Domestic Preparedness – Prepared for What?

by Rob Schnepp

Publisher note: Rob Schnepp was one of DomPrep’s first writers and has provided council and guidance to me over the past two decades. I asked him to provide his personal account of the 9/11 attacks as well as the subsequent anthrax attacks. They serve as a reminder of how many felt following those attacks: uncertainty about when and where another threat would emerge, an urgent need to prepare for another terrorist attack, and unity of effort. Today, there is still uncertainty about what potential threats are looming. However, it is time to bring back the urgency to prepare and the unity required to move preparedness efforts forward.

Rob SchneppTwenty years ago, I boarded a plane with other members of California Task Force 4, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) based team of urban search of rescuers bound for the World Trade Center. The ride was uneventful although a little strange considering very little civilian air traffic was happening. We landed at Fort McGuire, New Jersey and began the journey by bus to New York City. A team of 62 headed toward the most horrific terrorist attack in the nation’s history, not having any idea of what to expect. Three friends from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) were reported missing, and I assumed the worst. It was not until we got closer to the city that the enormity of the event hit me. Seeing the smoke rise on the horizon was disorienting. I had seen big columns of smoke from many wildland fires in California, but not boiling up from the middle of a major metropolitan area. This is New York City. We were not prepared for something like this, if it were even possible to prepare. Did we as a nation not see it coming and, if this could happen, what else is looming out there?

There was not much time to wonder or prepare for something else. However, roughly one week after 9/11, anthrax-laced letters started appearing in the United States. I had only been back at my home agency for a short time when the fire department started responding to white powder calls … hundreds of them. We were completely unprepared for that sort of scale and making it up as we went along, just like many other public safety agencies. I was on the hazardous materials team then, and the volume of calls was staggering. We did not have well-defined procedures for using biodetection devices and, more importantly, clear guidelines on what to do in the event of a positive result. Although we did have the beginnings of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) training, it was not specifically geared toward this type of situation. Again, much like being at the World Trade Center, I felt a sense of helplessness. How could this be happening right on the heels of 9/11? How could we be so unprepared but in a completely different way than 9/11? Again, if this could happen, what else is on the horizon?

Prioritizing Current Threats

This leads to the question about what exactly the nation should prepare for. Preparedness is a complex proposition because it is an exercise in forecasting and trying to predict the future and what to do about it. Preparedness is much like prevention in that prevention of anything is difficult to measure, which makes it even more difficult to sell and/or fund, especially when it is unclear whether the time and money being spent on preparedness is going toward incidents that should be prepared for. Some portion of any money spent on preparedness is likely to be wasted, but it is difficult to know which portion it is at the time the spending occurs. Basically, preparedness is largely an exercise in identifying the pool of risks and making decisions on what is possible versus what is likely and then dedicating time, money, and resources to carry out the identified mitigation strategies and tactics. Even more challenging is sticking to preparedness efforts for an incident that has not yet happened.

Compounding the challenges, consider current circumstances in the United States and around the world. So many threats and hazards are on the table of preparedness. According to the “Risk and the Core Capabilities” section of the 2015 National Preparedness Goal, six specific broad examples of threats and hazards pose a significant risk to the United States. Since 2015, each of these types of incidents have happened repeatedly, except for another 9/11 type incident. Hurricanes, floods, wildland fires, heat events, droughts, cyberattacks (an entirely different and important topic), and even the threat of “a virulent strain of pandemic influenza [that] could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans” is called out in the document.

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None of these threats are theoretical anymore. Instead, it is a preparedness list for events that have happened and will continue to happen. Between 2002 and 2012, the United States experienced 70 earthquakes greater than 6.0 magnitude, with thousands being reported worldwide since 9/11. Significant earthquakes have occurred not only in California, but also in states such as Virginia, Illinois, Oregon, Oklahoma, Utah, and Colorado. Given all the other potential threats in those states, it is uncertain whether earthquake preparedness will make the short list of funding priorities. In the United States, more than 33 hurricanes have made landfall since 9/11. The five years recorded as having the most acreage burned from wildfires since 1960 all occurred since 9/11. In California, wildfires have become an annual event, with new bars being set for acres burned, buildings destroyed, and lives lost. With so many potential events, it is uncertain how each state will rank them on the scale of preparedness needs.

Imagining Future Threats

For many, preparedness was clear and perhaps a little myopic after 9/11. The nation was attacked, and there was strong public and political momentum to find out who did it and punish them. There are many opinions on whether it was handled the right way or for the right reasons, but the nation still responded. Subsequently, public safety professionals trained on building capability for terrorism response, including tools, training, and detection devices. Federal money was flowing, and public safety agencies were eager to receive it.

In retrospect, 9/11 maintained focus on domestic preparedness in terms of terrorism; being prepared and ready to respond with the appropriate amount of solution (money, training, human resources, equipment, etc.) to the appropriate amount of problem. In addition, though, not enough attention was given to other threats such as climate change, which did not attack out of the blue. The climate is changing in many ways – environmentally, politically, and socially. Division among the nation’s population and its leadership could hinder agreements on what to prepare for, how to dedicate funds, and who will take the lead in preparedness. Perhaps it is only possible to rely on the initial best efforts of those impacted by whatever happens (the general public, first responders, etc.), while state and federal resources plan for and execute consequence management – picking up the pieces afterward in terms of providing financial aid, equipment, housing, food, medical care, etc.).

Seeing the arc of preparedness change since 9/11 is fascinating and a bit disconcerting at the same time. The nation was caught off guard by a determined and prepared nemesis that was focused on causing death and destruction. Since then, death and destruction has continued from an even more powerful nemesis – Mother Nature, and she will continue to deliver more powerful disasters of all kinds – perhaps ones not yet known.

Rob Schnepp is division chief of special operations (ret.) for Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. His incident response career spans 30 years as a special operations fire chief, incident commander, consultant, and published author. He commanded numerous large-scale emergencies for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department, protecting 500 square miles and two national laboratories in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. He twice planned and directed Red Command at Urban Shield, the largest Homeland Security exercise in the United States. He served on the curriculum development team and instructed Special Operations Program Management at the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy. He is the author of “Hazardous Materials: Awareness and Operations.” He has developed risk assessment, incident management, and incident command training for Fortune 500 companies, foreign governments, and U.S. national laboratories.