Following the 9/11 and Anthrax attacks, we as a nation were forced to make a number of investments that were not on any of our national shopping lists. We made drastic improvements to our aviation security; initiated new biological surveillance capabilities and countermeasures; upgraded first responder equipment and interoperability; overhauled the missions of the FBI and US intelligence agencies, and made countless other high-tech expenditures. Nearly eight years after those events, the incoming Obama Administration, Congress, media and taxpayers are asking, “What are we getting for our money?”

While we’ve established a new cabinet-level department – DHS, and spent over $300 billion since 9/11 on homeland security efforts in the public and private sectors, there are few metrics available to measure our success.  The fact that we’ve not had another successful terrorist attack in the US since 2001 is one performance measure to herald but crediting all of our expenditures to date as the reason that something hasn’t happened can never be proven. Could we have achieved the same with less? Can we cut back, or tighten our focus over the next eight years?

That’s the call the new Administration and Congress are going to have to make in the worst federal budget environment since the Great Depression. As DHS and other federal components assemble and defend their requested budgets to the White House and Congress, the challenge before them will be proving their value. From advocating for new programs and reinforcing current ones, to developing and testing new technologies, many promises will be made but few will provide any immediate return.

But what will give us payoff now?

New police radios and other emergency equipment bought with homeland security money certainly provide an investment return every time they answer a distress call. New airport baggage screening equipment and the still under-construction fence along the Southwest US Border also offer their measure of a return as well.

While all of these items and others provide some form of return, the longest-term dividend available in homeland security has nothing to do with current or next generation technologies, legacy operations or cutting edge programs that prevent terror attacks and other disasters.  This dividend is often the least recognized or heralded investment we make in homeland security.

Training–the active learning and ‘hands-on’ practice that enables us to know what to do, when to do it, and how it should be done, provides more return than any other homeland security investment today. Ranging from table-top exercises, classroom sessions and fullscale exercises, homeland security training allows decision-makers, first responders, elected officials and others to build the active knowledge base and capacities necessary to allow our communities to respond and recover from emergencies whenever and wherever they occur.

Training investments accomplish this by helping to establish critical relationships, confidence in one’s methods, and the collaboration and communications necessary between very distinct groups that often see and approach the world (and its emergencies) in very different ways.

There are numerous examples of the return that training offers but one of the best examples of its rewards was in Minneapolis, MN.  On August 1, 2007, the westward span of the I-35 Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River killing 13 and injuring 121 others. Almost immediately, city, regional and state emergency personnel responded.

With emergency operations underway, they were quickly joined by other federal emergency personnel (FEMA, USACE, USCG) looking to assist.  Rather than getting in one another’s way, each responder played their particular role and worked cooperatively and cohesively with the other.

As shocking as the bridge collapse was, the skill and effectiveness of the response was also cause for attention. Following the well-chronicled dysfunction of emergency response in New York City on 9/11 and New Orleans during Katrina, the level of chaos and confusion experienced in the past had become the anticipated performance expectation. To the welcome surprise of many, such a poor performance metric was not achieved.

Police, emergency/rescue personnel, transportation officials, regional elected leaders, state agencies and other responders to the I-35 Bridge collapse, all pointed to the training and exercises that they had done together as the key to their seamless response. As a result of training investments, they had forged the necessary relationships to work together; they understood what each brought to an emergency and were able to put into action the plans and skills they had developed and refined together to make the difference their community needed.

Without it, many attested that more lives would have been lost, additional injuries incurred and community recovery further delayed.  While training and exercises will never provide the photo ops that many elected officials want when they bring homeland security dollars ‘home,’ they do enable the metric and dividend taxpayers expect – performance when it matters. Knowing what to do, how to do it and who is ready to assist during an emergency makes the difference every time. Metrics of saved lives, coordinated actions and improved response prove training a worthy investment. No technology investment will ever encompass all of those capacities but training will.  It is the investment with constant and assured return.

This article was originally published in the January issue of Homeland Defense Journal.

Rich Cooper blogs 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