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Last week DHS Secretary Chertoff delivered remarks chronicling the accomplishments of the often-maligned and always under siege Department for 2007. What he profiled was substantial proof of the hard work of many of the men and women throughout DHS, but the listing of Departmental successes had a glaring omission – the SAFETY Act.

Passed in 2002 by one vote, the Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act provides limited liability protection to companies and/or organizations that have technologies, products or services that could be used to combat terrorism. The rationale was to protect providers from being disemboweled by a litany of lawsuits should a product or service fail during a terrorist event.

In short, the SAFETY Act provides a significant measure of confidence and reassurance to companies/organizations that are developing the technologies, products and services that we all need to have on the ‘front lines’ and ‘trenches’ to combat, prevent and respond to terrorism.

Without such liability protections and the confidence and reassurance that comes with it, companies and organizations that can provide these ‘tools’ would not do so.

Every business, no matter what it does, attempts to contribute to the marketplace, but if their ability to contribute is threatened by huge liability exposures and risks that even Evil Knievel wouldn’t take, most, if not all, companies/organizations will walk away.

We do not need companies/organizations walking away from the fight against terrorism – we need them joining it. That is why the absence of mention of the success of the SAFETY Act was so startling in Secretary Chertoff’s remarks.

For anyone who watched the SAFETY Act’s beginnings, whether inside or outside of DHS, to say they were difficult and painful would be an understatement. After its first year and a half of operation, only six SAFETY Act awards had been granted by the Department. As a result, frustration and angst by the private sector, the Congress and others was off the scale.

Upon entry into the Department in early 2005, Secretary Chertoff made ‘fixing’ the SAFETY Act a priority, and his record proves the value of his word.

With the vocal counsel of groups such as the US Chamber, NDIA and others, and the leadership of a number of parties inside the Department, notably the General Counsel’s Office and Science & Technology Directorate, a new Rule and application kit were developed and subsequently issued. These changes provided clearer guidance, streamlined procedures and put the SAFETY Act within reach of the parties who want and need its protections.

The results speak for themselves:

  • In FY 2005 there were four SAFETY Act Awards.
  • In FY 2006 there were 94.
  • By the end of FY07 there were 179.

What was once an odyssey of waiting to hear something after the initial application submission, the SAFETY Act process has now become reasonable and respectable. Wait times that once stretched over many many months now average 111 days.

Thanks to the new rule, the new application kit, an aggressive outreach posture, and the improved turnaround time by the SAFETY Act Office, the reputation of the SAFETY Act has soared.

No one should think that this turnaround happened easily. The battles inside and outside of the Department on how to ‘fix it’ were fierce, but in the end it was the American public who won. The public benefits and is protected when such technologies, products and services are put in place. Without them, our vulnerability only compounds as terrorists think of new and more destructive ways to destroy our lives, infrastructure and way of life.

On the other hand, no one should think that the Department is merely handing out SAFETY Act awards like they candy or Wal-Mart stickers to all comers. It still has a rigorous application and review process where facts and performance data matter over the rhetoric and promises of marketing and sales brochures. Furthermore – not everyone gets SAFETY Act recognition. After a still lengthy review, only the technologies deemed effective and safe are afforded the protections that the Act offers.

The SAFETY Act is working and for all the right reasons.In a Department that is the target of so much frustration, angst and humor from so many corners, the SAFETY Act stands as an example of how leadership, commitment and course corrections can make all the difference. There are a lot of people inside and outside the Department who made that possible, but in the end the credit goes to the driver who gets you to the destination.

Mr. Secretary, you deserve a victory lap and a bow to the audience. Take them both.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More