to care for young girls? Should they?

While school budgets always seem to be tight and many priorities must give way to others, there are many reasons why investing in emergency preparedness and resiliency must take a priority at local and state levels. We have seen the consequences of schools involved in major emergencies, whether it was in the China earthquakes, the Japan Tsunami, or the many unspeakable acts of terrorism committed against schools throughout the world. As a society and has parents, we have a duty to protect our children, and the complacency is frightening.

There are few states that seem to be taking some important initiatives. In 2010, New Jersey passed a a law (New Jersey Statutes Section 18A:41-1) requiring that schools coordinate and work with emergency responders to implement and update school safety plans, and implement drill, management and emergency response procedures. The New Jersey law also mandates that full-time school employees receive training on school safety and emergency drills.

In Colorado, a new bill (Colorado Senate Bill No. SB11-173, “Interoperable Communications in Schools”) concerning interoperable communications for Colorado schools is pressing forward. Sponsored by Senator Steve King, this bill should serve as a model for action in other states. Without robust interoperable emergency communications and real time information sharing between schools and first responder, emergency management and emergency support function agencies, the framework for ensuring coordinated and effective live saving response is missing. Simply using a public 911 emergency call mechanism during an emergency for a school is woefully inadequate for a myriad of reasons, including the basic fact that a major community resource with hundreds of at-risk children is competing for assistance and call time with the general public and repetitive and possibly flooded call banks. Moreover, a method of constant situational awareness and coordinated effort is required at the beginning, during and after an emergency. This communication capability also serves as a means for important tabletop and field exercises and training, so that the school staff is capable of responding appropriately and effectively during a disaster or emergency.

At the end of the day, schools must be properly equipped, have practiced emergency plans in place, and the school staff must be trained and prepared to deal with large scale emergencies, because they can and do happen. Emergency preparedness and resilience requires an investment in time, focus and resources for unknown or unpredictable events. In many cases emergences are o remote that initiatives often lose their rightful priority until it is too late. Emergency preparedness is not attractive and sexy like sports and other popular school programs, but they are vital to the long term safety of our children.

There is no single greater force for change than parents, and of all the issues confronting schools emergency preparedness and resilience should be front and center, because the lives of our children may depend on it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Resiliency in the Modern Society: The Japan Earthquake Lesson

By: Joe Mazzarella, SVP and Chief Legal Officer, Mutualink, Inc.
March 17, 2011


As Japan urgently struggles to combat the predations of a massive earthquake and tsunami, the forces of chaos have offered up another sober warning that societies are fragile. The everyday certainty and reliability experienced by citizens and leaders of modernized nations obscures the inherent vulnerabilities attendant to complex economies and societies functioning in a deeply interconnected and interdependent manner. The paradox that the Japan earthquake lays bare is that the very thing that creates a highly efficient and successful economy may well be the same thing that exposes us to catastrophic ruin.

As the world has witnessed, Japan is suffering enormous devastation from a series of compounding events spawned from an initial large scale natural disaster. These secondary and tertiary events have cascaded like a series of invisible dominos spanning outwards in many directions from a single push of a finger. Japan’s emergency response and support infrastructure is being stressed beyond its capability to respond to all needs. From debris fields blocking search and rescue teams, heavy equipment and relief supplies being cut off from communities, to stranded people, trains and impassable roads, limited electricity from rolling blackouts, radiation clouds and evacuations, gas rationing, empty food shelves, insufficient numbers of body bags and decaying corpses due to a lack of refrigeration, and snow and cold freezing adding to the plight of millions of displaced people, the effects of mother nature’s wrath seems to know no bounds. As this is being written, the specter of a mass evacuation of Tokyo is not beyond the realm of the thinkable should Japan’s nuclear emergencies continue to worsen and become unchecked. The impact of evacuating 18 million people and the ensuing panic it will ignite, couple with overwhelming devastation from the earthquake could result in major collapses in critical sectors of their civil society.

Fortunately, Japan has an intangible advantage that may very well be the key to their short and medium term survival, the inherently cooperative, caring and self-restrained nature of the Japanese society. It is the culturally engrained resilience of the average Japanese citizen that will provide a vast network of local human support infrastructure that will enable them to prevail. The simple act of sharing a bottle of drinking water with a neighbor, sharing heat or shelter and food, instead of hoarding resources and closing out those in need may be essential difference between mass suffering occasioned by death and illnesses and great discomfort but survival. And, the reports of this type of behavior are not few or far between.

On the other side of the equation, one can readily observe how the more sophisticated and complex societies become the more fragile they are in terms of their exposure to large scale disasters. As societies become more modernized, economic sectors becomes more specialized along verticals and more concentrated, becoming ever more efficient in production and streamlined in the delivery of services and products. Economies of scale are achieved through great volumes, and this has the practical effect of driving consolidation, cost reduction and lower prices and higher profit margins. Communications and digital information networks drive financial transactions and exchanges set prices and delivery of critical commodities. Electrical and hydrocarbon based energy systems power our communications and information networks as well as our factories, transportation, and nearly every appliance in our households. Food production sources are no longer local, and they crucially depend on transportation and refrigeration. Water and sewage treatment systems depend on power. Medical systems depend on specialized medications and equipment manufactured by a small number of facilities and delivered by transportation systems. Shipping requires fuel and functioning transportation systems and ports, and payment settlement systems. This litany of interlocking dependencies could be continued virtually ad infinitum with increasing granularity, but let the above suffice for sake of argument.

Where the old watch maker may have made his own parts or bought materials from locally produced resources, the new global watch company assembles much, makes little and consumes even less locally, preferring to depend and upon vast supply chains, special parts makers, and sophisticated just in time transportation networks to receive goods and ship them back out to the market. And so it is for a thousand, thousand other niches which make up our vast and complex economy. The same holds true for the individual, where once most households were highly self-sustaining entities, virtually nothing is produced in the household. We are dependent on the delivery of food, electricity, water, and heat to our homes. Whereas at one time nearly all food was produced and sold locally yet a pair of French silk stockings was a rare imported extravagance, today it is just the opposite. One would be more likely to find French made stockings in a grocery store than to find locally produced berries. Modern households are fragile and are deeply dependent on far reaching, often global, supply chains to perform.

Simply put, a vast web of highly dependent connections produces the marvel that is our increasingly productive, specialized and hyper-efficient world. But when one thread frays and breaks, as in the case of a large scale power outage, the fabric can quickly unravel especially when pulled upon and stressed even by the smallest of forces.

Perhaps one of the most astute initiatives of the Department of Homeland Security in regards to emergency preparedness is focusing on strengthening the resilience of communities. The introduction and promotion of this concept is essential to our security. Yet, its true implications may far exceed its intended import. It is one thing to have an all hazards coordinated public safety and emergency response structure that can scale and work with a unified purpose in times of disaster, but it is quite another to achieve a resilient society. In the first instance, much work is being done to plan for and be able to respond and recover from disasters through a better coordinated public emergency response agency structure and this will pay dividends. In the latter case, true community level resilience simply may be at odds with the forces of economic globalization.

Resilience in terms of key infrastructure and critical resources requires more than redundancy. It requires diverse modalities with functional redundancies. By these terms, I mean using many different methods and ways to achieve the same or substantially same functions. On both accounts, global economic forces drive in the opposite direction.

First, at a pure redundancy level, redundancy means necessarily having more of the same thing. By definition, this means having excess capacity. This is squarely at odds with competitive global economic forces that drive the cost of production down by eliminating excess or idle capacity. In the most efficient and productive market ideal, the productive capacity of an asset should be producing at full capacity up to the last marginal profit dollar. At anything less, it is not being used to its highest economic value. So, creating more idle capacity is at odds with market forces even if it is beneficial from a disaster perspective. Worse yet, productive capacity is often dislocated from local areas and moved to more cost efficient places, often in other parts of the world. But, the problem extends even beyond global market forces. In the case of large scale systems that present significant investments such as electrical transport grids, regulated monopolies replicate the same conditions of singular reliance without redundancy. In the United States, our electrical transport system is vulnerable to mass outages because of its spoke and hub topology and lack of real redundancy in transport. It is unlikely that rate payers will be willing to pay the cost for an abstraction called redundancy. So, in most cases the practical reality is most are unwilling to pay more to ensure resilience against a remote event whether it is indirectly through buying behavior or in the form of a direct cost.

Secondly, pure redundancy (or more of the same) is not sufficient in terms of establishing true levels of resiliency. As was demonstrated in the Japan nuclear reactor failures, redundant cooling systems constructed the same way may reduce probability of failure but all are vulnerable to the same type of failure. So, if the causation event spans each system space (i.e., it is sufficiently large to span all redundant systems), the probability of failure is not lower as predicted, it is the same as having one. An analogy can be drawn to airplane hydraulic systems. Three redundant hydraulic lines running through the same harness is not redundant if a turbine blade from an engine breaches the plane and severs all three lines. Again, in the global economy, forces are at work that are driving towards commoditization and pushing against multi-modal diversity. Across virtually all industries the same or similar parts (and underlying designs) are often used by the same vendors. Lower prices attained through scale and volume drive homogenization at the component level and this even dictate similar outcomes at systems levels. Unique approaches in mechanical, operational and even software design are driven out of the system for routine but critical functions.

So what is to be done? Certainly, the substitution of free market mechanisms with old style managed economies is unwise and proven to be a failure over the long term. But what is new is that global market forces are operating in ways that are asymmetric to sovereign interests. Once robust and competitive production assets are removed from the fabric of a nation (whether it is energy resources or raw and processed materials production, food production, core manufacturing capabilities, technological know-how), the overall resilience of that nation becomes dependent upon cooperative forces beyond its borders. Nations become subject to global supply chains and the competing interests and decisions of foreign entities and agnostic market forces. The ability to direct policies that create a robust and healthy production capability across vital domestic infrastructure segments is beyond the grasp. The ability to persuade or direct re-tooling, increased production, or the redirection or concentration of goods and supplies in response to a crisis for the good of the country is lost. Looking at the United States, a strong case can be made that it has become substantially more vulnerable over the past 30 years as its competitive industrial production and infrastructure has been dismantled and shipped overseas. Many of our critical resources, raw materials and finished materials are produced in foreign markets, and little domestic capability remains. While at advent of connected global markets have increased the diversity and supply of goods and services at lower prices under stable conditions, we may well have placed the core of our safety and security during major crisis into the hands of others in that exchange.

We must begin to investigate and understand the vulnerabilities that are being created by complex interdependencies through economic globalization. There is a compelling case to be made that consolidation and elimination of domestic industries create additional vulnerabilities to large scale disasters and hamper recovery. It further can be said, the very nature of advancing economic realities are that all sectors are interdependent with others in one way or another. Resiliency requires investment in diversified redundant capabilities with back-up capacity in key sectors of our economy. Also, restoring and protecting competitive production capabilities across key sectors within domestic markets is vital to a resilient fabric. Perhaps the forces of globalization are so strong that it is impossible to restore local and regional resilience by reestablishing domestic competitive infrastructure. But knowing this fact compels us to seriously understand and evaluate the systems and delicate dependencies that are critical to allowing basic services to continue to function in times of large scale disaster and provide a path for recovery. It may be that basic policies at local, state and federal levels must serve to foster effective surrogate diversified redundancies so that we can achieve a counterbalance to the fragile environment we have constructed.

Finally, returning to Japan, perhaps when all else fails the last line of resiliency lies in the citizenry itself. Creating a culture of individual preparedness and fostering mutual care among neighbors during times of crisis might very well be the invisible thread that holds us together.
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Our sincere prayers and condolences go out to our friends in Japan



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