If timing is everything, the House Homeland Security Committee could not have picked a more interesting or appropriate time to begin a month of hearings focused on ‘resilience.’
As the first of six resilience hearings scheduled for May kicked off on Tuesday morning, I found it interesting to note a number of hot issues and breaking news stories were occurring at the same time:
• Over 60,000 people are dead and millions are without shelter, food and medical care as a result of a cyclone striking Myanmar (Burma) while its military junta leaders ignore the overtures of the world to provide assistance and relief;
• News stories around the US chronicle the lack of hospital capacity around the nation to support response efforts in the event of a large scale attack or public emergency;
• Outrageous gas prices continue to cause irreparable economic harm to average citizens trying to go to work or the grocery store while small businesses, particularly those in the trucking industry, face ruin;
• Northern Virginia experiences of all things a ‘microquake’ centered near Annandale measuring 1.8 on the Richter scale; and
• Less than six months from now, we will elect the 44th President of the United States.
While none of these events were the direct focus of the opening hearing, they lend themselves quite nicely to the central point that was discussed by hearing witnesses and Committee Members: “Are we ready to bounce back from a blow when it happens?”
The answers provided by the assembled witnesses offer us a number of positive things that are happening in individual organizations and with their respective public and private sector partners, but we have a whole lot further to go before we can declare ourselves a resilient society.
In a society that has refined ‘just in time’ delivery and exalts the lean, mean corporation with little-to-no supply reserves but returns huge dividends every quarter, we are confronting the reality of ‘can we do it when things get really bad.’
If you’re AT&T, SAP America and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) (three of the hearing’s witnesses), time, previous experiences, ever-present hazards, threats, and intelligence sharing tell you that you have no choice but to be ready. It’s your job. Customers, economies, infrastructures and human life depend on your ability to bounce back and not taking it seriously can have tremendous consequences.
If you’re DHS or some other government entity charged with critical coordination responsibilities that respond to an ‘event,’ you have the unenviable job of being a conductor of an orchestra made of public and private sector members who may not always play well or be in tune or synch with others. Somehow, though, you’ve got to get the band to play and play it right when it’s most important.
The hearing did not produce a single, silver bullet solution to major policy or programmatic shifts that will make resilience the accepted national operational premise from here on out – that was not its intent. It did, however, begin a critical and valuable dialogue within the halls of Congress that needs to occur with complete candor and honesty if we are really to become a resilient society.
Because of the shock, trauma and political climate of the immediate post-9/11 era, we never had a vibrant and forthright conversation of what homeland security is, and what it is not. In an amazingly short period of time following the attacks, we created a new federal department out of 22 agencies, sewed them together, hit it with a bolt of lightening and said, “Now work and don’t let anything bad happen to us!”
By no means am I belittling the work that was done in those early days. We undertook actions to protect ourselves and all that we hold dear. But if there is one thing I wish we could have done differently in that difficult time, it was to have had a more vibrant dialogue about the meaning of homeland security and the expectations we have.
Nearly seven years after 9/11, that discussion finally seems to be taking shape. Resilience, the ability to react, respond and recover from a threat or impact is at the core of that dialogue. Chairman Thompson, his Committee Members, the Committee’s staff, and the distinguished witnesses got it off to an excellent start this week. I hope that as the hearings continue to unfold throughout May, these same parties and more will keep that dialogue going.
Whether we realize it or not, we are in the midst of a new evolution as a country and as a people. If we are going to adapt and survive in this environment, we all need to get a whole lot smarter. That comes from honesty, information and respect – traits you don’t necessarily see in Washington but ones that nevertheless showed up on Tuesday in a Congressional Committee Room. It was a good thing to witness.